Racist disaster ‘relief’ did not begin with Katrina

From the February 2007 issue of Socialism and Liberation magazine.

Over 75 years prior to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the greater Gulf region of the United States was ravaged by among the most destructive floods in continental history. In a matter of days, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 inundated an area of 27,000 square miles with over 30 feet of water.

Causing the equivalent of billions of today’s dollars in property damage, the floods left nearly 1 million residents


The devastation of the 1927 flood was matched by the racist repression that followed.

homeless and killed over 1,000, according to historian John Barry’s account, “Rising Tide.” As in all natural disasters, poor and working-class people were the most vulnerable to the flooding and suffered the most as a result.

And, like in the case of Katrina, natural forces were the immediate cause of the disaster, but the most significant tragedies were the result of the most unnatural of forces—racism and capitalism.

Black labor and the South

The immense flood waters of 1927 surged within a context of African American working-class struggles. While most of the country’s elite were still enjoying the historic profits of the “roaring” 1920s, much of the South’s wealthy began to suffer from the economic recession that would soon spiral into the Great Depression. Racism was at its institutionalized height during this period, highlighted by Jim Crow segregation laws and the increased prevalence of paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.

In response to such repression, rebellions and labor strikes occurred throughout the South and the rest of the country. Plantations were losing cheap African American labor to northern factories and farms in Mexico as thousands of Black families migrated out of the region.

There was a tremendous dependence on exploited Black labor. For example, Pennsylvania State University African American Studies professor Robyn Spencer notes that African Americans made up 95 percent of the workforce in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta region. Capitalist overproduction further reduced plantation productivity and profitability, driving crop prices to all-time lows.

In order to prevent further financial losses, many plantation owners and their political supporters used brutally violent means to coerce and intimidate the African American labor force to remain working in the area. Others, while still infected with the prevailing racism of the time, took a more liberal road of appealing for the appearance of racial equality.

Nonetheless, lynchings and beatings that had been frequent following the post-Civil War Reconstruction period now recurred, reinforcing the feudal-like relationship between white farm owners and Black sharecroppers. The rich landowners of the region took advantage of the flood as an opportunity to reassert control, using it as a pretext for a massive assault on the Black community. It is within this racist, exploitative framework that the flood’s relief efforts were conducted.

Mississippi River levees

In the fall of 1926, heavy rains fell throughout the country. Water levels surged in many of the tributaries leading to the Mississippi River. By January of 1927, Mississippi River levees far to the north in Cairo, Illinois, were on the verge of breaching, sending swells of water downstream towards the Delta.

As the rains continued throughout the spring of 1927, greatly increasing the risk of widespread flooding, thousands of whites fled their homes and moved north. African Americans, however, were forced into work gangs at gunpoint to repair the levees and shore them up with sandbags. Resident Mildred Commodore remembers, “They started going through Greenville [Mississippi] and taking all the Black men … even kids out of schools, to go and protect the levee and almost man for man or boy for boy, the whites had guns on and the others had nothing but picks and shovels.” (Recounted as part of the PBS documentary “Fatal Flood”)

Used as virtual human sandbags, tens of thousands of African Americans were rounded up and forcibly put to work. On April 16, the first levee broke in Cairo, Illinois, flooding 175,000 square miles with over 3 million cubic feet of water.

Five days later in Greenville, Mississippi, the levee at Mount Landings was breached by flood waters. Threatening to open fire if any of the men prematurely left their posts, the National Guard forced thousands of African Americans to continue working on the Mount Landings levee until it finally collapsed.

Running for their lives, hundreds of African Americans were swept away by the force of the river, which was so strong that the nearby “Arkansas River began flowing backward,” historian Pete Daniel described in “Fatal Flood.”

The Mount Landings breach alone flooded an area of 75 square miles with water reaching over 10 feet to the rooftops of most homes. Hundreds of thousands of the region’s most impoverished residents were left homeless, stranded on rooftops and patches of land with little or no food, shelter or medical attention.

On April 29, following the Mount Landings breach, politicians and businessmen from New Orleans decided to detonate levees in surrounding communities to redirect flood waters away from the main downtown area. White upper-class citizens came in droves to watch the demolition as if it was a fireworks show.

Historian Barry described the spectacle: “The fine families, as if on a picnic, traveled down to see the great explosion.” (Rising Tide, 256) The detonation itself was anti-climatic, taking over a week to complete, but tens of thousands who once lived in the working-class and African American communities of St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemine Parish were now refugees. These very same sections of New Orleans were decimated during Hurricane Katrina.

Concentration camps disguised as ‘relief’

As evacuation efforts began, the plantation owners discussed their fear of losing their African American labor force. If they were to leave now, the owners reasoned, Black sharecroppers would never return to the Delta region.

Based on this fear, only whites were allowed to evacuate flooded areas. African Americans were to be rounded up and detained at gunpoint. The National Guard was called in to protect what the landowners deemed their “private property”—the sharecroppers. In Greenville, Miss. alone, 10,000 African American refugees were placed on a narrow strip of land slightly above water levels. With a minimal food supply and contaminated water, starvation and disease soon set in.

As humanitarian relief finally reached these concentration camps, the national Red Cross was put in charge of all relief efforts. African Americans were forced to wear tags reading “laborer,” and had to work for their provisions. White refugees, by contrast, were unconditionally provided rations and supplies. (Spencer, 1994) As one resident recounted, “You don’t go nowhere unless you got permission to go. You had to have a tag on you. And it was just … it was really slavery.” (PBS, “Fatal Flood”)

The National Guard secured the camps and prevented African Americans from leaving, treating them essentially as prisoners. Soldiers used their positions of authority to further abuse the African American prisoners by raping, robbing and murdering many of the detainees.

The bureaucrats who oversaw the flood relief committees, most notably the relief leader and then-presidential hopeful Herbert Hoover, suppressed numerous reports detailing the Guard’s rampant abuse. By censoring these politically damaging reports, Hoover and others managed to escape public scrutiny while allowing those guilty to go unpunished. To this day, those victimized by such state-sponsored repression and their families have yet to be compensated.

An open wound

The legacy of racism and capitalist exploitation that was exposed during the Great Mississippi Flood remains an open wound today, especially after the near replay of many of the aspects of the disaster with Hurricane Katrina.

During the flood of 1927, the National Guard was used to prevent the loss of the plantation’s “property,” African American laborers. During the Katrina relief efforts, the National Guard and other armed individuals sought to protect their private property rather than assist those in need.

Many residents attempting to take abandoned vehicles or supplies to survive were met with armed resistance and deemed “looters.” Seeking refuge, poor residents of New Orleans and elsewhere were turned away by neighboring counties at gunpoint.

To this day, hundreds of thousands of Katrina refugees have yet to return to their homes, remaining displaced across the country. Rents for undamaged houses and apartments have tripled, while the U.S government continually appeals court decisions mandating the continuance of housing stipends to those displaced.

Yet amid this misery, real-estate investors and local businessmen openly plot a profitable course towards gentrified reconstruction.

Both disasters provoked struggles, however. After continued forced recruitment in Greenville, Mississippi, African American leaders refused to call for more workers. And in July 1927, after Greenville African American resident James Gooden was shot by a white cop for refusing to work two straight shifts, the Black community took up arms to defend their community.

In New Orleans today, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and other organizations are organizing an international tribunal in New Orleans on the anniversary of the hurricane “not only to hold the U.S. government accountable for these crimes,” the group’s website states, “but also to win restitution and reparations for the survivors of their numerous human-rights violations.”

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