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Posts Tagged ‘African Americans History’

The Security State, COINTELPRO, and Black Lives Matter

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI.(Photo: NYT/NARA)

The revelations reported over the last several weeks that various federal, state, and local authorities have been regularly monitoring individual organizers and protest activities associated with the Black Lives Matter movement may seem unsurprising in light of the expansive American state security infrastructure developed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Such covert operations nonetheless remain deeply disturbing. They are embedded in a long history of government officials equating civil rights activism with subversion and of a mindset that understands black leaders and black citizens as dangerous when they demand an end to the racism underpinning the socioeconomic and political order of the United States.

Arguably that mindset dates back to the era of slavery, when whites patrolled for and snuffed out signs of potential unrest among the enslaved, understood black churches and ministers as possible agents of dissent, and tried to embargo word of international events like the Haitian Revolution and British abolition lest enslaved people get any ideas. But nothing in recent memory more clearly demonstrates how concerns about threats originating abroad can bleed into government efforts to contain black domestic activism than the project known as COINTELPRO.

Shorthand for Counter Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO formally began in 1956 as a secret program led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Its goal was to infiltrate the Communist Party USA, disrupt its activities, and monitor its members for signs that they agitated against the American government or even fed intelligence to the Soviet Union. Within months, however, Hoover had begun widening the purview of COINTELPRO, and by the late 1960s the FBI’s targets included a large number of individuals and groups Hoover and his agents considered “subversive.” These sometimes included white supremacist and hate groups on the far right, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the National States’ Rights Party, and the American Nazi Party. But far more frequently, domestic organizations targeted by COINTELPRO were leftist groups associated with socialism, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s rights movement.

None of the activities falling under the COINTELPRO umbrella, however, were more notorious or extensive than those directed at the black civil rights movement. The FBI had been monitoring black leaders of the burgeoning movement long before 1956, claiming that they harbored communists in their ranks. But over the course of the ensuing fifteen years, agents of the COINTELPRO program trained their sights on almost every organization and individual working on behalf of black civil rights. Suspicions of communism gradually became little more than a pretext for clamping down on protest, and in 1967 COINTELPRO undertook an operation entirely focused on black activism. Ostensibly created in response to growing black nationalist and black power movements in the United States, the operation not only targeted groups willing to countenance relatively radical ideas and activities such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Black Panther Party, and the Nation of Islam, but also mainstream groups like the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the NAACP.

The directive creating the “racial intelligence” operation made no pretenses about its aims, which were to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of civil rights organizations and to frustrate the “efforts of the various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents.” Although the directive claimed that the organizations most heavily targeted were “hate-type organizations and groupings” with a “propensity for violence and civil disorder,” few people came under greater scrutiny than Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to King’s assassination in 1968, the FBI bugged King’s home and every hotel room in which he stayed, sent him audio recordings that supposedly captured his adulterous liaisons along with a blackmail letter urging him to commit suicide, and smeared him publicly as a communist and a “notorious liar.”

These tactics, nasty as they were, barely begin to capture the range of COINTELPRO’s activities, which included rooting through people’s mail and trash, breaking into organizational offices and the homes of individuals to conduct searches, planting false rumors and informants to turn activists and groups against one another, creating false documents and correspondence, attempting to get people fired from their jobs, fabricating evidence and perjured testimony at trials, carrying out acts of vandalism, soliciting beatings and sometimes assassinations, and otherwise engaging in a campaign of nearly unrestrained harassment, psychological warfare, and violence.

COINTELPRO might have continued indefinitely had it not been for a group of citizen activists who broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania early in 1971, stole a number of incriminating documents, and released them to the press. The ferocity of the ensuing criticism led Hoover to announce several months later that COINTELPRO had ceased to exist. But resignations, lawsuits, and investigations followed for years, and in 1976 a Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church investigated the FBI generally and COINTELPRO specifically. Its report blasted the entire American intelligence community for engaging in domestic activities that went well beyond the boundaries of what was either acceptable or legal. Senior intelligence officials, the report concluded, sanctioned operations that routinely violated Americans’ constitutional rights and failed entirely to control field agents, who often neglected to consider the law and sometimes purposefully violated it.

With regard to COINTELPRO in particular, the Church Committee concluded that “many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that.” The FBI, the Committee reported, had been less involved in legitimate counterintelligence than it had been conducting “a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”

The exposure of COINTELPRO substantiated legitimate and accurate accusations about government abuses that had been floated for years. If it also lent credence to some wilder claims about government surveillance and repression that likely amount to conspiracy theories, the FBI has only itself to blame. Moreover, while public knowledge of COINTELPRO helped produce some reforms of American intelligence agencies, a number of the tactics used under COINTELPRO to investigate domestic activists and their organizations continued long after the program formally ended. Today, government officials scrutinizing those in the Black Lives Matter movement who stand on the front lines of the battle against white supremacy might be wise to direct more of their time and resources toward monitoring right-wing racist and antigovernment extremists, who have carried out nineteen lethal attacks resulting in the deaths of nearly fifty people since 2001. That is what a genuine domestic threat looks like.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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Race to Nowhere

For over a century, black elites have pushed improved “race relations” instead of redistribution as the solution to inequality.

Jacobin  Issue 18 Summer 2015

“The Union as It Was. The Lost Cause, Worse than Slavery.” Illustration by Thomas Nast, 1874.

The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

When black progressives today think about the Civil War, they are often more struck by what didn’t happen than what did.

Michelle Alexander’s much-lauded The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a case in point. Citing W. E. B. Du Bois’s lament that “former slaves had ‘a brief moment in the sun’ before they were returned to a status akin to slavery,” Alexander intimates that abolitionists failed to see that slavery was just one instance in a series of forms of “racialized social control” that not only have reappeared, but have also “evolved” and “become perfected, arguably more resilient to challenge, and thus capable of enduring for generations to come.”

What this narrative of unremitting bleakness overlooks is that the South chose armed rebellion in order to maintain political control over its system of labor — a system that enslaved blacks while impoverishing white agricultural and industrial laborers. From the standpoint of Southern planters and industrialists, the most terrifying prospect of emancipation was the possibility that laborers, black and white, would eschew elite guidance and wield political power in the form of the ballot and office-holding to further their own interests.

It came as no surprise, then, that when former slaves did begin to make this prospect a reality, Southern elites responded not only with violence and political fraud, but also with an intellectual campaign carried out in newspapers, journals, fiction, poetry, and historical writing to demonstrate the incapacity of blacks for self-government and the corruption that would ensue when the unlettered and inexperienced held the reins of power.

What is more surprising, if lesser known, is the role that many black elites (along with their sympathetic white counterparts) played in ratifying aspects of white reactionary thought toward the end of the nineteenth century. Some twenty-five years after Appomattox the fact that black men and unpropertied whites could vote made possible the rise of the Populist Movement, which directly challenged the economic order of the South by “proposing to substitute popular rule for the rule of capital.”

Black elites, whose political viability depended on their perceived legitimacy as “race leaders,” were disturbed by the reality of poor blacks acting politically without their guidance or sanction. And when the planter and industrial elite struck back against Populism with violence and disfranchisement — a backlash that tended to make all blacks, and not merely workers, its target — black elites sought to meliorate these effects by proposing a transformation — not of the economic basis of society, but rather of the black image in the white mind — to improve “race relations.”

Indeed for nearly 130 years, black elites in the United States have been offering up improved “race relations” rather then interracial workers alliances against capital as the primary solution to American inequality.

From the moment the Civil War ended, the question of what an American society without slavery would look like dominated political discussion. If the inaugural issue of the Nation magazine opined that“Nobody whose opinion is of any consequence, maintains any longer that [blacks’] claim to political equality is not a sound one,” the actual picture was more complicated.

While many black commentators and freedmen expected emancipation to usher black Americans fully and without restriction into the nation’s civic, social, and economic life, relatively few white Americans — even among those who abhorred slavery and championed the freedman’s political rights — felt similarly.

And while many Americans, black and white, celebrated the idea that the freedmen would now be able to join the ranks of wage laborers, few of either race saw this change as a significant step towards enhancing the political and economic power of workers generally against employers and landowners in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Recent commentary on the limits of emancipation has typically made much of the lack of racial egalitarianism within the Republican Party and even among abolitionists, seeing within this the seeds of subsequent political defeats.

On this account what made the Civil War and the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s something like “non-events” (and what could likewise undermine any success at ending mass incarceration) was the failure to, as Michelle Alexander puts it, “address . . . racial divisions and resentments,” which thereby allowed the next “system of racialized social control [to] emerge.”

In bringing slavery to an end the Civil War opened up contestation not only over the place that former slaves would have in American society, but also over the role that wage earners and women would play in a post-slavery political order.

Jacobin-Series-3bdd91b95cfc219305403acaa1630163

Egalitarian visions, however, were met by concerted forces that did not want the end of slavery to lead to the complete emancipation of wage laborers. That is, any newly won freedoms should not address the way that market coercion severely limited the capacity of working Americans to control their lives and destinies. And while this limitation would ultimately prove equally consequential for the subsequent history of social justice, it has often been hidden by the significant shadow cast by the narrative of American racism and white supremacy.

When John William De Forest, a former Union officer and Freedman’s Bureau administrator, published his 1867 novel Miss Ravenal’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty — which is perhaps the only significant novel about the Civil War written by an actual combatant — he sought, among other things, to champion a view that the “victory of the North is at bottom the triumph of laboring men living by their own industry, over non-laboring men who wanted to live by the industry of others.”

Steeped in the free labor ideology of the North, De Forest’s novel spliced a love story onto a realist account of the war in a way that reflected even as it sought to suppress tensions within the idea of free labor that had come to mark the difference between North and South.

In finally uniting the book’s hero Captain Edward Colburne of the Union army with erstwhile Southern sympathizer, Miss Lillie Ravenal, whom he has loved from the beginning of the novel, De Forest reveals that his view of the ideal free laborer was less the “propertyless proletarian” whose “freedom derived not from the ownership of productive property but from the unfettered sale of . . . labor power — itself a commodity — in a competitive market” than the “independent proprietor,” who had long been identified as being independent enough to secure the freedom of thought and action necessary for responsible citizenship.

We can see the inadequacy of wage labor in Colburne’s assessment of his economic situation after the war. Here we learn that “his salary as captain” had enabled him “to lay up next to nothing,” and that rising gold prices had diminished “the cash value” of what salary he did earn.

These dire prospects, however, do not turn out to be ultimately damning. Trained as a lawyer and in possession of a small inheritance from his dead father, Colburne, by partnering with a colleague, is able in short order to find himself “in possession of a promising if not an opulent business” and is ready to assume his role as head of household with the widowed Lillie Ravenal as his wife and her son as his stepson.

As the novel moves toward a full elaboration of its vision of free labor, it also leaves by the wayside the attempt by Lillie’s father, Dr Ravenal, to reconstruct black labor. Despite being born in South Carolina and having resided in New Orleans for twenty years, Dr Ravenal is a staunch Union man. At a moment when it appears that the Union forces have secured the area around New Orleans, Dr Ravenal determines to demonstrate the superiority of free labor to slave labor by eagerly taking charge of a plantation leased to him by the federal government. His responsibility, as he sees it, is not only economic, but also ideological and pedagogical. To be successful he must “produce not only a crop of corn and potatoes, but a race of intelligent, industrious and virtuous laborers.”

So, with lectures to the ex-slaves about the virtue of labor, sobriety, and the like, Dr Ravenal sets out to put black labor to work for wages. A Confederate counterattack cuts short his “grand experiment of freedman’s labor,” but not before the novel has had time enough to make clear its view that while reconstructing black labor may ultimately succeed, the effort will take time because the habits and attitudes ingrained by a history of enslavement will not disappear overnight.

Contrasting the realities of the South as he sees it to the “pure fiction” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, Dr Ravenal asserts, “There never was such a slave, and there never will be. A man educated under the degrading influences of bondage must always have some taint of uncommon grossness and lowness.” De Forest reiterated this vision in his reflections on his experience with Reconstruction in South Carolina, observing that “the Negro’s acquisition of property, and of those qualities which command the industry of others, will be slow. What better could be expected of a serf so lately manumitted?”

Undergirding De Forest’s vision of black freedmen gradually acquiring the skills and habits necessary to become prosperous cooperative laborers is what Eric Foner terms free labor’s belief that “a harmony of interests” defined the relation of capital to labor. The conditions necessary for capital to profit from its outlays were deemed to be those that were most conducive to the flourishing of labor. Class conflict could be imagined only in terms of deficiencies of character among the uncooperative.

Thus, despite their sympathies for the freedmen, black and white elites in the North generally embraced a view of the recently emancipated as a population in need of tutelage and leadership rather than as peers who had the capacity to present their own visions of social and economic life.

Black novelist, former abolitionist, and temperance advocate Frances E. W. Harper begins her 1892 novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, with depictions of illiterate and semi-literate black slaves debating among themselves the best course of action to take in response to the approaching Union army.

However, by the later chapters of that novel, as she seeks to validate genteel black leadership, a less flattering view of freed people emerges. In one instance Harper has one of her exemplary black characters respond to a claim in the newspaper that “colored women were becoming unfit to be servants for white people,” by concluding “that if they are not fit to be servants for white people, they are unfit to be mothers to their own children.”

This character’s readiness to interpret the uncooperativeness of black domestics as indication of debility is of a piece with the novel’s larger attempt to present black labor as educable and not rebellious. As we learn from another of the novel’s admirable characters, “the Negro is not plotting in beer-salons against the peace and order of society. His fingers are not dripping with dynamite, neither is he spitting upon your flag, nor flaunting the red banner of anarchy in your face.”

These sentiments were echoed by black social reformer, Anna Julia Cooper, in her landmark 1892 work of cultural commentary, A Voice From the South, which famously asserted that it would only be when the black woman was able to enter into American society on terms of equality that true social justice would be achieved. While on Cooper’s account genteel black women should expect acceptance as full equals, laboring blacks were to be prized for racial qualities that guaranteed their capacity as tractable workers.

Cooper writes that the Negro’s “Instinct for law and order, his inborn respect for authority, his inaptitude for rioting and anarchy, his gentleness and cheerfulness as a laborer, and his deep-rooted faith in God will prove indispensable and invaluable elements in a nation menaced as America is by anarchy, socialism, communism, and skepticism poured in with all the jail birds from the continents of Europe and Asia.”

To be sure black workers were not often met with open arms by their white counterparts. And it was not always the case that black novelists assumed innate antagonism between black and white laborers. J. McHenry Jones’s 1896 novel, Hearts of Gold, depicts Welsh miners in a Southern town who, moved by their sense that convict labor “degraded” labor generally and by “a deep-seated hatred . . . against systematic cruelty,” harbor a black runaway from a convict labor camp and then march en masse to destroy the camp and liberate its inmates.

Nonetheless, the representational tendency to align black Southern labor with the interests of their employers also reflected the continued commitment of black elites to the idea “that a community of equal men could be created by allying labor (blacks) and capital to produce material progress and enlightenment,” rather than by allying black laborers with their white counterparts. Instead of building the political power of labor, they called for building the integrity and esteem of the black race.

But whether these representations of black and white labor were disparaging or laudatory, what connected them was that they were, in some way or another, a response to the rise of the Southern Alliance in the 1880s, which was followed by the emergence of the Populist Party in the 1890s.

More to the point, according to Judith Stein, the Southern Alliance was paralleled by and helped fuel the Colored Farmers Alliance, which grew to encompass more than a million black farmers by the early 1890s. While in many cases the political organization of black farm laborers strengthened the hand of black political elites in seeking concessions from white industrialists and landowners, the efficacy of these alliances also challenged the ability of these elites to set the terms and goals of black political activity.

Black elites had sought to assure whites in both the South and the North that black political participation was consistent with the idea of rule by the “best” men of society. In principle then, if not always in fact, the stance of black political elites placed them at odds with the idea that relatively uneducated laborers could wield political power effectively. Thus, in novel after novel produced by the black political class, writers inserted scenes where unschooled black laborers pleaded for the leadership and guidance of their black genteel betters.

Of course, the most egregious disparager of interracial labor alliances against capital was Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Indeed, historian Michael Rudolph West has credited Washington with inventing “race relations.” Washington’s 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, attributed Southern labor unrest to the interference of “professional labour agitators” who had their eyes on the savings of thrifty workers and goaded them into going out on strikes that would leave them “worse off at the end.”

Washington’s rise as a political force in the South coincided with the rise of Populism. The ability of Populists to mount successful political challenges to Southern Democrats depended on the votes of black Alliance members.

It was their awareness of this fact that drove white industrialists and planters in the 1890s to secure the dominance of the Democratic Party by pursuing across-the-board disfranchisement of blacks as well as many poor whites. Jim Crow America was the result of a successful counterrevolution against an interracial labor threat — a counterrevolution aided and abetted by the rise of Bookerism and the Tuskegee Machine.

What Tuskegee represented as an institution, and what Up From Slavery testified to as a program, was the idea that the problem of the South was not primarily a problem of who held political power, but rather one of determining how best to incorporate a despised caste into the social and economic fabric of the nation. In the place of political transformation Washington offered up race relations, with Tuskegee positioned to provide an army of “trained men and women to confront the militancy of an industrial proletariat.”

Viewed against the rise of Populism one can see that the Civil War, by granting blacks political rights, set the stage for what would become one of the most profound challenges to capital in the history of the United States. That the Populist challenge was defeated does not diminish its significance. And given that it was only after the defeat of Populism that disfranchisement and Jim Crow were able to succeed suggests the potential instructiveness of that history for the present moment, a history that does not attest simply to the periodic reemergence of white supremacy across time as Alexander and so many others have alleged.

Rather, if racialized forms of exclusion tend to rise in the wake of successful efforts by industrial and financial interests to undermine the political power of labor, to make our primary task that of addressing “racial divisions and resentments,” as Alexander calls for, risks giving pride of place to a new era of race relations, and not the broader vision of social justice that she describes at the end of The New Jim Crow.

Then, as now, the most reliable path to a progressive politics that produces true justice and human rights is that which begins with building the political power of workers. It is this proposition that has often made elite opponents of white supremacy — both black and white — deeply uncomfortable.

Kenneth W. Warren is a professor of English at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is What Was African American Literature?

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The Cold Cases of the Jim Crow Era

The New York Times  August 28, 2015
At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

In March 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from a desperate mother. Her son, who was black, had been killed two years earlier, his body pulled from a river near Pickens, Miss.

“I am sending a contract in regards to the lynching of my son Willie Jack Heggard,” wrote Jane Heggard. “I have tried every way to have a trial, but no lawyer will accept the case, because a white man killed an innocent man.”

Despite her plea, it is unlikely we will ever know who killed Ms. Heggard’s son. Roosevelt’s assistant attorney general said it was up to the state of Mississippi, which apparently failed to investigate the crime. Like the thousands of Latin American “desaparecidos” who were terrorized in the 1970s and ’80s, Willie Jack Heggard is among America’s “disappeared,” one of hundreds of black Americans who were victims of racial violence from 1930 to 1960.

Our opportunity to capture their stories — and an important part of our nation’s history — is quickly vanishing as memories fade, witnesses die and evidence disappears. Time is running out to achieve some measure of justice.

For the past seven years, we have traveled throughout the South to document these cold cases. Many of the documents — sworn statements, court transcripts and coroners’ reports — are stored in dusty courthouses, threatened by fires, floods and rodents. Compared with the relatively robust archive on lynchings between 1882 and 1930, researchers have not fully explored the social and political costs of racial violence during the 30 years before 1960.

In 2008, Congress acknowledged this gap in our historical knowledge and passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named for the 14-year-old boy who was pulled from his bed in Mississippi on Aug. 28, 1955, tortured and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. His case has not been fully resolved, although his killers confessed to a magazine in exchange for $4,000. The Emmett Till act authorizes the Department of Justice to coordinate with local authorities and investigate racially motivated homicides that occurred before 1970.

The problem is, the act has not been adequately funded, and its narrow focus on viable prosecutions limits its efficacy. Many homicides can no longer be prosecuted. In some cases, the government has limited federal jurisdiction. In others, witnesses and perpetrators have died. This year, the Department of Justice reported that it had completed just 105 investigations and three prosecutions over the past several years.

Clearly, the federal government needs to expand the act’s focus. Even if they are largely symbolic, prosecutions themselves are a form of truth telling, and require local governments who often ignored or sanctioned the killings to help re-examine this history.

In addition, prosecutions should be considered alongside remedies like truth commissions, restitution and official apologies which acknowledge that these murders were part of a pattern of intimidation against entire communities, intended to stifle full citizenship. Finally, along with better funding for the Till act, President Obama and Congress should establish an initiative to collect oral histories from this period.

It wouldn’t be the first time the federal government has undertaken a large oral history project. From 1936 to 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project conducted over 2,300 interviews with elderly former slaves. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 funded oral histories and gave reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. In 2000, Congress created the Veterans History Project so Americans could “better understand the realities of war.”

And several states — including North Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida — have already sponsored commissions on race riots before 1930 that attempted to assess the long-term impact of the murders, looting, arson and other property damage that ruined thriving African-American communities. Some recommended monetary reparations, economic redevelopment or commemorative monuments. Not all of the solutions were implemented, but the work itself was a significant step forward.

Some countries are confronting shameful episodes in their histories that had been intentionally ignored. In 2007, Spain passed the Law of Historical Memory to recognize those who suffered under Franco, which has supported the exhumation of graves from that era. In June, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the decades-long abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools “cultural genocide.”

A full accounting of the past may evoke shame, pain and impulses to remember and forget. But an acknowledgment that this legacy of violence still haunts African-American communities may foster more productive conversations and help generate trust in our legal system.

Emmett Till, who was killed 60 years ago today, is a victim whose story we know. His name endures because his mother “wanted the world to see what they did.” His memory beckons us to learn the fate of hundreds of others, like Willie Jack Heggard. We must find America’s disappeared, learn their stories and allow them to live in our history.

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Lyndon B. Johnson-Remarks on the Signing of the Voting Rights Act (August 6, 1965)

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“Everybody’s talking bout…” – The Music of Nina Simone for Today’s Frustrations

It has been a year since the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Their deaths kicked off a movement challenging police brutality.  From the deaths of Garner and Brown slogans like: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” “I Can’t Breathe!” and most notably “Black Lives Matter” arose to proclaim the value of Black lives in the midst of an overwhelming tide of racial violence.  One year later, the list of victims keeps growing.  Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, the murder of the Charleston Nine at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church, Sandra Bland in Texas, Sam DuBose in Cincinnati, and many others keep engaging the conversation on the value of Black lives.  New hashtags like “#SayHerName and #IfIdieinpolicecustody reflect what has become a disturbing reality.  In one year the list as well as people’s frustration keeps growing.

On any given day, I can open up my Facebook newsfeed, and see a diverse list of postings from militant outrage to statements proclaiming love, compassion, and understanding are the answers to people decrying that Black people must value their own lives first to the questioning of whether the victims truly met the standard of etiquette as dictated in politics of respectability.  A post by one of my friends punched through the noise of Facebook.  She recently attended an event in a local national park.  When she left the party, she unwittingly drove in the wrong direction and was stopped by Park Police.  In that moment, she was absolutely terrified.  In that moment, she realized that any action might be misconstrued by the police officer, and she could become the next victim.  The traffic stop went surprisingly well, yet my friend’s experience reflects the nature of the times.

My colleague Rhon Manigault-Bryant posted “Life Goes On:” A Meditation from Howard Thurman as a source of solace.  I have also found the writings of Howard Thurman, but at this particular moment I find myself in need of a stronger expression of what I can best describe as righteous indignation.  Approximately 50 years ago, Nina Simone captured her frustration with the violence against Blacks in her iconic song “Mississippi Goddam.”   The song is a melodic indictment of the violence, the calls for Blacks to act respectably, and the requests for slow methodic change.  The song would ultimately have a deleterious effect on Simone’s career, but it remains a significant musical expression of the Civil Rights era.

Noelle Trent

UntitledNoelle Trent recently earned her doctorate in American history at Howard University. Her dissertation, “Frederick Douglass and the Making of American Exceptionalism,” examines how noted African-American abolitionist and activist, Frederick Douglass, influenced the development of the American ideas of liberty, equality, and individualism which later coalesced to form the ideology of American exceptionalism. Dr. Trent also holds a Master’s degree in Public History from Howard University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She has worked with several noted organizations and projects, including the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Park Service, Catherine B. Reynolds Civil War Washington Teacher’s Fellows, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History. She has presented papers and lectures at the American Historical Association, Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Lincoln Forum, and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. She currently resides in suburbs of Washington, DC.

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Why Are So Many Distraught to Learn that Slavery Was the Cause of the Civil War? 

HNN   July 19, 2015

We would all like to be able to believe stories and events that we have heard throughout our life. Regardless of where we acquire them, no one likes to feel as though they need to fact check. In history as well as other disciplines, the need to corroborate the narrative is simply a given. We refer to this study as historiography. Essentially the examination of not just the history, but who is telling the history. Who are the individuals, are they objective in recording the events, and do they have biases that would alter what we would otherwise take as truth? More importantly, it is an excellent life lesson, being able to be critical in a constructive manner. In other words, not being gullible.

I always begin the semester by showing my classes a clip of Ron Paul giving a lecture on the origins of the Civil War. To sum up this lengthy talk, he is advocating that the Civil War was fought solely based on state’s rights issues, little to do with slavery. That being said, today nearly all scholars would argue that this belief is a complete fallacy. The catalyst for the Civil War was one hundred percent based on the issue of slavery, more specifically the expansion of such. However, the more imperative issue I try to convey to my students is who wrote such a narrative that made its way into our country’s story and there became taken as truth?

The answer is actually surprisingly simple, the losers. There was a massive campaign throughout the South, years following the Civil War, to illustrate the South did not fight for such an institution, but for individual rights. The comparison of the South to our Founding Father’s similar fight during the American Revolution is a noteworthy example. Of course, over time this becomes even more deeply engrained, even making its way into the textbooks.

Why? Because who in the middle of the twentieth century wanted to admit great grandpa fought for something other than an honorable and admirable ideology. Ron Paul would be the product of this faulty narrative being taught in school and he would then go on to proliferate that same message. An individual who did not study the American Civil War in depth, would potentially take what a well thought of leader such as Ron Paul said simply as the truth, without hesitation.

It is normal and expected to trust individuals whom we admire or appear to be knowledgeable on a topic. There are countless times I find myself falling into this same trap. Whether it is our banker, our politicians, or others, history teaches us that a society that flourishes questions what has always been accepted as reality. Therefore we enable modifications to the status quo and perhaps affect positive change.

South Carolina recently signed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from their capitol. Despite the arguments of a loss of history to some degree, we could argue questioning the meaning of a Confederate flag flying above a government institution in the twenty-first century leads us to be more sensitive to race relations and equality in a progressive nation. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the flag’s removal is irrelevant. The significance is to applaud the idea that we are being constructively critical, questioning what our ideology as a society may be lacking, and possibly teaching our younger generations to follow suit in the world they will be creatimg.

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College and Northwest Vista College. Dale has two new books available, Tracking Life’s Lessons: Through Experiences, History, and a Little Interpretation and Education Decoded (A Collection of My Writings) now available on Amazon.

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For all the hereafter

 

African American Intellectual History Society July 5, 2015

The Fourteenth Amendment is a living document, and Clarence Thomas is a terrible historian

June 26 was a pretty good day for civil rights: the Supreme Court guaranteed the right for same-sex couples to marry by a 5-4 majority in Obergefell v. Hodges.

True to form, the conservatives dissented, drawing upon arguments from strict construction and original intent. Clarence Thomas served up one particular flavor: “Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits.” The presumption being that the benefits of marriage are somehow a government give-away, like those apocryphal Obama cell phones. 

This is the same strange logic that led Andrew Johnson to veto the Civil Rights Act of 1866 on the grounds that guaranteeing equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race or former status as slaves, constituted granting African Americans “special” rights. In protecting the rights of the freedpeople, Johnson argued, the bill established “safeguards which go infinitely beyond any that the General Government has ever provided for the white race. In fact, the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.”

Of course this is not the case.  Freedom is not a government give-way, it’s a government guarantee.

Marriage has been many things over many years, but in our day it is foremost a contract that imparts particular benefits and responsibilities. The government has no compelling interest in impeding that contract, only prejudicial ones. Repeat: The case for same-sex marriage is not a reach. For the government to stand aside and let people do what they will is entirely in line with old-school liberalism, and even what passes for modern libertarianism.

It may indeed be right that, as Thomas writes, “government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.” But it sure can mess with your ability to enjoy the basic benefits of the society around you, as Thomas’s own examples (slavery, Japanese internment) deftly illustrate. (Great example of reactionary mentality masquerading as race pride.)

Oppressive policies such as segregation and internment may or may not degrade their victims in their own minds, but that is not the point. The point is that these are state-sponsoredefforts to try to make that degradation succeed. By Thomas’s warped interpretation of African American history, slavery was just fine, for even if the state practiced and championed the institution, the slaves’ sense of self could never be obliterated. It is not the consequence on the psyche of the oppressed that matters, it is the states’ intention and practice of oppressionthat requires remedy.

Antonin Scalia may not like it, but “normal” changes (sometimes remarkably rapidly), and same-sex marriage is the new normal. Thankfully, what was acceptable in 1787 or 1866 may not be acceptable now, and vice versa. The Constitution is not a stone tablet. As attests what happened in 1972, when Title IX was created to protect women’s rights, the protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment adapt to the times.

If we’re going by original intent, then the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was flexibility.  The Fourteenth Amendment was created not just to protect the rights of freed slaves, but to let the national government protect the rights of all threatened minorities, far into the future.

It’s worth a read – at least, of the critical Section I.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

You don’t hear anything at all about the actual rights that are protected, do you?  That’s because the intent of the amendment was much broader than that.

The amendment does specify who rights belong to, for it defines federal and state citizenship — clearly, and really for the first time.  That dealt with problem number one, for if the oppressed (in this case, freed slaves) had the rights of citizens, they themselves could invoke the full force of the law on their own behalf. Good old American individualism and small-government mentality.

But there was a second problem the framers also had to address. The original Constitution severely constrained the power of the federal government to impair the individual liberties of American citizens — that’s the Bill of Rights, and particularly the Fifth Amendment. At the time, this all fit nicely with the political ideology of the revolution: liberty was thought kept safest when distributed far from central government, in the states.

But what happened when the states themselves acted against individual liberties? In a contest between state and federal government, which would prevail? To put it another way: the Constitution (through the Bill of Rights) protects individual liberties against the unjust exercise of federal power; what, though, would protect individual rights against the unjust exercise of state power?

In asserting the primacy of federal over state authority, the 39th Congress crafted a sweeping reconceptualization of federal-state relations, making the federal government the ultimate and final arbiter in cases where individual rights are infringed upon by the power of government.

So let’s imagine going back in time (cue wavy-screen-time-machine effect), so we can be there at the birth of the thing.

An ongoing problem did indeed spark the creation of the Fourteenth Amendment. This was the plight of four million bondspersons now free, who were being subjected to virtual re-enslavement not simply by their former masters, but by the states of what had been the Confederacy. When former planters and their representatives returned to southern statehouses just after the Civil War, the states immediately passed a series of debilitating black codes, which strictly limited blacks’ political participation, their access to the political process, and their paths to economic mobility.

Events such as the Memphis Riot of 1866 demonstrated that those freed from slavery required the full protections of citizenship, which only the federal government could provide (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Events such as the Memphis Riot of 1866 demonstrated that those freed from slavery required the full protections of citizenship, which only the federal government could provide (image courtesy Wikipedia)

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 sought to remedy this by defining American natives as citizens, and extending to all in the southern states equal rights of federal citizenship.

The immediate purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to ensure the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, so that any southern-controlled Congress of the future could not repeal it. James Garfield proposed to “lift that great and good law above the reach of political strife, beyond the reach of the plots and machinations of any party, and fix it in the serene sky, in the eternal firmament of the Constitution, where no storm of passion can shake it and no cloud can obscure it.” What happened to the Fourteenth in the courts of the late 1800s mocked such high-minded hopefulness (more on this in a little), but it does signal the framers’ deep and lasting purposes. The framers viewed their work as repairing a flaw in the original Constitution.

They didn’t change the Constitution to pass a law; they passed the law because they had fixed the Constitution.

They posed their solution in broad and principled terms precisely because they realized that the specific case they confronted could come up again and again in other guises, whenever states sought to undermine liberty. Despite Andrew Johnson’s objection, the amendment did not promote the interests of one special group – what was termed “class legislation” back in the day. It was meant to clearly establish the principles that granted Congress the ability to step in and protect the rights of any group targeted by the states for unequal treatment.

To be sure, there was a cost to framing the amendment in terms of broad principles, for such general language could be interpreted in many ways, some contrary to the original spirit and purpose of the amendment. This is exactly what happened in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the next, when the Supreme Court began eviscerating the amendment’s role in protecting freedpeople’s rights. Instead, the court transformed it into a tool for corporations to resist government regulation. No conservatives at that time complained about original intent.

This process went stunningly far. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that in being compelled to sit in a segregated streetcar Homer Plessy had not had his civil rights violated. Why not? Because according to the majority opinion, the Fourteenth Amendment “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” A rather profound misreading of the amendment’s original intent, no? Again, conservatives didn’t complain.

But the very vagueness that permitted such atrocious misreadings is now serving its purpose exactly as intended. As with the framers of the original Constitution, the framers of the Fourteenth understood that they were making rules not just for their day, but to serve the following generations as well. And they knew that those who followed would likely need their creation for new purposes. They knew they were crafting a broad protection of liberty, and they did not care to specify the conditions under which it should operate, because that was the job of the generations to follow. Their job was simply to secure Congress the right to step in whenever the states impaired the rights of individuals. That’s the whole purpose of the powerful Section I.

So though they clearly sought to root out an existing evil against the freedpeople, the framers of the amendment explained it as having broad application. Foremost among these men was Ohio Congressman John Bingham, who put the question simply to Congress: “whether you will give by this amendment of the people of the United States the power, by legislative enactment, to punish officials of States for violation of the oaths enjoined upon them by their Constitution?”

The Congressmen debating the measure clearly thought about its wide application. They wondered if it might be used by married women to argue for expanded rights to property, and they anticipated (and affirmed) that the amendment would create naturalized citizens of everyone native-born, regardless of their heritage. William Pitt Fessenden of Maine went so far as to suggest that Bingham had not even proposed the measure to support the Civil Rights Act of 1866. “During all the discussion in the committee that I heard,” he stated, “nothing was ever said about the civil rights bill in connection with that. It was placed on entirely different grounds.”

When asked directly if the amendment were not intended solely to protect the rights of freed slaves, Bingham replied that “it is proposed as well to protect the thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of loyal white citizens of the United States whose property, by State legislation, has been wrested from them under confiscation, and protect them also against banishment.” (This was a reference to Confederate treatment of Union loyalists.) He also suggested that it would apply to states that violated the rights of blacks from antebellum-era racial prohibitions in nominally “free” states such as Indiana and Oregon.

Moreover, Bingham understood Congress to be undertaking a work of long-term constitutional significance. The Fourteenth Amendment constituted a redemptive effort to fix a fundamental flaw in the original plan of government. When South Carolina had sought to nullify federal law back in 1833, Bingham argued, Congress had “looked in vain for any grant of power in the Constitution” to support the civil rights of South Carolinians who dissented from their state’s policy.

In fixing this flaw, the new amendment would clarify the issue not just in the present. Forever after, it would “protect by national law the privileges and immunities of all the citizens of the Republic and the inborn rights of every person within its jurisdiction whenever the same shall be abridged or denied by the unconstitutional acts of any State.”

This long-term security was needed, Bingham believed, for the Confederacy had demonstrated just how much damage could be wrought in the name of states’ rights. The Civil War’s untold losses in lives and property had made this clear. The nation now demanded “something in the shape of a security for the future against the recurrence of the enormous evils under which the country has labored for the last four years.” This echoed the language of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, on which Bingham served, which asserted the government’s duty “to secure itself against similar wrongs in the future.”  The framers understood themselves to have provided an ongoing solution for a general problem (the states’ interference with individual liberties) that might arise at any time in the future.

Ohio Congressman John Bingham, one of the framers of the 14th Amendment, and the its most vocal champion in the House

Ohio Congressman John Bingham, one of the framers of the 14th Amendment, and its most vocal champion in the House

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the majority ruled sagely, and completely within the original intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. The rights its confers are not government give-aways or special favors. They are a bold assertion of the federal government’s responsibility to secure the liberties of minorities singled out for state-sponsored prejudice.

If, as Clarence Thomas and his strict constructionist colleagues assert, we should consider original intent, then we cannot do better than the words of the amendment’s most important framer. According to Bingham, those who wrote, championed, and passed the Fourteenth Amendment sought nothing more than “the care of the Republic, not only for the present, but for all the hereafter.”

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