The Noose That Brought History To Life

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Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has turned to the op-ed pages of The New York Times to address the noose found recently at the museum.

Here is a taste of his piece:

The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.

The noose — the second of three left on the National Mall in recent weeks — was found late in May in an exhibition that chronicles America’s evolution from the era of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. Visitors discovered it on the floor in front of a display of artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, as well as objects belonging to African-American soldiers who fought during World War I. Though these soldiers fought for democracy abroad, they found little when they returned home.

That display, like the museum as a whole, powerfully juxtaposes two visions of America: one shaped by racism, violence and terror, and one shaped by a belief in an America where freedom and fairness reign. I see the nooses as evidence that those visions continue to battle in 2017 and that the struggle for the soul of America continues to this very day.

Read the entire piece here.

I also recommend this conversation between Bunch and American Historical Association director Jim Grossman.

When Removing Monuments Strengthens Our Knowledge of the Past

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Earlier this week we posted on Kate Shellnut’s Christianity Today article on the way that churches in the South are dealing with their Confederate legacy and monuments.

Since I wrote that post I learned about similar efforts at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”  Jefferson Davis was a member of this church.  Robert E. Lee worshiped there during the Civil War.

In recent years the church has formed the “History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative” to deal with Confederate symbols in the church, including Confederate battle flags. According to this article at Episcopal News Service, some of these symbols have been removed. Others have not, but the church continues to have conversations about what is appropriate.

Some of the comments on the Episcopal News Service piece have not been pretty.  Here are a few:

Historical “censorship” and revisionism as demonstrated above, is intellectually dishonest, spiritually counterfeit and an anathema to freedom. Actions like these, as innocuous as they appear, are small steps on the path to totalitarianism.

What seems to be lost in all of this is that History is important. We don’t need to be erasing it, we need to learn from it! If we destroy all of the symbols of periods of history we do not like, what have we accomplished? Nothing except a little misguided “feel good” for those in favor of the destruction of the symbols. The same symbols that people want to destroy provide us with a chance to explain how we have resolved those issues, grown as a Church and as churchmen, and understand and respect the journeys of those who lived though those times struggled with their own faith. What can be wrong with that? Have we not learned from the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and from the Civil Rights Movement? Should we destroy the Holocaust Museum, etc.. I hope not.

The confederacy is a part of our history. It is wrong to glorify it, but I think we need to remember it so that we don’t let this happen again. Sweeping things under the rug don’t make them go away, compassion and justice keep them from happening again. I was born and raised in Miami. My family lived in Key West and had slaves and freed them but still provided for them as long as they lived. It is our history, we can’t make it go away – we need to remember.

Political correctness has gone too far when it results in the re-writing of history. It’s our past and we all live with it. The USSR was the last regime in my lifetime to attempt to re-write history. I am saddened the U. S. is going that way.

One of the leaders of the History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative is public and religious historian Christopher Graham.  (He is mentioned in the article).

Graham has turned to his blog “Whig Hill” to address some of the negative comments. He argues that the history conversations at St. Paul’s have actually led the members of the congregation to have a better understanding of their shared past.

Here is a taste of his post:

To the main point; I’ve heard this charge often—that pulling down monuments is erasure; that we’ll know less and be deprived of the opportunity to learn and be inspired—even if by the transcendence of error. Never have had an adequate response to it until now.

What has happened at St. Paul’s is a rebuke to the assertion that we’re erasing the past. Since removing a small number of Confederate icons from the sanctuary, St. Paul’s now knows more about its own history than it ever has.

Even at this early stage of the HRI process, the people at St. Paul’s are able to articulate:

  • Who congregants were in the 1850s and how they fit into Richmond’s slave based economy.
  • How their faith reconciled slaveholding with Christianity, and how they enacted that faith to shape the racial-religious landscape of Richmond.
  • How sharing wartime anxiety, adrenaline, and grief (and yes, faith in the Confederacy’s ultimate cause) tied the church’s identity to the Confederate nation and its leaders.
  • How the narrative of racial difference forged in slavery continued to shape Episcopalian practice in Virginia (and beyond) for a century after 1865.
  • How the stories this church told itself with its memorials contributed to the “Lost Cause” explanation of the Confederacy—and in doing so constructed a history of race and slavery that reinforced efforts to disfranchise and marginalize African Americans in political, economic, and social life in Richmond in the twentieth century.
  • Who among its parishioners that supported the movement toward legal segregation in the 1902 Constitution, the 1912 and 1914 city segregation ordnances, the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, and the 1926 Massenberg Bill. (Most, likely, at the first, but a decreasing number by the last.)
  • Who among its parishioners and clergy (Bowie, Munford, Tucker, Carrington) that tirelessly and passionately opposed the adoption of these laws, and promoted anti-lynching and anti-Klan legislation, even if we recognize that they did so because of their racial paternalism.
  • How churchmen and churchwomen of St. Paul’s—along with the rest of Richmond’s elite—challenged and shaped the geography and culture of segregation that dominated the twentieth century and that we still see the vestiges of today.

These are just a small and incomplete sampling of the points upon which we’re developing a new narrative about our own past.

We haven’t erased history. Indeed, the removal of a small number of tablets has served as a catalyst for knowing more. And that may be my key takeaway in this particular moment: whether you alter a memorial landscape or not, the action can’t be the only thing, but just one point in a larger process of discovery and re-inscription. Moving things may not even be the most important element of that process in the end.

I can’t say (because nothing has been decided) what will become of the items removed, or those that remain. In fact, this process and the discussions around it have ranged far beyond the location of memorials. But I do know that the knowledge that we’re beginning to carry about our past, present, and future, feels far more consequential right now.

Read Graham’s entire post here.  This is a wonderful model for how to bring good history to bear on the life of religious congregations.  I am glad that Graham is involved in this initiative.

I wonder what it might look like to have a similar conversation in a church that places an American flag in the sanctuary.

“The Drum Major Instinct”

During our history of the Civil Rights Movement bus tour we spent a lot of time watching documentaries and listening to recording of speeches.  On Sunday morning Todd Allen played Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” King delivered this sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on February 4, 1968.

Listen:

As I listened from my seat I was struck by this part of the sermon:

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I’m in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”

Now that’s a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out. (Amen)

Here is King, only months away from his death, suggesting that the issue of poverty and low-wages is a justice issue that seems to transcend race.

This point reminds me of this recent Saturday Night Live sketch starring Tom Hanks:

 

What Is Happening at Grace College?

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Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana fired three white employees when they posed for a mock rap album cover.

Inside Higher Ed reports:

Three Grace College and Seminary employees were fired this month after a work-sanctioned photo drew criticism and accusations of racial insensitivity, The Indianapolis Star reported.

The photo, which drew attention after it was posted on an employee’s Facebook page, shows five white employees posing for a mock rap album cover. It was taken as part of “wrap day,” a themed day for the college’s marketing team that also benignly included wrap sandwiches at lunch.

In the photo, one employee appears to be wearing an Afro wig, and another has “Thug Life” written across his knuckles, as well as a fake tear-drop tattoo. Other employees are wearing hoods, chains and backward baseball caps. In the corner, text spells out “N.G.A.” — shorthand for students and staff that means “not Grace appropriate.”

Evan Kilgore, one of the employees fired and the school’s former special projects director, said the term “N.G.A.” is used jokingly on campus to refer to behavior that the private religious institution deems inappropriate.

“When we named our fake album, we never were implying that how we looked or what were dressed like was ‘not Grace appropriate,’” he told the Star.

Read the entire post here.  This is unfortunate.  I have spoken at Grace and have friends who teach there.  It is a fine institution of Christian higher education.  Of course I don’t know all the details of what happened here, but if the reporting is accurate I am willing to say that the behavior of these employees does not represent the culture of the school on matters related to race.

What happened at Grace, an evangelical institution, reminds me of what happened recently at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.  At Grace, the employees were fired.  At Southwestern, the employees (all members of the preaching faculty) were not fired.

Churches and the Legacy of the Confederacy

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R.E. Lee Memorial Church, Lexington, VA

As we reported last week, the Southern Baptist Convention stumbled, but eventually managed to get its act together and condemn racism and the Alt-right at its annual convention last week.  The Southern Baptist Church is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.  It was founded in 1845 by Baptists in the South who defended slavery.

Over at Christianity Today, Kate Shellnut reports on how historic Southern congregations of all denominations are dealing with their monuments to the Confederacy.

“Few public Confederate monuments have been changed, moved, or razed since 2015,” USA Today reported, estimating 700 to 1,000 such monuments remain across 31 states. “While flags can be lowered, songs censored, mascots switched, and schools renamed, monuments are the most tangible and least mutable memorial symbols.”

The debate over such markers inevitably involves the church buildings that housed—and the many more that later memorialized—the history of the Confederate States of America. The most striking example may be St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, nicknamed the Cathedral of the Confederacy.

Over the past two years, the historic church, where Jefferson Davis learned that the war was coming to an end, decided to remove plaques honoring Lee and Davis and place them in an exhibit. Gone are the kneelers with the Confederate flag in needlepoint. The church will retire its coat of arms. Leaders are now discussing how to move forward with presenting a history that acknowledges racism and slavery in its past.

“It shouldn’t take a tragedy to turn the tide against racism. Why did it take the murder of nine black people in a Bible study for some people to finally reject the racism associated with the Confederate emblem? Why do people have to literally be killed before we confront racial prejudice?” asked Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network. “Christian leaders should be able to challenge racism in the midst of the church without waiting for a public disaster as an entry point to conversation.”

Read the entire piece here.

Southern Baptists Get It Right

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It looked like they were going to blow it again, but the members of the Southern Baptist Convention got their act together yesterday and condemned the Alt-Right.   Kate Shellnut reports at Christianity Today:

The most-talked-about resolution at this year’s annual meeting of Southern Baptists initially didn’t even make it to the floor.

But after some late-night scrambling the night before, about 5,000 denominational leaders voted Wednesday to explicitly condemn the alt-right movement.

Earlier in the day, a wave of tweets from the biggest names in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), from Washington pastor Thabiti Anyabwile to Houston Bible teacher Beth Moore, made their convictions on the issue clear. They know what’s at stake. Such a resolution could send a powerful message on their Christian opposition to hatred and bigotry; skipping over such a proposal could do the opposite.

For years, Southern Baptists have grappled with their denomination’s past history of racism, and continue to work towards racial reconciliation. Failing to take the chance to condemn white supremacy could imply to outsiders—and the growing non-white minority within the SBC—that America’s largest Protestant group won’t speak out against the racists of today.

Read the rest here.

Lynching in America

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Each jar contains dirt from the sites where Alabama lynchings took place.

Earlier this week I was at the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama.  I am participating in a Civil Rights bus tour and this was one of our stops.  I wrote about the visit 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.

When Did the Confederate Flag Become a Racist Symbol?

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Picture accessed at Creative Commons

In a forthcoming essay at Du Bois Review titled “Racial Prejudice, Southern Heritage, and White Support for the Confederate Battle Flag,” political scientists Logan Strother, Spencer Piston, and Thomas Ogorzale examine how the Confederate flag became a symbol of the post-World War II South.  Their research caught the attention of The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

For several decades after the Civil War, the Confederate battle emblem was rarely displayed — typically only during tributes to actual Confederate veterans. It was not part of state flags or other official symbols or displays. In fact, the Confederate battle flag was so uncommon that in 1930, Sen. Coleman Livingston Blease had to have one specially made by the Daughters of South Carolina for him to display in his office.

It wasn’t until 1948 that the Confederate flag re-emerged as a potent political symbol. The reason was the Dixiecrat revolt — when Strom Thurmond led a walkout of white Southerners from the Democratic National Convention to protest President Harry S. Truman’s push for civil rights. The Dixiecrats began to use the Confederate flag, which sparked further public interest in it.

Consequently, the flag became strongly linked to white supremacy and opposition to civil rights for African Americans. In 1951, Rep. John Rankin (D-Miss.), a very outspoken segregationist, proudly announced that he had “never seen as many Confederate flags in all my life as I have observed floating here in Washington during the last few months.” Rankin himself wore a Confederate flag necktie to serve as a constant reminder of his opposition to “beastly” integration policies.

In 1954, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered the desegregation of public primary schools, focused the energies and ire of hardcore segregationists throughout the South. Efforts to resist school integration and other civil rights protections for African Americans included the display of Confederate symbols and especially the Confederate battle flag.

Read the entire Washington Post piece here.  This research reminds us that monuments and public symbols always emerge out of a particular historical context that at times may be more important than the actual event being commemorated.

Historians and the Nooses at The National Museum of African American Life and Culture

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Over at the Reformed African American Network, University of Mississippi graduate student Jemar Tisby writes that historians of race in America “have to possess a special kind of fearlessness.”  He writes in the wake of the news that nooses were found in the National Museum of African American Life and Culture in Washington D.C.

Here is a taste:

A noose represents the instrument of death often used in the thousands of lynchings of African Americans that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leaving a noose at the only national museum dedicated to unveiling and proclaiming the history of the African diaspora in America is an assault on the dignity of black people everywhere. Unfortunately, this act is just an extreme version of the risk historians take when they rightly remember the past.

America is a nation that prides itself on…itself. Academic historians dedicate themselves to recovering the past and retelling it in a way that reveals both the virtues and the flaws in the events and the people they study. While there is much to admire about the men and women who shaped this nation’s history, a country that only knows how to celebrate its successes lacks the ability to lament, and recoils at counter-narratives that speak of its failures.

The risk of doing rigorous history is especially high for those who study race in America. Nothing demolishes the idea of American exceptionalism more thoroughly than an honest account of how people of color have been treated in this country. Racism reveals the hypocrisy of a land founded on the “inalienable” rights of humankind, yet for centuries, denied those rights to an entire group of people. This is not the past many Americans want to remember.

Read the entire piece here.  I will remember this piece as I head off on a Civil Rights bus tour on Saturday morning.

How Do Historians Measure Racial Progress in America?

LaskiGreg Laski has a great piece on this issue a Black Perspectives.  He raises several good questions in the process of plugging his new book Untimely Democracy: The Politics of Progress after Slavery.

You can read the entire piece here, but I was especially taken with the way Laski frames his discussion:

If the November 2008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency provided an occasion to measure the distance the United States had traveled from its origins in slavery, then Donald Trump’s rise to the highest political office has presented a different historical calculus. Viewed through the lens of this racial history, the new administration reminds us that structures and practices of exclusion endure across time.

Just how to conjugate the relationship between past and present in each of these instances is open to debate. But lurking behind these contemporary case studies is a more basic conceptual dilemma: What is the political function of historical comparison when it comes to measuring “progress” toward liberty and equality for all? If Obama’s presidency allowed us to celebrate racial progress, that is, what happens to democracy now, when that distance seems to have narrowed? To pose the query most plainly, does democracy require progress? If so, whose? And why?

My forthcoming book, Untimely Democracy, narrates the nineteenth-century backstory of these questions by studying the work produced by African American authors and activists after the official end of Reconstruction—and after the abolitionist aims of the Civil War had faded.

W.E.B. Du Bois on Confederate Monuments

Here is some more historical context for the New Orleans monuments controversy.

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory shares this passage from a 1931 Du Bois piece in The Crisis:

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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.

Removing Monuments: How Far Should We Go?

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I know that American historians have been wrestling with this question now for several years and it is not my intention here to offer a solution to the problem because I do not have one.  I am still thinking this all through and I hope some of our readers might be able to help.

In the wake of mayor Mitch Landrieu‘s decision to remove Confederate and racist monuments from New Orleans, a lot of conservatives have been asking about where we draw the line between acceptable monuments and unacceptable monuments.  I think this is a fair question.  And it is one that American historians must address.

David Blight hit the op-ed pages in order to pat Landrieu on the back, but a quick Google search (“Landrieu and historians” and “New Orleans monuments and historians”) reveals that very few historians have entered this conversation with complex and nuanced ideas for helping communities think about how to deal with their own controversial monuments.  Kevin Levin’s #nolasyllabus is a good start on this front, but there is very little in the “Op-Eds, Editorials” section of this excellent resource that address these theoretical and practical issues.  (Some of the readings on “The Memory of Slavery” might be more helpful).

I am sure there is scholarly material on these subjects.  So I ask public historians and historians of race and memory:

Where do we draw the line between removing overtly racist monuments and erasing the past?

I am thinking here about Blight’s comment in his interview with the Dallas Morning News:

DMM: Let’s step back from the Confederacy specifically, and consider this subject from a more generic perspective. Whether it’s a statue to Saddam Hussein or whoever else, is there a case against erasing these things because they are part of history, and for looking at them for what they represent about the people who erected them in the first place?

BLIGHT: Yes, of course there is. You can’t erase everything from the past. If you set out to erase every Confederate monument that would take a few lifetimes. But having said that, these things are all about politics and the present.

You mentioned Saddam Hussein: You had a regime that took over a country and ran a brutal dictatorship and fell when he was deposed. It isn’t surprising that monuments were pulled down. The problem with America is that this was a Civil War that involved the whole country, and the South couldn’t go anywhere. The losers were not going to go away. About 6,000 of them went into exile in Brazil and England and Canada and other places, but even some of them came back.

The loser in this war was always going to be here. And the problem was that the “lost cause” tradition that these monuments tend to represent, because that’s when they were put up — the late 19th, early 20th century — gained a deep, deep foothold, and not just in the South.

But there is an argument to be very careful when you erase history. It’s a dangerous thing to do, because next year someone will want to erase history you think should be preserved. We went through all of this at Yale University last year with the changing of the name of Calhoun College.

I agree with Blight when he says that we need to be very careful when we “erase history.” I also understand that monuments are more about the present (or about the time that they were erected) than they are about the past.  I am just looking for some scholarly wisdom to help me be more “careful” as I think about these things.  What are best practices?  Are there best practices?

I will get the conversation started by calling your attention to my Storified tweets on a 2016 American Historical Association plenary session titled “The Confederacy, Its Symbols, and the Politics of Public Culture.”  A lot of the issues I have raised in this post were addressed in this session.

Message to Mitch Landrieu: This IS About Politics

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We have already sung the praises of Mitch Landrieu’s speech on Confederate monuments in New Orleans.  It is a classic.

Nathan Pippenger, a contributing editor at Democracy, agrees with me.

But Pippenger has a small criticism of Landrieu’s speech. His short piece “Opposition to the Lost Cause Is Still Political,” is worth considering.

A taste:

“This is not about politics” is a phrase that should always set off alarm bells, especially when it comes from a politician. Interestingly, the word “politics” does not make another appearance in the speech. But what else could a political figure making a speech about racist public memorials be talking about? Landrieu’s suggestion might be that the issue is somehow beyond politics—that a democratic argument over the statues would be inappropriate because they are so obviously unfit for public display. But if he truly thinks that, then the persuasive effort offered by his own speech is very strange indeed. Perhaps what he really intended was to say that the issue should be beyond politics, by which he means beyond disagreement: No American citizen should approve of a pro-Confederate public memorial. That is a world worth striving for, but as Landrieu knows, it is not an accurate description of the world we live in. The world we live in is home to many intellectual and political descendants of the Confederacy, and pretending that they somehow exist outside politics, or that they are not enabled by so-called “respectable” mainstream figures, is confusing and misleading.

Instead of marring an otherwise excellent speech with this trite declaration, Landrieu should have said something that the current crisis demands, something we must repeat loudly and often: The question of how we Americans remember our past and, symbolically, draw the boundaries of our civic community is a deeply political one. Indeed it is one of the oldest and most difficult, and something that would certainly be very dangerous to get wrong. The sickening blend of ahistorical nostalgia and white nationalism that currently dominates the White House is proof enough of that. In response to its ascendance, we should not only hope for moral transformations in the hearts of individuals; we should actively work for more just and democratic ways of understanding ourselves, and our history. The significance of that project, and the very activities of public engagement and argument through which it is carried out, is absolutely and necessarily political. Finding and elevating more politicians capable of giving speeches like this one, save that one pesky rhetorical feint, would be a good place to start.

Read the entire piece here.

Racism Raises Its Ugly Head at the Smithsonian

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In case you haven’t heard about this yet.

From CBS News:

A noose was found on Wednesday inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the Smithsonian said in a statement.

According to CBS affiliate WUSA, the noose was found by museum visitors in the segregation section of the history galleries.

NMAAHC Founding Director Lonnie Bunch released a statement via Twitter late Wednesday saying “the noose has long represented a deplorable act of cowardice and depravity” and that the “incident is a painful reminder of the challenges that African Americans continue to face” and “was a horrible act.”

An investigation is ongoing. A spokesperson from NMAAHC didn’t immediately respond to a request by CBS News for comment.

Wednesday’s discovery is the second time in a week that a noose was found at a Smithsonian museum. U.S. Park Police said a noose was hanging from a tree outside the Hirshhorn Museum, which features contemporary art and culture, in the nation’s capital on Friday. Officials said in a statement that it was unclear how long it had been there and that it was found by a Smithsonian police officer, WUSA reports

Read the entire report here.

And here is a tweet from Lonnie Bunch, Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture:

“Lost Cause” Enthusiasts Should Read Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone” Speech

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The Athanaeum in Savannah, the site of Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech”

In the midst of all this discussion about Confederate monuments, the Lost Cause, and the meaning of the Civil War, an Ohio middle school American history teacher named James Latuzenheiser tweets:

 

The reference here is to a speech delivered on March 21, 1861 (two weeks after Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated POTUS) by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.  He delivered the speech from the Athanaeum in Savannah, Georgia.  The purpose of this speech was to explain the differences between the Constitution of the Confederate States and the United States Constitution.

In his so-called “Cornerstone” speech, Stephens makes abundantly clear the Confederate’s position on slavery and its role in the coming of the Civil War.  Here is a taste (highlights are mine):

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

We should also note that in 1868, in his book The War Between the States, Stephens softened his view that slavery “was the immediate cause” of the Civil War.  In the process, he contributed to the Lost Cause idea, still popular in parts of the South today, that the conflict was less about slavery and more about states rights.

Here is a taste:

The matter of Slavery, so-called, which was the proximate cause of these irregular movements on both sides, and which ended in the general collision of war, as we have seen, was of infinitely less importance to the Seceding States, than the recognition of this great principle [the right of Secession].  I say Slavery, so-called, because, there was with us no such thing a Slavery in the full and proper sense of that word.  No people ever lived more devoted to the principles of liberty, secured by free democratic institutions, than were the people of the South.  None had ever given stronger proofs of this than they had done, from the day that Virginia moved in behalf of the assailed rights of Massachusetts in 1774, to the firing of the first gun in Charleston Harbor, in 1861.  What was called Slavery amongst us, was but a legal subordination of the African to the Caucasian  race.  This relation was so regulated by law as to promote, according to the intent and design of the system, the best interests of both races, the Black as well as the White, the Inferior, as well as the Superior.  Both had rights secured, and both had duties imposed.  It was a system of reciprocal service, and mutual bonds.  But even the two thousand million dollars invested in the relation thus established between private capital and the labor of this class of population, under the system, was but as the dust in the balance, compared with the vital attributes of the rights of Independence and Sovereignty on the part of several States.

These documents reveal the ideas that many Confederate monuments and symbols are commemorating and celebrating.

Should Mississippi Remove the Confederate Emblem on its Flag?

Flag_of_Mississippi.svgSome of you may remember historian Otis Pickett from his excellent post on teaching history in a Mississippi prison. Read it here.

Pickett teaches at Mississippi College in Clinton.  He recently wrote an op-ed in the Clarion-Ledger arguing that the Confederate emblem on the Mississippi flag must go.

Here is a taste:

After the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag took on new meanings on the Southern landscape. It became thoroughly identified with a movement known as the Lost Cause, which sought to memorialize and preserve a collective Southern memory celebrating the Confederacy. However, as African-Americans were entering into civic spaces, running for office and voting in large numbers during Reconstruction and into the 1880s, they began to represent to Southern whites many of the great changes affecting the Southern landscape — chief among them a threat to Southern white political power. The Confederate flag began to be used publicly as a symbol that represented a return to “white rule.” Further, the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 became a legal tool to help whites regain political control through massive disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Through literacy clauses, poll taxes and interpretation clauses, African-Americans were almost entirely removed from the voting process in Mississippi until the mid-1960s. In the midst of this, attacks on African-Americans in the form of lynchings and violent intimidation attempted to keep African-Americans from political activity or challenging a new system of white control.

What became known as the Mississippi Plan would soon travel to other Southern states, which would adopt similar state constitutions, and Mississippi would become the model of how whites could regain political control and reassert their power. For instance, convict leasing, in a sense, re-enslaved thousands of African-American males who were charged and sent to prison for violating ridiculous vagrancy laws. Men and boys were arrested and sent to work back in the same cotton fields that their ancestors worked as enslaved people. On a larger scale, sharecropping and tenant farming kept African-American laborers in cycles of debt and poverty for generations. Mississippi laws also limited these laborers from moving around and hiring out their labor to improve their financial position. Typically, the Confederate flag was the rallying symbol used by whites that embodied a reassertion of white political, economic and social control. In a sense, it was the symbol that provided a visible pledge to the aforementioned ideologies, philosophies, laws and social relationships.

It was during this time period, in April of 1894, some 30 years after the Civil War, that the Confederate emblem appeared for the first time on the Mississippi state flag. It was very clear what attaching this symbol to the state flag at this time meant: a return to white rule via violence, intimidation and disenfranchisement in order to regain an antebellum Southern “way of life” in which African-Americans were in their “proper” place. The flag was symbolic of a return to white-controlled state politics and segregated social relationships. The Confederate flag also came to resemble the enforcement of the Jim Crow system through violence and intimidation. Mississippi would become the No. 2 state in the nation in lynchings per capita. There was a constant threat of violence against African-Americans, and the Confederate flag became the symbol associated with that violence.

During the early to mid-20th century, the Confederate flag became a symbol for the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations that experienced a resurgence in the early 1920s. For just about all African-Americans and many whites, the Confederate flag became a symbol connected with hatred.

Since the late 1800s, the Confederate battle flag has been used as an emblem of rebellion against integration and human equality and has, as a symbol, come to do little more than create division.

Read the entire piece here.

Pickett’s powerful plea for justice (make sure you read the whole thing) has met with some opposition.  A writer at a conservative website in Mississippi recently argued that if the Confederate emblem is removed from the state flag then, by the same logic, we should also get rid of the Lincoln Memorial.  Read it here.

I think the author of this conservative piece needs to sit down and read the Second Inaugural and then see if he still thinks the leaders of Mississippi during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era are the moral equivalent of Lincoln.

Nice work, Otis!

Daniel Walker Howe Goes There

trump-jackson

As most of you know, many folks are comparing Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson. Frankly, the comparisons are getting a bit tiresome. But when Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Walker Howe, author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848gets into the act, we should probably pay attention.

Here is a taste of Howe’s History News Network piece “The Shameful Way Donald Trump is Life Andrew Jackson:

But the congeniality of Jackson’s nationalism to Trump’s purposes goes deeper. Jackson’s was a racial form of American nationalism. To identify as an American in Jackson’s sense was to identify with the white race. Jackson rallied his followers against the American Indians by promising that the Indians’ land would be made available for white settlement once its present occupants were “Removed.” “Indian Removal,” with capital letters, proved the principal achievement of Jackson’s presidency in its first year, and defined who his supporters and opponents would be for the rest of his term. In practice, Indian Removal meant forcible expulsion of people from their historic lands, marching them under military supervision for hundreds of miles to locations that might be very different in climate and environment from what they were accustomed to. Groups might even be relocated onto lands that had already been assigned to someone else. Indian Removal betrayed earlier government assurances that Native peoples could remain in place provided they pursued the way of life of Western Civilization and assimilated. An analogy exists to Trump’s avowed policy to round up and displace millions of “illegal immigrants.” The betrayal of the promise of assimilation to the Indians seems parallel to the betrayal of the American Dream for many of today’s immigrants, especially if they are Mexican or Muslim.

The Indians were not the only racial group targeted by Andrew Jackson. Jackson not only practiced and profited from black slavery on a large scale, as President his policies consistently supported and strengthened the institution of slavery. He halted the efforts his predecessor, John Quincy Adams, had made on behalf of international cooperation in suppressing the illegal Atlantic slave trade, though all other maritime countries approved it. When Charleston, South Carolina, would jail any free black sailors who dared come ashore from Northern or foreign ships, the Monroe administration declared the practice unconstitutional. Jackson’s administration reversed the finding.

Jackson even sacrificed white people’s freedom and privacy to prevent the delivery of antislavery publications in the South. Federal law required the United States Post Office to deliver mail to the addressee, but when Northern antislavery publications began to mail copies to Southern addresses, Jackson immediately told his Postmaster General how to prevent it. In those days people had to go to their local Post Office to pick up their mail. Put up a notice at the Post Office, he directed, saying that mail had arrived for so-and-so which the postmaster is sure they don’t want to receive. However, if they publicly request it, the mail will be given them, to comply with the law. Jackson well realized that, in the South, anyone known to request antislavery messages would be targeted for persecutions, maybe violent, until they had to move away. The Postmaster General followed Jackson’s plan, and it worked as intended. No one ever requested their antislavery mail.

Of course, President Trump probably doesn’t know a lot about President Jackson’s particular policies. But he is certainly aware that Jackson has fallen out of favor with many historians and public commentators—members of the elite that Trump likes to defy. Like Trump, Jackson came to the political system as an outsider, whose candidacy for President was not taken seriously at first by the political establishment. As a fellow “outsider” to respectable opinion, Jackson appeals to Trump.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Jason Opal

OpalJason Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University.  This interview is based on his new book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Avenging the People?

JO: I had always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson and his intense following in the United States, especially in the wake of his controversial invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida in 1818. I was also struck by the tone and vehemence of the Congressional debates that followed in early 1819. The pro-Jackson representatives talked about the “laws of nations” and the “rights of nature,” suggesting that Old Hickory symbolized a new claim to national sovereignty within the brutal world he saw.

But what made me want to dig deeper was what happened right after these debates—not the bitter controversy over slavery in Missouri, but the severe economic crisis that lasted from 1819 to 1822. Here, Jackson was an arch-conservative foe of public banks, stay laws, and other assertions of democratic sovereignty against international “laws” of commerce. Here, he rejected some of the most popular—and, in some sense, nationalistic—measures of his day. This just did not fit with the traditional view of Jackson as a patriotic champion and democratic reformer. Nor did it align with the usual critiques of Jackson, which stress his hostility to native peoples and black Americans.

So, I wanted to offer a new look at the towering enigma from Tennessee, one that stayed as close as possible to primary sources (rather than historiographical debates) and that scrutinized Jackson’s early career and political education (rather than his legendary times in the White House). I did not intend to besmirch Jackson, nor to condemn his fans. I just wanted to see what he was about, and to understand why so many Americans loved him so fiercely.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Avenging the People?

JO: I argue that Jackson led and embodied one version of American nationhood—of the American people as a nation who shared blood—that grew out of the long struggle with the British Empire and its native and black proxies during the post-Revolutionary decades. This kind of nationhood asserted American sovereignty vis-à-vis its enemies, including the right to avenge American blood around the globe, while restricting their sovereignty in times and places of peace, that is within the society they reluctantly composed.

JF: Why do we need to read Avenging the People?

JO: Especially since the United States, unlike most western democracies, still functions according to its first written Constitution (with amendments), it is always important to study the Founding era. In a way, this history is not history at all, but a kind of ongoing past.

Jackson was not one of the Founders of 1787, but he was probably the single most important figure in the later, longer rise of “democratic” models of American nationhood and popular sovereignty. Understanding that is especially important now that President Trump repeatedly and (I think) sincerely invokes Jackson’s name to authorize an “America First” course of action.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JO: I have loved history for as long as I can remember and was determined to become a history professor by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade. (One viewing of Les Misérables at the Shubert Theatre in Boston clinched it.) I honestly can’t imagine anything more compelling than the debatable record of what people have done and what it all means.

I decided to study the early United States after I took Mary Beth Norton’s class on the American Revolution at Cornell in the spring of 1996. I turned to cultural and social history after working with Jane Kamensky at Brandeis in 1999. Inspiring teachers have that effect!

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Moving to Montreal in 2009, right when I was starting this project, gave me a new vantage point on American history. It also revealed the importance of other languages, which had always been a weak point for me. I’m comfortable at last in French and am now studying Portuguese, both of which will help for my new book project, a global history of Barbados. As many early Americanists have shown, this island was the center of the early English empire and the starting point for its seventeenth-century turn to black slavery. I want to retell the island’s long ordeal by drawing in the associated histories of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British empires and of the many African nations that later gave rise to the Bajan people.

I’m also working on two collaborative projects. The first is a collection of essays on the “Patriot” rebellions of the late 1830s along the US-Canadian border. I’m writing about the economic priorities that underlay US-British rapprochement and that helped to doom the Patriots. Maxime Dagenais of McMaster University and Julien Mauduit of Université du Québec à Montréal are editing this book, which I hope will reach people in both French and English Canada and in my native country. Second, I’m writing a history of epidemic diseases and the American people with my dad, Dr. Steven Opal of the Brown University School of Medicine.

JF: Thanks, Jason

The Author’s Corner With Douglas Thompson

RichmondDouglas Thompson is Associate Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University.  This interview is based on his new book Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I never intended to write this book. A lot of the research for this project had been done for a dissertation. When I completed the Ph.D., I already had a job in a teaching university so publishing a book, particularly turning a dissertation into a book, did not register on my radar. Once I abandoned the “dream” of being a dean because it took me away from the classroom, I sketched out a research agenda that included a project on how automobiles transformed the American South. When I applied for a sabbatical, the plan was to begin the research on that project and develop an article for publication to float the idea for the larger project. Every time I sat down to work on the car project, however, I kept thinking about the Richmond research. Just before my sabbatical I pulled out the dissertation and began tearing it apart.

After a feverish month I had a chapter written and drafted out the reimagined book. I sent the chapter off to two people I trust—one a specialist in religious history and one who is not—and told them to decide whether I should pursue the book on Richmond. Both readers encouraged me to write it, so I spent the sabbatical covering some new research and writing the book. The peer review draft went to the University of Alabama Press as I came off sabbatical.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of the book?

DT: Outside the glare of the 1960s spectacles of marches, kneel-ins, and sit-ins Richmond’s ministers and congregations provide a compelling story about how white Christians wrestled with social change. Without overstating the findings, their variety of responses shed light on Christianity as an agent of change in social movements.

JF: Why do we need to read Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I wrote the book for a middle ground between academics and practitioners of Christianity. While I dislike the term microhistory, the narrow focus helps us see how events on the ground both looked like the larger civil rights narrative but also how people disrupted that story.  My hope is that people will read about how folks tried to make progress and used denominational mechanisms to bring about change but also to impede change in desegregating schools and congregations. Chapter one addresses an idea found initially in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and repeated since then that the church is not the church unless its functions in its ideal form. Even as Myrdal praised black congregations for conserving cultural identities within African American communities, he blamed white Christians for failing to condemn segregation and racism. In fact, the same forces that help black congregations sustain cultural norms also inform how white congregations might resist desegregation.

In Richmond, I found lots of Christians doing what Myrdal called for but I also found other people attempting to maintain segregation in churches. A good example of this is when white Presbyterians opened a two-week desegregated summer camp in 1957 and maintained the practice through the end of the decade and beyond, but First Presbyterian Church, Richmond spent three years trying to undo that work. The traditional way to interpret this episode is that the progressive move to desegregate was prophetic and that FPC had a conservative reaction. The problem with that simple reading is that it misses two points about desegregation. First, the presbytery had created at least two black congregations so there were children within the presbytery who would not be able to attend and it could not afford a separate camp. Second, the arguments for desegregation were not forward thinking but backward glancing. Presbytery leaders took seriously the command in the Torah, emphasized in prophets like Amos, and taught in Jesus’ treatment of the neighbor that the stranger is a son or daughter of God. The nature of the prophetic voice is not politically progressive although we tend to think about it that way. Richmond’s religious newspaper editors, ministerial association, as well as Methodists and Presbyterians present an array of approaches to desegregation. Their stories can help us understand social change and churches in our present day.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DT: I am still coming to terms with that one. There was a day not long into my sabbatical when I had written something and realized that idea was all mine. A few weeks later someone asked what I did and I responded “I am an historian” for the first time, usually I would say teacher or professor.

The other way to answer that question is to tell the story of my first semester in seminary. I had Bill Leonard—Baptist historian now at Wake Forest—for church history. Since Southern Baptist Theological Seminary did not have an official advising program, I asked Bill if he would be my adviser. Within a few weeks of the start of the relationship while visiting in his office, he asked what I was going to do with an MDiv. I said I wanted to be a campus minister. Given our conversations up to that point and the rapid changes taking place in Southern Baptist circles, he said something like “you’ll never get hired.” Talk about existential angst. In hindsight, he was correct. I drifted through classes for the next couple of weeks wondering what I was doing in seminary. Shortly before the end of the term and sitting in one of his lectures, I thought, “I want to do that.” The Ph.D. program at Virginia tweaked that idea a little more and a teaching fellowship at Mercer landed me doing what I do today.

JF: What is your next project?

DT: I have a contract with University of Georgia Press for a book tentatively titled “A Journey of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, and the Struggle for the Soul of America.” I am also in the early stages of a project on Wendell Berry. The car project is always with me.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

 

The *The Wall Street Journal* Weighs-In on the Duke Divinity School Controversy

Duke

I just came across Peter Berkowitz‘s commentary at The Wall Street Journal on the recent controversy over racial sensitivity training at Duke Divinity School.  Also check out the more than 500 comments.

I think religious-affiliated institutions, such as Christian colleges and divinity schools, are actually more prone to these kinds of controversies than secular institutions because there is a temptation to bless or Christianize identity politics as a non-negotiable part of the institutional mission.

Any discussion of the Duke Divinity School situation should begin with the fact that most Christian institutions do not uphold academic freedom in the way that the secular academy defines it.  At my institution, Messiah College, I am not free to be an atheist.  If my intellectual journey should lead me down that road, I think it would be fair for the administration to ask me to leave.  I teach at Messiah College because I do not have a problem with my academic freedom being bound by the teachings of orthodox Christianity.  In fact, I welcome such boundaries.

Paul Griffiths also seems to understand that academic freedom is limited at Duke Divinity School. In his e-mail to his faculty colleagues he writes: “We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to think, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession.”

If this is indeed the mission of Duke Divinity School, then it makes sense that those who do not uphold a belief in the “triune Lord of Christian confession” would not be welcome on the faculty.  But does a faculty member who has a legitimate critique of racial sensitivity training or does not embrace identity politics as a way of addressing race on campus, but still upholds the theological and confessional mission as stated above, still have a place in such a Christian institution? And if they do have a place in the institution, will it be a marginalized one?

So when I say that religious-affiliated institutions are more suspect to controversies over academic freedom I am referring to the potential of undermining academic freedom within the Christian tradition.

Don’t get me wrong–Griffiths did not handle this well.  But I do think that his views on racial sensitivity training should not be out of bounds at a Christian college, nor should his opposition to this training imply that he somehow doesn’t care about racial injustice on campus.