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HomeCommentaryOp-edBlack History Month, Part 4: Replacing the Comfortable Story

Black History Month, Part 4: Replacing the Comfortable Story

Frank Schneiger
Frank Schneiger

Everyone knows Columbus discovered America, right? That is why we have Columbus Day, the day on which Italian-Americans celebrate the birth of a Spanish Jew who brought venereal disease to the new world. As Steven Colbert has pointed out, it took Columbus three ships crossing the ocean to discover America, while all the Indians had to do was look down on the ground, and they still couldn’t discover it.

This is why when studying history, we must be on guard against crackpot theories, like those that denigrate Columbus and his achievements.

But, back to black history. For most of the century after the Civil War, American history, as it relates to race, was dominated by the nice white man, slavery wasn’t bad, Reconstruction was a disaster, one that demonstrated black inferiority, and post-Reconstruction straightened things out again until the trouble with the civil rights movement view of things. This was known as the Ulrich Phillips School of History.

This version of history was taught in schools and colleges throughout the United States. It began to change in the 1950s, in part with the publication of a book on slavery, “The Peculiar Institution” by historian Kenneth Stampp. Without over-generalizing, Stampp essentially said that the Phillips school and its benign view of slavery was bullshit, that slavery was a vicious and cruel system that was not a “natural” way of life for black people. (It is an interesting sign of the times that Stampp felt it necessary to justify decent treatment of black people by asserting that deep down inside, everyone is white.)

The floodgates now opened to a long-needed reconsideration of our country’s racial history, something that is painful for any people, especially when it bumps up against their founding myths, “liberty and equality, one nation, liberty and justice for all.”

In the modern history, slavery was always the central issue that was testing the union, and the path to disunion and civil war started early in the 19th century. Slavery was a brutal system that dehumanized a whole race of people, in part to justify their terrible treatment (Ira Berlin, “Generations of Captivity” and “Many Thousands Gone.”) The country could not hold together, and the Civil War put an end to slavery.

Then, contrary to the popular view of Reconstruction as a failure, we learn from the works of Eric Foner, and, most recently, Richard White (“The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstructionand the Gilded Age”) that the end of the war and the withdrawal of federal troops triggered a reign of white terror and the re-imposition of what Douglas Blackmon labeled “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War Two.”

It is very likely that the period between the end of the Civil War and the civil rights movement will be seen as a dark era in American history. One of oppression and violence, which, in the end, triggered one of the great mass migrations in human history, the flight of black people from southern terror. Bryan Stephenson, one of our country’s great citizens, (“Just Mercy”) tells the story of lynching as a central feature of southern life. In another history, “Blood at the Root,” Patrick Phillips tells the story of Forsyth County, Georgia, which in 1912 had a black population of 1,100 citizens, and in 1913, had a population of zero black citizens. The result was what Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) describes as “the epic story of America’s great migration.”

Which brings us to the civil rights period and the post-civil rights era of backlash, retrenchment and reaction. There is often a debate about the “great person theory of history,” but there can be little doubt (although, there is actually a lot) that this era, and its enormous achievements, can’t be explained without Martin Luther King Jr., one of a handful of great Americans in the Twentieth Century.

With his holiday and a statue, King is being sanitized and made safe. He was not safe, and his message of militant non-violent protest was not widely accepted (“At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68,” Taylor Branch). And, an important story from that period is the splitting apart of the civil rights movement and the rise of the Black Power Movement.

Here, there is a brief period of history that needs to be further examined. A parallel: Black people frequently identify with the struggles of the Palestinians. Unfortunately, some of this is anti-Semitism, but there are similarities in being an oppressed people. The Palestinians have never had a Martin Luther King, with a powerful and non-violent moral message. Instead, they have had lots of Stokely Carmichaels and Rap Browns. It hasn’t worked out very well, nor did it work out very well in this country.

And, finally to our era, the period from the civil rights movement to the present.

At issue are three sentences in Sen. Trent Lott’s tribute last Thursday to Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who ran for president in 1948 on a Dixiecrat platform opposing ”social intermingling of the races.” With Thurmond by his side, Lott, Republican of Mississippi, said:

”I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

Part 5: It is worth thinking about the current period as the time between the passage of the Civil

and Voting Rights Acts in the mid-1960s and today – basically the past half century. These laws were among the greatest achievements in American history, wiping out centuries of legal racism. But, as is the case of all social progress, they triggered a reaction.

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