White Southerners love their rights. They’ve got state’s rights and property rights and individual rights. They’ve got sacred rights and god-given rights. They’ve got rights out the wazoo. But one thing you will rarely hear a white Southerner speak for is his civil rights.

That’s because whites long ago signed over their civil rights, accepting a virtual police state in exchange for a little security.

For nearly half of its history, South Carolina has had a black majority — first a majority of slaves, later a majority of free blacks. (In 1860, the population was 61 percent black — the largest majority of any state.) To control and preserve this huge, restless population of bondsmen was the first priority of all public policy in the state. The fear of slave revolt haunted white Southerners for generations. It was a terror which robbed them of sleep, shaped their politics and society, seeped into the subconscious and into the very marrow of white Southerners. Fear was as pervasive and debilitating as the summer heat.

South Carolina’s first and bloodiest slave rebellion occurred on the Stono River, south of Charleston, in 1739. In 1822, the Denmark Vesey plot was uncovered — along with the purported plans to murder the white population of Charleston. Not a shot was actually fired, but some 30 slaves and freedmen were hanged for their roles in the alleged conspiracy. Between the Stono Rebellion and the Vesey conspiracy was the bloody Haitian revolution, which threw off French rule and established a republic of freed slaves in the Caribbean. Along the way were countless smaller uprisings in South Carolina and throughout the slaveholding region.

To control the slave population, Southern states established slave patrols to ride the roads and interrogate anyone — black or white — who looked suspicious. Local authorities opened the U.S. mail when they suspected abolitionist material was being sent into the state. These and numerous other violations of civil rights were taken for granted by whites as the price of security.

Fear of losing control of their slaves eventually drove the South to secession. After the disastrous war, they sought to impose control over their former slaves through Jim Crow laws and lynching. The new fear was of blacks gaining political power. And, of course, there was the ancient fear of miscegenation, which haunted the white man’s sleep.

In the face of the civil rights movement, it was generally understood that anyone who worked for social change could be terrorized or murdered with impunity. Local authorities would not lift a hand to protect civil rights workers, resulting in the murder of dozens of activists, black and white. The State of Mississippi even created a secret, state-funded police bureaucracy worthy of the old Soviet KGB. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission opened mail, tapped phones, and paid neighbors and coworkers to spy on suspected “agitators.” No invasion of privacy, no abridgement of civil rights was too egregious, as long as it was done in the name of white supremacy.

The culture of fear was so endemic that it spilled over into virtually all aspects of life — fear of communists, fear of intellectuals, fear of any outsider or new idea. The most hated institutions in the region were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, for challenging some of the South’s most pernicious laws.

Generations of white politicians cultivated the politics of fear into an art form. Men like the late Strom Thurmond could denounce the NAACP, the ACLU, the Supreme Court, and “godless communism” in one bombastic breath. And his white audience was happy to believe him.

Today, the Republican Party keeps white Southerners transfixed in their fear of terrorism and gays, and their fear keeps them snugly in the pocket of George W. Bush.

This shabby history comes to mind as I contemplate the draconian anticrime bill which is now before the General Assembly. Most appalling is the plank that would give police the power to seize DNA samples from anyone arrested for a crime, be it shoplifting or murder. This is a monstrous invasion of privacy and violation of the Fourth Amendment. South Carolina’s proposed DNA-gathering law would be the most aggressive in the nation and surely land the state in a swamp of litigation.

Legislators are “pretending to be tough on crime and playing the fear card,” an ACLU spokesman said. “Stripping people of their rights, that’s not the place to start. Trying to create a police state, that’s not the place to start.”

Yet my bet is that the vast majority of South Carolinians support this bill, including the ferocious freedom fighters who stormed Charleston City Council last month to demand their god-given right to smoke in public places.

What a strange state we live in.


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