THE WALLS OF HOPE
Few American presidents have had so little idea of their family’s past as William Jefferson Clinton. On his father’s side—well, the many questions that surround his paternity we must defer until later. On his mother’s side, however, he had reasonable cause to believe he was a sixth-generation southerner, able to trace his Cassady forebears back through Alabama to South Carolina in the early nineteenth century. Then, in the late nineteenth century, he was told, a certain James Monroe Cassady left Alabama with his wife, Sarah Lou, and his Russell parents-in-law, in a traditional covered wagon. They migrated across the Mississippi River, moving to an area known as the New Hope Community and settling beside Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church in Bodcaw, Nevada County, Arkansas, a group of extended families numbering perhaps a hundred souls, 110 miles southwest of Little Rock, the state capital. There, in 1886, they built a wooden house, became Arkansans, and began cotton farming.
Whatever had been the motive for the Cassadys’ move, however, it did not bring prosperity for the family. Arkansas was, at the end of the nineteenth century, a backward, landlocked state, the twenty-fifth in the Union, some 55,000 square miles in size, bordering the Mississippi on its eastern side and abutting Indian territory on its western frontier. In between, spread out not only across its lowland, delta landscape but up high into its hinterlands, which stretched across the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains to the northwest, the state boasted almost one million people, almost no industry, the worst schools in the nation, and widespread poverty among whites as well as blacks—who, in the wake of slavery and the Civil War, made up more than a fifth of its population.
James Eldridge Cassidy
The Cassady family seemed to go in for presidential names—though none can seriously have imagined that one of their descendants would actually become a U.S. president. William Jefferson Clinton’s great-great-grandfather had been baptized with the names George Washington Cassady—though why James Monroe, his eldest son, left Alabama, several years after getting married in 1880, nobody knows. It was on the small cotton farm in Bodcaw, Arkansas, however, that James Monroe’s third son, James Eldridge Cassady—William Jefferson Clinton’s grandfather—was born on August 19, 1898, the youngest of their five children.
James Eldridge Cassady’s childhood was marred by poverty and death. He was orphaned at eight, when his father died of pneumonia on a train trip to the old family home in Alabama. The family farm was sold two years later, in 1906, and, moving with his mother to her widower brother’s home, he was thereafter raised by his uncle Bill Russell, alongside Bill’s ten children, on whose cotton farm he was expected to work once he left school. This he did at age thirteen, after fifth grade.
Had cotton been financially profitable or had they been able to obtain credit to switch to other forms of farming, the life of small Arkansas sharecroppers might have held out the prospect of economic progress after the ruinous years of civil war. However, without access to banking credit, small farmers in Arkansas had come to rely on cotton as their sole cash crop in order to survive—and the decline in the price of cotton in the latter part of the nineteenth century had resulted in white penury on a gigantic scale. “The debt-ridden, one-crop economy consigned the majority of Arkansans to subsistence on an annual income well below what would have been reckoned the poverty level in the growing American cities,” one historian summarized.
It was in rural poverty in Bodcaw, then, that young James Eldridge Cassady worked as a half orphan—and at age twenty-three, having changed the spelling of his name to Cassidy, he got married on January 3, 1922, to Valerie Edith Grisham, the nineteen-year-old proverbial girl next door, whose family was also “eking out a living raising cotton” on her family’s “hardscrabble farm.”
Opting for Change
“Edie” Grisham was a short, handsome, feisty girl who was somewhat better schooled than Eldridge, having reached eleventh grade. The following year, on June 6, 1923, Edie gave birth to a child, indeed their only child, a daughter whom they named Virginia—Virginia Dell Cassidy.
Poverty in rural Arkansas made for a difficult domestic life. Virginia later characterized her mother as a woman subject to uncontrollable rage—an anger that welled from somewhere deep inside her. Edie had been dealt, Virginia reflected, a cruel hand: born in south Arkansas in rural poverty, growing up on the land, and marrying on the land. In those days, Edie had no option—a person’s life mirrored the relentless pattern of nature and the seasons.
With Virginia’s birth, Edie did, however, opt for change. She insisted at the end of 1923 that she, her husband, and the infant leave the land and move twelve miles away, to the local market town of Hope.
Hope had a population thirty times larger than Bodcaw, having expanded around a major cotton-market station on the Cairo & Fulton Railroad, effectively displacing the old Hempstead County town of Washington. Her childhood, Virginia later recalled, was punctuated with the whistles and bells of heavy locomotives, since her home was always by a railroad track. The segregated town’s main roads had only recently been paved for whites, in 1920, and boasted several expensive residences on “Cotton Row”—but the Cassidys were far from wealthy. They were “country poor,” as the town historian Mary Nell Turner put it, and lucky to find employment at the bottom of the proverbial white ladder.
One town resident later recalled that it was “a rough, busy, dirty, smelly town—in the damp, still air of evening every privy contributed its quota of perfume—but you couldn’t help but love it.” Eldridge eventually found work in the Ivory Handle Company factory—which would ruin his health, thanks to its boiling furnaces, dyes, and tanning chemicals. It did, however, permit him in time to purchase his own four-room house on Foster Street, on a mortgage.
Edith, meanwhile, decided to carve her own career and proceeded to take a correspondence course in nursing, gaining a certificate as an auxiliary, or private-duty, nurse without having to attend college. It was just as well. In the wake of the Great Crash, a long drought, and the worsening economy, as Virginia recalled, money would become “extremely tight”—so tight that when Eldridge lost his job, he was unable to keep up the payments on his mortgage. The Great Depression had arrived.
The Depression Strikes
The Depression hit Arkansas as hard as or harder than any other state in the Union, largely because of its overdependence on cotton. “Cotton remained king for the first half of the twentieth century,” the Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper editor–turned–historian Harry Ashmore related—and the cost, in the 1920s and ’30s, was ruin. After a brief rise in the price of cotton during World War I, the price began to slide until it fell lower than the cost of production: down to 16 cents per pound in 1928, even before the Great Crash—and to a mere 4 cents four years after that.
In a state where, in 1930, 63 percent of Arkansas farmers worked someone else’s land, the quasi-feudal system of sharecropping spelled, in the Depression years, disaster and starvation. Attempts to unionize tenant farmers proved a failure, and cooperative farming also failed, since few but a handful of farmers, in the traditionally individualistic land of “hillbillies,” were interested in cooperating. Only God could provide.
The Depression, in other words, hit Arkansas like a long affliction, vitiating any hopes that the state would ever raise itself from its reputation as one of the most backward, uneducated, and fraudulent in America. “The state government remained insular and corrupt,” wrote Ben Johnson in his history of modern Arkansas, while the rapidly declining market price of cotton dragged down a region that had set its face against agricultural diversification and lacked sufficient credit—state or private—to invest in alternative crops. As Johnson pointed out, the average Arkansas cotton farmer owned only $137 in equipment in 1929, but the average rice grower required almost twenty times as much. Without federal, state, or commercial programs, cotton sharecroppers in the state found themselves simply too poor to make the switch. They had already racked up a 150 percent rise in indebtedness in the 1920s, following World War I—and they could not withstand the triple onslaught of flooding (which in 1927 affected more than 13 percent of arable land), a crippling drought in 1930, and the financial catastrophe resulting from the collapse of the Wall Street stock market and banking system the year before. With four out of every five of the state’s residents living and working on farms and plantations—compared with only 20 percent working on the land in America as a whole—Arkansas was bound to suffer in the Depression, and it did, grievously.
No politician came forward on the state scene who was capable of mitigating the effects of the meteorological and financial drought. Fraud, intimidation, localism, and racism had long characterized Arkansas politics, leaving the state prostrate in the face of the economic debacle. The state’s roads were the worst in the country, much highway spending having gone into the pockets of officials rather than into paving. Public education was probably the poorest in the United States, with schoolteachers licensed through a feeble county examination that required only four years of high school. The public debt, meanwhile, was the highest in the country. In a state of dirt roads, “dirt poor” became a reality, not a metaphor.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 white and black families—in a state of less than 2 million inhabitants—soon required Red Cross relief. “Barefoot and without decent clothes, no meal, no flour in the bin, ragged children crying from hunger . . . nothing but hunger and misery,” one aid worker described rural Arkansas as the Depression took hold. Strikes and protests were beaten down with a ruthlessness that shocked the nation. Attempts by federal officials, journalists, or outsiders to assess the economic, educational, social, and racial problems of Arkansas were met by vigilante violence that would have done justice to a banana republic—erstwhile slavery having been transformed into a peonage system that seemed little better. Visiting journalists described Arkansas, as the state historian Ben Johnson commented, “as a benighted land almost without parallel in the world.”
Coming in succession to a series of floods, drought, and bankruptcies, these events appeared to many to be a biblical prophecy being fulfilled. Certainly no politician ever came forward to speak for the dispossessed or against cruelty toward and intimidation of blacks. For decades fear had underlain the psyche of a male white population too uneducated to ask questions before resorting to shooting, murder, and lynching—even live “roasting.” “The Ku Klux Klan had a strong following throughout the state,” wrote the historian of black civil rights in the period after World War I, Mark Schneider. “By 1924 it felt strong enough to contest the governorship in the Democratic primary”—making Arkansas a “dangerous place for African Americans,” one in which lynchings demonstrated “the impunity with which racist terrorists acted in Arkansas.” Will Turner, accused of attacking a white woman, had been seized from a sheriff’s posse, hung, and burned before a crowd of thousands in 1921 in Helena. The Arkansas Survey, one of the state’s few black newspapers, noted in an editorial that Helena was “a seething cauldron of hate, when the least indiscretion meant death.” Barely a week later Robert Hicks was hung by a public highway near Lake Village for simply sending a note to a white woman. In Little Rock the next year, a suspected armed robber was openly lynched in front of the Como Hotel in the downtown center. “No official action against the lynchers is expected,” The New York Times commented. Although the Klan’s power had declined thereafter, the tinderbox of race relations had remained easy to strike. When John Carter, a black, was suspected by a mob of raping two white women, in 1927, he was riddled with bullets and his body then towed around the black neighborhoods of the capital and finally set on fire on a pyre constructed of wooden pews ripped out of a black church—with no one indicted by the subsequent grand jury.
A century before, Arkansas had proudly advertised itself as an “asylum for the emigrant”; indeed, the “last asylum,” as one group of proponents in Little Rock had stated, drawing white immigrants from Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Mark Twain, however, had pictured it as a land of cowardly lynch mobs and “lunkheads,” the state becoming a symbol of much that was wrong, even evil, in America—symbolized in its political machinations. The Civil War had made an end of slavery, but the subsequent secret ballot, for example, had simply been used, in tandem with the notoriously backward and segregated public education system, to disenfranchise blacks, who, if illiterate, had to declare this at the polling precinct and submit to being intimidated, often at the end of white men’s guns. Poll tax requirements had also militated against blacks’ voting, so that between 1890 and 1894 the black vote had decreased in Arkansas by a staggering 65,000! Fearing a coalition between Republicans (the victors in the Civil War) and agrarian reformers, the Democratic Party in Arkansas had retrenched to become the party of reactionary conservatism and segregation: “Dixiecrats.” In a move that contradicted the very meaning of its party name, the Arkansas Democratic Central Committee had even changed the nomination procedures for state primaries. Official Democratic Party candidates had to be chosen by a “popular” vote, it had determined—but with the proviso that only whites could cast those votes!From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Bill Clinton: An American Journey by Nigel Hamilton. Copyright © 2004 by Nigel Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.