Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”
HT: Don Lemon
By now you should know about the recently released audio recording of Ronald Reagan calling African people “monkeys.” Reagan, who was governor of California at the time, made the remarks to Richard Nixon in 1971.
When I learned about this recording I thought about the debate between conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza and Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse. For several years D’Souza has been making the case that the Democratic Party is the real racist political party, while the Republicans, as the party of Lincoln, is the party of equality and civil rights.
Southern Democrats were indeed racist in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century. Many Republicans were also pretty racist, but they championed abolitionism, led a war to end slavery, and fought for the equality of African-Americans in the decades following the war. But things change. Historians study change over time. While Southern Democrats opposed the civil rights movement, so did conservative Republicans such as Barry Goldwater and others. Meanwhile, other Democrats, such as John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and the leaders of the civil rights movement, all sought to end Jim Crow in America. Today the overwhelming majority of African Americans vote for Democratic candidates because of this legacy.
So what does D’Souza do about Reagan’s racist comments? If the GOP is not the party of racism, then how does D’Souza explain the recorded remarks of the party’s conservative flag bearer?
After Donald Trump told U.S Representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib, and Omar to “go back” to their own countries, I heard and read a lot of conservatives say something similar to Fox News commentator Brit Hume:
Trump’s “go back” comments were nativist, xenophobic, counterfactual and politically stupid. But they simply do not meet the standard definition of racist, a word so recklessly flung around these days that its actual meaning is being lost.
— Brit Hume (@brithume) July 15, 2019
Hume’s tweet shows his ignorance. For more than half a century, historians have made a a strong case that nativism/xenophobia is rooted in racism. But I would imagine Hume, if confronted with such scholarship, would simply say that it was produced by a bunch of liberal professors and it thus has no merit.
Other conservatives have said that using the term “racist” to describe Trump’s tweets will somehow water-down the true meaning of the term. Racism is bad–really bad–so let’s use the term carefully. These statements are usually followed a reference to Miriam-Webster.
Now many of these same conservatives are saying that Trump’s recent tweets about Elijah Cummings and Baltimore are not racist.
I would suggest that instead of thinking about racism by trying to apply a dictionary definition to our current moment, we should think historically about white people’s understanding of racism. If we did this, we would learn that there is a long history of white people denying their racism. In fact, most white people in America during the so-called Jim Crow-era thought that they were treating blacks fairly. (The same, I might add, could be said for slavery).
Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, makes this case in a recent piece at The Washington Post. Here is a taste of his op-ed, “Republicans don’t think Trump’s tweets are racist. That fits a long American history of denying racism“:
Although many politicians, political commentators, news outlets and even a few longtime defenders of the president have called Trump’s words “racist,” Republican leaders have generally closed ranks and rejected this characterization.
To understand this debate about Trump and racism, it’s important to put it in historical perspective. First, it is but one episode in a long history of American denials of the extent and consequences of prejudice, racial discrimination, segregation, disenfranchisement and persecution. Whites have done so even when the racism was virtually undeniable.
Second, this debate illustrates the more recent and growing partisan polarization on the question of what constitutes racism. That polarization makes it unsurprising that so many Republican leaders would not condemn Trump in these terms.
The Jim Crow era, from the 1870s through the 1950s, was a period of explicit, legally sanctioned racism. Racial segregation was enforced by law for decades. Black people were subjected to systematic discrimination, property deprivation, disenfranchisement and even violent death at the hands of Southern racists.
But remarkably, when pollsters asked white Americans about the situation of blacks, most still thought that African Americans were being treated fairly. In 1944, 1946 and 1956, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) asked Americans, “Do you think most [N]egroes in the United States are being treated fairly or unfairly?” The graph below shows that at least 60 percent of whites said that most blacks were treated fairly.
Read the entire piece here.
In a piece in the latest issue of The Atlantic, Faust, the recently retired president of Harvard and an American historian, reflects on what it was like to growing-up in the racist South. Her piece is a wonderful example of how to blend personal memoir and American history.
Here is a taste:
I was 9 years old when the news reports about “massive resistance” and battles over segregation made me suddenly realize that it was not a matter of accident that my school was all-white. I wrote an outraged letter to President Eisenhower—outraged because this wasn’t just, but also outraged that I only now understood, that I had been somehow implicated in this without my awareness. I have wondered whether I was motivated in part by my growing recognition of my own disadvantage as a girl whose mother insisted I learn to accept that I lived in a “man’s world.” I resented that my three brothers were not expected to wear itchy organdy dresses and white gloves, or learn to curtsy, or sit decorously, or accept innumerable other constraints on their freedom. I was becoming acutely attuned to what was and wasn’t fair. And because my parents seemed to take for granted that this was both a white world and a man’s world, I took it upon myself to appeal—without telling them—to a higher power: “Please Mr. Eisenhower please try and have schools and other things accept colored people,” I wrote. “Colored people aren’t given a chance … So what if their skin is black. They still have feelings but most of all are God’s people.” And I acknowledged the accident of my own privilege: “If I painted my face black I wouldn’t be let in any public schools etc.” I seem to have figured out “etc.” before I recognized the realities of the racial arrangements that surrounded me. And, curiously, I framed what I had recognized as the contingency of race and the arbitrariness of my own entitlement by invoking blackface.
Read the entire piece here.
The Washington Post columnist reminds us of the “horrors” of Reconstruction. The column basically serves as a reflection on Henry Louis Gates’s Stony Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.
Here is a taste:
Gates is especially insightful in revealing how black people, after their constitutional rights were stolen, attempted to reassert their dignity in nonpolitical ways. Through Booker T. Washington’s version of self-help. Or by cultivating the achievements of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “talented tenth.” Or through the artistic excellence of the Harlem Renaissance. Or through pan-African pride.
Ultimately, Gates argues that Frederick Douglass got closest to the truth — that there is no path to pride and equality that does not include political power, particularly voting rights. This was the main theme of the NAACP and, eventually, of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is a tribute to the importance of justice as the first human need.
The denial of justice recounted by “Stony the Road” was every bit as bad as apartheid. It was not just racism, but also the systematic attempt to destroy — through violence, threats and mockery — the dignity, political rights and social standing of blacks in America. It was far worse than anything I was taught in history classes. Yet only by knowing this period can we understand how white supremacy became the broadly accepted, and sadly durable, ideology of white America.
Read the entire piece here. It is good to see Gerson writing on this theme.
Robert Ferguson is Assistant Professor of History at Western Carolina University. This interview is based on his new book, Remaking the Rural South: Interracialism, Christian Socialism, and Cooperative Farming in Jim Crow Mississippi (University of Georgia Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Remaking the Rural South?
RF: This book was adapted from a dissertation I wrote while a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I knew when I arrived to UNC that I wanted to research race relations in the rural South. After discussing ideas with my advisor, Fitzhugh Brundage, he suggested that I meet with the archivists at the Southern Historical Collection which housed on UNC’s campus. When I told them my very general and undeveloped plans for a dissertation, they showed me the 11.5 linear feet of documents they had pertaining to two intentional, interracial communities in rural Mississippi at the height of the Jim Crow era. I was hooked. Thank goodness for archivists!
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Remaking the Rural South?
RF: Focusing on two interracial, Christian socialist communities in the rural South, the book argues that former sharecroppers and their allies enacted significant cultural shifts that placed their communities in the vanguard of human rights struggles in the 1930s to the 1950s. From the Great Depression to the civil rights movement, residents of Delta Cooperative Farm and Providence Farm acted out moments of modification that created egalitarian, democratic communities and which were ultimately quashed by white massive resistance to the black freedom struggle.
JF: Why do we need to read Remaking the Rural South?
RF: In times of national polarization, history doesn’t have to be a weight that paralyzes us. We should never look at the world and say, “well, it’s always been that way” and then go about our days weighted down by an ahistorical, erroneous understanding of the past while doing nothing about the present. Rather, history can liberate us when we understand that in the face of overwhelming hardships—such as, say, the Great Depression or Jim Crow—historical actors have posed radical changes and set about achieving those changes.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RF: My father and grandmother were high school history teachers. I grew up in a house where the past was part of our daily conversations. We loved good stories. We especially loved uplifting stories. And while the past is full of astonishing tragedy, it can also be the source of inspiration. By the time I was a teenager, I was already reading about the civil rights movement and other minority freedom struggles that allowed me to imagine alternatives to the sometimes problematic race relations I witnessed growing up. Even now, as a historian, writer, and teacher, I seek out the stories of everyday Americans who have struggled against the status quo. If my readers and students find some inspiration there, all the better.
JF: What is your next project?
RF: I’m currently working on an environmental and economic history of how the boom and eventual bust of twentieth century industries have lead to a new era in southern history. In particular, by looking at industries that have relied on harnessing water – textiles, energy, and beer – I argue that while most of the twentieth century experienced almost unfettered industrial growth, since the 1970s many small towns across the region have begun to resemble the Rust Belt rather than the Sunbelt, complete with environmental degradation and economic decline.
JF: Thanks, Robert!
Check out historian Ibram X. Kendi‘s recent piece at The Paris Review on the cultural context in which W.E.B. Du Bois’s wrote his famous work The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Kendi situates the work in the context of the Sam Hose lynching of 1899.
No lie circulated as far and wide over space and time as the original racist one that prefigured the Negro a beast. “No other news goes out to the world save that which stamps us as a race of cut-throats, robbers, and lustful wild beasts,” Ida B. Wells wrote in her 1892 antilynching manifesto, “Southern Horrors.”
Beasts, most agreed, did not have souls.
A beast could be traded and enslaved. A beast should be segregated and lynched. A beast cannot stop raping and killing. A beast could be subdued by only a mob or a jail cell. A beast so brutal even trained police officers fear for their lives. The Negro a beast.
“They lived like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings,” wrote Gomes Eanes de Zurara in his 1453 cradle of racist ideas, defending Portugal’s pioneering slave trading of Africans. A century later, pioneering British slave trader John Lok described Africans as “people of beastly living.” In 1899, the Wilmington Messenger reprinted an 1898 speech of Georgia’s Rebecca Felton, who in 1922 would become the nation’s first female U.S. senator. If “it requires lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts,” she said, “then I say lynch a thousand a week.” In 1900, the best seller of segregationist demagogues was the Mississippi professor Charles Carroll’s Mystery Solved: The Negro a Beast. Thomas Dixon brought this thesis to life in his best-selling 1902 novel, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, the first step in the march toward D. W. Griffith’s fanciful film The Birth of a Nation.
It is difficult to comprehend how daring it was for W. E. B. Du Bois to publish the most acclaimed book of his career in the face of this avalanche of beastly labels rushing down onto the Negro. Du Bois stared into the grisly faces of the racist past and present and decreed that blacks were not soulless beasts. “Ain’t I a human?” he seemed to be asking, just as fifty years earlier the legendary black feminist Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”
In publishing The Souls of Black Folk, on April 18, 1903, Du Bois argued, implicitly, that the world needs to know the humanity of black folk by listening carefully to the “strivings” in their souls….
Read the entire piece here.
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill historian William Sturkey explains in a piece titled “The Hidden History of the Civil Rights Act of 1960.”
Here is a taste:
You might be asking: “Was there a Civil Rights Act of 1960?” Yes indeed there was. And it was quite significant, but only if understood through the convoluted system of voter disfranchisement during the era of Jim Crow. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 helped prove racially, discriminatory voter-registration practices and provided evidence used to help pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This post explains how and why.
The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were the first pieces of federal civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction. Initially conceived to better enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments, the 1957 Act was met with fierce resistance from southern white segregationist senators. During months of hearings and debates—including the longest filibuster to that point in the Senate’s history—the bill was effectively stripped of concrete federal mechanisms to enforce school desegregation or protect southern Black voting rights. The most important accomplishment of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the establishment of a (then) temporary investigative unit named the Commission on Civil Rights and the creation a new assistant attorney general for civil rights.
African American pundits immediately criticized the limitations of the 1957 bill. Journalist Ethel L. Payne, the “First Lady of the Black Press,” called the final version a “battered, almost unrecognizable version of the civil rights bill passed by Congress after virtually all the teeth had been pulled.” A Chicago Defender editorial concluded, “this legislation proves to be much weaker than we had previously expected.” And NAACP leader Roy Wilkins later labelled the act “A Small Crumb from Congress.” Even Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who helped usher passage of the bill, famously acknowledged the legislation as “half a loaf” of bread. Although some have celebrated the historical significance of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, historians have largely agreed with the sentiments of its contemporaneous critics, generally concluding that the bill was ineffective and unenforced, except in a few rare instances.
Read the rest here.
Ashley Baggett is assistant professor of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at North Dakota State University. This interview is based on her new book, Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans: Gender, Race, and Reform, 1840-1900 (University Press of Mississippi, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans?
AB: I have been raising awareness about and combatting intimate partner violence (commonly referred to as domestic violence) for the better part of a decade, but I started researching Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans after noticing most historians focus on the North and leave out criminal cases.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans?
AB: Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans argues that the Civil War upended gender expectations, and in the 1870s and 1880s, New Orleans women demanded the right to be free from violence. The legal system responded by recognizing that right and criminalizing intimate partner violence until the 1890s, when abuse became racialized throughout the South and used as a means of racial control.
JF: Why do we need to read Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans?
AB: Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans demonstrates that abuse was not seen as “part of life” or acceptable for much of American history. Instead, legal reform on abuse was (and is) closely tied with how we perceive men, women, race, and relationships. The book inserts the South into the historical narrative on intimate partner violence and adds important insight on the Jim Crow era.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AB: As I became more aware of pressing social problems, especially sexual assault and intimate partner violence, I committed myself to making a difference. For me, that was through understanding the past. History can inform our current decisions and interactions, and to that end, I always hope my research, teaching, and outreach effect a positive change.
JF: What is your next project?
AB: My next project is on an article that examines intimate partner violence during Union occupation. I am also working on an anthology about gender based violence in American history.
JF: Thanks, Ashley!
Here it is:
The American Historical Association welcomes the emerging national debate about Confederate monuments. Much of this public statuary was erected without such conversations, and without any public decision-making process. Across the country, communities face decisions about the disposition of monuments and memorials, and commemoration through naming of public spaces and buildings. These decisions require not only attention to historical facts, including the circumstances under which monuments were built and spaces named, but also an understanding of what history is and why it matters to public culture.
President Donald Trump was correct in his tweet of August 16: “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” That is a good beginning, because to learn from history, one must first learn what actually happened in the past. Debates over removal of monuments should consider chronology and other evidence that provide context for why an individual or event has been commemorated. Knowledge of such facts enables debate that learns “from history.”
Equally important is awareness of what we mean by “history.” History comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts. To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history. A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.
Understanding the specific historical context of Confederate monuments in America is imperative to informed public debate. Historians who specialize in this period have done careful and nuanced research to understand and explain this context. Drawing on their expertise enables us to assess the original intentions of those who erected the monuments, and how the monuments have functioned as symbols over time. The bulk of the monument building took place not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but from the close of the 19th century into the second decade of the 20th. Commemorating not just the Confederacy but also the “Redemption” of the South after Reconstruction, this enterprise was part and parcel of the initiation of legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement across the South. Memorials to the Confederacy were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life. A reprise of commemoration during the mid-20th century coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and included a wave of renaming and the popularization of the Confederate flag as a political symbol. Events in Charlottesville and elsewhere indicate that these symbols of white supremacy are still being invoked for similar purposes.
To remove such monuments is neither to “change” history nor “erase” it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor. Historians and others will continue to disagree about the meanings and implications of events and the appropriate commemoration of those events. The AHA encourages such discussions in publications, in other venues of scholarship and teaching, and more broadly in public culture; historical scholarship itself is a conversation rooted in evidence and disciplinary standards. We urge communities faced with decisions about monuments to draw on the expertise of historians both for understanding the facts and chronology underlying such monuments and for deriving interpretive conclusions based on evidence. Indeed, any governmental unit, at any level, may request from the AHA a historian to provide consultation. We expect to be able to fill any such request.
We also encourage communities to remember that all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place. They should be preserved, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue. Prior to removal they should be photographed and measured in their original contexts. These documents should accompany the memorials as part of the historical record. Americans can also learn from other countries’ approaches to these difficult issues, such as Coronation Park in Delhi, India, and Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary.
Decisions to remove memorials to Confederate generals and officials who have no other major historical accomplishment does not necessarily create a slippery slope towards removing the nation’s founders, former presidents, or other historical figures whose flaws have received substantial publicity in recent years. George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation—however imperfect—and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery. There will be, and should be, debate about other people and events honored in our civic spaces. And precedents do matter. But so does historical specificity, and in this case the invocation of flawed analogies should not derail legitimate policy conversation.
Nearly all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders were erected without anything resembling a democratic process. Regardless of their representation in the actual population in any given constituency, African Americans had no voice and no opportunity to raise questions about the purposes or likely impact of the honor accorded to the builders of the Confederate States of America. The American Historical Association recommends that it’s time to reconsider these decisions.
This is a very useful statement. I endorse it. Thanks to the folks at the AHA for writing it.
Back in the days when I was a post-doctoral fellow with the Lilly Fellow in Humanities and the Arts, I had a Valparaiso University office next to a young architectural historian named Louis Nelson. (Actually, we were also next-door neighbors on Valparaiso’s “famous” McIntire Court). Nelson left Valpo after a year in the program and headed off to Charlottesville to become a faculty member in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. Today he is a Professor of Architectural History and the Associate Dean of the school. Nice work.
Over at the website of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, Nelson argues that Confederate monuments should stay and be contextualized. Here is a taste of his interview with the website:
The national debate surrounding confederate monuments is often presented in very narrow terms – as a battle between those who want them to stay and those who want them to go. Is there another approach?
I have consistently argued that we need to situate these monuments as the historical objects that they are. What often gets lost in this discussion is the fact that these are not Civil War monuments; these are Jim Crow monuments, largely a product of the 1910s, not the late 1860s. We need to understand and interpret them in this context. They were erected amid the apex of lynching in the American South. They were erected as localized instantiations of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the so-called “separate but equal” law, which upheld state racial segregation for public facilities and which triggered thousands of local-level actions against minorities throughout the country….
How can these monuments encourage such dialogue?
The landscape around them needs to be curated thoughtfully, with this historical framework in mind. Such statues cannot stand alone in the middle of a square with azaleas. I have argued that we need to transform these open spaces into open-air museums, where we can learn about the simultaneous histories of lynching, Confederate monuments and Jim Crow policies. These are powerful objects so they will need powerful recontextualization. Many argue that this is not possible, but I have great faith in architects, landscape architects, and public historians to effect profound change. I’m also an academic, so I can’t help but suggest some reading. What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift and Monument Building in the Contemporary South by Dell Upton is a great read. We need to educate ourselves about this history. It should not be erased.
Read the entire interview here.
David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
W. Fitz Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory
W. Fitz Brundage, ed., Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity
James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity
Gary Gallagher, ed., The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History
Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation
James Louwen and Edward Sebasta, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The Great Truth About the “Lost Cause.”
Ron Rash, The World Made Straight (Novel)
Anne Sarah Rubin, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868
Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920
C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow
Over the last several days I have received messages from readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home who are trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s recent words about monuments. On Tuesday, he equated monuments commemorating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with monuments commemorating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Yesterday POTUS offered these tweets:
Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
…can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
What should we make of all this? Here is one of the reader messages I received:
I wouldn’t ever dare post this publicly because honestly I don’t want to get lumped in with Trump and or be labeled a racist for simply asking a question. But I’m having a hard time understanding why Trump is so wrong on the Lee/Washington comparison. If Lee is guilty of perpetuating slavery, than why isn’t Washington just as guilty? Yes he freed his slaves after he died, but he didn’t end it when he had the chance to voice support for it at the convention, so why is he granted a pardon and still one of the good guys, but Lee is not off the hook? I get that he was a General for the Confederacy and I’m not arguing that he was good or right. I’m just wondering why Washington or Jefferson aren’t being attacked?
And I hate the fact that I can’t feel safe to ask this question in public without feeling like I’ll be labeled as a racist/terrorist or trump supporter. But I’m genuinely curious if you can shed some light or even point me to a good article that isn’t going to shame me into thinking the way the author wants me to already think.
First, I am saddened that this reader thinks she/he will be labeled a racist for trying to make historical and moral sense of what Trump said about monuments to Lee and Washington. I don’t know this person well, but I know she/he is not a racist. I should also add that I do not know where this person falls on the political perspective. Over the years I have known this person to have a curious mind and a passion for truth. If a person like this feels she/he cannot ask honest questions about this issue then something is wrong.
Second, at one level this person is correct (and so is Trump). There are similarities between Washington and Lee. I wrote about them yesterday. Let’s not forget the fact that both men owned slaves and were active participants in America’s slave culture. Maybe neither of them deserve a monument. But on the other hand, there were also a lot of differences between Washington and Lee. They are worth noting too.
In the end, I think there is a difference between moralizing about men and women in the past and erecting monuments to them. As I have now said multiple times at this blog, monuments tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in the past they are meant to commemorate. Lee monuments were erected by Lost Causers who wanted to celebrate a society built on slavery and white supremacy. Most of them were built during the Jim Crow era for this very purpose. Think about it. Would Lee merit a monument if not for his role as commander of the Army of Virginia? Maybe, but I doubt you would find one outside of Virginia. I don’t know off-hand the history of George Washington monuments, but I wonder how many of them were erected for the purpose of celebrating his slave ownership.
This post has some good links for further reading on this issue.
I am glad to see Christianity Today tackling this issue. Some of you are familiar with the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Imitative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. I had a chance to visit EJI this summer. Stevenson was also the Messiah College commencement speaker in May 2017. He is the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
EJI is a fascinating and moving place that combines the history of lynching in America with the reform of the criminal justice system as it relates to death row inmates. I wrote about my visit here.
Here is a taste:
Stevenson became enamored with the idea of creating spaces for truth telling. “We don’t have many places in our country where you can have an honest experience with our history of slavery, and there are no spaces where you can have an honest experience with lynchings and racial terror,” he said. (There are outliers in unexpected places, such as a memorial in Duluth, Minnesota, honoring three black members of a traveling circus who were lynched there in 1920.)
So Stevenson decided to make one. Next summer, EJI will unveil a memorial where visitors will be confronted with large tablets hanging from a square structure, visual reminders of more than 800 counties where lynchings took place. The visual—so many markers engraved with so many names—will transform a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery, Alabama, into a place of mourning and remembrance, a place to lament and perhaps even to corporately confess.
The Memorial for Peace and Justice, as it will be called, will also encompass a field spreading next to the main structure. In that field, each hanging tablet will have an identical twin resting on the ground, invoking an eerie similarity to headstones. These markers will be for the counties themselves to collect. Stevenson dreams of groups journeying to Montgomery, collecting their rightful part of lynching history, and displaying it prominently back in their towns and cities. If people from a particular locale choose not to claim their piece, it will sit in stark relief on that Montgomery hilltop, a conspicuous token of unowned sin.
Read the entire piece here.
Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. According to National Book Award winner and historian Ibram X. Kendi, the Act “spurred all sorts of racial progress–from desegregating Southern establishments to driving anti-discrimination lawsuits, to opening the doors of opportunity for the new black middle class.”
But Kendi’s recent piece in The Washington Post also calls our attention to what he believes to be an overlooked aspect of the Civil Rights Act. He argues that the Act “also spurred racist progress.” He adds, ”
Here is a taste:
After the passage of the act, Americans quickly confused the death of Jim Crow for the death of racism. The result: They blamed persisting and progressing racial disparities on black inferiority. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) had been complaining throughout the 1960s about those “dependent animal” creatures on welfare. Criminologists like Marvin Wolfgang were writing about urban blacks’ “subculture of violence.” Sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Johnson’s assistant secretary of labor, pointed to the black family as a “tangle of pathology” in a 1965 report.
As new racist ideas and anti-racist demonstrations spread in the late 1960s, first President Johnson and then Richard Nixon turned away from civil rights toward “law and order” — a phrase that came to symbolize and pardon the progress of racist ideas and policies. The Nixon White House branded black people as the real source of the racial problems, rather than the Americans who quietly responded to the 1964 act by backing “race neutral” policies that were aimed at excluding black bodies.
For many Americans, it was this violent subculture, emanating from the weak and dependent black family, that caused the hundreds of urban rebellions that followed in the days, months and years after the Civil Rights Act. As the Wall Street Journal headline on Aug.16, 1965, explained: “Behind the Riots: Family Life Breakdown in Negro Slums Sow Seeds of Race Violence: Husbandless Homes Spawn Young Hoodlums, Impede Reforms.”
Read the entire piece here.
The day of our visit was the day EJI went live with its new digital project on lynching in America.
USA Today took notice of the new project. Here is a taste of Rog Walker’s article:
Visitors to the website can search a map of 4,300 lynchings in 20 states and hear how Elizabeth Lawrence, a school teacher in Alabama, was murdered in 1933 for reprimanding white schoolchildren for throwing rocks at her. Or how in 1893, 17-year-old Henry Smith, suspected of killing a white girl, was burned alive before a mob of 10,000 in Texas, his ashes and bones sold as souvenirs.
Another map shows the seismic population shift of the Great Migration as families were forced to leave to escape racial violence. A century ago nearly all African Americans lived in the South. By 1970 most lived outside of the South, many of them in industrial cities in the North and the West.
Read more here.
As I wrote earlier this week, I am spending the next seven days on a Civil Rights bus tour. Todd Allen and his staff have been running the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour” since 2002 and they do a great job. Messiah College, the school where I teach, sends several faculty and staff on the tour each year as part of its Christian commitment to racial reconciliation. This year I am traveling (along with my wife and daughter) with several faculty members, admissions counselors, residential life workers, students, alumni, and even a member of the Board of Trustees!
We left Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (Todd’s base of operation and, I might add, the home of Joe Namath) early yesterday morning. We spent most of the day on the bus, but did make a scheduled stop in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Our first major stop was North Carolina A&T University (Go Aggies!), a historically black college in Greensboro. On February 1, 1960, four A&T freshman–David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil–staged a lunch-counter sit-in at the downtown Woolworth 5 &10. Today, the Woolworth building serves as the home of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (ICRCM). (The Greensboro Woolworth was open from 1939 to 1993. A non-profit organization saved the building from destruction and turned it into a museum in 2010).
Jean, one of the docents at the museum, gave a very lively tour. The highlight, as you might imagine, was our visit to the room where the Woolworth’s lunch counter was located. A refurbished counter, with original signage and dumbwaiters, is part of the exhibit. The sit-in is re-enacted on video screens that provide a perspective from someone standing behind the counter. Frankly, I wish we could have spent more time in this room. I wanted to soak it all in and reflect on the courage of these four students. I often wonder how many of my own students sit in their dorm rooms, ponder the life-transforming ideas that they encounter in class, and put those ideas into action in ways that bring meaningful change to their local surroundings.
If you are in Greensboro, the ICRCM is a must visit. A lot of the original Woolworth building remains. As we walked down the stairs into the lower level of the building, Jean informed us that the chrome railings and staircase were original. I had flashbacks to a nearly identical set of stairs, complete with chrome railings, at the J.J. Newberry’s store on Main Street in Boonton, New Jersey. I spent a lot of time in that store as a little kid–mostly buying candy and baseball cards. There was no lunch counter.
The museum is small, but it packs a big punch. The exhibits themselves invoke empathy at every turn. For example, an exhibit room called “The Hall of Shame” is filled with graphic images of violence against civil rights activists. The “Colored Entrance” is a maze-like exhibit that forces visitors to see the world from the perspective of African Americans during Jim Crow. The rooms in this exhibit are small, tight, and uncomfortable, forcing the visitor to “feel the way Blacks felt everyday” during segregation. An older African American women in our group was particularly moved by the exhibits. She told the group that she had been part of “week one” (February 8-15, 1960) of the lunch counter sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina while she was a student at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University).
After dinner, we drove from Greensboro to Greenville, South Carolina. We watched documentaries in the bus during the day, but on last night’s drive we watched Denzel Washington’s Fences.
We are off to a good start. Stay tuned. We are in Atlanta today.
A few more pics:
Here is some more historical context for the New Orleans monuments controversy.
Here is a taste of Levin’s commentary at Civil War Memory:
DuBois’s reflection on the selective memory and history of Confederate monuments comes right in the middle of a narrative on the challenges and contradictions of traveling through the South at the height of the Jim Crow era.
DuBois pushes right back against the myth of the Lost Cause. He refuses to draw a distinction between the Confederate government and the men in the ranks. DuBois clearly understood that as long as white southerners were able to mythologize the war through their monuments, African Americans would remain second class citizens.
Confederate monuments did not just occupy the Jim Crow landscape. For Dubois, they helped to make it possible.
Levin has also posted Du Bois’s take on Robert E. Lee. Read it here.
If you read this blog regularly you know about Robert Jeffress. He is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas and one of the first evangelicals to endorse Donald Trump. Some of you remember that I debated him on an National Public Radio program a few months ago. The other day he said he would vote for Donald Trump over Jesus.
Recently Jeffress explained to his followers why he has decided to get involved in presidential politics:
Part of Jeffress’s argument here is based on his belief that pastors have always been at the forefront of change in American history. He is correct. Clergy played a vital role in American political history. Yes, they precipitated change. But they also used their role as pastors to in resist meaningful change.
There is a lot of historical problems with Jeffress’s remarks, but the most egregious issue is his failure to recognize that the former pastor of his church and one of the most prominent 20th-century Southern Baptists–W.A. Criswell-– used his position to promote racial segregation. This is a dark chapter of Southern Baptist history. It is probably not a good idea for Jeffress to invoke the Civil Rights movement as a moment in American history when pastors brought positive change to the United States.
Over at Religion News Service, Tobin Grant, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University, draws on the historical work of Curtis Freeman and Joseph Davis to call Jeffress out on this.
Here is a taste:
In 1956, Criswell spoke at the State Evangelism Conference in South Carolina. Against instructions to stay clear of segregation, Criswell gave a fiery sermon that linked the fight against integration with evangelism. All Southern Baptist pastors should, according to Criswell, speak out against those who were advocating integration.
Criswell did not mince words. He railed against both the National Council of Churches and the NAACP as those “two-by scathing, good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all of the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.”
He even used racist humor to make his points: “Why the NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word chigger any longer. It has to be cheegro.”
Criswell saw integration an attack on both state rights and democracy by carpetbaggers. Even more so, it was a blow to Southern Baptist religious liberty:Churches had the right and the responsibility to keep their congregations segregated.
Segregation was best for blacks and whites, Criswell said. Blacks, he argued, would never be able to excel, teach, or lead in a congregation of whites. Instead, they should stay in churches with other blacks. Segregation also limited miscegenation. And that, Criswell warned, was going to cause problems for everyone.
Read the entire piece here.
At the risk of making this post too long, I think it is also worth noting that some of the founding fathers did not think clergy should be getting involved in politics.
Many of the early eighteenth-century states banned clergymen from running for certain offices. These included North Carolina (1776), New York (1777), South Carolina (1778), Delaware (1792), Maryland (1799), Georgia (1799), Tennessee (1796), and Kentucky (1799).
Here is article XXXI of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution:
That no clergyman, or preacher of the gospels of any denomination, shall be capable of being a member of either the Senate, House of Commons, or Council of State, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral function.
Here is article XXXIX of the 1777 New York Constitution:
And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State.
Here is article XXI of the 1778 South Carolina Constitution:
And whereas the ministers of the gospel are by their profession dedicated to the service of God and the cure of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function, therefore no minister of the gospel or public preacher of any religious persuasion, while he continues in the exercise of his pastoral function, and for two years after, shall be eligible either as governor, lieutenant-governor, a member of the senate, house of representatives, or privy council in this State.
Here is Article I, Section 9 of the 1792 Delaware Constitution:
The Rights, privileges, immunities, and estates of religious societies and corporate bodies shall remain as if the constitution of this state had not been altered. No clergyman or preacher of the gospel of any denomination, shall be capable of holding any civil office in this state, or of being a member of either branch of the legislature, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral or clerical functions.
It is clear that the framers of these state constitutions wanted clergy to tend to the souls of churchgoers, not the soul of the United States of America. I need to explore this deeper, but it seems at first glance that these framers wanted to keep religion out of politics and did not want the purity and witness of the church to be tarnished by politics.
Apparently several historians and journalists are upset by Hillary Clinton’s remarks about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War at last night’s CNN’s Democratic candidate’s town hall meeting. Here is what she said about Lincoln in response to an audience member who asked her to say something about the POTUS who has inspired her the most:
You know, I – wow, when I think about his challenges, they paled in comparison to anything we have faced or can imagine. You know, more Americans died in the Civil War than, you know, the wars of the 20th Century put together.
So here was a man who was a real politician. I mean, he was a great statesman, but he also understood politics. And he had to work to put together, you know, the support he needed to be able to hold the country together during the war.
And while he was prosecuting that war to keep the Union together, he was building America, which I found just an astonishing part of his legacy. The transcontinental rail system, land grant colleges, he was thinking about the future while in the middle of trying to decide which general he can trust to try to finish the war.
That’s what I mean, when you’ve got to do a lot of things at once, what could be more overwhelming than trying to wage and win a civil war?
And yet, he kept his eye on the future and he also tried to keep summoning up the better angels of our nature. You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive. And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.
But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.
And, as I say, our challenges are nothing like what he faced, but let’s think ourselves about not only what we have to do right now, especially to get the income rising in America, especially to make college affordable, do something about student debt, keep health care growing until we get 100 percent coverage and so much else.
But let’s also think about how we do try to summon up those better angels, and to treat each other, even when we disagree, fundamentally disagree, treat each other with more respect, and agree to disagree more civilly, and try to be inspired by, I think, the greatest of our presidents.
I have highlighted the section of her remarks that led some pundits to squeal.
Holy crap, this Clinton answer on Lincoln went totally off the rails into Southern revisionism. Too much rancor because he was killed…
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) January 26, 2016
Have to think that was her mid-century education on Lincoln and Reconstruction popping up. Amazing how durable that can be.
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) January 26, 2016
No HRC, Reconstruction was actually good! It didn’t fail, it was destroyed!
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) January 26, 2016
Frankly, I was quite impressed with Hillary’s understanding of Lincoln. She understood the challenges that he faced as POTUS during a Civil War. She knew that his presidency was not just about the Civil War. Her references to the railroads and land-grant colleges were excellent. She was aware of his problems with Union generals. Her references to reconciliation and forgiveness captured the spirit of the Second Inaugural. How many presidential candidates could summon this kind of historical knowledge off the top of their heads?
Of course she did imply that Reconstruction was a problem. People like Chait and Bouie are correct to note that Radical Reconstruction in the South had positive results for the former slaves. If Hillary was referring to the policies of Republican Reconstruction, then she was wrong to imply that it had negative consequences for Blacks.
On the other hand, she could have been simply referencing the “Era of Reconstruction,” a period that covers the entire period in U.S. History from 1865-1877. This is normally how American History textbooks cover the period. This “era” saw Republican policies that brought human and civil rights to those who were enslaved. You had the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. But this era ended tragically for African American as white redemption won the day, leading to Jim Crow and segregation. From a curriculum standpoint, all of this–the good and the bad–are covered under the so-called “Era of Reconstruction.”
Did Hillary make a mistake by lumping Republican Reconstruction with Jim Crow and segregation? Probably. But I don’t think it was enough to merit the outrage I am seeing among historians and the references to Hillary invoking the Dunning School.
If liberal commentators want to find the real problem with Hillary’s statement they should consider the fact that if Lincoln had lived the union might have come together much sooner, but I am not sure we would have had a period of Reconstruction that benefited former slaves in the way that it did. Lincoln’s so-called “Ten percent plan” made it pretty easy for the South to return to the Union without addressing the plight of the former slaves.