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Book review: “Freedom’s Dominion”, by Jefferson Cowie

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FREEDOM’S DOMINION: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Powerby Jefferson Cowie


Americans, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted shortly after the Civil War, were “freedom zealots; they hate tolls, taxes, tolls, banks, hierarchies, governors, yes, almost laws. It might not have surprised him, then, if he had been alive in 1963, that George C. Wallace, the newly elected Governor of Alabama, invoked freedom in almost every passage of his inaugural address. This speech, infamous for its call for “segregation now…segregation tomorrow…segregation forever,” focused, primarily and relentlessly, on Wallace’s idea of ​​freedom. “I was taught that freedom meant being free from any threat or fear of government,” he proclaimed. As for the black citizens of Alabama, they were also “free” – free to live, work, teach and learn within their “racial separate station”.

Wallace’s inauguration serves as the opening, thunderous repetition of themes, in the opening pages of “Freedom’s Dominion,” Jefferson Cowie’s important, deeply touching, and sadly relevant new book. Cowie, a historian at Vanderbilt University, traces Wallace’s repressive creed back to his birthplace, Barbour County, in the southeast corner of Alabama, where the cry of “freedom” was heard by successive generations of settlers, slavers, secessionists and lynchings during the 19th and 20th. centuries. The same cry resounds today in the rallies and the online invectives of the right; Although Cowie remains focused on the past, his book casts a harsh light on the present. It’s essential reading for anyone hoping to understand the unholy union, more than 200 years strong, between racism and rabid government hatred.

“Freedom’s Dominion” is a local story, but in the same way that Gettysburg was a local battle or the Montgomery bus boycott was a local protest. The book recounts four peak periods in the conflict between white Alabamians and the federal government: the savage scramble in the early 19th century to seize and settle lands that belonged to the Creek Nation; Reconstruction; the reassertion of white supremacy under Jim Crow; and the attempts of Wallace and others to undo the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout, as Cowie reveals, white Southerners portrayed the oppression of blacks and Native Americans not as a repudiation of freedom, but as its precondition, its very foundation. So were the white men, in the words of the scholar Orlando Patterson, whom Cowie quotes, “free to brutalize.” Thus they were free “to pillage and devastate and call it peace, to violate and humiliate, to invade, to conquer, to uproot and degrade.”

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nytimes

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