“Now it thundered and it lightnin’d, Lord and the wind, wind began to blow Lord there was thousands and thousands of poor people at that time didn’t have no place to go.”
— Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi Blues Musician
Like Hurricane Katrina, after a Mississippi storm in 1927, nearly a million people fled. Over a thousand perished. The refugees were overwhelmingly black and poor.
The waters came down with a biblical fury and it was — as it is always — the poor who were left to confront the catastrophe on her own terms. There had been years of warnings before the floodwaters exploded past the levees. They poured into the low-lying areas, sweeping away housing that had been substandard even before the rains began. Nearly a million people fled. Over a thousand perished. The refugees, overwhelmingly black, overwhelmingly poor were placed in sites that were their own brand of disaster and, unable to leave once they entered, they began comparing the structures to prisons. And the terrible truth beneath this all was that this occurred precisely as it was supposed to: Water follows the path of least resistance.
These events went down not in Louisiana in the past week, but in Mississippi in 1927. Swollen by heavy rains, the river began bursting through levees, built despite protests, that they would only amplify the water’s destructive capacity — between Illinois and the Gulf. The Republican official in charge, Herbert Hoover in this case — took a virtually hands-off approach and the Red Cross refugee sites became models of Southern race relations with blacks being forced to do laundry for the National Guardsmen and literally leased out to help rebuild the flooded plantations of the Delta. The levees were repaired, though; as soon as the waters receded enough for black men to be gathered at gunpoint and forced onto labor gangs.
(One black man refused to join the gang and was killed by a policeman.)
There been echoes of bad history in the aftermath of Katrina. The past has come back upon us like bad food in the gut. Prior to Monday, anyone who argued that the country would essentially carry on business as usual while a major American city sank into the Gulf of Mexico would have been dismissed as part of the lunatic fringe. But this is one of those cases where it takes a broken clock to check the time.
Rapper Kanye West upset the air of charity and concilliation on a nationally televised telethon when he jumped script and ad libbed, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” And even though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came out in strong defense of her boss over the weekend, outruling all charges of racism, certain inarguable facts remain.
You already got a clue that the storm winds of racism were blowing when the press images of blacks who ‘looted’ stores were placed alongside those of whites who ‘found’ bread and soda. In 2005, we have been taught to hedge our bets, to speak of racism as one possibility among other feasible explanations for the problems we witness. There will be attempts to disguise this as a problem of logistics or, at the most, the result of faceless bureaucratic neglect that has been corroding American cities for decades. Worse case scenario: this political nonchalance will all be attributed the indefensible armed gangs within the city.
But these are lies.
None of those explanations can explain why there were not press conferences from 46 other governors pledging support for New Orleans. They will not explain why New York City did not send 500 of its 40,000 cops to assist the submerged city. They cannot explain why George W. Bush — in a cameo of his performance on 9/11 — did not respond to the disaster as it occurred and arrived on the 5th day of the flood.
In coming days you will be offered spin and staged photo-ops designed to make your heart go sepia with regard for our ‘strong leadership.’ This is an illusion. Only the river-bloated bodies are real. Filter through the spin and you will meet a brutal truth: there are people who have died and people who are dying in Louisiana because they are black and they are poor. The truth is that neglect is the racial default setting — which is why those people were left behind in the city literally and metaphorically. The truth is that there was a silent amen exhaled across the country when Dennis Hastert floated the idea of not bothering to rebuild. Sixty-seven percent black; 30 percent of the population below the poverty line: cities like New Orleans are the reason we have red states in the first place.
Or maybe they will rebuild. And in future years we can look to a charming, romantic 2.0 version of the Big Easy, one where the problem population left in 2005 and never quite made it back inside the city.
Herbert Hoover graduated to the Oval Office from his post as Secretary of Commerce after the 1927 flood. As President, he displayed that same cavalier approach to catastrophe as the Great Depression strangled ordinary citizens and he continued to govern on behalf of the upper percentiles of the economy. The echoes of bad history are, at this point, deafening. This is not Mississippi in 1927. It is America seventy-eight years later. But I swear to God, its getting harder and harder to tell the difference.
This piece first appeared on AOL Black Voices.
About the Author
William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of ‘The Essential Harold Cruse.’ He also posts articles at www.jelanicobb.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.