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The Fables of Our Faubus

Jeff Sessions, man of justice

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

 

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions has fallen on hard times. A celebrated Alabamian and Man of the South, he came out for Donald Trump long before any other national Republican politician, and then gave up his very safe Senate seat to become Trump’s Attorney General. It was a labor of love and a marriage of true ideological conviction. Like his boss, he sought to Make American Great Again, longing for an earlier, simpler, and also whiter time. And so he eagerly set about his work, gutting the Voting Rights Act and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, signaling that under his tenure not Black but Blue Lives would Matter most; endorsing the civil asset forfeiture of criminal suspects; announcing his commitment to the vigorous prosecution of the sale of marijuana as a federal crime; and enthusiastically taking up the cause of immigration law enforcement — border “security,” and the detention and deportation of those “illegals” who don’t belong. But then he ran afoul of his Russian contacts, perjured himself in Senate testimony and, in order to make this “right,” he felt compelled to recuse himself from (supposedly) everything related to the Justice Department’s investigation of the Trump-Russia connection.

His inamorata, Trump, was incensed. Ever since he has endured endless slights and humiliations. It is hard to be Jeff Sessions. And yet he persists. Because he has always wanted to be Attorney General, and because he truly believes in law enforcement, Alabama style.

And so this week he issued the latest salvo in his war against localities, across the nation, that have chosen to refuse to cooperate with ICE agents or have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities or states, taking particular aim at the state of California. Announcing that the Justice Department would be suing California, he declared:

Immigration law is the province of the federal government. This administration and this Justice Department are determined to make it work effectively for the people. I understand that we have a wide variety of political opinions out there on immigration. But the law is in the books, and its purpose is clear. There is no nullification. There is no secession. Federal law is “the supreme law of the land.” I would invite any doubters to Gettysburg, and to the graves of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln.

A loyal son of the state that gave us George Wallace and the “Bloody Sunday” attack of Selma civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Sessions is no ironist, his reference to Calhoun notwithstanding. He is a man of power. And his message here was clear: the Trump administration is determined to enforce federal immigration law, to police the borders, and to arrest, detain, and deport those lacking the proper papers. To interfere or refuse to cooperate in any way with this effort is to break the law and to invite severe punishment.

Sessions, who in 1997 praised famed segregationist and former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond for his commitments to “law and order” and his political loyalties as “a Southerner,” and whose reputation has for decades been tarnished by racist statements, has long been a hypocrite when it comes to the federal government. Libertarian journalist Radley Balko noted this in a fine July 2017 piece entitled “Jeff Sessions Supports States Rights, Except When He Doesn’t”:

Sessions claims to be a federalist — an advocate for “states’ rights” and local control. But he makes exceptions. What’s interesting is when he makes exceptions and when he doesn’t. For example, Sessions thinks the Voting Rights Act — which aims to preserve the voting rights of minorities — is intrusive federal meddling. He thinks that Justice Department’s investigations into police abuses — which frequently include allegations of racial bias, and tend to be disproportionately directed at minorities — are also intrusive federal meddling. He thinks that requiring states to recognize same sex marriage — a protection for a minority group — is intrusive federal meddling. He feels the same way about adding sexual orientation to the list of categories protected by federal hate crimes laws, and about requiring states to protect transgender students — again, these are all protections for a specific minority group. So where does Sessions make exceptions to “states’ rights”? For starters, he thinks sanctuary cities should be punished for not enforcing federal immigration law, despite the wishes of the people who live in those cities, and despite protests from law enforcement that doing so would make those cities more dangerous. The people likely to be hassled by Sessions’s favored policy here are, of course, also minorities, whether they’re citizens, legal residents or undocumented.

To put it bluntly, Sessions, the Attorney General of the United States, believes that it is good for the federal government to enforce the law when doing so cuts against the rights of minorities, but it is bad for the federal government to enforce the law when doing so protects the rights of minorities.

In this regard he brings to mind Orval E. Faubus, the infamous Governor of Arkansas who, in the mid-1950s, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, resisted the desegregation of his state’s public schools. Heroic proponent of the doctrine of “interposition,” Faubus commanded the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, in violation of a federal court order. A major civil and political crisis ensued, leading President Eisenhower to federalize the state’s National Guard, order them back to their barracks, and to employ troops from the 101 st Airborne Division to protect the Black students. Those students became known as “the Little Rock nine,” who were attempting to attend the school in conformity with the law.

Like Sessions, Faubus was an adherent of majority rule and a firm believer in combating the “danger” posed by pesky minorities, whether they be racial minorities or those with dissenting opinions. In a September 1957 speech defending his resistance to “federal oppression,” he declared: “Those who would integrate our schools at any price are still among us. They have seized upon the present situation to promote and foment concern and discontent, because of the temporary closing of the schools. They have spread wild rumors and attempted to organize demonstrations. These are the same people and the same forces who have all along been opposed to the majority will of the people of Little Rock and Arkansas …”

Here is clip about the Little Rock crisis that features Faubus:

Faubus became a hero to segregationists. To others, not so much.

In response, Charles Mingus, one of the greatest of modern jazz innovators, wrote and recorded one of his most famous tunes, “Fables of Faubus.” Mingus indeed recorded two versions of this tune. While he originally wrote it as a vocal tune for his 1959 album Mingus Ah Um, Columbia Records apparently considered this version to be too incendiary. The version that appears on this classic album is thus an instrumental version:

Here is the original version, with lyrics, which appeared on a self-produced 1960 album entitled Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, and features call and response from Mingus and drummer and long-time collaborator Dannie Richmond:

Steven Waye nicely describes the recording:

The purity of the song’s form is striking. It is a distinctly jazzy protest, in that it incorporates many of the ring shout tropes that make jazz music what it is. The exhortation of Mingus and his drummer Dannie Richmond are shouted back and forth, with Mingus asking a question and Richmond responding with raspy exclamations. There is no argument clearly laid out and broken down. It is not an analytical study, but an exclamation of passionate anger. Yet the lyrics themselves are thoughtful and thought provoking, dismissing the notion that jazz is a bunch of scattered sporadic noise. This is clearly the work of men who value both inspiration and improvisation and deep thought, attacking taboo social issues and pushing the boundaries of jazz while remaining true to a jazz ethos. He is not afraid to call out men of power (Eisenhower, Faubus, Rockefeller), forcing us to think of the struggle in terms that are less simple than Faubus defying Eisenhower and Eisenhower championing integration. Both men got caught in a power struggle that made the whole ordeal about them instead of about the kids who were simply trying to attend school. As for the instrumentals, the main melodic line played by the trumpet is catchy and dissonant at the same time, never really resolving and leaving the listener with a feeling of unrest, fitting for a song that is meant to inspire indignation in its audience. The vocals follow this line, until Mingus declares Faubus a fool and the melody spins into a wild hard bop run, only to straighten out and return to the original melody, marking the social confusion of the time, especially the confusion that must have been felt by the nine young black students that weren’t allowed to go to Little Rock Central. Here they were told to integrate (which Mingus marks with the opening melody, stable but a bit wary) and then the chaos of being stopped by the National Guard (the part that follows). The Original Fables of Faubus is a 1960’s jazz protest in its rawest form, as it is also a defining contribution by Charles Mingus to the Civil Rights Movement.

Mingus’s tune is a jazz classic, and it served both to denounce and to mock Faubus, who many — both critics and supporters — regarded as a symbol of white supremacy. Faubus was a symbol of white supremacy, just as he was a leader in the segregationist effort to resist the politics of racial equality. At the same time, he was actually an interesting racist, whose biography is telling. That he was a Democrat is no real surprise, for since before the Civil War, the Democratic party had been the party of slavery and racism throughout the South. But Faubus was apparently not simply a Democrat but a New Dealer, whose father was a Socialist activist in Arkansas, and whose middle name — the “E” was for Eugene — was a tribute to the famous Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. Socialism was once strong in the Southwest, as it was in many places, including my current home, Indiana, which was indeed the birthplace of Debs. It was also closely linked in the South, in complicated ways to be sure, to a form of white populism. Faubus was not simply about the segregation and political exclusion of Blacks. He was about the elevation, both symbolically and in terms of public policy, of poor and middle-class whites.

This white populism is the ancestor of the populism of Trump. Of course for Trump it is the politics of exclusion that looms largest. It is a safe bet that Trump has absolutely no idea that he draws on the rhetoric of earlier forms of populism that contained a real redistributionist element.

Perhaps the policy domain where Trump and his political bedfellows — especially Sessions and Stephen Miller, Sessions’s former aide — is truest to that earlier populism is in the area of immigrant restriction. Thus his frequent attacks not simply on “illegal immigrants” but on what he calls “chain migration.” And thus the nostalgia for the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 displayed here by Sessions:

In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic. Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so, it’s very unusual, it’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly, we then assimilated through the 1965 [Immigration Act] and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America. We passed a law that went far beyond what anybody realized in 1965, and we’re on a path to surge far past what the situation was in 1924.

Sessions is an erstwhile Trumpist. Dead serious about Trump’s agenda, especially when it relates to harsh law enforcement and immigration restriction, he has nonetheless run afoul of both Trump’s vengeful personality and his own bumbling, smarmy, and frighteningly obsequious persona.

Like Faubus, he is a dangerous man that stands as a powerful symbol of racism in our time.

Given the time in which we live, it is perhaps television that is the most powerful medium of his mockery. In this, no one tops Saturday Night Live’s Kate MacKinnon:

If you prefer, go back and listen to Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” and simply alter a few names and words. Or, alternatively, sit back and enjoy Nina Simone singing “Mississippi God Damn,” just because. Simone is singing about a different civil rights atrocity. But as she once explained, both facetiously and not, the song was “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” One can only imagine what she would have thought of the reality TV show to which we are currently being subjected by Donald Trump and his minions. And so I like to imagine her singing to Trump, to Kelly, and especially to our erstwhile Attorney General, the namesake of not one but two heroes of the Confederacy:

God damn indeed.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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