Commentary | Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy (PREE)

Furor over Montana judge presents opportunity to confront the origins of our racial divide

Common Cause president Bob Edgar called last week for Richard Cebull, chief federal district judge in Montana, to resign. A New York Times editorial has now weighed in with a similar call. If Judge Cebull does not resign, Common Cause has urged his impeachment. Although no member of Congress has yet filed a motion to impeach, one may do so; House Democrats have begun the process by calling for hearings.

Judge Cebull’s offense was sending a February 20 email message to six of his friends, containing a “joke” asserting that Barack Obama was born from the union of a drunken white woman and a dog. Obama is alleged to have asked his white mother why he was black, and was told he is lucky he doesn’t bark.

Judge Cebull told his friends that he was passing the joke on because he found it “a bit touching,” and he added: “I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine.” The judge now claims that his motive was not racism, but only dislike of the president. He has now apologized and sent a note to President Obama promising that it won’t happen again. His supporters now claim that this should be sufficient, and he should not resign.

Whatever the future holds for the judge himself, the best broader outcome from these events would be congressional hearings or other national discussion about the country’s historic and ongoing racial segregation. Unless we can come to a national understanding of the public policies that have produced a segregated society, there is little chance of developing consensus around policies to address it.

Montana’s experience is on point. At a time when, as we have recently reported, racial segregation persists, and may even be intensifying, such discussion is urgently needed. It is unlikely that the country can address the twin and mutually reinforcing crises of economic and racial inequality if it fails to examine how we arrived at this juncture.

Few blacks now interact with Judge Cebull and his circle in Helena, Mont., or in the state as a whole. This is not because blacks never settled in Montana but because, early in the twentieth century, African Americans in Montana and its neighboring states were forcibly removed by the formal and informal actions of public officials and an organized white community. After the Civil War, freed slaves dispersed throughout the United States in seek of work and to escape the violence of the postwar South. Their numbers were not nearly as large as the refugee flood of African Americans to northern cities in the “Great Migration” that began during the First World War, but in the late 19th century, many lived relatively peacefully in the East, Midwest, and West for several decades. It was not until the turn of the last century that African Americans were systematically expelled from many predominantly white communities, Montana’s included, and banned by public policy from integrating into the broader society.

In his book Sundown Towns, James Loewen notes that in 1890, only two counties in Montana had fewer than 10 black residents; by 1930, 41 of the state’s 56 counties had fewer than 10 blacks. In 1890, there were no Montana counties without a single black resident; by 1930, 11 counties had been completely cleared of African Americans. Helena’s black population peaked at 420 (3.4 percent) in 1910. It was down to 131 by 1930 and only 45 blacks remained in the city by 1970. Today, the 113 African Americans in Helena (barely a third of their 1910 peak) comprise only 0.4 percent of the city’s population.

Not only did African Americans have a presence in Helena in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; there was an established middle class community, alongside those who came to Montana to seek work as laborers or on the railroads and in the mines. In the 1890s, the police officer assigned to patrol one of Helena’s wealthiest white neighborhoods was black. Helena had black newspapers, black-owned businesses, and a black literary society founded in 1906 that drew more than 100 attendees to its weekly meetings to hear presentations by local black poets, playwrights, and essayists. Helena’s African Methodist Episcopal Church was important enough to host the western regional AME church conference in 1894.

All this changed during the next several decades. At the national level, the election of the first post-Civil War southern Democrat as president (Woodrow Wilson) resulted in a policy to remove or demote blacks in the federal civil service, prohibiting them from ever being in positions where they might supervise white workers. And throughout the Midwest and West, blacks were expelled from towns, often by violent white mobs that were tolerated or encouraged by public officials.

In Helena, the county prosecuting attorney expressed the new attitude of public authorities when he said, in a 1906 jury summation in the murder trial of a black defendant, “It is time that the respectable white people of this community rise in their might and assert their rights.” Although the defendant was found not guilty by reason of self-defense (the victim was also black – otherwise, the verdict might have been otherwise), Helena’s newspaper called the prosecutor’s summation “eloquent.” Three years later, the Montana legislature passed a law that for the first time banned marriages between blacks and whites in the state.

In the early 20th century, many towns nationwide adopted policies forbidding blacks from residence or even from staying overnight. Although rarely formalized in ordinances, the policies were enforced by police and by organized mob violence. Some towns rang bells at sundown to warn blacks to leave. Others posted signs at the town boundaries warning blacks not to remain after dark. Such signs no longer exist, but Professor Loewen has spent years documenting their existence. In states such as Wisconsin and Illinois, towns maintaining such policies numbered in the hundreds.

Policies of black expulsion existed in Montana and in its surrounding states. Professor Loewen has uncovered a 1915 newspaper article from the Glendive  Independent, headlined “Color Line Is Drawn In Glendive,” noting that the town’s policy was that “the sun is never allowed to set on any niggers in Glendive,” and boasting that the town’s black population was now a “minus quantity.” The town of Roundup posted a sign banning blacks from remaining overnight. In Miles City, a once substantial black community “departed” in about 1917 or 1918 after a violent confrontation. Today, Miles City has only 25 African American residents, 0.3 percent of the city’s population. In 1910, 81 African Americans comprised 2 percent of Miles City residents.

As blacks were driven from towns in Montana and elsewhere, a series of federal, state, and local policies reinforced their concentration in urban ghettos. Federal mortgage insurance policies effectively banned African Americans from suburbs. Towns around the country adopted exclusionary zoning laws (prohibiting higher density, and less costly housing) rather than explicitly racial bans, with similar effect. Blacks, excluded by public policy from the private housing market, were concentrated in public housing projects, sited purposefully in a few dense inner-city neighborhoods. The public has largely forgotten this history of segregation that has bequeathed us, in the words of a 1968 presidential commission, “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The subject of frequent racial attacks and slurs, President Obama is not well positioned to force the country to confront this history. Towards the end of his term, President Clinton attempted to start a national conversation on race, but stirred little interest.

Montana’s newspapers have done well to expose Judge Cebull’s email message and the reaction to it. But they have not seized the opportunity to explore how Montana’s experience is in many ways a microcosm of the nation’s racial past. The publicly and socially sanctioned elimination of what was once a vibrant African American community in Montana is a reminder that segregation is not an accident—public policy actions of the past have shaped our current social landscape.