“Whenever you attempt to broach the subject of racism within the Republican Party, it gets so quiet, that you can hear a rat do his business on cotton,” says the National Republican African American Caucus [NRAAC] National Chair, Dr. Jean Howard-Hill.
“This is another one of those ole saying from the South that I got from older Blacks that dates back to my African American slave history”, she says as she defines the meaning of this phrase. “I cleaned it up for use, as in its original form, it literally translates ‘it was so quiet that you could hear a rat piss on cotton’.”
“The phrase was used back in the days of slavery and sharecropping, where after the slaves would end a long day of toiling in the field and had to bring their cotton to be weighed, that because of the harsh penalties they had to pay for coming up short of what the master wanted for that day (which could be in some cases double what was done the day before), that as they waited in line fearing the unbalanced and arbitrary scales of the master, there was nothing but silence. It was a terrifying silence predicated upon the fear that no matter how much was in the sack, they always would claim it lacked. From this terrifying moment, came the saying, ‘it was so quiet that you could hear a rat piss on the cotton’.”
She says that now she uses it to describe what happens when there is an attempt to have an honest and legitimate discussion regarding race within the Republican Party. According to Howard-Hill “Everything goes quiet!” she says “And the white walls of silence go up.”
She also says that since she wrote the book, Black Eyes Shut White Lips Sealed, which tells of the racial disparity within the Tennessee Republican Party, supported by the national GOP, and since the book has circulated among Republicans, it has been kept so quiet, that from 2004 until now, within Republican circles, you actually can hear a rat piss on cotton!
“It just seems strange, she says, that in an environment where those who love taking to the air way to espouse all sorts of non-sense and rhetoric that this has been kept such a hush-hush secret. It is hard to understand why no one, except a few local radio stations have as much as mentioned the book or any Republican has offered any opposition to its well documented contents.”
“I even made sure everyone who needed to have the book, got a free copy of it! She says. “So it is not like the Republican Party or the local media was not aware that it was out there.”
She says that it is not that she wanted to destroy the Party. Instead all that she desired was for someone within the Republican Party to acknowledge the truth of the proof of racism within the Party, and seek to make right the wrong done to African American Republicans. In fact, prior to writing the book, she spent two years trying to get the party to address the issue.
“My initial interest was not in writing a tell-all book. All we wanted was to just be included and allowed to participate in the democratic process in a party in which we shared its core values. That is all we wanted. The book was a therapeutic way for me to ease the pain of silence and discrimination, and to give a wake-up call to the Republican Party that unless it changed, it would become a political party suffering from its own self-contracted leprosy. It also was a way of documenting the history of African American Republicans that could be passed on to the next generation.”
In the book, Howard-Hill tells of an incident where then Governor, Senator Lamar Alexander’s wife, Honey Alexander as the event quest speaker had so gracious supported her 1980 Republican candidacy for State Representative, and a white Republican woman brought her flowers, then took them back, once she realized she was not white. According to her, the woman asked if she could present the flowers to her, but shocked after realizing that she was African American said, “I did not know she was a nigger!” Then took her flowers and left.
The book is filled with many well documented incidents of racism and mean spirited politics that includes the then local GOP Hamilton County Chair, Robin Smith investigating her voting record, and even boasting of having made telephone calls to block the recruitment and acceptance of African Americans within the Republican Party.
“I could not believe that this woman would actually go out of her way to block us from participating. I could not figure it out because I was of the assumption that the Party wanted more African Americans. I was traveling all over the United States bringing in thousands of African Americans within the Party. But I quickly found out that this was not the case. We were not wanted in masses – only just a few at a time, but not in large numbers for fear that it would change the complexion of the party. This was heartbreaking.”
She tells of being required by the past local county chair, Ms. Smith, to get legal permission from the RNC general counsel before she would recognize the NRAAC and its local caucus as a Republican organization.
“I traveled to Washington, D.C. on my own dime and met with the RNC and they had no clue what it was Ms. Smith was asking of us. She blocked and encouraged the blocking of us in every way she could. We weren’t allowed even to speak at meetings or to have an announcement of our events placed in the county GOP newsletter” Says Howard-Hill. “We were shunned and made to feel unwelcomed.”
She says that those Whites who did not agree with what was being done, found themselves also being shunned and even threatened if they went to the media to substantiate the claims of racism.
“It was like a one man and one woman political mafia in Tennessee, controlled by one congressman, Congressman Zach Wamp, who now is running for governor of Tennessee, and one county chair, Robin Smith, who went on to be elevated to the Tennessee GOP chair and is now running for Congress. They just would not stop short of barring the NRAAC and me from the party. I was threatened and told that if I wanted to get anything done or be involved in the party, I had to come through them first. This was interesting since they only had been Republicans for a short time, and I had been a well recognized Republican since 1979, and had headed two national Republican organizations.”
Howard-Hill says that as she saw this happening over a span of two years, with no one willing to stand up and stop it, she realized that racism within the Tennessee Party was not just local. It was condoned and supported from the state to the national level, and seemingly acquiesced even by the silence of some elected officials.
“No matter who I spoke with, with the exception of a few who stood with me, and a few who secretly denounced what was happening, no one else said a word. They dared not speak out against the wrong. Even some Whites who said they were spirit filled and people of faith and some who once shared sweet fellowship with me, became distant and silent. This was the hardest of the blows, because when one says they are a Christian, you expect to see them take a stand against what is wrong. But this was not the case. They also went silent. Which caused us to believe that the God of the White Republicans, was not the same God we knew. Because our God was a God who did not regard the color of one’s skin, and only judged the content of the heart.”
“It wasn’t just the silence, but it was the racism combined with mean spiritedness and the spiritual hypocrisy that was bone chilling”, she adds.
“But now it is time to deal with the silence! It is time to tear down the White walls of racist silence within the Republican Party in order to deal with this issue. This cancerous divisiveness must be uprooted, so that it does not flow to the next generation. We owe it to our children and to our Republican history, not to allow it to be passed down, and until we stop it, we cannot boast of the present Republican Party as being the same Party of President Lincoln.”
[Dr. Jean Howard-Hill is the author of Black Eyes Shut, White Lips Sealed. She has served as the national chair for the National Black Republican Women with her late husband, Attorney Bobby Lee Hill serving as the head of the Black Republican Men for Change from 1987 to his death in 1991. After his death up until 1993, she remained head of the organization, and in 1999 combined the two groups to form the National Republican African American Caucus. Outside of her role as the National Republican African American Caucus [NRAAC] national chair, Howard-Hill is known for her involvement within the African American community and her efforts to correct and enhance verbal, written and presentational skills of African American students, and her “Pull up Your Pants and Dress for Success Campaign” to improve the appearance and fate of African American males. She has created and directed the Many Facers of Diversity at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which teaches these skills to minority, “at-risk”, and first generation college bound students. She is currently working on the Tennessee Youth Research Study, a research project aimed at identifying causes and providing connectors to reconnect to the youth of this generation. She also has taught full time and as an adjunct, American Government, State and Local Government, and International Politics and Culture of Nonwestern Countries at UTC, and was voted 2006 Outstanding Professor of the year. Additionally, from 1976 to 1979, she designed and directed the “Democracy In Action” Program, which was a civics programs taught in the local school systems. Howard-Hill also is a local political commentator and holds a law degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville College of Law.]