Written by Dr Rob Hoffman
A truly iconic photograph is a rare thing— the nexus of serendipity and a talented photographer amid the ambiance of an important event. We are indebted to photojournalist Saul Loeb of Getty Images for the iconic picture of the Confederate flag bearer in the Capitol Rotunda taken during the Capitol insurrection on January 6. 2021. We are also indebted to Business Insider writer Aria Bendix for first pointing out why this photo is noteworthy. A Confederate flag bearing stands between oil on canvas portraits of two diametrically partisan 19th century American political figures. Above his right shoulder is the dramatic scowling visage of John C. Calhoun, hard-tack defender of slavery during the lead up to the Civil War. The left-shoulder portrait is Massachusetts Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner. The juxtaposition of two such adverse political figures bisected by an American citizen bearing a battle standard of the Civil War can be seen as a metaphor for the current American political climate. Clearly, our democratic republic is stubbornly divided. But the question is: when hasn’t it been?
The stain of the institution of slavery runs deep in the history of this country. Scholars tell us that while drafting the Declaration of Independence in June of 1776 Jefferson was well aware of the hypocrisy of the dictum “all men are created equal” in light of a flourishing plantation system in which he, himself was a participant. And so Jefferson is said to have included in the original draft of the Declaration a 168 word passage condemning slavery as an “assemblage of horrors.” However, by later redacting this passage in the final draft yet still maintaining human equality as an “inalienable right” he created a fundamental paradox resulting in 245 years of subsidiary backwash which I call “The Great American Stain.” With apologies to George Orwell the final draft of the Declaration might as well have been flourishingly quilled to say that while all men are created equal— some men are more equal than others.
The Great American Stain is pretty much what the world witnessed on Wednesday, January 6 as the US Capitol building was overrun and ravaged by people of various banners but united in their common dedication to the axiom of white supremacy. The Capitol Insurrection of 2021 is merely the most recent example of the consequences of founder’s abrogation of their responsibility to reconcile inalienable rights with the institution of chattel slavery. That buck has been passed back and forth throughout the history of the republic. John C. Calhoun and Charles Sumner merely represent the Mesozoic era of the dialectical of the Great American Stain. John C. Calhoun was the 7th Vice President of the republic and an adamant defender of slavery and white supremacy. Charles Sumner was the opposite, an ardent and powerful voice of abolitionism during the lead-up to the Civil War.
Let’s dolly back to the Capitol Insurrection. After the building had been cleared Speaker Pelosi was adamant about negating the will of the rioters and resuming the process of certifying the electoral vote count. Amid the early morning debate resulting from Missouri Senator Josh Hawley’s objection to verifying the Pennsylvania electoral tally Representative Conor Lamb (D-PA) gave a fiery speech denouncing the objectors.
H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) was offended by Lamb’s words and vehemently demanded to have them stricken from the record. As Lamb continued his denunciation of the Trump minions audio recorders picked up the sounds of a scuffle between house members which eyewitnesses reported as something close to fisticuffs. Had this evolved into an actual brawl it would NOT have been the first time legislators had engaged in physical violence in the Capitol chamber.
Consider the legacy of Charles Sumner and why it is considered appropriate that his portrait hangs in the Rotunda. The most incisive event in Sumner’s career occurred May 20, 1856 when he delivered a blistering anti-slavery speech replete with sexual imagery to help make his point. Two days later a deeply offended pro slavery Senator from South Carolina named Preston Brooks brandishing a gold-head hardwood cane attacked and beat Sumner nearly to death. Brooks left Sumner passed out on the floor of the Senate chamber in a pool of his own blood along with the fragments of the cane which was broken to pieces. Sumner suffered severe head trauma and chronic pain for the rest of his life. Brooks was convicted of assault in a DC court and fined $300 with no prison time. Preston Brooks was immediately heralded as a hero by fellow pro slavery legislators as well as the general southern public. His fans reportedly sent him hundreds of fresh new canes along with instructions on how best to use them on other senate abolitionists. Such was the tenor of discourse in the days leading up to the Civil War and it was not unlike recent events.
The upshot of the infamous Sumner “caning” had eerie similarities to the immediate aftermath of storming of the Capitol 165 years later. Even after the raucous invasion of January 6 most House Republicans remained stubbornly loyal to Trump in support of his untenable fabrication that the 2020 election was somehow “rigged.” While overt advocacy of violence is perhaps not as acceptable these days as it was in the era of Brooks and Sumner, Trump and his political loyalists continue to lean on heavy doses of conspiracy theory, alternative factualization, and pure homogenized what-aboutism as a means of mollifying their constituents.
By coincidence the current House of Representatives has another legislator named Brooks. This one, Mo Brooks, R-Ala, like Preston Brooks, also born in South Caroline but probably not blood-related. Mo Brooks had not only participated in the pre-insurrection pep rally but in its aftermath publicly dispensed a ludicrous scapegoat conspiracy theory alleging that a liberal ideology, Antifa (not an actual organized group) was somehow the boogeyman behind the storming of the Capitol by an angry mob of white supremacists.
The upshot of the actions of Mo Brooks and his allies have yet to be determined. The legacy of his forebear Preston Brooks is clearer. Obviously, there was the American Civil War which Preston Brooks helped to bring about but never witnessed as he died Jan 27, 1857 from a eerily Covid-like respiratory infection that brutally struck him down just months after the bloody caning of Charles Sumner. Brook’s sudden premature death at age 37 denied him from witnessing another landmark of his white supremacist sentiments.
Less than a year after his death the Georgia State legislature posthumously honored the Pro Slavery legislator by incorporating a 498 square mile tract in southern Georgia and naming it Brooks County. Known as the “Smokehouse of the Confederacy” Brooks County GA was reputed to be the leading source of home-grown sustenance to the Southern armies during the Civil War. Brooks county also acquired the dubious reputation in the years following the Civil War as one of the worst places to live if you happened to be an African American. This was the epicenter of the so-called “Brooks County Race War.” Commencing in 1894 this edifice of the Jim Crow era was less of an actual “war” than an epidemic of African American lynchings. Brooks County and vicinity still holds the dubious Georgia record for the most extra-judicial executions in state history.
Fast-forward to 6 January 2021. One of the more seminal images of the Capitol Insurrection was the wood frame gallows that was somehow permitted to be assembled in front of the capitol steps. No mere scale-model symbolic representation, this was a full-size fully operational execution device. Stoutly crafted of freshly milled 4×4 pressure treated pine it was assembled with steel lag bolts and came complete with pine steps, pressure treated deck-work platform, and a braided orange polyester rope with a meticulously crafted nautical-grade 9 loop noose-knot. Was there ever serious intent by the insurrectionists of using this contraption? We’ll never know for sure but one of the more incisive things heard reverberating in the capitol portico and within sight of the gallows was the repetitive unison chant “HANG MIKE PENCE — HANG MIKE PENCE.”
People tend to see a gallows as a mere symbol or representation of execution by hanging. Death by hanging has been tool of legal and state sanctioned execution around the world right up to recent times. And it is especially useful for the express purpose of public execution. Hanging can be done in different ways ranging from the “short drop” variety in which death occurs by strangulation (10-20 minutes) to the more humane “long-drop” variety in which death occurs immediately via severing the spinal cord. Note that the Capitol Insurrection gallows featured a short fixed-length noose implying the less humane intent of strangulation. However, consider that the implied intent of the Capitol insurrectionists was a lynching-style execution. Unlike with state sanctioned executions there are no formal rules in a lynching and in Jim Crow times the gallows became a more diverse and creative tool.
This brings us back to the so-called war which bears the name of Preston Brooks, esteemed opponent of Charles Sumner whose portrait still adorns the Capitol Rotunda (with or without Confederate battle flags). The ultimate and perhaps seminal moment of the Brooks County Race War involved the case of Mary Turner. On May 18, 1918 Mary’s husband, Hayes Turner who had been arrested on suspicion of the murder of a white plantation owner was abducted by an angry mob and hung to death from a tree where his corpse remained on display for three days before being cut down. The day after the lynching Hayes Turner’s distraught 8 month pregnant wife publicly denounced the mob’s action and declared that her husband had been innocent. The following incident was documented by journalist/ investigator Walter F White whose account of the Mary Hayes execution illustrates the full human potential and dramatic imagination inspired by a first class lynch-mob lynching.
On May 19th Mary Turner was seized by an angry crowd of several hundred white vigilantes and carried to a bridge on the banks of the Little River in Brooks County Georgia. She was trussed and hung but not by the neck as with a conventional hanging. Mary Turner was hung upside down by her ankles, doused with gasoline, and set afire. Recall that Mary was 8 months pregnant and it’s not clear whether the crowd performed the upside down butcher knife C-section delivery before or after the immolation. In any case the Walter F White account notes that the unborn baby fell to the ground and managed to blurt out “two feeble cries” before a member of the lynch mob stomped and crushed its head. Subsequently, the mob riddled the corpses with hundreds of gunshots then buried them nearby using a whiskey bottle as a grave marker.
The 2019 US Census for Brooks County Georgia shows a population of 15,457 of which 35.2% are African American. It was perhaps an homage to those roughly 5400 African American citizens of Brooks County Georgia that on May 15, 2010 an historical marker memorializing Mary Turner was placed near the site of her lynching. In the Fall of 2020 just before the Trump-Biden election the marker had to be taken down as it had become riddled with bullet holes and repeatedly run over by off-road vehicles. The Mary Turner memorial marker has been put into storage and it is unclear if or whether it will ever be resurrected.
Pretty much the same thing could be said about the state of our Democratic Republic during the period between the Capitol insurrection and the Biden inauguration. Forces and counter-forces swelled and by January 20th the DC Capitol looked more like an armed garrison than a standard garden-variety peaceful transition of power. The events of January 6 have shown us the reality of a nation hopelessly divided. Less obvious is the fact that the battle lines are almost precisely where they have always been from the days of Thomas Jefferson’s “assemblage of horrors” edict through Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, 1960s Segregationism, and the Capitol Insurrection. This is the stain which all Americans must bear. The stain of slavery and white supremacism are two sides of the same coin and they have been a part of the nation’s divisiveness throughout its history. This stain promulgated a bloody civil war which some historians viewed as a resolution of sorts. But as with most armed conflicts while one side may militarily defeat its opponent the victors cannot conquer what goes on in their brains.
There has never been a time when the citizens of this republic have NOT been divided by the stain of slavery and white supremacism. There were times when it was less obvious. But its always been here. This is the nature of a stain. You can launder it with potent chemicals and perhaps it fades a bit. But it is still there. You can mask it with aerosols or hide it in a closet like an infestation of kitchen cockroaches. You won’t see them very often. But you know they persist. Every now and then someone such as a Donald Trump bumbles into the kitchen and feeds the cockroaches. So they come out of the closet where there is nice light, fresh air, and plenty of food. Understandably, this is where they would rather be. Not inside a closet but front and center right on top the kitchen table.
Its debatable whether you can ever fully obliterate cockroaches. Paleoentomologists tell us that they have been around at least 45 million years before the first hominids ever walked the planet. So you can’t extinguish them as a species but perhaps you might at least compel them to go back inside the closet.
The Capitol Insurrection of January 6, 2021 was perpetrated by white supremacists and perhaps enabled and promulgated by public servants and private citizens who possibly do not regard themselves as being of this ilk.
Recognize the fact that there is only one issue here. Through all the rhetoric and chaos it seems more complicated. But in fact there is simply one and only one issue. Whether you are an elected public servant or merely a citizen of this republic you have to make a decision. Slavery and white supremacy is a bell that cannot be un-rung. Perhaps after a long time and if no one bumbles around to make things worse the sound of the bell and the stain of slavery may eventually fade and become insignificant. In the meantime you must decide on which side of this divided nation you wish to align. Do you believe in the innate equality of humans as an inalienable right or do you believe in something else?
Dr Rob Hoffman, Anthropologist— Florissant MO