Comment of the Day: Prosecutor Ethics, “What The Hell Were You Thinking?” Dept: Dog-Whistling “Dixie” To The Jury

Dixie

I will introduce this fascinating Comment of the Day by one of the blog’s masters of the long form comment, Chris Marschner,  by saying that I think it is only tangentially related to the post, though he would disagree. Chris is writing about the history of “Dixie” and why it should not be associated with racism. Whether I agree with that analysis or not, the fact is that the public does overwhelmingly associate the song with a longing for the simplicities of the Old South, when the darkies were singing in the cotton fields and those Northern folks weren’t sticking in their noses where they don’t belong. This is the basis of an Idaho court’s decision to overturn the conviction of a black defendant after the prosecutor gratuitously and needlessly quoted the lyrics of the song in her closing argument.  That decision was correct, because the issue is whether the comment could reasonably have been an appeal, or seemed like an appeal, or have had the effect of an appeal, to racial bias. I don’t think that conclusion is arguable.

Here is Chris’s Comment of the Day on the post, Prosecutor Ethics, “What The Hell Were You Thinking?” Dept: Dog-Whistling “Dixie” To The Jury:

The prosecutor failed her client – the people- not because she used the words of an 19th century song but because she failed to come to understand that history and culture of the US has been so bastardized that even an appellate court has no understanding and context of the origins of the song and the history and culture of the south. And, because of its misunderstanding believes the lyrics to be racially prejudicial.

“Maybe Erica is so young, color blind and historically ignorant that she had no idea that “Dixie” has been played at Klan rallies and used as the campaign theme for states rights, segregationist, white supremacy candidates since the Civil War. Maybe she didn’t recognize the cotton reference as racial.”

This song was written by a northerner named Daniel Decatur Emmett and performed in New York in an 1859 minstrel show by Emmitt in blackface. The reference to cotton is geographic in nature because cotton represented the primary agricultural commodity and wealth creator of the southern states – nothing more unless one is predisposed to finding anything related to the antebellum south as racist

Many songs have been coopted by various groups but to suggest that lyrics of Dixie are inherently racial because they are used by White supremacists is faulty logic. If a white supremacist adopted the image of Leonardo D’Vinci’s David or Venus d’ Milo or other classical work of art on their flag that would not mean that any such depiction suggests racial superiority.

One of the most racially polarizing groups, the Congressional Black Caucus has often sung, while standing arm in arm, “We shall Overcome”. If one group believes that the words of that song mean that blacks will overwhelm whites someday does not simply make it so.

“If Kellin knew what the song signifies, then her choice to refer to it is almost professionally suicidal, and a gross failure to represent her client, “the People,” competently. Is she didn’t know, and has gone through the Idaho public school system, college and law school without learning this feature of American political and cultural history….wow.”

I wonder how many people are familiar with the Tariffs of Abomination that favored the manufacturing north while threatening the economy of the south. I also wonder how many know that Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson, then President, sent federal troops to put down the nascent secessionist movement. I guess not all white Southerners were secessionist racists.* Who knew?

I wonder how many people know that in 1844 it was several political Northern factions that wanted to disunite with the south because of the 3/5ths compromise created the perception among them that the south had too much political representation. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the Liberator his advocacy of disuniting the south from the union.

Probably very few, and what we are left with is people with little understanding of historical context and culture of the day. We only get the Cliff notes version of history in schools and even that gets watered down and changed to fit whatever narrative we want to embrace.

But I digress.

What the song signifies is a perceived longing to be back in the southern part of the country just like the John Denver’s song about West Virginia. What it signifies to others today is inconsequential because anyone can make any claim that anything related to the south is offensive.

The cotton reference was not intended to be racial but has been perceived by those that want to believe that the Civil War was based solely on the issue of slavery. Yes, the abolition of slavery would have been one of the property rights taken from the southern landowner but that was not the only issue. Many of the promises and pledges made to these states to get them to join the union were being systematically violated by the fledgling federal government as its power grew.

Here are the complete lyrics: (From George Mason Library archives):

1. I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times dar am not forgotten,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land whar’ I was born in,
Early on one frosty mornin’,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.

CHORUS:

Den I wish I was in Dixie, Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!
In Dixie land, I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie;
Away, away, away down south in Dixie,
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

2. Old Missus marry Will-de-weaber,
Willium was a gay deceaber; Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
But when he put his arm around ‘er
Smiled as fierce as a forty-pounder,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.

CHORUS:

Den I wish I was in Dixie, Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!
In Dixie land, I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie;
Away, away, away down south in Dixie,
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

3. His face was sharp as a butcher’s cleaver,
But dat did not seem to greab ‘er;
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
Old Missus acted the foolish part,
And died for a man dat broke her heart,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.

CHORUS:

Den I wish I was in Dixie, Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!
In Dixie land, I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie;
Away, away, away down south in Dixie,
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

4. Now here’s a health to the next old Missus,
And all the gals dat want to kiss us;
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
But if you want to drive ‘way sorrow,
Come and hear dis song to-morrow,

I challenge anyone to find anything suggestive about white racial superiority in these lyrics. There are, however ,references to the broken promises of the federal government and its heavy hand.

Albert Pike penned the following lyrics to the melody of Dixie. These were more demonstrative of the feelings of the southerners who felt betrayed by the Federal authorities.

1. Southrons, hear your country call you!
Up, lest worse than death befall you!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
Lo! all the beacon fires are lighted
Let all hearts be now united!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!

CHORUS:

Advance the flag of Dixie!
Hurrah! Hurrah!
For Dixie’s Land we take our stand,
And live or die for Dixie!
To arms! To arms!
And conquer peace for Dixie!

2. Hear the Northern thunders mutter!
Northern flags in South winds flutter!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
Send them back your fierce defiance!
Stamp upon the cursed alliance!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
(Chorus)

3. Fear no danger! Shun no labor!
Lift up rifle, pike, and sabre!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
Shoulder pressing close to shoulder,
Let the odds make each heart bolder!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
(Chorus)

4. How the South’s great heart rejoices
At your cannon’s ringing voices!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
For faith betrayed and pledges broken,
Wrongs inflicted, insults spoken,
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
(Chorus)

5. Strong as lions, swift as eagles,
Back to their kennels hunt these beagles!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
Cut the unequal bond asunder!
Let them hence each other plunder!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
(Chorus)

6. Swear upon your country’s altar
Never to submit or falter!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
Till the spoilers are defeated,
Till the Lord’s work is completed,
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
(Chorus)

7. Halt not till our Federation
Secures among earth’s powers its station!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
Then at peace, and crowned with glory,
Hear your children tell the story!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
(Chorus)

8. If the loved ones weep in sadness,
Victory soon shall bring them gladness.
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
Exultant pride soon banish sorrow;
Smiles chase tears away tomorrow.
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
(Chorus)

Rationalizing the use of benign lyrics or words as being racist because they merely originated in a given geographic area during a dark period of American history that has been boiled down to one singular issue to fit someone’s beliefs is equally unethical. If that’s the case Dixieland jazz and gospel music is racist because it originated in the Jim Crow south as well. The irony is that the song Dixie was composed by a northerner in New York before the Civil War.

___________________

* Note from JAM: I have to clarify this. There is little doubt that Jackson was a racist. He was not a secessionist racist.

7 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: Prosecutor Ethics, “What The Hell Were You Thinking?” Dept: Dog-Whistling “Dixie” To The Jury

  1. Thank you. What you say seems ‘right’ to me. Along the way, the winners generally write the histories; the losers sing the songs.

  2. I like this essay. It has always bothered me when symbols or songs take on the negativity of just one small group.
    It seems to me the only way to counter that is by accepting its use in other applications. Dixie is a beautiful song. It should not be blacklisted because some people think it is an anthem to racism.

  3. Excellent comment, deserving of COD status. Aside: I’m no fan of Andrew Jackson, primarily due to his advocacy of “spoils politics,” his treatment of Native Americans, and his opposition to the right of secession. Nevertheless,as a Tennessean I was interested to read, “South Carolina’s Andrew Jackson, then President…”. Jackson is as likely to have been born in North Carolina as South Carolina; no boundary had as yet been surveyed between the two states in the Waxhaws region where he was born, and though Jackson once claimed South Carolina this was as likely for political expediency as for historical accuracy. Recorded accounts differ in establishing his birthplace. In any event Jackson was a Tennessean by young adulthood and certainly regarded as such long before he was elected as President. His influence on Tennessee politics from the state’s beginnings establish his historical affiliation firmly in that state, whatever his motives in threatening force to suppress secession in South Carolina (or anywhere else).

    • I’ll take the blame for not fixing the S.C. reference, which was obviously just a brain-fart by Chris. I meant to, and forgot. “American Lion” is right by my desk. Thanks for flagging it: I’ll fix it right now. (I’m sorry Chris!)

      • I should have mentioned that, Jack. It was his Vice President- John C. Calhoun- who was from South Carolina. Jackson threatened to lead an army down there and hang him. Calhoun believed him, too!

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