In 1913 and 1917, Putnam County Sheriff Peter Hagan, to whom I introduced you yesterday, buried two of his brothers. (He had 15 siblings.) Both men were Jacksonville police officers killed in the line of duty by black men.
Before the momentous 1923 stand at the Putnam County Jail, Hagan in 1919, at the height of the national violence now known as the Red Summer, thwarted two lynching attempts –one through his guile and the other through threat of violence. After the second, he issued this statement to the local newspaper:
“I want to say to the people of Palatka that there will be no repetition of this affair, and any effort on the part of outsiders to come here and create disorder and engender ill-feeling between the two races will be met with force sufficient to stop it where it begins. Absolutely and completely we serve notice on all who would come here with such a purpose in view that this is the final word, and that word will be backed up by our own people when the occasion demands. I have made sure of this point, although it was not necessary for me to do so, knowing the men of this city and county as I do.
“We have determined to see that the colored people of this town and county get the protection to which they are entitled, and that no hoodlums can come here and cowardly attack old and innocent colored men without having justice meeted [cq] out to them for their offense.”
Those are the words of a white cop. In 1919. In a small north Florida town. This cop had buried two brothers, both fellow policemen killed in the line of duty by black men. This cop had, in fact, killed a black man two days before issuing that statement in a gun battle and then protected several others the day after. Pogroms and lynchings raged across the country. At no point in that statement do we encounter any recognition of contradiction or ambivalence or even strangeness. There’s no emotion beyond a radical commitment to duty. It’s breathtaking.
And yet, after Hagan’s 1923 stand at the jail, a Bradford County jury acquitted the attacking mob after about 30 minutes of deliberation. My great grandfather served as an assistant prosecutor of that mob–and evidently, he didn’t do a very good job.
Hagan’s only daughter, Gertrude, who was terminally ill, testified during the trial. She died a couple of months later. Just a month or so after that, Arthur Johnson, the man Hagan defended at the jail, went to the gallows legally in Gainesville. Evidence suggests he was the last person legally executed in Florida outside of Death Row in Raiford.
A few months after that, the good citizens of Putnam County rather handily voted Peter Hagan out of office, making him the greatest sheriff who ever lost an election. Democracy is a beautiful thing.
That set the stage for what Klan historian David Chalmers calls Florida’s worst outbreak of Ku Klux Klan violence. Between 1924 and 1928 Putnam Countians of all races and sexes found themselves abducted, stripped, tied to trees and beaten with knotted ropes or chains because drunken Klan mobs considered them bootleggers or sexually rapacious or disrespectful of racial and religious boundaries. As a sort of outside bonus, Klansmen from Gainesville abducted a prominent Catholic priest working at the University of Florida, brought him to Palatka, beat and castrated him, and dumped him on the steps of St. Monica’s Catholic Church, where I was baptized.
But people fought back. One young black man, Willie Steene, and a cousin, charged into the woods unarmed to rescue Steene’s mother, who had been stripped, lashed to a tree, beaten nearly to death, and probably raped. When they found her, the mob shot and killed them both. Their murders, in the defense of a violated woman, marked a turning-point in Klan rule of Putnam County and North Florida.
And by 1928, Peter Hagan was ready to give it another try. He didn’t sit home and pout. He didn’t curse the people who had rewarded his extraordinary valor with a pink slip. And he didn’t change who he was. He ran on his record–of defending the jail, of repudiating the Klan, of doing his damn job like precious few other sheriffs in his time did. And he won, by the narrowest of margins–fewer than 100 votes. That’s the handful of votes that ended Florida’s worst Klan outbreak. One of my theories in the book, based on some inferential evidence, holds that a number of blacks registered as Democrats (rather than the traditional Republican) to vote in the 1928 primary and may have helped tip the balance to Hagan.
Peter Hagan, having ended the Klan outbreak, keeled over dead in 1930 after what looks like a massive stroke. Only his wife and grandson survived him. He died in debt, and his friends feared that the remains of his family would become destitute. He lies today under a tiny, unkept marker the size of a place mat at a cemetery in Palatka. (If you’re reading this, Grady Judd, you ought to get your guys at the Florida Sheriff’s Association to name your building after him. There’s not a better model.) Maladjusted Randians would consider him a mooching public employee not content to let the market work its magic. But Peter Hagan is what John Galt really looks like.
My point in telling you all this–other than shamelessly marketing my book, which covers this in great depth, and much, much more–is to make an argument against indulgent despair.
I hear quite a bit of it today. Everyone from Jon Stewart to Barack Obama to people I hear around town. Oh, woe is us. Our politicians can’t get their acts together. Nobody likes anybody. Waaaaah. Washington doesn’t get it. And this is from people like me who have jobs, who don’t even have the excuse of real hardship. Nobody’s an American anymore. We’re all hyphened Americans. Have we no unity? Oh the partisan squabbling. Won’t some rich third party knight on a horse rescue us from ourselves? No. They won’t. Get over it. We’re all we got. And we suck.
Go read a newspaper from 1919. We said all the same nonsense about hyphened Americans then, too. And as a bonus, we burned each other alive in the streets. Fewer than 100 years ago. Here’s a rough fact: Americans have never liked each other. We’ve always been warring tribes. And yet we’re still here. Because people like Peter Hagan and Willie Steene acted on what fate placed in front of them and were willing to die rather than yield to despair.
More than likely, we squishes of today don’t have to make those kind of epic sacrifices. But I think we owe it to those who came before us to at least be honest and rigorous. Despair makes people lazy. It kills precision in thinking. After all, if everything’s hopeless, what’s the point of inquiry?
A couple of weeks back I heard Paula Dockery give a hilarious account of the truly awful public policy behavior of legislature last session. She spared nobody. Everybody in the room, full to the brim with Republicans who had voted for the very Republicans they were cursing now, nodded right along. It didn’t seem to occur to any of them that they had responsibility for the one-party rule they’ve set up.
And I was talking to a friend of mine the next week about it. She’s one of the smartest, most energetic people I know. Big Republican. But she went on and on about how awful the politicians are, etc. And I asked her, “Well, have you ever voted for a Democrat?”
“No, I have philosophical differences.”
I’m sorry. This is a kind of despair. It’s depression. Flabbiness. Passivity. Whatever abstract philosophy she thinks she holds, no one cares about it–on any side. Before people are politicians, they are humans. And humans are rapacious, dishonest, self-interested creatures, who want to spread our seed and eat more than anybody else. We are all wired that way. Granting any of us a free pass on whatever we do because of some bizarre chemical attachment to an abstract philosophy that doesn’t even exist guarantees a death spiral of bad public behavior. It’s also a copout. It’s lazy. Bad citizenry. No matter which particular philosophy you ascribe to. I have no choice. I must be true to my philosophy.
Today’s particular area of indulgent despair focuses on the whole debt ceiling/default fiasco. It’s deeply complicated, requiring quite a bit of time and effort to really grasp the issues involved and assign responsibility for the impasse. Since most news organizations and politicians are intellectually lazy, they go with the much easier partisan squabblingyadayada, three-ring circus, memes.
This is crap.
To call what’s going on with the debt ceiling “partisan squabbling” is to say Godzilla and the Japanese had a partisan squabble about architecture. (I’ll be happy to explain why, in great detail, to those of you who disagree, at the time and place of your choosing.)
And let me tell you, this Godzilla is not going anywhere until he’s run out of things to smash or we Japanese stop him. Godzilla is the problem. You can’t negotiate with his fiery breath and scales. He doesn’t want to live with us. He doesn’t like what we’ve built, except as food.
Godzilla has shown up at various times in our national life and done far more damage than he’s doing now. Fortunately, we’ve always found a way to sink him back in the ocean. Shame on us if we sit around pouting this time while he steps on all our houses.
To use a more historical metaphor, a mob of sorts is using the threat of violence–because that’s what a voluntary national default is, violence–to get its way. Give me what I want, or I’ll string up your economic life. We don’t lynch people anymore. But the instinct behind this isn’t that far off. It’s an extralegal way for one faction to dominate our national life through terror. Our tribe will hurt your tribe. To this point, the rest of us have rolled over and acquiesced to the violence, led, unfortunately, by the acquiescer-in-chief. That needs to stop. Peter Hagan, who had no discernible political or cultural allegiance beyond execution of his duty, did not try to reason with or find common ground with the bullets that flew through the door to his jail.
What can we do today? At the very least, we can throw off despair about our national life and get specific and knowledgable. We can stop indulging in fantasy philosophies and simply observe the world as it is. We can confront each other when necessary, rather than shrinking away. Despair–and polite anxiety–are the best weapons of mobs and monsters. And we deploy them against ourselves. We don’t all have to be Peter Hagan or Willie Steene, but we certainly owe it to them to do the job required of citizens in a democracy.