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Georgia Odyssey


We’ll be heading to New York in a few weeks for a short stay. Where to go after New York has been a puzzle for months–there being several natural options–but the puzzle is now resolved. We’re going down to Georgia, to the alliterative trio of Atlanta, Athens, and Augusta. No surprise, then, that I’m now reading a history of the state, James Cobb’s Georgia Odyssey. I’m fifty pages in. From the book’s website:

Georgia Odyssey is a lively survey of the state’s history, from its beginnings as a European colony to its current standing as an international business mecca, from the self-imposed isolation of its Jim Crow era to its role as host of the centennial Olympic Games and beyond, from its long reign as the linchpin state of the Democratic Solid South to its current dominance by the Republican Party. This new edition incorporates current trends that have placed Georgia among the country’s most dynamic and attractive states, fueled the growth of its Hispanic and Asian American populations, and otherwise dramatically altered its demographic, economic, social, and cultural appearance and persona.

“The constantly shifting cultural landscape of contemporary Georgia,” writes James C. Cobb, “presents a jumbled panorama of anachronism, contradiction, contrast, and peculiarity.” A Georgia native, Cobb delights in debunking familiar myths about his state as he brings its past to life and makes it relevant to today.

Cobb is a historian of the American south at the University of Georgia, which we’re excited to be visiting. I’m excited anyway. I’m not sure about Gail. Other than the math department, my top priorities are to see the Georgia Museum of Art and Sanford Stadium (seats 92,746!). One museum exhibition I’m looking forward to is William H. Johnson: An American Modern.

William Henry Johnson (1901–1970) is a pivotal figure in modern American art. A virtuoso skilled in various media and techniques, he produced thousands of works over a career that spanned decades, continents and genres. Now, on view in its entirety for the first time, a seminal collection covering key stages in Johnson’s career will be presented in “William H. Johnson: An American Modern.” Developed by Baltimore’s James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University, this Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service exhibition represents a unique opportunity to share the artist’s oeuvre with a broader audience. This exhibition of 20 expressionist and vernacular landscapes, still-life paintings and portraits investigates the intricate layers of Johnson’s diverse cultural perspective as an artist and self-described “primitive and cultured painter.”

William H. Johnson, Sowing (detail), ca. 1940, gouache and pencil, Collection of Morgan State University

William H. Johnson, Sowing (detail), ca. 1940, gouache and pencil, Collection of Morgan State University

Cobb’s book is brief, a mere overview, but I’m learning a lot. Many of the economic and political issues surrounding antebellum Georgia—the war, reconstruction, lynching, and Jim Crow laws are a few featured so far—are worthy of entire books on their own. (And yes, I know, those books have been written.) These are not issues specific to Georgia, but Cobb does argue that Georgia, sadly, takes pride of place for some of them, a bitter irony given that it was late to move to a slave- and cotton-based economy.

Cobb’s whirlwind pace through Georgia’s history notwithstanding, there’s room for enough stories to make one gasp repeatedly in wonder at attitudes on race and the actions these attitudes engendered. Earlier today, I read Cobb’s short sketch of pioneering feminist Rebecca Lattimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the US Senate (though just for a day, to complete Thomas Watson‘s term upon his death; and Watson is a fascinating figure in his own right, a one-time Progressive who was William Jennings Bryan’s vice-presidential running mate in 1896).

No prominent figure better personified the contradictions that abounded in turn-of-the-century Georgia than Felton, the state’s foremost feminist and leading reform advocate. … Some of her statements seemed to anticipate the most aggressive of today’s feminist rhetoric: “The marriage business is a lottery. You can draw a prize, but you are most apt to draw a blank.” … When some Georgia women prominent in the United Daughters of the Confederacy spoke outing defense of “the manhood of the South,” she retorted that “if they prefer to hug their chains, I have no sort of objection.”

Yet, as Cobb goes on to explain, in other ways

she was clearly a product of the established order in Georgia. This was most obvious in her advocacy of lynching. … When it came to conjuring up lurid visions of lustful black males assaulting virginal white maidens, Felton could easily equal any of the South’s most virulently racist demagogues: “If it requires lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from raving, drunken human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand negroes a week if necessary.” … In 1902 when Andrew Sledd, a young professor at Emory College, wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly calling for an end to lynching and a calmer approach to discussing race relations, Felton led a campaign of harassment and intimidation that encouraged the young professor to resign from Emory and leave the state.

As for progressive, vice-presidential candidate, and senator Watson, here’s what he had to say about lynching: “In the South, we have to lynch him [the Negro] occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color.” Also: “Lynch law is a good sign: it shows that a sense of justice yet lives among the people.”

It was a different world. At least I’d like to think so. But when I read Cobb’s account on the introduction of poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise blacks—as well as the Georgia Democratic Party’s move in 1900 to a primary system for selecting candidates, with the added feature of outright exclusion of blacks from participation—I couldn’t help but recognize that today’s Republican Party is in the same business. Last July, Attorney General Holder was explicit on this:

During a speech to the national NAACP Convention, Holder denounced the fact that a number of states are beginning to require voters to present particular forms of photo identification or be turned away from the polls. “Under proposed voter ID laws, many would struggle to pay for IDs needed to vote. We call this a poll tax,” Holder declared to loud applause.

Some states with voter ID laws don’t charge for the IDs themselves, but many citizens have to pay for the documentation required to get a voter ID. For instance, an 84-year-old Wisconsin woman named Ruthelle Frank, who has voted in every election since Truman defeated Dewey, faced a $200 fee to get a copy of her birth certificate, which she needed to get a voter ID under her state’s new law. Facing such a steep price, 2012 may be the first year Frank can’t vote.

Then there’s the case of Shelby County [Alabama] v. Holder, now before the Supreme Court, in which a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act may be overturned. (See, for instance, Linda Greenhouse in the NYT ten days ago.)

Well, anyway, we’ll be off to Georgia next month. Thanks to Cobb, I’ll be more knowledgable about its history when we get there.

Categories: Books, History
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