The appropriate focus of the media on today’s 20th anniversary of a horrendous event often includes reference to the phrase, never forget. The primary reason for Holocaust museums is to provide testimony so that humanity will never forget. And we should never forget such evil human phenomena as 9/11 and the Holocaust because, as George Satayana declared in The Life of Reason …
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
But here’s the rub: we cannot forget something we never knew.
I understand how someone might see my recent post, This is Why, as a pedantic rant–a rant certainly–and it has prompted some to make the case that there are other truths at play when it comes to the Black experience in present-day America, truths that might fall into the, “Things are better for Black folks now than they’ve ever been” category. So, I’ve been asked, why focus on negative things from the past? Why not celebrate the achievements of the present for Black Americans?
I concur that there are reasons to celebrate those achievements, which means that the previous questions are not inappropriate to ask.
However, there may be another reality at play as to why some individuals ask those questions. Sometimes such questions are posed as a way of deflecting attention from other truths, and in the worst case, a way for a significant portion of advantaged, educated, White America–the folks who still dominate the power structure in our country–to excuse the inexcusable. It is likely that many of us have never been made fully aware of the extent and kinds of horrors and terrors to which millions of African Americans have been subjected by White Americans for centuries, and if my non-scientific sample of one is correct in this assertion then, if Santayana was correct, we are condemned to repeat them.
The horrors to which I allude are not as common as they were in the past–not that any Boomer who graduated from then segregated Cedar Cliff High School would know this–but examples of the callous disregard of Black lives of which we have been made aware, examples that are only a tip of the proverbial iceberg, are a product of the powerful, enduring, undying legacy of the Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens‘ stated and trumpeted belief …
… in 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 conviction still lives in the minds of millions of Americans. And it is not just in the minds of “ignorant rednecks” where this godless dogma lives. All one needs to do is recognize this truth: voter registration legislation in GOP-dominated states has only one goal, and that is to remove the right to vote from as many Americans of color as possible. Only individuals who believe in the great lie “that the negro is not equal to the white man” would condone such laws. Only individuals who do not want the truth to be known about the terrorism and ethnic cleansing committed by tens of thousands of White Americans since the Civil War would condone laws that prohibit schools from teaching the full truth about America from 1860 to the present.
I was 72-years-old before I knew about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre; knew about the bodies of Black mothers, fathers, and children being stacked like cordwood in Mississippi forests in the 1870s; knew about the millions of Black Americans who escaped to the North after the Civil War and through the 20th Century because (in addition to other acts of terrorism) they no longer wanted to pass, on their morning walks to the cotton fields or orange groves, the charred remains of a black man chained to a tree.
We Northern Boomers were taught that the Civil War was about the preservation of the Union. That was certainly an outcome, but as is explained in Causes of the Civil War, “it was the economics of slavery and political control of that system that was central to the conflict.” And that system was totally predicated on the conviction held by millions of Americans and proclaimed by Stephens that “slavery—subordination to the superior race—is (the Negro’s) natural and normal condition.”
When I first journeyed to the Delaware beaches in 1956 with my parents, the schools in Sussex County, Delaware, were segregated, but I did not know the specifics of this until this year when I read In Delaware, school segregation persisted until 1967 and in other sources, that in Lewes through the 1950s, there was a White school for grades 1-12, and a Black school for grades 1-9. I did not know that until 1950, when a black high school was finally built in Georgetown, if you were Black, lived in Lewes, and wanted to go to high school, you had two options: live with extended family 90 miles away in Wilmington and attend segregated Howard High School, or live in Dover in a dormitory 40 miles from home in order to attend a segregated high school on the campus of what is now Delaware State University.
Integrating schools was something we Boomers grew up with because episodes of related conflict were in the national news beginning with President Eisenhower sending troops to integrate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most of us associated segregation as a phenomenon in the South; however, if you grew up a Boomer on the West Shore of the Susquehanna River opposite Harrisburg, as did I, you accepted without question the fact–the truth–that there were no African Americans among a population of 40,000, a phenomenon brought about by unconstitutional real estate and banking practices, which resulted in all-White schools that continued far beyond the 1950s (see: Selma).
Yes, I did know about segregated schools by the time I reached high school, and I knew about the ugliness of the decisions of Southerners like Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor thanks to network, magazine, and newspaper news coverage, but race massacres and lynchings were something about which I literally knew nothing. Rather than write about these horrific phenomena here, I will share some links that will allow you to read, should you choose to do so, about the evils that have generated within me a new interpretation of American Exceptionalism:
- Lynching (Wikipedia)
- Lynching of George White (Wilmington, Delaware, 1903)
- Lynching of Zachariah Walker (Coatesville, Pennsylvania, 1911)
- East St. Louis Riots (Wikipedia, 1917)
- Elaine Massacre (Arkansas 1919
- Chicago Race Riots (Wikipedia, 1919)
- Tulsa Race Massacre (Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921)
- 1943 Detroit Race Riot (Wikipedia)
- New York Draft Riots (New York City, 1863)
A few readings that document what I believe we should never forget:
- Lynching in America website (Equal Justice Initiative)
- White Rage by Carol Anderson
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
What follows is an excerpt from the latter title:
Contrary to modern-day assumptions, for much of the history of the United States–from the Draft Riots of the 1860s to the violence over desegregation a century later–riots were often carried out by disaffected whites against groups perceived as threats to their survival. Thus riots would become to the North what lynchings were to the South, each a display of uncontained rage by put-upon people directed toward the scapegoats of their condition. Nearly every big northern city experienced one or more during the twentieth century.
Each outbreak pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized. Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had traveled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands and looked down upon by the earlier, more sophisticated arrivals. They were essentially the same people except for the color of their skin, and many of them arrived into these anonymous receiving stations at around the same time, one set against the other and unable to see the commonality of their mutual plight.
Thus these violent clashes bore the futility of Greek tragedy. Yet the situation was even more complicated than the black migrants could have imagined. As they made their way north, so did some of the poorer whites from the South, looking not for freedom from persecution but for greater economic rewards for their hard work. Slavery and sharecropping, along with the ravages of the boll weevil and floods, had depressed the wages of every worker in the South. The call of the North drew some of the southern whites the migrants had sought to escape.
Initially, they came to the North in greater numbers, but they were much more likely to return south than colored southerners were–fewer than half of all white southerners who left actually stayed in the North for good, thus behaving more like classic migrant workers than immigrants. Still, many brought their prejudices with them and melted into the white working-class world of ethnic immigrants to make a potent advance guard against black inroads in the North.
As a window into their sentiments, a witness to the Detroit riots in 1943 gave this description of a white mob that had attacked colored people in that outbreak. “By the conversation of the men gathered there, I was able to detect that they were Southerners and that they resented Negroes working beside them and receiving the same amount of money,” the informant said, adding that these southern whites believed that the black migrants “ought to be ‘taken down a peg or two.'”
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