Lessons From the Fake News Pandemic of 1942

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/lessons-from-the-fake-news-pandemic-of-1942-214898

Seventy-five years ago, tens of thousands of white Southerners responded with agitated concern when they learned both by word of mouth and in some regional newspapers that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was traveling widely throughout the former Confederate states, quietly organizing black women into secret “Eleanor Clubs.” The club motto, “A white woman in the kitchen by 1943,” portended a dangerous inversion of the region’s longstanding racial patterns. It was already widely believed in the South that black men had been brazenly stockpiling ice picks, pistols, rifles and explosives in anticipation of a larger race riot. With millions of white men now serving in the armed forces and stationed away from their families, the story went, white communities were vulnerable to an impending assault. When that day came, black women—many of whom worked in domestic service—intended to force their white employers to cook and clean for them. “Eleanor Clubs are stirring up trouble that never should have arisen,” a white North Carolinian observed with worry. “Clubs are making the Negroes discontented, making them question their status.” Of course, not a word of this was true. But that didn’t make these race rumors less vivid in the minds of many ordinary white Southerners. Long before the advent of conservative radio, cable news and the internet—and two generations before an especially dim bulb shot up Comet Pizza in Northwest D.C., certain he would find Hillary Clinton’s and John Podesta’s child sex slaves chained up in the basement—“fake news” pervaded the American South. We know this largely because of the work of Howard Odum, a leading sociologist who in 1942 widely canvassed the region to collect and analyze these rumors.It wasn’t the first time that Americans consumed and spread conspiratorial rumors, but it was the first time that such rumors travelled so widely and targeted a prominent member of the first family. And it’s also the historical example that echoes today’s disinformation pandemic most closely. In 1942, amid wartime changes that upended traditional racial and gender hierarchies, many ordinary white Southerners proved ready to accept explanations for these changes that, from an objective standpoint, were preposterous. Today, many white Americans who are vexed by demographic and cultural shifts—particularly those at the far right of the political spectrum—seem equally susceptible to mistruths.The example of 1942 also carries a warning. Many regions of the country were rife with rumor and “fake news” during the war years, but the South—with its weak political, civil society and educational institutions—was particularly susceptible to disinformation. Only in the South did such rumors so thoroughly permeate the culture; only there did they infiltrate mainstream political discourse. Looking back from a distance, most Americans today would probably agree that the peculiar condition of the South in 1942 is not one that we wish to replicate seventy-five years later. But is our civil society today strong enough to resist? ***Like many other Southerners, Howard Odum heard the rumors. A highly respected professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Odum saw the region come alive during World War II with frenzied speculation about an impending race revolution. And so in 1942 he enlisted dozens of fellow scholars throughout Dixie to help him collect and catalog wartime rumors. The results of this study, published the following year in a volume entitled Race and Rumors of Race, revealed a region beset by economic, social and demographic change. From the black belt counties of Alabama and Mississippi to the comparatively moderate cities of North Carolina and Virginia, the same themes surfaced. Sex: “When white men go to the Army,” a South Carolinian relayed, “the Negro men will have the white women.” In Louisiana, two black men were purportedly overheard plotting to find white concubines. In Alabama, a white man heard the black caddie at his country club preparing to “have a really good time with the white women.” Black men in South Carolina allegedly taunted white soldiers, informing them that they would “take care of all the white girls while you are gone.” In Louisiana, “a Negro soldier asked a white girl to a dance,” and a “free-for-all” ensued. In Virginia, a black youngster asked a white dime store clerk out; and in Alabama, black men sent sexually menacing letters to students at an all-girls academy. It was happening everywhere—or so people professed to believe.Revolution: Black men were allegedly “buying up ice picks to attack the whites,” a man from Georgia told one of Odum’s associates. In Virginia, “There was also a rumor that Negroes were going to take over the entire area during a blackout in September”—a rumor nearly identical to one that pervaded North Carolina. “There are going to be a great many Negro uprisings in southern cities,” warned a South Carolinian. In Louisiana, white informants worried that their black neighbors were preparing to “take over government after the war through an organized Negro revolution.” They were hoarding “different types of armaments to get it by force in case they don’t get it by peaceful ways.”And, of course, there were the Eleanor Roosevelt Clubs, known also as the Royal House of Eleanor, the Sisters of Eleanor or the Eleanor Angels Club: “My cousin told me that the sheriff went down there and told those ‘niggers’ that they’d better get back to work, or else,” a white Mississippian reported, in reference to black domestic servants who had allegedly quit their posts. An informant complained that since the Army paid black women $15 per week to cook for the soldiers, none would consent to work for lower wages elsewhere. “All of the colored maids at a hotel joined Eleanor Clubs and walked out in a body one day because their pay and hours did not suit,” claimed a North Carolina man. In Alabama, members of the Eleanor clubs supposedly donned wide-brimmed hats with feather adornments. There were reports of maids leaving their posts without warning to attend meetings. They insisted on being called “Miss” and “Mrs.,” rather than by their first names, and began entering their employers’ homes through the front door, rather than through the back service entrance.No one Odum’s associates spoke with doubted that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was behind this wide-ranging domestic insurrection. “Wherever she has spoken the Negroes always act like they are white folks,” complained one white Southerner. Another affirmed that “no individual in my lifetime has created as much trouble. She preaches and practices social equality.” In Nashville, a rumor spread widely that when Mrs. Roosevelt—in town for a meeting of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare—had checked into a hotel room, she insisted that “a great Negro singer should have the suite next to her.” In Alabama, she allegedly declined attendance at a banquet organized by the state’s most respectable white families, preferring to attend another function on the arm of a “big black Negro.” Of course, none of this was true. But the rumors circulated anyway, primarily by word of mouth, though more than a few newspapers—like the Greenwood Index-Journal, which asserted that Eleanor Clubs “do exist. … They’re a Negro grassroots development … the embryos of unions of Negro workers”—also did their part in stoking the fires of conspiracy theory.Eventually, the White House asked the FBI to launch a formal investigation into the rumors. Though FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a conservative opponent of black civil rights, held the first lady in low regard, after extensive field work, his agents concluded that Eleanor Clubs were a work of pure fiction—an outgrowth of the difficulty many white women faced in hiring and retaining black domestic help during the war. Some newspapers flatly rejected the FBI’s findings, but eventually, the rumors died off. Though the South in the following decade would still prove highly receptive to race-based conspiracy theories. ***The social psychologists Gordon W. Allport and Leo Postman once wrote that “rumor is most frenzied when the public is expecting a momentous event to occur.” That theory certainly applied to the South in 1942. America’s entry into World War II upended life throughout the former Confederacy. As millions of black men joined the armed forces (a point that Odum’s subjects tended to elide when they raved about an impending race revolution) or took jobs in the many war manufacturing plants that the federal government placed in the Southern states, they earned cash wages and thereby freed themselves from the economic dependency of sharecropping and tenant farming—two systems that were often cashless. Black women, too, enjoyed new opportunities. Industrial employment almost doubled in Dixie, and wages rose by roughly 40 percent. It became possible, in theory, that many black Southerners might actually be able to pay their poll taxes and afford consumer luxuries previously unavailable to them. More than hard economics was at play. As war manufacturing centers swelled with workers of all races—in greater Mobile, Alabama, the population almost doubled during the war—demographic upheaval upset longstanding stasis and familiarity. Women, both married and single, found new autonomy in a world where many men were on Army bases or shipped abroad. Neighborhood boundaries were fluid. People were transient.And with these changes, black Americans—particularly those in uniform—began demanding greater social and political equality. As the historian Robin D. G. Kelley famously chronicled, the dynamic played itself out in a million everyday encounters, ranging from seemingly isolated displays of sullenness or resistance on buses and trains, to outright acts of insurrection by black servicemen demanding to be served in places of public accommodation.And so the rumors took off—fun-house mirror delusions of real social changes that were taking place in the South and threatening the region’s long-held status quo. The rumors were false, but they anxieties that they betrayed were very real, and rooted in everyday experience.Though racial and economic tension were the primary drivers of rumor, there were other dynamics also at play. In his book, Race and Rumors of Race, Howard Odum reproached the region’s media outlets for their complicity in spreading, or in other cases failing to refute, rumors that any sensible person knew to be untrue and potentially dangerous. A case in point: the Delta Democrat-Times, a Mississippi newspaper that affirmed without a shred of evidence that there was “conclusive evidence that [Eleanor Clubs] exist.” But it took more than a broad distribution channel of small-town newspapers to make people truly believe these preposterous reports.Indeed, the South in 1942 was particularly vulnerable to rumor and fake news. The region’s public school system was a creaky and under-funded affair. Though one-third of America’s school-aged children lived in the former Confederate states, the South accounted for less than 20 percent of national income. Consequently, expenditures-per-pupil ranged from one-third of the national average in Mississippi, to between 50 percent and 60 percent in Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina. Throughout the region, only 10 percent of children who entered first grade would go on to graduate from high school. In short, an under-educated populace was an easy mark for disinformation campaigns.The South’s political system was also broken, particularly in Deep South states where poll taxes effectively disenfranchised the majority of black and white adults. On average, only 20 percent of voting-age residents participated in elections, a dynamic that left many ordinary people disconnected from local, state and federal institutions. Robbed of political agency, many Southerners accepted outlandish explanations of social and economic change.The South was also deeply insular. “The Mississipian has always lived in a self-contained world,” a Southern scholar observed a decade later. “When he traveled, he went to Memphis (where he met other Missisppians in the lobby of the Gayso hotel). … When he read, it was his own local newspapers, edited by Mississippians. … These people had no idea that there was a world beyond themselves.” This assessment was extreme, but it was true that in the 1940s—and well into the 1950s—Southern broadcasters regularly blacked out national radio (and later, television) news casts that challenged prevailing ideas about race relations or workers’ rights. Though there were some exceptions—notably, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Nashville Tennessean, the Raleigh News and Observer and the Atlanta Constitution—Southern newspapers tended to reinforce the political culture of Jim Crow. ***The parallels between 1942 and today stand out. In both cases, a country undergoing profound demographic and economic change has proven hospitable to many of the same general types of rumors. In 1942, black men allegedly plotted a violent (and sexually violent) coup against white Americans. In more recent times, a Kenyan-born Muslim managed to capture the presidency, and encouraged violent Mexican criminals to vote illegally. Eleanor Roosevelt, a powerful first lady who did in fact champion black civil rights, was allegedly complicit in prompting a race war. Hillary Clinton, a powerful former first lady and would-be president, allegedly trafficked young girls through the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. In both eras, for many white Americans—particularly many white men experiencing a decline in economic and political power—these rumors were and are a way to protest a world in which women and people of color demanded greater privilege.The internet is a faster and wider distribution channel than anything that was remotely imaginable in 1942. Once heralded as a powerful agent of democratization, in more recent months, it has provided a powerful platform for purveyors of rumors, hate speech and fake news. But an empirical study that appeared recently in the Columbia Journalism Review suggests that the internet has not infected Americans equally or indiscriminately with fake news. Republicans tend to be easier marks for conspiracy-laden sites like Breitbart News (which recently claimed, without a shred of evidence, that former President Obama tapped then-candidate Donald Trump’s phone lines) and Infowars (which played a prominent role in promulgating Pizzagate); conversely, Democrats tend to absorb both left-leaning opinion outlets and mainstream outlets that adhere to standard fact-checking and editorial quality standards. Just as a particular subset of Americans proved unusually receptive to fake news and conspiracy in the 1940s, it may be time to acknowledge that a particular subset of Americans, today, has grown unhinged from reality. The question is: Are America’s national institutions today strong enough to form a bulwark against the disinformation? Will independent news outlets drown out the cacophony of fake news sites and presidential falsehoods? Will rates of electoral participation remain high, or will they drop due to voter disenfranchisement and resignation? Will public schools produce a generation of Americans armed with powers of discernment? If it wasn’t already, Pizzagate should be a wakeup call. To understand just how divorced a populace can become from the truth, one need look no further back than seventy-five years.

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