When The Levy Breaks

They want me to work on the levee. I had to leave my home...”

Lonnie Johnson, Broken Levee Blues. 1928

 

 

The Blues as musical art form can tell stories from the historical record[1]. This account chronicles political change brought on by natural disaster and sung about in the Blues.

In 1971, I heard Led Zeppelin perform "When the Levee Breaks". I was never much of a Zeppelin fan. To my ears, the singer sounded like a scalded cat and the guitarist sounded like he had more to prove than to celebrate. Oh well, there is no arguing musical tastes. The song was not a Zeppelin original. It was written by the husband and wife team of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929. It was inspired by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which changed voting patterns in America.

It would not have been the first time that a natural disaster had changed the political direction of a group or even a country[2]. The Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 in Japan led to a military takeover of Japanese government. That new government attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 made Herbert Hoover president and turned black Republicans into Democrats.

Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president and the issuer of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which was the executive order that declared slaves to be free. The proclamation was followed by the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 which entirely abolished slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude. At that time the Republican Party was the party of Federalism and proactive government, as opposed to the Democratic Party of the time, which emphasized States Rights, laissez faire attitudes towards business practices, and hands-off government. The proclamation established the Republican Party as the major party favored by African Americans. This favored status would last for 64 years .

The political about-face that began in 1927 had three major players: Robert Moton, Herbert Hoover and the Mississippi River.

At the time, Moton was considered the most powerful black person in America. Moton was a man of conservative views and methods. He believed the way to increase the status of American blacks was through honorable and exemplary behavior, not by radical action. In today's terms, Moton would be considered philosophically akin to the comedian Bill Cosby or the Economist Thomas Sowell.

In 1921, Herbert Hoover was appointed U.S. Secretary of Commerce. His management of several refugee crises in Europe during World War I had earned him great fame in America as a great humanitarian. He was one of the most admired people in the U.S. He was elected president in 1928 and was subsequently burdened with the Great Depression.

The flood itself was the biggest player. In 1926 rainfall in the central basin of the Mississippi was excessive and much of it went into the river. By Christmas of 1926, tributaries of the Mississippi were swollen to capacity. In the summer of 1927, the river broke 145 levees, flooded 27,000 square miles, destroyed 130,000 homes, drove over 700,000 people from their homes and killed 246. It was 60 miles wide in some places.

Relief activity was managed and controlled by Hoover, drawing on his WW I experience. 154 refugee camps were built and maintained by the Red Cross in the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Most refugees were tenant farmers and about three quarters were black. Black laborers were conscripted from those camps to work on flood control. Such conscriptions were often made at the point of National Guardsmen's guns. Most conscripts were not paid. News outlets, both of white and black ownership began to make allegations of mistreatment of black laborers. At least one black man was killed when he refused conscription. As the National Guard was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster, the conscriptions were justified in terms of public and national defense.

Public scrutiny of these issues caused Hoover to fear scandal, which could harm his presidential ambitions. At the urging of friends, he enlisted Robert Moton and formed the Colored Advisory Commission which was headed by Moton and staffed by blacks. The Commission and Moton found deplorable conditions and much abuse. The Red Cross, National Guard and other groups who were participating in the relief effort were seen as offenders. Hoover requested that the report of the Commission's findings not be made public. In exchange, he hinted that there would be reparations should he be elected president and implied that he would enable black participation in his government. Neither happened.

Eventually the findings were made public. Moton switched to the Democratic party by 1932. He advised other Blacks to do the same and they did. Dozens of Blues songs were written about the Flood. Overtly political statements in such songs were avoided. Black musicians feared lynching for writing or singing songs unfavorable to a white person[3].

By the 1930's the Republican Party had become the party of hands-off, laissez faire, and states rights. The Democratic Party, with the exception of the southern wing had become the party of pro-active government and Federalism. African Americans in great numbers and great percentages turned from the party of Lincoln to the party of Franklin Roosevelt.

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 had a sweeping effect, perhaps not so much as the Kantō earthquake, but it was the worst natural disaster in the history of our country. Since then, flood control on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers has become an institution. As an example, the Pick-Sloan Act of 1944[4] – conceived for flood control and energy production – has had long-lasting political and social effects.

No pun intended, but 1927 was a watershed for the Republican party. Other watersheds have occurred. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 might be considered one for the Democratic party, but that topic is worthy of a separate article.

 

Attribution – This is one of the most well-documented issues available by Internet research. There is a vast wealth of information on the flood. Unlike sources for my previous article on Smedley Butler, cross-checking of various sources did not reveal many contradictions.

 

Footnotes

[1]The Blues as history - much of American history is contained in the Blues and other musical folk art. We owe much to the work of Alan Lomax, John H. Hammond and his son John P. Hammond. Otis Taylor has made many records of modern-day blues music which have historical contexts.

 

[2] Some believe that drought was a contributing factor of the Syrian and Sudanese Civil Wars (as well as others). According to a Washington Post article published in 2013, 1.5 million Syrians were displaced by a droughts between 2006 and 2011 and the subsequent pressures led to violence.

 

[3] Lynching in America – by 1930, lynchings had passed their peak but were still common. It would be 1946 before anyone was prosecuted by the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department for a lynching. The killing of Michael Donald in Mobile Alabama in 1981 is considered to be the last lynching in America. At one time, it was common to take photos of lynchings, which would include both the victims and perpetrators. Such photos were then embossed onto postcards for distribution. In 1908, the U.S. Postal Service banned the distribution of such postcards. Many images of such photos and cards are available for viewing.

 

[4] See my article – “The Wind From The Right”. There, I write about the Pick–Sloan Missouri Basin Program authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944 and how it effected people and politics.

 

Next - Grace And The Forgotten Man - One observation on race.