Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 22, 2014

Another murder of a Black man in St. Louis–how Abraham Lincoln responded

Filed under: african-american,Obama,racism — louisproyect @ 9:29 pm

Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 4.52.04 PM

In St. Louis, Missouri on April 28th, 1836, a lynch mob burned Francis McIntosh alive. He was a mixed-race freeman who worked on a riverboat. His crime was refusing to assist two cops who were chasing after another sailor who had been in a fight. When under police custody, he learned that he would have to spend five years in prison. In an attempt to flee from an obviously unjust punishment, he stabbed one of the cops to death and wounded the other.

Wikipedia reports on what happened next:

After a brief chase, McIntosh was captured and placed in jail; however, a white mob soon broke into the jail and removed McIntosh. The mob then took him to the outskirts of town (near the present-day intersection of Seventh and Chestnut streets in Downtown St. Louis), chained him to a locust tree, and piled wood around and up to his knees. When the mob lit the wood with a hot brand, McIntosh asked the crowd to shoot him, then began to sing hymns. When one in the crowd said that he had died, McIntosh reportedly replied, “No, no — I feel as much as any of you. Shoot me! Shoot me!” After at most twenty minutes, McIntosh died. Estimates for the number present at the lynching range in the hundreds, and include an alderman who threatened to shoot anyone who attempted to stop the lynching.

During the night, an elderly African-American man was paid to keep the fire lit, and the mob dispersed. The next day, on April 29, a group of boys threw rocks at the corpse in an attempt to break the skull. When a grand jury was convened to investigate the lynching on May 16, most local newspapers and the presiding judge encouraged no indictment for the crime, and no one was ever charged or convicted. During the grand jury trial, Judge Luke E. Lawless remarked in court that McIntosh’s actions were an example of the “atrocities committed in this and other states by individuals of negro blood against their white brethren,” and that with the rise of abolitionism, “the free negro has been converted into a deadly enemy.”

On January 27, 1838 Abraham Lincoln gave the first important speech in his life to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. A Lyceum was a place where politicians or other celebrities could give talks to the up and coming professional, sort of like the 92nd Street YMHA. Titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”, it was a plea to resist mob rule and adhere to the rule of law. He referred to the lynching of Francis McIntosh as a threat the American republic:

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

Such are the effects of mob law; and such as the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order; and the stories of which, have even now grown too familiar, to attract any thing more, than an idle remark.

At first blush, this sounds like the Lincoln we know from Stephen Spielberg’s biopic—a man committed to emancipation. But not so fast. Lincoln goes on to say:

He had forfeited his life, by the perpetuation of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city; and had not he died as he did, he must have died by the sentence of the law, in a very short time afterwards. As to him alone, it was as well the way it was, as it could otherwise have been.–But the example in either case, was fearful.–When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake.

As someone who is not that fond of Lincoln’s ornate circumlocutions, let me paraphrase it in Proyectesque terms. Lincoln said that McIntosh deserved to die but only after being found guilty in a court of law. One can only imagine what a jury made up of his “peers” would have decided in a state that passed a law in 1825 stating that Blacks were not competent to testify in cases that involved Whites.

Even more worrisome was Lincoln’s remarks on abolitionism. In the South, there were laws that banned the promotion of abolitionist ideas. Lincoln warned against “mob rule” that would attempt to circumvent the rule of law. Once again, you have to put up with the circumlocutions: “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.”

When I first got wind of Barack Obama in 2007, I noticed that he was a big fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”, a study of Lincoln’s presidency that found great merit in his appointment of men who were hostile to abolitionism. Obama, of course, was inspired to appoint a bunch of shithooks every chance he got, to show how determined he was to be like Lincoln.

Upon taking office, Obama told a reporter: “”I will tell you, though, that my goal is to have the best possible government, and that means me winning. And so, I am very practical minded. I’m a practical-minded guy. And, you know, one of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln.” He referred the reporter to “a wonderful book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin called ‘Team of Rivals,’ in which [she] talked about [how] Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because whatever, you know, personal feelings there were, the issue was, ‘How can we get this country through this time of crisis?’”

Well, we know how that turned out. Badly.

We have had six years now of an administration that is to the right of Richard Nixon’s. It harasses reporters, favors the rich, sends drones to blow up wedding parties, creates health care “reform” more beneficial to the insurer than the insured, and caves in to the Republicans every chance it gets.

And, now returning to the crime against a Black man in St. Louis once again, we have Obama following in Lincoln’s footsteps. Which means trying to straddle the fence and be acceptable to Black voters and to the white racists who would as soon see them get the short end of the stick just like the Palestinians. No wonder the people of Ferguson carry signs in solidarity with Gaza.



  1. Ferguson is part of a tapestry along with Occupy and Edward Snowden. In all three instances, young people are angered at the mendacity of their government, and rebelled against the political pragmatism of their elders. Each has distinctive features, of course, but the thread that runs through them all is the prospect of intensified protest cut loose from the moderating influence of those who would keep it safely confined with the safe discourse of US party politics. They get less publicity, but the ongoing civil disobedience at local ICE detention facilities by Latino activists, such as those associated with the Not1More campaign, is also related. Expect more police suppression in response, as we have already seen in Ferguson.

    I have programmed numerous shows on KDVS about police brutality since the killing of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2010. While some considered protests against the police within Occupy as counterproductive, I tried to explain the reasons why many Occupy participants were angry about how they had been treated by the police in the past. Such objections were usually made within the context of considering the police as our working class brothers. For example, interracial groups that were in forefront of forcing the prosecution of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for killing Grant were central to the emergence and perpetuation of Occupy Oakland. I still recall the chant as we returned from the Port of Oakland in December 2011: “From Oakland to Greece, Fuck the Police!” The police suppressed Occupy, but they also keep killing young people of color (Alan Blueford, Kenneth Harding, Andy Lopez and James Romero, among others, in California alone), so the anger towards the police kept building, with confrontational protests recently in Salinas and Albuquerque over the killings of Latinos, it predated Occupy and survived it.

    Salinas and Albuquerque were warnings, but they were not heeded. After Albuquerque, I told one of my friends that we were close to an explosion of major urban unrest, but I did not expect it to happen so quickly as has happened in Ferguson. The protests around the country on 8/14 were extraordinary, especially given the short amount of time to organize them. If Darren Wilson is not prosecuted, I shudder to think what will happen. There is a tendency among some on the left to consider protests against the police as a kind of anarchist diversion (but how many anarchists are in Ferguson? Salinas? Albuquerque?), a diversion away from a class based politics, but, as events in Ferguson have shown, it is quite the opposite, the people protesting the police are well aware that the police serve the purpose of enforcing their economic exploitation.

    Finally, I must say that the protest movement in Ferguson has been one of the most courageous that I have seen in my lifetime. They have confronted the police, night after night, despite being harassed, detained, arrested, tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets. They are providing an example for others to emulate in the future.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 22, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

  2. Consider, for example, this Ferguson video posted on Facebook yesterday: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10152644177359483&id=14169974482&notif_t=like&ref=bookmark

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 22, 2014 @ 10:20 pm

  3. Richard Estes: you have put your finger on exactly what the NSA surveillance is all about. The people at the top want to keep track of the level of discontent so they can be prepared to suppress the uprisings when they inevitably happen, as they will.

    Comment by uh...clem — August 23, 2014 @ 2:41 am

  4. Before we start to join you, Richard, in your shuddering about what you imagine will happen should Wilson get off (which I think likely: I suspect enough obfuscation’s been done to muddy the waters so that a jury of largely white, middle-class people won’t be able to find him easily guilty [departmental discipline might be something different, though]), I think we should have a look at this article by Doug Henwood:


    (Doug’s focus is financial crises, but I think you can substitute black-and-white race-relations in North America. The last big race riots after Rodney King had largely local consequences and, to my mind, didn’t do much to change much, if anything, beyond LA’s borders.)

    (Pacem, Louis.)

    Comment by Todd — August 23, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

  5. It’s hard to calibrate the effects of what are generally called race riots. This is particularly true because one suspects that the people involved in the actual rioting themselves pay a pretty heavy price for their activities. Besides, who on the Left has really studied this question in detail? All we get is the ceaseless keening of e.g. the “progressives” on Truthout and their ilk–who constitute, IMHO, the bulk of the U.S. self-denominated “left” and who generally support reaction in all its nastiest forms as long as they can close their eyes and preach “non-violence” (whatever they mean by that–certainly Gandhi and King wouldn’t recognize it).

    I tend to think that while the riots themselves are certainly a kind of calamity, they can actually have very large secondary benefits. It took more than thirty years for the parts of downtown Washington, DC that were scarified by the 1968 riots to return fully unto the bosom of the white “gentry.” In the meantime, many, many African American working families were able to buy property they would otherwise not have been able to afford or permitted to occupy and to establish what, for all its corruption, was among the most progressive of American political orders.

    If it fell in the end, many factors contributed to this, perhaps most fundamentally the obdurately reactionary and racially skewed politics of the United States in general, the fascist and only marginally legitimate U.S. Congress in particular, and the universal reality that in our cities money always talks louder than anything else.

    Nothing short of a national, if not a worldwide, socialist revolution will change this.

    Still, absent that revolution, nobody but a real-estate speculator who has witnessed the morbid transformation wrought by gentrification can regard the results with anything but dismay. Any honest oberver is going to look with a certain nostalgia on the days when the kind of prats who now sashay around Whole Foods stores bitching about the selection would have been afraid to set foot in the regions that they now dominate. Even their fellow elitists find their militancy disturbing.

    The reality is that the mostly non-Jewish young people who constitute the militant (and actually rather violent) edge of gentrification are very much the same as the young American-Israelis caught on tape by the much reviled Max Blumenthal a few years back: their fascism–even when they vote for Obama, if not actually more so then–is a function of the degeneration of advanced capitalism even more than of Zionism, which probably can be diagnosed in the long run as a symptom of a.c. and its handmaiden, imperialism.

    It’s rather important, IMHO, that this message be clear and understood in its place in the overall picture of American life at present. However it happens the Bloombergian myth of upward progress has to be unmasked for the sinister fraud it is. How peaceful can the unmasking process be?

    Comment by Susan Barton — September 2, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

  6. […] for hiding them). A White lynch mob murdered a free Black man named Francis McIntosh in 1836, burning him alive while he begged his tormentors to shoot him. Over two days in 1917, a mob of Whites in East […]

    Pingback by When it comes to knowing U.S. history, we should all be ‘woke’ – Project Change Montgomery — May 28, 2021 @ 5:56 pm

  7. […] her for hiding them). A White lynch mob murdered a free Black man named Francis McIntosh in 1836, burning him alive while he begged his tormentors to shoot him. Over two days in 1917, a mob of Whites in East St. […]

    Pingback by Woke Michael Gerson - Lawyers, Guns & Money — May 29, 2021 @ 5:30 pm

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