Dave Buckhout .
Publication Date: May 13, 2011
Over the years, the name of journalist / essayist George Washington Cable has come up a lot in my various studies of the South generally, and “New South” specifically (late 1800s-World Wars). But until recently, I’d never actually read the man. Last month, I pulled up Cable in Google Books (all of Cable’s publications that are still around now public domain). I read his famous essay: “The Silent South.” What I found was, quite possibly, the most courageous journalist operating in the South in the second-half of the 1800s.
For all its public-relations booster-ism, the modernization, industrialization, and ostensibly-related ‘freedom’ that was to result from this “New” locally-controlled post-Civil War South, turned out to be little more than the prejudicial, race-baiting, undemocratic, economic serfdom that had characterized the Old South—where the rights of landed wealth were the only rights worthy of the attention of public officials. The main difference was that state laws had been re-coded, the blatant racism and hegemony of wealth given a slight patina of justice (with even this dissolving in the public white supremacist brutality of the Jim Crow era). But to anyone willing to investigate, it was clear that tradition had won the day over social / economic progress. It was largely the same game with a different name.
Cable was one of the very few who published challenges to New (Old) South power in the editorial pages. The late 1800s-to-early-1900s would see a flood of creative fiction that blended—unappreciated—pointed challenges of the strict-traditionalist social construct into characters / metaphors. But few were so bold as to speak truth to power in real-time. Cable leveled his pointed editorial comments to: “those whose thinking still runs in the grooves of the old traditions.” His calls for justice in law, an end to the corrupt Dark-Age penitentiary system, economic equity, and perhaps his most controversial: equal rights for ALL individuals, would sound modern but for his late-Victorian cadence. But considering that these challenges often appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in the 1870s / 80s is an astounding act of journalistic courage. Courageous he was; but was no fool. Eventually realizing his untenable position, he and his family moved to Massachusetts for reasons of safety. He soon became fast lifelong friends with another pointed commentator of the ‘Gilded Age,’ Mark Twain.
In celebration of this brave forgotten tribune of journalistic credibility, here’s a collection of sharp points from Cable’s “The Silent South.”
“It is not a question of what the race wants, but of what the individual wants and has a right to. Is that question met? No. Not a line has been written to disprove the individual freedman’s title to these rights; but pages, to declare that his race does not want them and shall not have them if it does. Mark the contradiction.”
“… a crime against common justice [is] a crime against common sense.”
“If anyone can explain [the brutality of the color line] away, in the name of humanity let us rejoice to see him do so …”
“Slavery in particular … is by law abolished. Slavery in general … remains.”
“To go forward we must cure one of our old-time habits—the habit of letting error go uncontradicted because it is ours.”