Talk About Guilt by Association: Wall Street Journal Profiles McCain Family’s Slaves
But today’s Wall Street Journal treats us to a classic case of guilt by association: a front-page profile of the descendants of slaves owned by John McCain’s great-great grandfather before the Civil War. After documenting the poor treatment that the black families (who share the last name “McCain”) received over the past century, reporter Douglas Blackmon tags Senator McCain — whom he places at the family’s former plantation as a young man in the 1940s and 1950s — as out of touch:
Sen. McCain grew to adulthood largely unaware of his family's ties to slavery. In a statement, he called the abuses of African-Americans in the 20th century "a dark and tragic chapter in American history" and said that "cultivating the bond between the two families...is important."Blackmon’s narrative focuses on Lillie McCain, a psychology professor and great-great granddaughter of two slaves freed from the white McCain family by the civil war. After rolling through the sins of the white McCains and ordeals of the black McCain family — including bomb threats and a church burning during the civil rights movement — Blackmon mentions at the end of the piece: “Lillie and all of her siblings say they support Sen. Obama for president.”
While the piece, “Two Families Named McCain,” details the impressive journey of the black McCains over five generations from the depths of slavery to a family that can boast of corporate executives, PhDs, and community leaders, it also suggests a degree of guilt on the part of the white McCains for the sins of their ancestors.
With McCain the first presidential candidate to face off against a black opponent in the general election, the raising of his great-great-grandfather’s slaveholding history is obviously aimed at attaching the modern-day McCain to the evil that last existed in America seven decades before he was born.
The whole story is here. Excerpts:
Lillie McCain is watching the presidential campaign from a singular perspective....Ms. McCain and her siblings are descended from two of about 120 slaves held before the end of the Civil War at Teoc, the Mississippi plantation owned by the family of Republican nominee John McCain's great-great-grandfather.
In a year when the historic nature of Sen. Obama's candidacy is drawing much comment, the case of the Teoc McCains offers another quintessential American narrative in black and white. For the black McCain family, it is a story of triumph over the legacy of slavery; for the white McCains, it is the evolution of a 19th-century cotton dynasty into one rooted in an ethic of military and national service....
Sen. McCain's family lived primarily on military installations around the world. But they remained attached to Teoc, visiting repeatedly during Sen. McCain's childhood, often for long periods. When they went to the farm in the 1940s and 1950s, the future Sen. McCain and his brother stayed in the rambling house, now abandoned, of their great-uncle, Joe McCain, who had become the plantation's owner.
Sen. McCain's younger brother, also named Joe, said that though their father "moved around as the son of a naval officer, he too always thought of Teoc as his 'blood ground' and loved visiting there."
The McCains in the early 20th century were known among African-Americans for relatively equitable treatment of their workers and tenants, especially compared with the abuses happening on many other farms. A visitor to the plantation in 1923 published an account that described "a tradition and a policy of fair dealing between planter and laborer."
"That's how I remember it," said Frank Bryant, 90, a black former Teoc sharecropper.
The 19th century had been a different story for African-Americans in Carroll County. In 1886, after two black men filed a lawsuit against a white man, a white mob rushed the courthouse and murdered more than 20 blacks there, according to court documents and newspaper accounts at the time. They weren't prosecuted.
Earlier still, just after the Civil War, Sen. McCain's ancestors, like many former slave owners, made use of newly passed laws designed to temporarily force some freed slaves back into the control of their former masters. Records in a dusty storage room in the Carroll County courthouse show that in February 1866, Sen. McCain's great-great-grandmother, Louisa McCain, and her brother-in-law Nathaniel filed petitions to take legal custody of three girls under age 15 whom the McCains had owned before emancipation. In court, the girls were identified with the surname "Freedman," a common practice with emancipated slaves.
There is no record of the full circumstances, but thousands of young African-Americans at that time were forced under such claims to return to their onetime masters as apprentices. Those apprentice laws in the South were later struck down....
[By the mid-1900s] the black McCains were emerging among the county's most important leaders. Charles McCain was a central figure in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When civil-rights workers swarmed Mississippi in 1964, the black McCains housed white activists and received bomb threats and harassing calls.
"Daddy didn't want us to roll over and play dead or live as if you are not a person," says Lillie McCain. Her sister Mary McCain Fluker, 53, says their father "would always tell us you are just as good as anybody. 'You are no better than anybody,' he'd tell us, 'but you're just as good as anybody.'"
Civil-rights organizers held secret meetings at the family's church just off the Teoc plantation. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency formed to thwart the civil-rights movement, kept tabs on Mr. McCain, according to commission records. "Daddy was one of the leaders, one of the people out front," says 60-year-old Charles McCain Jr., a retired brick mason and teacher who still lives on the family land.
Lillie McCain remembers seeing Martin Luther King Jr. speak from the back of a flatbed truck in nearby Greenwood. She and her two brothers were arrested at a march in Jackson, Miss., organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, whose leader, Stokely Carmichael, introduced the phrase "black power." Not long after Mr. Carmichael spoke at the McCains' church, it burned down, during a wave of Ku Klux Klan firebombings. The McCain children remember passing its smoking remains on their way to school the next day.
Amid those events, the black McCain children wondered what must be wrong with white people. "I was thinking, 'How can they kill people and they all go to church?'" says Lillie McCain. "I was just baffled by that."
Sen. McCain grew to adulthood largely unaware of his family's ties to slavery. In a statement, he called the abuses of African-Americans in the 20th century "a dark and tragic chapter in American history" and said that "cultivating the bond between the two families...is important."
In the late 1960s, black McCain children were among those who integrated the previously all-white schools in the county seat, Carrollton. In 1969, Lillie McCain was one of the first two African-Americans to graduate from the integrated high school. Four of the six McCain children in her family served in the military and all six earned college degrees....Lillie and all of her siblings say they support Sen. Obama for president.
When George McCain was killed in a traffic accident in 2003, Frank Bryant, the aged former sharecropper, invited to the funeral Bill McCain, the senator's cousin, who owns the remaining 1,500 acres of Teoc plantation and lives nearby. It was the beginning of a modern dialogue between the two families as equals. At the service, Mr. McCain stood in the family section with the black McCains.