“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
Only willful ignorance could have prevented Robertson from seeing the mistreatment and suffering of blacks under Jim Crow. Not to mention understanding why they would never have complained to him.
Robertson’s remarks reminded me of Bookers Place; a documentary about a documentary. Frank De Felitta, a documentary filmmaker for NBC, traveled to Mississippi in 1965, to make a film about how Mississippians were coping with desegregation. De Felitta was inspired by a New York Times Magazine article by Hodding Carter, about the injustice blacks endured under segregation.
De Felitta’s documentary, Mississippi: A Self Portrait, was aired in 1966 and filed away in an NBC archive. In 2011, De Felitta’s son, Raymond, posted his father’s documentary online. His production partner suggested a new film project.
The younger De Felitta returned to Mississippi. There he connected with Wright’s descendants. The outcome was Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, about his father’s documentary and its impact. (Raymond De Felitta’s film is available for streaming from Netflix and Amazon.)
In Greenwood, Mississippi, Frank De Felitta was introduced to Booker Wright; a black man who worked as a waiter at a private, whites-only restaurant called Lusco’s. The restaurant’s gimmick was to have waiters sing the menu. There were no written menus, in order to discourage blacks from patronizing the restaurant.
After singing the menu, Wright spoke candidly about how he was treated by white customers, and life in a racist society.
At first, Wright donned the mask of jovial servility blacks were expected to wear in the presence of whites — even poor whites like Phil Robertson. Then, without breaking his sing-song delivery or his smile, Booker Wright spoke his truth.
Hodding Carter immediately understood the power of Wright’s statement. “In one person, in one interview, in one place, you have personified what it was black Mississippi was saying to white Mississippi after all these years,” he said in Booker’s Place. Carter also understood what that one interview would cost Wright. His first reaction upon seeing the documentary was that Wright was a dead man.
Carter was quite prescient. Booker Wright paid a high price for briefly dropping the mask and the “smile” that was required of him in all places, at all times, regardless of how he was treated by whites.
Wright was beaten by a local police officer. Shunned by white customers, he lost the job he’d held at Lusco’s since the age of 14. His own restaurant, Booker’s Place, was firebombed. Wright reopened Booker’s Place, and bought a school bus to transport children to the local Head Start program.
In 1973, Wright was shot and killed by a black customer in his restaurant. Some black residents of Greenwood, interviewed in Booker’s Place, still believed that the old racist regime had finally conspired to silence Wright.
The Black Codes
Booker Wright must have been aware of the likely consequences of his remarks being aired. The South’s Jim Crow laws, were reinforced by an unwritten Jim Crow etiquette, that demanded deference to whites at all times. For black men of Wright’s generation it was a matter of life and death. Yet, Wright seized the opportunity to speak, and gave Frank De Felitta permission to include the footage in his film.
Countless legal and “understood” restrictions kept blacks “in their place.” Black inferiority and white supremacy were reinforced even in everyday encounters. Along with separate water fountains, restrooms, and public accommodations, blacks were expected to step off the sidewalk and into the street, when meeting whites.
Blacks were to be agreeable and non-challenging with whites, as Wright illustrated, even whites who mistreated them. A black person could never suggest that a white person was wrong, or had less than honorable intentions. Under no circumstances was a black person ever to appear to assume equality with whites.
For southern blacks, complaining to a white person — even a poor white, like Robinson — about segregation, or about mistreatment was out of the question. It was one of many unwritten rules enforced with a vengeance under Jim Crow. Every so often, the system would give blacks vivid examples of the consequences for breaking Jim Crow etiquette.
“Insolence” And Enforcement
Booker Wright was one example of the consequences for speaking up. There were many more who lost their lives. Lynching was so common that many black families either had a family member who was lynched, knew someone who was lynched, of lived in places with long histories of lynchings.
From the late 18th century through the 1960s, lynching in the United States took the lives of an more than 6,000 African-Americans. Anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells found that less than one-third of lynchings involved charges of rape or murder. Such charges were often made as a pretext for lynching blacks who violated Jim Crow.
Another statistic says that between 1880 to 1930, only one-fourth of lynching originated from charges of rape. Most victims were political activists, labor organizers, or black men and women who failed show the deference expected from blacks, or who were considered “uppity or “insolent.”
Emmet Till’s murder was perhaps the most famous example of the use of lynching to enforce Jim Crow etiquette. Till whistled at, and flirted with a white woman — Carolyn Bryant, wife of Roy Bryant, one of the two men acquitted of his murder.
Yet, it wasn’t just flirting with a white woman that got Till murdered, according to his killers. Shortly after their acquittal in 1955, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam told a reporter the details of Till’s murder, for a reported price of $4,000.
“The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” published in Look magazine in 1956, revealed that Bryant and Milam didn’t murder Till just for flirting with Carolyn Bryant. Milam and Bryant claimed they didn’t plan on murdering Till. They intended to “just whip him… and scare some sense into him,” but Till’s “insolence” left them “no choice” but to kill him.
What drove Bryant and Milam to murder, was Till’s refused to show deference or fear. Even as they pistol-whipped him, Till shouted, “You bastards. I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are.” Milam said, “We were never able to scare him. They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless.”
For a black man, thinking he was just as “good as” a white man, refusing to show the expected deference, and daring to stand up and talk back to a white person was a deadly “poison.”
“Singing And Happy”
In a scene Frank De Felita’s 1965 documentary, a white plantation manager upbraids De Felitta, saying that he and his crew are not in Mississippi to hear the “truth.” He invited De Felita to bring his crew to the plantation he managed, to hear “the truth” about his “Nigras.”
On the plantation, the crew followed the plantation manager from shack to shack as he questioned of “his” black people about all the good things he had done for them, and how well he’d taken care of them.
The plantation manager’s “Nigras” offered brief, “monotone,” answers to his questions — as he all but telegraphs the “right” answers — and barely even looked at the camera. This was “the truth” he wanted the documentary team to capture, as proof that blacks were just as happy with segregation as whites, and had little to complain about.
It never occurred to the plantation manager that “his” blacks would never complain to him, let alone in front of a camera crew. They told him what he wanted to hear, and what he signaled he wanted to hear, and he accepted it as “truth.”
Like the plantation manager in Booker’s Place, Phil Robertson assumed that since blacks never complained to him, that they had no complaints. Robertson seems to believe if the black folks he knew had any real grievances, they would have shared their complaints with him. After all, he was “white trash,” who nearly as poor as them.
But a century before, white southern planters began driving a wedge between blacks and poor whites. They wanted to ensure that poor whites identified with their race, rather than their class. Even the poorest whites were heavily invested in systems like Jim Crow and de-segregation, because it gave them sense of racial “dignity,” despite their poverty. W.E.B. Du Boise called it “psychological wages of whiteness.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the great intellectuals of American society, wrote that white people are rewarded for their support of a system that largely does not benefit them – in terms of how much power and wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few. He called this reward the “psychological wages of whiteness.” The ability of white people to think of themselves as better than Black folks, regardless of how poor they are, how many hours they have to work, how their labor makes someone else rich. “I might be poor, but at least I’m not a nigger” is how white identity helps shape a horribly disfigured humanity of hierarchy and punishment in the service of power and wealth.
Phil Robertson may believe that being “white trash” put him on par with black, but the blacks he knew absolutely knew better than that. They knew that his poverty made him no less white and no less privileged, even if he didn’t — and still doesn’t