October, 1944, pp 77-92
A condensation from the book
By Howard Fast
A thrilling, sensational novel of the controversial Reconstruction era that gives an entirely new picture of the Southern society of freed Negro slaves and poor whites in the post-Civil War days. Here is a strong rebuttal to the Gone with the Wind and The Clansmen school of writing. The editors of NEGRO DIGEST believe it one of the finest books ever written about the Negro.|
Copyright, 1944, By Howard Fast
Published By Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York (Price $2.75)
HOWARD FAST is considered one of the finest American historical novelists today.
His works include The Unvanquished, Citizen Tom Paine, Conceived In Liberty and The Last Frontier.
A brilliant novel on the Reconstruction era
DINNER at the Cardozos then, in 1868, was in the manner of a pause in history, even as the whole incident of the Convention was in the way of being a pause, a gap, a hole scooped in the developing stream of America by Union bayonets.
Charleston, the beautiful, fairy-like, palmetto-fringed city, the crown and glory of the south, lay exhausted. The war had torn the guts out of the town. There was hardly one of the great white Georgian houses that had not felt its portion of death and economic ruin.
The mighty fortunes that built this cluster of white and wonderful houses, unequalled anywhere in America, were founded upon one thing, the broad back of the black slave. Not only was labor, the source of all wealth, tied up in the slaves, but the slaves themselves had been capital, the most important capital the South owned, in a sense primitive machine tools bought and bred and sold, and in their fluid state the bottom rock of Southern economy.
Then, in the course of a ruinous war, a war that wrecked the monetary system of the South, blockaded its ports, Charleston among them, and sent armies marching and counter-marching across its lands for four years, the slaves were liberated; liberated by an edict signed by the great, tired man in the White House, a liberation enforced by the strength and guns of the Union Army.
In the immediate post-war period the South lay stunned and sick. Two hundred thousand black slaves had taken up the arms and uniform of the North and fought in the last fierce struggle for their freedom. The Southern armies had dissolved; the Southern leaders sat back in exhaustion, staring wonderingly at the dissolution - a house of sugar which upon being thoroughly saturated suddenly collapses.
And the plantation kings, the men behind the war, the men who had engineered it, made it, and plunged their hands elbow-deep in blood that their great empires of cotton, rice and sugar and tobacco might endure, saw the impossible happen, the slaves emancipated, millions and millions and millions of dollars of capital they once owned taken from them and overnight dissolved into thin air.
Perhaps never before in human history had a whole class, a ruling class of a nation been so stunningly and quickly deprived of its property. The first reaction of the planters was silence, a sick and bewildered silence during which time they contemplated the ruin that had been accomplished. They could not rebel, because they possessed no means of rebellion; they could not plan because they had never envisioned a future without slaves. Some of them had counterbalanced their wealth of slaves with large loans, and when the collateral of slavery disappeared, their empires went with it.
Great plantations stood empty and abandoned, or worked in a desultory way by the Negroes who stayed upon the soil because they had no place in particular to go; other plantations were put up to auction, sold for debt or taxes. Fields lay fallow; cotton planting dwindled and in many sections disappeared.
When the first paralyzing shock passed, the planters bestirred themselves. This farce of Emancipation, they thought, would not be played through; the slaves could be kept slaves; a nigger was a rigger; that was the beginning, it would also be the end; what went on in Washington was one thing, practical needs of the South were another.
With almost hysterical haste, they set about inaugurating a set of laws called "Black Codes." Laws that returned the Negro legally to precisely the position he was in before the war; it was simple at first. There was a president in the White House who played along with them, who generously supported the terror they were establishing. They smiled to each other, "Tennessee Johnson is useful," despising the man and using him at one and the same time. Once more, the planters saw a future, the same future they had always seen, propped on the backs of four million black slaves.
And then their house of cards fell down. A bitter, wrathful, revolutionary Congress that had fought one of the most terrible wars known to mankind, decided that the blood spilt should not be in vain. In their anger, they almost impeached the president; they sent troops into the South and smashed the incipient terror. They legally nullified the rebellious states, established military districts, and called upon the whole population to vote for delegates to state Conventions, Conventions which would frame new state constitutions and create a new democracy in the South, one in which the black man and the white man stood side by side, building together.
In South Carolina, the black population outnumbered the white. Under this second stunning blow, the planters could see only one course of action, one device - to show their contempt by remaining away from the polls. Let the illiterate niggers and white trash vote and the result would destroy this incredible and monstrous plan of Congress. The result, much as they had planned, gave the Negroes an overwhelming majority of delegates to the Convention; yet where the result went askew was that instead of making a circus, the black and white Convention was slowly, painfully but certainly, nevertheless, beginning to operate as a sound legislative body. A constitution was emerging.
And in Charleston, while that happened, the white aristocrats locked their doors, barred their shutters, and waited. Yankee bayonets in the streets made them impotent for the time. There was no future and no past in this moment. In the deep strange hole that had been violently scooped in the stream of history, something was happening. In that hole a dinner was given at Francis Cardozo's house; in that hole, Gideon Jackson dressed himself in his new suit of black broadcloth.
And the planters waited.
THE CURIOUS part of this dinner was the way in which it led to the other, the great affair at which Gideon was the guest of honor: for one of the guests at the Cardozo home this night was Stephan Holms, delegate to the Convention and former slave owner.
Technically Holmes was a Scalawag, the term for a Southern white who collaborated with the freed slaves and the Yankees; actually he was not of them. The Scalawags were poor whites for the most part; Holms had been and still was wealthy. Singularly, he had defied the rule that planters should sit back and have no part of this incredible revolution; he was elected to the Convention on the votes of his former slaves; he sat in the Convention as a spectator. He watched and listened; he said nothing. He was courteous to white and colored alike, and he became an enigma that Cardozo determined to solve.
He had singled out Cardozo, talked with him several times, indicated an interest in education and land, and graciously accepted Cardozo's uncertain invitation to dinner.
It was an invitation and an acceptance that troubled Cardozo. When white men dined with black in the city of Charleston, the world stood on end and shivered, and that was a part of what Cardozo felt as he introduced Gideon Jackson, former slave, to Stephan Holms, former slave-holder. And Holms said:
"I am honored to meet you, Mr. Jackson," pleasantly and quietly, as if this were the most everyday thing, looking at Gideon appraisingly.
Gideon was a matter for appraisal, tailored well, his great chest and shoulders set off by the black coat, a plain white shirt and a black string tie. His woolly hair was cropped close to his head; clean-shaven with big features to hold the flesh, but leaner than he had ever been before - recalling to Holms that once such a man on the auction block would have created a near-riot, the bidding mounting in dizzy spirals, the auctioneer screaming, `'My friends and gentlemen, you who know and value breed, here's a bull stallion such as you never laid eyes on before!"
"I am pleased to meet you, sir," Gideon said.
Dr. Randolph, a small, quick-speaking, brown-skinned man, also a delegate, was the fourth for dinner; he was more nervous than Gideon, more nervous than Cardozo at the presence of Holms; he stuttered as his speech spilled out. Mrs. Cardozo was the only woman at the table, and she tried to put people at their ease; Holms joined with her, and they were gracious back and forth. Gideon asked himself, bewildered, "What is the man? Why and how and who?"
It was the first time in his life he ever took the hand of a man of Holms' class, first time he had ever spoken to one, man to man, first time he had ever sat down to eat with a white man. Obviously, it
was not the case with Cardozo, but wasn't it with Randolph? Randolph was frightened.
Gideon stared behind his hostess to the buffet, where a stuffed partridge stood under a bell of glass. There was patterned wallpaper and prints on the walls. Cardozo knew the world, but Gideon could not help but be aware how carefully he was treading with Holms, saying, "Education, sir, you see, is a necessity."
"A necessity?" Holms asked. Holms neutralized himself completely, never stating but always asking, his constant withdrawal being a most effective blandishment.
"Simply by a statement of the fact. Four million illiterate slaves are possible. Four million illiterate free Negroes are obviously impossible."
"That's a curious way to look at it," Holms admitted. -"What do you think, Mr. Jackson?"
"I think education is like a gun," Gideon said.
"Like a gun?"
Cardozo frowned and Randolph played with his fork. "Go on, please," Holms smiled.
"Like a gun," Gideon said. "Maybe better. Take a man who got a gun, you want to enslave him, you got to take that gun away. You got to take your chances; maybe he kill you, maybe he don't. But you got to take the gun away. Why?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
"It ain't obvious," Gideon said slowly. He groped for the words he wanted, struggled with his thoughts, his hands gripping the edge of the table. "A man who's got no gun is a slave or not a slave; that depends on many things. A man with a gun is not a slave, depending on one thing, his gun. Before he come like other men, you got to take away gun. Now with education - that you cannot take away from a man who has learned, and I believe a man who has learned truly cannot be a slave. In one way, it like a gun, in other way, it is better than the gun."
"I wouldn't put it quite that way," Cardozo smiled.
"Of course you wouldn't," Holms said easily. "Nevertheless Mr. Jackson's analysis is most interesting, since he looks at education in terms of two things; freedom versus slavery. I think that is understandable You were a slave, weren't you, Mr. Jackson?"
"But slavery has been abolished."
Gideon nodded slowly.
"But you think it will return?" Holms asked gently.
"It could return," Gideon said, happening to glance at Mrs. Cardozo at that moment, seeing in her eyes complete, animal-like terror...
The dinner broke up early, but it led to something else. A week later, coming out of the Convention, Holms stopped Gideon and said:
"I am having some people at my home, Mr. Jackson. Would you come ?"
Gideon hesitated, and Holms said winningly, "I want you to come, I assure you. After all, if we are to work together-"
Gideon agreed to come.
THE CONVENTION made progress. Out of the initial confusion, slowly, measure after measure appeared, small things first, then larger things. The small things made agreement possible. Duelling was abolished. Imprisonment for debt was abolished by a large majority.
The very naivete of the majority of the delegates gave them a fresh and curious approach to legislation; there was behind them no awesome, imposing tower of law, mores, habits, customs and deceptions; the insoluble became obvious, and very often the obvious became insoluble. So when these men approached the relationship of women to men in society, they broke walls that had stood for ages. A white swamp delegate said:
"Four years I fought the Yankees, and all that time my wife carried the house. Fed the kids, clothed them, broke ground, put in a crop, took it out. Now I ask these gentlemen, do they propose to give me the vote and deny it to my wife?"
Gideon took the floor and said, "I took my wife in slavery. We married in secret because my master did not approve marriage for slaves. We was equal beasts in his eyes. We was equal in the work we did; we was equal when we nearly fainted in the cotton fields. Sure enough, we suffered equal. Then I say, my wife is equal to me in the eyes of this Convention."
They came as close to universal suffrage as man had come yet, and only the realization of the radical nature of the measure kept it from being passed, a fear that they might abuse the power given to them by a Congress in far-off Washington.
However, out of their argument came the first divorce law in the history of South Carolina, a sane and simple divorce law that sent the Southern newspapers to screaming that the black savages had already given the land over to infamy and degradation. Out of their argument came a law which said that the property of a wife could not be sold to pay her husband's debts - and that too was a beginning in South Carolina. Out of their argument came a long and curiously sane debate on the whole matter of suffrage, a debate that led Gideon to read the Constitution of the United States over and over, until, he almost knew it by heart. He fought, along with others, for absolute equality of black and white at the polls - a forceful prevention of discrimination. And the motion won.
It was March already, and spring was coming to the land. The sky over Charleston was bluer than anywhere else in the world. The gulls swooped and shrieked over the bay and the rain fell fine as mist and cleared and left the sky brighter. A delegate offered from the floor that this should be known as the "Glory Year," but his motion was laughingly rejected. Yet men knew that this was a year like no other year, and a reporter of the New York Herald wrote: "Here in Charleston is being enacted the most incredible, hopeful, and yet unbelievable experiment in all the history of mankind."
STEPHAN HOLMS told his mother, "At dinner, tomorrow night, there will be a nigger."
And she, thinking he referred to the servants, said, "Naturally, Stephan."
"I don't think you understand me, my dear. At the dinner table, I mean - a guest of mine."
She began, "I wish you wouldn't, Stephan. You say things-"
"I'm serious, mother. Understand me, I invited a nigger to dinner tomorrow, as the guest of honor, you might say."
"But why, what earthly reason ?"
"Several earthly reasons, very sound ones, I would gladly explain to you-"
"Stephen, I can't."
"But you can, and you will."
"Stephen, if you must make a clown of yourself, a Scalawag and a buffoon, can't you at least respect my feelings?"
"My dear," Holms said, "There is no one whose feelings I respect more highly."
"And what will people say?"
"They will say nothing. Colonel Fenton will be here, Mrs. Fenton, Santel, Robert and Jane Dupre, Carwell and General Ganfret and his wife."
"And they know a nigger will be at dinner?"
"And who is this person, if I may ask, Stephan?"
"A former slave of Carwell's," Holms said. "His name is Gideon Jackson-"
IN THE END, the wall reared up against Gideon, the wall of childhood, youth, young manhood, the wall of a thousand memories when these people bred Negroes like cattle, and he would not have gone had not Cardozo said:
"Go, Gideon. It's important that you go. Holms asked you for one of three reasons: firstly, because he may sincerely wish to work with and understand us, and that I doubt. He's a clever man and an old slave holder. Secondly, because he desires to make a fool of you, and that, too, I doubt. I don't think that you will be easily made of fool of, and I don't think Holms is childish enough to indulge in that sort of thing. The third reason, and the only reason I can put credit in is that, suspecting some mysterious Negro plot, Holms wishes to get at it, get at what he may think goes on behind his back. If that is the case, certainly you have nothing to hide."
Gideon had nothing to hide but his fears, all the old, ancient fears that rose like a sick feeling in his stomach. A man can tell himself this and that, freedom has come and black men and white men are working together to create a new world, the old chains are broken, slavery is only a bitter memory - all that a man can tell himself, yet fears and memories are burned like brands on the skin, beatings, flight, old songs, let my people go, let my people go, scorn and hatred-
He walked slowly along the Battery, came finally to the proud white house that fronted on the Bay, rang the bell next to the gate, shivered at the clang it made, and was let in by an old Negro servant who eyed him curiously but had evidently been warned beforehand. He went up the walk and mounted the stairs to the veranda, his legs so weak that they would hardly hold him, and then the door of the house was held open to him and he entered.
It was the first time that Gideon had ever been in such a house, a house like this, lit, alive, hostile, and beautiful beyond words. Light blazed from lamps and candles, dazzling him. The woodwork in the hallway was snow white, the furniture twisting in all the gracious curves of a generation before. The stairway spiraled up into misty distance; the drawing room beyond yawned like a devil's mouth. He felt sick, hopeless, and his feelings were not bettered much by Holms' warm and pleasant greeting, "So glad you came, Jackson."
Gideon nodded; he couldn't speak. Holms led him into the brightly lit drawing room, and Gideon had an impression of people carved from ice in all this warmth, the women in their fine gowns, the men in black and snowy white for dinner, glitter and dazzle from the great chandelier, rich mahogany furniture.
One by one, Holms introduced the people there to Gideon, but no one rose and no one offered their hand, and when Gideon faced Dudley Carwell, who had once been his master, the white man gave no sign of recognition - which was reasonable enough, since Gideon had been a field-hand and no more. They had been talking when Gideon entered, and they went on talking after the introductions were over, leaving Gideon to Holms, who, smiling thinly, said:
"Forgive them, Jackson. Sometimes our so-called courtesy does not rise to the occasion. What will you drink?"
It seemed like an eternity to him before they finally went in to dinner.
He had seen how people eat; his people at the plantation ate one way; the Carters ate in another way; the Cardozos in still a third way; but none of it was like this, nowhere the array of plates and silver so large and confusing. It was hard for him to hold a fork or spoon the way they held it; he was clumsy; he dropped things; he had to wait and watch them, and they knew he was watching. Why had he ever allowed himself to be trapped like this? Thirty times thirty he had been a fool; his thoughts raced like squirrels in a cage; what did Holms mean? What was all this? Why? What did it profit Holms?
PRESENTLY, he realized that they were talking to him, and after a fashion he was answering. Holms forced the conversation; Holms was driving at something - something that Gideon could not put his hands on. Gideon's head cleared; now he was angry, seeing these people for the first time in his thirty-six years, listening to them for the first time. They spoke words, and the words were the same words he used. He drove words back at them. He listened carefully, and what they said was not too clever; all in an instant, he had to fling a century over his head and come whirling through a readjustment that left him reeling. They thought they were baiting him, but his deep voice answered slowly; he wouldn't permit himself to be baited. Holms was his equal, but not the others, Holms smiling slightly as Colonel Fenton said:
"I imagine, Jackson, that you find lawmaking a diversion. As a change from other things?"
"It's more profitable than picking cotton," Gideon answered. "We are paid three dollars a day."
"More than many an honest man lays hands on these days."
"What can a nigra do with that much money?" Jane Dupre wondered. She was slim and blond and fragile, and her husband frowned as she spoke. The extra consonant was a concession to Gideon's social place at the table.
"He could spend it on clothes and food," Gideon said. "But mostly he just drinks it up."
He seemed simple enough, and they too were uncertain as to what all this meant. If anything, their position was more difficult than his, for they realized that Holms was enjoying the situation. Afterwards, Jane Dupre said that she almost retched at the table, watching that black eat, using his fork like a shovel.
General Ganfret said, "I would presume, Jackson, that education might be accepted as a prerequisite for legislation. Don't you find it difficult at the Convention?
"I find it hard," Gideon agreed.
"The more so since I understand you were one of Carwell's fieldhands only a few years ago."
"I was," Gideon smiled.
Santel, a man of fifty, owner of one of the largest plantations in the state, long-faced, hard, small-eyed, remarked that Gideon had come up in the world. Gideon said, yes, he thought so, but the world was changing. For the worse, someone said.
"That," Gideon nodded, "depends on how you look at it."
"You do read," one of the women remarked.
"I learned to read a little when I was in the army."
"When you were in the army?" the general asked.
"I was with the Yankee troops that marched into Charleston - you remember the colored brigades ?"
There was a fuse lit in the room, a barrel of gunpowder sitting under it. Holms chuckled, but the general and most of the others sat frozen; Gideon likened them to ice again, the old strain running through his mind, nought ain't nothing, three's a figure, all for the white boss, none for the nigger: he realized this couldn't go on; something would explode. Mrs. Holms excused herself and left the table. The sound of her tears followed her from the room; Holms, who had followed her, returned and said, "Forgive my mother - she is slightly indisposed."
The general retreated into grim silence; Fenton, to break the general unhappiness, said to Gideon, "You bear a fine southern name, Jackson. But I understand that niggers take their master's name."
"Some do," Gideon said. "I went without a family name until they made me a sergeant in the army. Yankee captain tells me, you got to have a name, Gideon, got to have a family name. Who owned you?" Gideon paused, nodded at Carwell, half-believing that at that moment, were it not for the women present, they would have killed him. "I tell him," Gideon continued, "that man who own me for a slave, his name I never take. What about Jackson-"
Gideon did not finish his story. Carwell rose and said, "Get out of here, you black swine!"
As Gideon walked home, he felt strangely light-hearted. How many mysteries there were that had evaporated into nothing! How many fears there had been that were groundless! All the world was part of a great unknown until you examined it. The dark and silvery bay, so ghost-like now, would become a placid sheet of sunlit water tomorrow. The chains that bound his people would never be forged again; there was no place for those chains in the sunlight.
AT THE HOLMS house, the women had retired and the men were left at the table with their cigars, the general saying, "This, Holms, is unforgivable."
"You said you had a reason," Santel put in, his voice hard and cold. "You said there was reason enough, Stephan, for us to sit at dinner with a nigger. You've always had your reasons - and we've humored you. You were dark and mysterious when you went into the Convention, licking enough niggers' asses to put you there, and you said you had a reason for that. I, for one, am sick to death of your God damned reasons."
"Reason," Holms said lightly "is nevertheless at a premium. There was little enough of it tonight, and if I may say so, that nigger made fools of all of you."
From the general, "I think you've said enough, Stephan."
"I don't," Colonel Fenton put in. "Whatever you think of Stephan he's right in this case. The nigger made fools of us. Accept that, gentlemen."
"I'll accept an explanation from Stephan, or-"
Holms broke in, "For Christ's sake, Dupre, you're not going to challenge me to a duel! That would be too much. Are we infants? Babes? Idiotic fools? I asked you gentlemen here tonight because I considered you, in one fashion or another, persons of character. Permit me to retain a few of my illusions-"
"All right! Let me do the talking for a while! I staged a circus here tonight, granted. I took that nigger and I put him and you into an impossible situation. Granted. I guessed what would follow; but I did not think that you would be so completely demoralized by the presence of a single nigger sitting across the table from you. Let us analyze the situation - I begged you, as a favor to me, a favor that was of extreme importance to each and every one of us, to spend a social evening with a black member of this Constitutional Convention. I made it a social evening, because only in that way could I make my point; I did not tell you the point in advance because the point did not exist at that stage. Am I not clear? Then bear with me a little longer.
"What is your attitude, the attitude of the whole class to which I belong? Faced with the federal order of reconstruction, you refused to accept it. You sulked - yes, all over the south, men of our kind sulked, refused to register, to vote, to campaign. You called the niggers and the white trash savages and said that this whole thing would overnight dissolve of its own accord. Did you believe that, gentlemen? Did you really believe that? Have you, after fighting this damned bloody war, so infantile a conception of power? Have you been watching the progress of this Convention? Watching it, I mean, not reading about it in our stupidly partisan newspapers?"
"Isn't this enough-" Dupre began, and Colonel Fenton cut him short with a savage, "Shut up, Dupre! Go on, Stephan." Dupre spluttering, bewildered, looked from face to face. Holms bit off the end of a fresh cigar, lit it with a candle from the table, poured himself a splash of brandy, and continued:
"What is our situation at this point, gentlemen? Do you remember our world, the world that existed for us only eight years ago? I remember our world then - and what is our situation at this point? One thing we all have in common, we were or are plantation owners; we are the base, the rock upon which this south of ours exists. Another thing we have in common - we all face the same destiny, ruin, complete unequivocal ruin.
"I have lost a plantation which has been in our family one hundred and thirty years. Dupre has lost his, so has Carwell - debt, taxes, war, emancipation. The others cling to what is left. When we went into this senseless war, I predicted the outcome - and fools accused me of being disloyal. Disloyal! Do we have to lie to ourselves? Can I be disloyal to what has made me, to what I am, blood and body? I say to you earnestly, gentlemen, we have to understand this situation in which we find ourselves. There is our only salvation."
The general, trailing smoke from his cigar, said, "Stephen, do you propose that we go into this circus of baboons?"
I object to the general's terminology - circus of baboons. When we think that way, gentlemen, we defeat ourselves. This Convention is not a circus of baboons, it is a gathering of determined and intelligent men who, for the most part, are honest according to their own lights."
"You're talking nonsense," the general objected.
"Am I? Have you been to one session?"
"I read the papers."
"And the papers lie! Believe me, I have been at almost every session - and the papers lie! I brought that nigger here for only one reason; two or three years ago, he was completely illiterate. A few years before that, he was Carwell's slave. Did you see him tonight? Was he a baboon? What is the potential of these black people we've bought and sold for two hundred years? We don't know gentlemen, and we don't dare to guess. Will such men as this Gideon Jackson easily give up what they have? And they are not alone; they are learning to work with the white trash we despised until we needed them to fight a war. And these whites who fought the war for us are beginning to think.
"Gentlemen, when you gave the Convention over to these niggers and these whites, you made the second greatest blunder in these times; the first was the war itself. You said that the Convention would fall to pieces, it did not; it has been sitting for more than ninety days and it has framed a Constitution. You said that the nation would rise indignantly and crush this monster; the nation has not risen indignantly; instead, Yankee reporters are spreading the truth about this Convention all over the country."
Dupre said, "You don't have a high opinion of us, Holms."
"Frankly, I don't. In a sense, I have a higher opinion of that nigger I brought here."
"And I haven't-"
Fenton said, "For Christ's sake, Dupre!" And to Holms, "What do you propose, Stephan? Stop moralizing. We saw the nigger and you made your point. Now what do you propose?"
"All right," Holms nodded. "You saw the nigger - you must accept him for what he is, a representative example of the potential of four million people here in the south."
"Very well, go on!"
"Let's look at this Convention - and what it's done. Firstly, education; it has made it universal and compulsory throughout the state. Which means that niggers and white trash will be fighting us on equal terms-"
"They'll still be niggers and white trash!"
"God help me, can't I get you to look at reality. One generation of such education, and we'll be a vague memory - I assure you. Now another point, the Convention has moved and petitioned for a subdivision of the land, a breaking down of the plantation to small farms. Combine that with education, and you have the death-knell of the plantation. The Convention has legalized equality of race and color everywhere - contemplate that, gentlemen. The Convention has assured us that black men will sit with white men on juries, that black judges will sit on the bench; let that soak in, my friends. The Convention has safeguarded the ballot - and there goes whatever legalized dream of power you might have had. And last of all, gentlemen, the Convention has consistently made its appeal to black and white together; in every law, in every edict, every proposal, the poor white has been bracketed with the nigger."
"And where do we stand, Stephan?" Carwell asked.
"Why not play their game?"
"And offer the voters what? Twenty cents a day wages? A return to slavery? No small farms? Ignorance?"
"There are ways."
"Yes, but not that way. We've had power; we lost it; we propose to regain it; that is all, simply. You saw that nigger here tonight. Can you wheedle him, coddle him, deceive him?"
"No-" Fenton said thoughtfully, "But you could hang him."
The general observed. "We tried terror and failed, Stephan. You pointed that out."
"Yes, we failed - because it was stupid terror, and because terror with only terror as the end is predestined to fail. We pitted mobs against Yankee bayonets; we indulged in adolescent outrages, prodding ex-soldiers to bludgeon and lynch and steal. And we had no plan, no goal - and this most of all, no organization."
FENTON LIT a fresh cigar. One of the women opened the door and asked, "Are you going to sit here forever?" A colored servant came in with whiskey, and Holms said to him, "When you go, I want no one else to interrupt us."
"An organization," he said, "a plan, and a destination."
Fenton said, "You've thought of the Klan, Stephan."
"Yes, I've given some thought to that. Their record in the two years or so they've existed doesn't make for brilliance or cohesion, but at least there is an organization. And rather than split our forces and organize counter to them, we would be wiser to take what they have and work with it. If we decide to, it must be done quickly, before they destroy their usefulness"
"They are officered by army people," the general said.
"That's a point - and it will help. Dupre here is already a member of the Klan; he can help us on that score. This business of white nightshirts and burning crosses is tomfoolery, but it has its use. The weasel type, the timid, the frightened - they become bolder when they hide their faces."
"I don't like that kind of talk."
"Don't you, Dupre? Do you intend to put a white napkin on your head and go scampering through the night? No - this is a tool, let's understand that. And to operate it, we'll need men, thousands. Where will they come from? Some army men, not too many; whatever you say about our troops, they had courage, yes, and honor, the kind of honor we talk about; they won't take kindly to nightshirts, terror, hanging, murdering."
"I don't like the way you put that, Stephan," the general said.
"How else shall I put it? We can tell ourselves the truth, can't we? But there'll be men enough, the scum that we used for overseers, the trash that bought and sold slaves and bred them, the kind who were men with bullwhip and filth without one, the kind who have only one virtue, a white skin. Gentlemen, we'll play a symphony on that white skin, we'll make it a badge of honor. We'll put a premium on that white skin. We'll dredge the sewers and the swamps for candidates, and we'll give them their white skin - and in return, gentlemen, they will give us back what we lost through this insane war, yes, all of it."
"But how, Stephan?" Fenton wanted to know. "When we tried before-"
"Yes, but this time, we know. We start slowly - organization and nothing but organization to begin. We enter the Klan, we subsidize it. While the occupation troops are here, we do nothing - that is, nothing they could counter. A few acts, a nigger put in his place, a rape scare, a lynching - those will come about naturally; and when they come, the Klan can ride. As a matter of advertisement, you might say, romantic hooded figures dashing through the night; but only as a matter of advertisement. We wait; we organize; we do nothing premature. Concurrent with that, those of us who can enter politics, not as an opposition, but as men who wish to work with the reconstructionists. I propose to do that; others must join me. We move step by step, and we wait-"
"And how long do we wait ?" the general demanded.
"I don't know - certainly two or three years, possibly five. But we wait until we are certain of success, until a reconstructed South becomes a matter of importance in national politics, until every Yankee soldier is withdrawn. And while we wait, we are not idle.
"We win adherents. We cultivate Northern capital. The center of manufacture is shifting from England to the North; they will be screaming for cotton; we will give them some, but not enough. But we cultivate them, we invite their industry South, and we give them a stake in our future, a stake that will matter once they forget the moralistic frenzy that drove them to war, once they begin to realize that their war was unjust, that we were a freedom-loving people who fought to retain our American freedom."
"As we were," the general said.
"And then, when that time comes whether in two years or five years we strike - with force, force and terror; because force and terror are the only two things that can decide the issue. But by then, we will have achieved our goal; the North will not know, and what little they hear, they will not believe. The Klan will be an army by then, and the Klan will smash this thing that has arisen, smash it so completely that it will never attain rear its head.
"Gentlemen, the nigger will be a slave, again, as he has been, as he is destined to be. Yes, he will fight - but he will not be organized for terror, for force, and we will be. Some white men will fight on his side; most, I assure you, will not; fear and the badge of a white skin will take care of that. And gentlemen, when that time comes, we will win!"
As he spoke, Stephan Holms showed fire and passion, a dynamic strength that impressed even the general, perhaps the least sensitive person there. But when he had finished, the flare died; the passion resolved into the pale and composed figure of civilization complete. He lit another cigar, and when the others had talked enough about his plan, pro and con, he suggested, "shall we join the ladies now?"