Historical Perspective

A Fascism

The character of Mick is so politically naive early in the novel that when she is defacing the wall of a house under construction she includes the name Mussolini along with the comic-strip crime fighter Dick Tracy and the inventor of light bulbs, phonographs and moving pictures, Thomas Edison. At that time in world history, Fascism had reached its height as a political power. The word itself was coined by Benito Mussolini during his rise to power in Italy after World War I ended in 1918-he defined fascism as “organized concentrated authoritarian democracy on a national basis,” although most other sources would not forget to include the words “totalitarianism” and “authoritarianism” in their definition. Fascism is unlike democracy because it gives the government control over all aspects of its citizens’ lives; it is unlike Communism because it emphasizes the nation, and not the worker, as being the most essential element in life. In 1848, when the capitalist economic system had established roots all over the world and the Industrial Revolution had made it strong, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto. Their fear was that the way the free-market economy divided the world between two groups-the rich, who owned the means of production, and the workers who provided the labor-made slaves out of the laborers. They encouraged workers to unite. In the early twentieth century, socialism was popular in many countries around the world, and in 1917 Russia was taken over by the Communist Revolution (in general, the distinction between the two is that socialism advocates changing the government from within the system, while Communism supports revolutionary overthrow). In Italy, as elsewhere, Communism appealed to the poor, and many of the people were suffering in poverty after a post-war economic collapse that made their money practically worthless. Property owners, however, feared that Communism would take away what they had, and many middle-class people equated a Communist take-over with anarchy and chaos. Mussolini, a former Socialist, gained the support of people who had been made to feel powerless because of the economy’s collapse and who liked the Fascist party’s strong pro-Italy rhetoric. His rise to power was driven by a combination of the promise to restore order and the violence of Fascist thugs in black shirts who committed murder and arson against socialists. In 1922, violence against Socialists was so bad that they called a national strike against the transportation sector: Mussolini used this politically to take control of the government, gaining citizen support because he got the trains to run on time. Between 1925 and 1930 he turned his control of the government into a dictatorship, with absolute control over all media and all aspects of the people’s lives. At the same time, the same elements that brought the Fascist party to government control were at work in Germany, where Hitler was using the promise of order, the threat of Communism and a hatred of people considered “outsiders” (in this case, Jews, blacks, Catholics and Gypsies) to build the Nazi empire.

B Segregation

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark case called Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that it was legal for states and municipalities to keep blacks and whites apart from each other in public by offering “separate but equal” accommodations. The idea was that laws could be passed forbidding blacks from eating at restaurants frequented by whites, drinking at fountains whites drank at, attending the same schools, etc., as long as there were equal facilities for them to use. In the South, states took advantage of this ruling to pass laws, called “Jim Crow laws,” to ensure racial separation. The problem for blacks was that the “equal” part of the “separate but equal” doctrine was seldom enforced. Black schools received less funding, as did black medical facilities; theaters that allowed whites main-floor seats only allowed blacks to sit in the balcony, far from the stage; and the better restaurants and hotels excluded blacks. Famous and wealthy blacks were sent to ramshackle accommodations while watching any white who cared to walk in enter places that they were kept out of. Early in this novel, for instance, the drunken, disorderly Jake Blount believes that he is doing a big favor for Dr. Copeland, bringing him into the cafe and offering to buy him a drink even though, as one of the patrons tells him, “Don’t you know you can’t bring no nigger in a place where white men drink?” Dr. Copeland, for his part, is embarrassed to have a low-class wreck like Blount condescend to him. Enforcement of the laws that segregated the races was brutal. Blacks, with almost no political power in the South, had to suffer legal abuse by any whites, even those of the lowest level, as shown in this novel when Dr. Copeland, a respected man in his community, is beaten by a deputy sheriff who does not like his attitude. The legal system seldom sided with blacks, for fear that recognizing some civil rights would encourage them to want more. Outside of the legal system was the Ku Klux Klan, an organization of native-born white Protestant men who hid their identities in robes and hoods while they perpetrated heinous crimes against non-whites, non-Protestants and foreigners. The organization was started in Georgia in 1915, based on a similar organization that had existed after the Civil War. The tactics that they used to intimidate the people they considered undesirable were window-breaking, public cross-burnings, and kidnapping and hanging people, known as “lynching.” Legal authorities claimed to be unable to stop the Klan, although in many cases they used their hidden identities as an excuse to let them run rampant. During World War II, from 1941 to 1945, Southern blacks received a taste of equality: they visited European countries where segregation laws did not exist, and the United States Armed Forces, though not completely equal, did have blacks and whites working alongside one another. By the 1950s, public sentiment against racism grew to an extent that the laws had to be changed: the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas found that separate schools could not be equal, and so all-white schools had to admit blacks. Integration was extended to other institutions, reversing the Plessy decision.

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