Columns » Ernest Dumas

Atonement day

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John Gray Lucas could have been the Barack Obama of his time, which was a full century before the first African-American president took the oath of office on the steps of the most famous edifice in the world that was built with the toil of slaves.

Unlike Obama, Lucas was a son of the South, born a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, but other than that their early lives bore a remarkable similarity. John Lucas moved with his father from Marshall, Texas, a slaveholding arsenal for the Confederate army, to Pine Bluff when he was five and attended Branch Normal College, which had been established for blacks during Reconstruction 10 years earlier. He then studied law at Boston University, a couple of stone throws across the Charles River from Harvard, where a century later Barack Obama would get his law degree.

Lucas came back to Arkansas, served a term as a deputy prosecutor, another in the legislature and some time as a United States magistrate, but he fled Arkansas in bitterness to Obama's Chicago, where he had a distinguished 50-year career in politics and law.

Something else Lucas shared with the president was a rich gift for oratory, and were he alive he better than anyone else could say what the inauguration of an African-American president represents to the South, the redemption of its history. Their most historic speeches, Obama's inaugural on Tuesday and Lucas's valedictory in the Arkansas House of Representatives on Feb. 17, 1891, are fitting bookends of an era that we should be allowed to hope is finally ended.

Obama would have been president without the vote of a single Southerner, black or white. He would have had 40 electoral votes to spare if the South had once again been solid for the Republican as it had been for much of the past 40 years.

But if the South was irrelevant to the big victory in the Electoral College, the inauguration Tuesday was epic for the South in ways that could be only dimly appreciated by the rest of the country. It was not merely because the first African-American nominee of a major party got the votes of 17,850,000 Southerners, 40 percent more than any Democratic candidate in history, including three white sons of the South. (Arkansas, alas, contributed nothing to that end, giving Obama the smallest share of the presidential vote of any Democrat since Reconstruction, except for the three-way split in 1972.)

Obama's inauguration represents the ultimate fulfillment of possibilities, that miracle which expired all across the South in one dark decade at the end of the 19th century. State by state, Southern legislatures moved to extinguish the progress of a whole race by the adoption of Jim Crow laws that entrenched segregation and virtually ended black participation in political and civic life.

The first was the separate coach law, an iniquitous bill cribbed from the state of Mississippi, which fixed the agenda of total segregation. Electoral changes barred the participation of African-Americans in elections in any way that mattered. In another two years Lucas and all the other black officeholders in Arkansas would be gone until well past the next mid-century.

Across the hall in the Senate where the coach bill originated, the eloquent plea of Lucas' colleague, George W. Bell of Desha County, for “a common cause, a common humanity,” had fallen on deaf ears.

Lucas saw even more keenly what Jim Crow meant, the forestallment of all opportunity, all possibilities, for blacks in Arkansas and the South until some far-off day of atonement and reconciliation. The eloquence from the lectern that day was never matched again in the Arkansas legislature.

Upon Lucas's commencement from Boston University four years earlier, the Boston Globe had quoted him as saying that colored men from the North ought to make Arkansas their home because “a liberal public sentiment prevailed” there and black men could aspire to anything. Lucas read the newspaper article to a sullen House and said “Mr. Tillman's bill seeks to make a liar of me.”

Jim Crow, he said, was taking Arkansas spiritually “across the Mississippi River where, yoked to the crimson soil of Mississippi, Arkansas shall be as incapable of advancement as a fixed star to alter its course.”

How did that prediction turn out?

The premise behind the separate coach was that blacks were uncouth and unhygienic and should be placed in a separate rail car and kept at a distance in every public venue. Lucas told his colleagues that cleanliness was not the problem but rather the sensory whitening of blacks, their rapid advancement, which troubled the white lawmakers and caused them to take away “the right of free men to choose their own company.”

“It is the constant growth of a more refined, intelligent and I might say more perfumed class that grow more and more obnoxious as they more nearly approximate our white friends' habits and plane of life,” he said. If hygiene was a problem, he needled, why did the men in that room permit closeness with maids, cooks, servants and nannies in their homes?

One other distinction between President Obama and John Lucas. At the moment of atonement Tuesday, Lucas would have been as eloquent but not so gracious.

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