For Black History Month last month, I read a biography by Gregg Cantrell: Feeding the Wolf: John B Rayner and the Politics of Race, 1850-1918. As with a lot of books about race relations in America at the time of and after the Civil War, it’s a rather bracing and sobering read. But it says some fairly valuable and needful things that we should pay attention to now, if we want to actually improve things in America for poor people of all races. There are some specific messages which the modern-day left (particularly left anti-war voices) would do well to heed.
John Baptis Rayner was the illegitimate son of a slaveholding white North Carolina planter, Kenneth Rayner, in the year 1850. His mother, 15-year-old Mary Ricks, was at the time Kenneth Rayner’s slave—and a mulatto, herself the product of an exploitative union between white master and black slave. Even though he could pass for white, John B Rayner spent the first thirteen years of his life as his biological father’s property.
There were certain elements of Rayner’s upbringing which were clothed in layers of genteel mendacity. Such occurrences were all too common, as one quickly realises upon reading Frank Tannenbaum’s history Slave and Citizen. Biracial children—mulattos—occurred wherever slavery occurred. However, how they were treated depended a great deal on the cultural context they grew up in. Although the African slave trade and chattel slavery were every bit as brutal and exploitative in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries as they were in English-speaking countries, attitudes toward freedmen and mulattos were very different. In general, Latin American mestizos were accorded the rights of free men, and their social status was not considered automatically inferior to white men of a similar class—partly on account of residual, humane Catholic sensibilities that had never sat too comfortably alongside the brute fact of slavery and colonial expansion. This was not the case for English-speaking mulattos of slave parentage, who were automatically considered slaves under the law, and who were socially considered inferior to whites.
Such was the case with John B Rayner’s upbringing. His father Kenneth Rayner was dynamic, energetic, well-spoken, well-educated, independent-minded, politically-active and (considering his time, place and social position) fairly humane, albeit possessed of a certain degree of condescending paternalism. These were all traits he passed on to his illegitimate son. Rayner received a high-quality education at his biological father’s behest, grounded in the classics of the Western canon (from which he frequently enjoyed quoting). But despite his clear intellectual and political talents, on account of his mixed-race parentage he was both legally unfree, and barred irrevocably from the upper echelons of Southern society in which his father moved, in which he was considered a ‘white n—r’. And then, after the Civil War and the defeat of the landlord class, Kenneth Rayner packed up and moved his family northward, leaving his former slaves, including his own son, behind without any further social contact, without any compunctions or qualms.
Rayner himself moved to Texas after a brief flirtation with political life under Radical Reconstruction. His clear talents managed to be noticed by the postwar state government, and he attained office as a Republican justice of the peace. He also became a Baptist minister and enjoyed a certain degree of prominence sermonising against alcohol. However, after marrying, he moved to Texas and quickly became involved in the fledgling People’s Party there.
Throughout his life, the one constant that defined Rayner’s political sympathies was that he was squarely against the Dixiecrat contingent that clung to white supremacy. Not only did he personally suffer from the laws and unwritten rules which held him to be an inferior on account of his ancestry, but he also held from his own education that such a caste system was senseless and self-defeating. There’s every reason to believe that Rayner embraced with the zeal of the converted all the economic principles of the new People’s Party—including chartalism, the graduated income tax, the Subtreasury Plan, and state ownership of transit and communication infrastructure. But his primary goal was to build up a political vehicle for black people which would neither deliberately oppress them and consign them to second-class personhood (as the Democrats did), nor abandon them to the vagaries of the political and economic winds (as the Republicans had after the engineered ‘failure’ of Reconstruction). Even though the People’s Party never managed to actively advocate for full social equality between blacks and whites, their emphasis on economic betterment and their opposition to centralised financial and political power seemed to Rayner to offer blacks the best hope for social and political advancement.
Rayner charged headlong into the political field on the behalf of his new party. He was the single most active and popular public speaker on the East Texas circuit, and he bent his formidable energies, intelligence and oratorical skill toward spreading the Populist gospel among poor black tenant farmers and day-labourers, and bringing them into the new sheepfold. He was admired on this account both by his black and his white colleagues, and his speeches invariably drew a mixed-race crowd, who stood together without segregating. It was particularly interesting to read about how poor white East Texas tenant farmers would stand up and protect John Rayner with their bodies if he came under threat by armed enforcers from the old ‘Democracy’, the moneyed political opposition.
Two conditions conspired to thwart and scatter the Populist insurgency in 1890’s East Texas. The first condition was the heated and desperate appeal by the Democratic Party to the racial paranoia of poor whites. In lurid language the Democratic party machine and its agents in the press described the coming upheaval and overthrow of all civilised institutions, if the Populists came to power and handed the organs of the state over to a mongrel, mixed-race mob. The Texas Populists, to their credit, had taken a firm and principled stand on equal jury representation for blacks—but they wouldn’t go further than that. And even that was too far for many poor white Texans. But through a concerted campaign of fearmongering, race-baiting, open ballot fraud, armed intimidation, violence and even murder, the Democratic party machine managed to turn back the Populist tide in several key districts.
The second condition which thwarted the Texas Populists was the fateful decision by the national People’s Party to pursue a tactic of fusion with the Democratic ticket. Although the Democrats were still in many senses the party of old Southern money and furnishing merchants, within the party there were reformist voices like William Jennings Bryan who could effectively channel the popular anger against the coastal plutocracy in their rhetoric, while remaining conveniently flexible on matters of actual policy. The Populists acceded, fatally, to a deal whereby they would endorse Bryan on the national Democratic ticket in exchange for a ‘bimetallic’ plank in the Democratic platform (itself a gelding of the chartalist principles of the Omaha Platform). The entire contingent of Texas Populists greeted this news with dismay and horror—and pursued the opposite policy to the national party: advocating a Republican vote for McKinley at the national level in exchange for Republican support for the Populist candidate for Texas governor, Jerome Claiborne Kearby. Kearby lost, on account of the dirty and desperate Democratic campaign against him described above. And the Populists never recovered from their losses in 1896, either nationally or at the state level.
Rayner became deeply disillusioned with politics after this. He grew particularly bitter against the poor whites who had, in his view, abandoned the Populist cause and left their poor black brothers to the (in some cases very literal) dogs. But he also became more and moreso an advocate of political quietism and gradualism in the black community. This was where the old paternalistic instincts he’d inherited from his white planter father came back to the fore. From the Southern black perspective, such messages might come credibly from, say, a Booker T Washington who shared the class and cultural background of the men he addressed; but they weren’t regarded as kindly when they came from a man of high-flown oratory who could pass for white. From the sobering experience of the thwarted Populist insurgency, he maintained (at least in public) that black men in the South had to build up better habits of life and become more virtuous before they could begin to be trusted with political power. And so he turned his energies instead to establishing black schools in East Texas: Conroe Normal and Industrial College and the Farmer’s Improvement Society.
In his pursuit of funds and patronage for these schools, Rayner had to forge relationships with some of his old adversaries—including the wealthy Dixiecrat and Houston lumber magnate John Henry Kirby. Rayner’s public speech and writing at this point in his life grew increasingly pathetic on account of these new ties. He began forging an image of himself as a contented black man of the Old South, a former ‘faithful slave’. He began holding forth that the poor black man has no better friend than the Southern white man, and he incessantly cautioned against black people moving too fast or agitating too loudly. These efforts to win the patronage of wealthy whites earned his new school projects very little material remuneration, and came at—as appears from the writings Rayner left toward the end of his life—a considerable cost to his sense of self-worth.
Both Conroe and FIS eventually severed their ties with Rayner, though Cantrell informs us that the primary sources don’t really give us a clear picture of the reasons. He surmises that it could have been because of Rayner’s sycophantic public speeches (which were becoming increasingly annoying to a younger generation of black men who were struggling against incessant campaigns of racial violence as well as legal segregation), or it could have been because of Rayner’s involvement with anti-Prohibition activism (which, given the heavy moralistic demands on the behaviour of poor black men, was an embarrassment to these schools).
At the same time, Cantrell paints us a very credible picture of why Rayner joined forces with the East Texas brewers. From the perspective of a Southern black man at the dawn of the twentieth century, the most dangerous kind of Dixiecrat was the reformist, ‘progressive’ Bryan-style Dixiecrat. Bryan himself may or may not have harboured the more odious and violent kind of white-supremacist sentiments, but he certainly opened the floodgates to a particular brand of new Democrat who did. The reformist Democrats who came after William Jennings Bryan often championed silver coinage, women’s suffrage, anti-imperialism and (white) labour unions, as well as Prohibition. But they also gave voice to some of the most vicious and vitriolic forms of anti-black bigotry, defended lynching and intransigently opposed even the smallest concessions to blacks’ political liberties. Rayner evidently decided that it was better to side with (plutocratic, reactionary, laissez-faire, but only mildly anti-black) ‘wet’ Democrats, than with (producerist, ‘progressive’, interventionist, but virulently-racist) ‘dry’ Democrats.
Rayner did make one final push for integration of the armed forces during the Great War. But his final years were frustrated, lonely and miserable. His health began to fail. When he was out walking his dog, the white sheriff beat the elderly Rayner for not having a tag on his pet—and he never recovered from the beating. In his last years his only solace lay in writing collections of aphorisms which were published only long after his death—and which showed that he had never truly given up on his old Populist convictions, that he was convinced of the vileness and stupidity of white supremacy, and that what hopes he had left were in the practical education of ordinary black men and women. However, as far as we know, at the end of his life none of his black acquaintance outside his immediate family circle knew of this. To them, Rayner was an embarrassing anachronism bereft of self-respect, ‘feeding the wolf’ of white supremacy, which would never be sated on what he sacrificed to it. To the white acquaintance whose opinions (and funds) he courted with too little success, Rayner was hardly remembered at all.
‘There is little that one can call encouraging in the story of John B Rayner,’ writes Gregg Cantrell, ‘for it is mostly a story of injustice, failure, and the humiliation of a man whose lifelong efforts to do good met with repeated frustration—primarily because of the distorting power of racism.’ The high point of Rayner’s career was the Populist insurgency of the 1890s, a rare period in Southern history when poor blacks and poor whites stood side-by-side and demanded fair and equal treatment against a bipartisan political establishment which held both groups in contempt.
Rayner’s story should be taken as a cautionary tale to modern populistic movements which are trying to bridge the left-right gap in the same way the late nineteenth-century People’s Party did. It would be naïve to assume that the old dynamics of American politics have ever disappeared completely. The critique offered by black commentators of—to give one recent example—the ‘Rage Against the War Machine’ rally rhymes in a particularly uncomfortable way with the old internal disputes within the original People’s Party, and the betrayal of true-believing, full-platform, midroader Populism by the (exclusively-white) advocates of ‘fusion’ with the Democrats. Although cross-ideological coalitions to urge action on one particular issue are a common and necessary feature of any kind of mass-based politics, there is a particular danger which comes when good causes entertain the notion of ‘fusing’ with political forces that are entirely inimical to one’s goals. In the case of Populism, the two major parties were able to use the wedge of racism to split the movement. The anti-war movement should take care not to let the same happen to it.
I’d say that this biography is one that I’m happy I read, though it was by no means particularly happy reading. On the other hand, Gregg Cantrell’s book also introduced me, in its afterword, to the brilliant and colourful career of John B Rayner’s Catholic grandson: Lt Ahmed Arabi ‘Sammy’ Rayner, Jr. Sammy Rayner had a career in the United States Air Force as one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, became a mortician in Chicago where he assisted his father’s business—including the open-air casket funeral of Emmitt Till, protested against the Vietnam War, was investigated by the FBI for supposed links to the Black Panthers, and ran against the Daley machine in Chicago and won as an Independent alderman. There’s another biography I’d be more than happy to read.