Have you been to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.? I have been there once. I started at the bottom floor, where the exhibits begin with the horrors of the Middle Passage, in which African abductees were brought across the Atlantic Ocean to their fate as slaves in the New World. By lunchtime, I had only made it to the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. I'll have to go back to finish. [Note: when I went, it was essential to reserve a free pass in advance. Some passes are given out the day of the visit; I got up at 6 a.m. to reserve them. It's worth looking into to avoid potential disappointment. Also, the food in the museum cafeteria is excellent.]
What struck me on that visit is how terribly little I, as an educated white person, knew about African-American history. So today, on Martin Luther King day, I took some time to learn a little more. I was helped by the morning's excellent programming on WNPR.
Most everyone knows about Frederick Douglass, eloquent leader of the abolitionist movement (and staunch supporter of women's suffrage). But how about Ida B. Wells, courageous chronicler of lynching at the turn of the 20th Century? Fed up with the wrongs, large and small, visited upon black Americans, she took up journalism and was eventually dismissed from her teaching job because of her outspokenness. After an 1892 lynching in Memphis, she commenced research on this growing domestic terrorism. Within months, she published a scathing editorial about the practice; the response was the burning of the newspaper where she worked and her forced migration north, where she continued to pursue her work tirelessly. She was greatly admired by Douglass, who wrote
Dear Miss Wells:
Let me give you thanks for your faithful paper on the Lynch abomination now generally practiced against colored people in the South. There has been no word equal to it in convincing power. I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison. ... Brave woman!
Perhaps you are familiar with Billie Holiday's 1939 recording of "Strange Fruit", a wrenching poem about lynching set to music. Holiday said she kept singing it because it reminded her of the pervasive racial injustice that was also responsible for her father's death due to withheld medical treatment. When she performed it, she required that her cafe audience be quieted so that they would hear and reflect on the words.
As part of NPR's coverage, I listened to Terry Gross interview Bryan Stevenson on Fresh Air. (Perhaps you saw his commencement address at Wesleyan in 2016. Now you can see the movie dramatization of his memoir, Just Mercy, at Metro Movies 12). Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and founder of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama. The Memorial honors the memory of over 4000 victims of lynching from 1877-1950. By all accounts, it is a powerful attempt to make tangible the otherwise unfathomable horrors perpetrated against African-Americans in post-Civil War America.
Most of us are familiar to some degree with Jim Crow Laws that states used to enforce segregation. We tend to think of these outrages as strictly state and local laws. But during the 1930s and 1940s, as the federal government expanded its role in supporting an economically stressed society with new programs and safeguards, the Federal Housing Administration worked in concert with segregationists throughout the nation to ensure that African Americans were corralled in less desirable sections of America's cities. The Agency's Underwriting Manual made clear its support of segregation; an article on the subject states that "the Manual went so far as to include an example of a restrictive covenant that would conform to FHA standards, primary among which was a prohibition against selling to a buyer of a different race than the seller. Numerous other agency publications characterized restrictive covenants as vital tools of property protection that should be used to safeguard all new suburban developments from black encrachment." Segregation was federal policy, too.
From the NPR coverage, I learned about the "Children's Crusade" of 1963, in which thousands of children converged on Birmingham, Alabama, only to be greeted by the water cannons and attack dogs of police chief Eugene "Bull" Connor. From an eyewitness report in an article about the 50th anniversary in 2013:
Jessie Shepherd, then 16, was soaked when she was loaded up in a paddy wagon. “I was told not to participate,” says Shepherd, now a retired clinical diet technician. “But I was tired of the injustice.”
“I couldn’t understand why there had to be a colored fountain and a white fountain,” says Shepherd. “Why couldn’t I drink out the fountain that other little kids drank out of? As I got older, I understood that’s just the way it was, because my skin was black, and we were treated differently because of that.”Organized by Martin Luther King, this was a turning point in public opinion. Hundreds of children were arrested and threatened with expulsion from school. But within a few days, the city had stood down and Connor, who two years before had lost the Alabama gubernatorial nomination to the less extreme (!) George Wallace, was relieved of his position. The year after King's risky but successful gambit was his "I Have a Dream" speech, his "Man of the Year" award, and his Nobel Peace Prize. In 1964, the senate voted to terminate a 54-day filibuster of the Civil Rights Act, legislation that had been promoted by President Kennedy but which had languished since his assassination the year before.
I hope my black friends will cut me a little slack for not having integrated this pivotal event into my understanding of the civil rights movement. I was about to turn six at the time, but of course that's no excuse. A few years later, I had teachers in Junior High and High school who challenged my understanding of race in my white little California town, but the civil rights movement and its aftermath were remote from my experience and too fresh to have been integrated into the curriculum. And somehow I never got caught up.
Neither did some parts of the United States. The Alabama constitution, the longest in the world and three times longer than the longest national constitution (India's), contains to this day a section requiring that "separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race." Efforts to amend the constitution to eliminate this distasteful language in 2004 and 2012 failed. The requirement is unenforceable thanks to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The state's response to this decision was to successfully amend the constitution to state that Alabama does not guarantee a public education.
It is astonishing that so many of us, myself included, are so poorly acquainted with the history of the struggle for civil rights in the United States of America. To move the needle a little and provoke a public discussion, the New York Times in August launched its "1619 Project", the 400th anniversary of the first conveyance of slaves to North America. Its stated goal is to "reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative." It commences with an article by Nikole Hannah-Jones that is well worth reading.
The project has indeed provoked a public discussion, as well as pushback. Some of it is out in the open, but more often it takes the form of linguistic contortions. Take Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, founded by abolitionists and open from its founding in 1844 to blacks and women. Its president, Larry P. Arnn, worries about "freedom" so much that he feels compelled to misrepresent the 1619 project. In an email to subscribers to his newsletter, he wrote
Last month, the New York Times launched its “1619 Project”—a series of essays intended to influence the curricula of schools nationwide. Its goal is to place the founding of America in 1619, when the first slave arrived in Jamestown, rather than in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal” and endowed by God with “unalienable rights.”
Why would the New York Times want to teach young people that slavery is the central fact of American history, rather than the Declaration of Independence, whose principles are responsible for the abolition of slavery and for the preservation of our liberties for nearly 250 years?
The reason is that they have an ideological agenda: the authors of the “1619 Project” want to replace limited government under the Constitution, which was designed to preserve our “unalienable rights,” with a government of unlimited powers that will remake society in accordance with their ever-changing ideas of “progress.”
The flagship essay of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” claims that “our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” What if a majority of Americans come to agree with that? What if a majority of Americans decide to discard the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution?
Let’s never find out.That sounds properly pious and all, but it involves a wholesale misrepresentation of the Project's intent. True, the title of Hannah-Jones' essay begins: "Our democracy's founding ideals were false when they were written." But it continues, "Black Americans have fought to make them true." She is referring to the statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" -- the same one Arnn cites -- which was manifestly disingenuous until slavery was abolished. Arnn twists her words so that he can rant about socialists, whom he sees behind every tree the way Joe McCarthy saw communists. It is shameful that a self-styled educator of civic responsibility would rely on the informed ignorance of his readers to pull off such a stunt.
But no amount of dissembling or changing of the subject can change the history. The United States was the third-to-last nation to abolish slavery, followed only by Cuba and Brazil. It dragged its feet and delayed for another hundred years after passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Now demands for "law and order" at a time when crime rates are low mask the nearly universal terrororizing of black men. Please listen to today's Fresh Air broadcast for Bryan Stevenson's stories of his personal experiences, which arrange from humiliating to harrowing. Pretend you are an accomplished attorney who has argued multiple cases before the Supreme Court, as Stevenson has, and reflect on how those experiences would make you feel. Then try them on as a jobless high school dropout in one of the impoverished jurisdictions the FHA collaborated in creating.
In Germany, you will find no monuments to the leaders of its apartheid regime and its persecution of, and eventual effort to exterminate, an ethnic minority. Instead, you will find Stolpersteine ("stumbling blocks"), inconspicuous markers that must be "stumbled upon", denoting the location of the dwellings of the victims of Nazi persecution. In the United States, we are only now beginning to have a robust discussion of the modern-day importance of Civil War monuments and state flags that contain the Confederate battle flag. Imagine yourself a young black child -- can you do it? -- being taught in public school the importance of properly honoring that flag, along with secessionist heroes such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
The Confederate battle flag continues to serve as a lightning rod for conflict around the unresolved issue of slavery and the full participation of African Americans in the bountiful nation their ancestors' unremunerated labor helped to create. It served and serves as an inspiration for white nationalists such as the shooter in the Charleston church massacre, an event that drove one woman to climb the flagpole outside the State House in South Carolina to bring it down. Bree Newsome's act was one of several that has jump-started a renewed conversation about a dark past that shadows black Americans but which many white Americans continue to ignore. I encourage you to come see her speak on Friday at Wesleyan University, at 12:30 in Crowell Concert Hall. I believe that knowledge of the history of black Americans is essential for all Americans to understand and help shape America's trajectory.