No Taxation Without Representation or Black Power: A Double Standard?

I am writing from Williamsburg, Virginia where I am attending the annual meeting of the National Council for History Education.  As I type this post I am listening to the Colonial Williamsburg channel which seems to have only 1 show in its line-up.  It is a movie that depicts the Virginia revolutionaries during the growing conflict with England over taxes.  It is obviously a product of its time (late 1950s early 60s).  The debate with England is purely political and takes place in the taverns of Williamsburg and House of Burgesses.  Much of the movie highlights the rebuilt homes and stores of the downtown area which is perfect for the families who are setting out on their historical adventures.  [To be perfectly honest, when I see these families walk around I immediately think of a kamikaze pilot going straight into a ship.]  The slaves are all perfectly content and the main characters themselves are shown in all their glory and virtue.

Watching this movie reminded me of a post that I’ve wanted to write for some time.  My classes are moving into the Civil Rights Movement.  One of the things I try to explain through lecture and documents is the distinction between the philosophy of Martin L. King and the approach of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X.  Among other things we read King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and we watch video of Malcolm discuss black nationalism.  [From the television I hear a narrator’s voice calling for the confiscation of the gunpowder in the town’s magazine.  Gun shots can be heard along with angry voices.]  We read about the steps taken by the Black Panthers to ensure that the police follow the law in their communities.  Students also get an opportunity to think about the "uniform" and other images of the Black Panthers which included berets, leather jackets, and guns.  My students – and I suspect white Americans in general – are much more comfortable with King as opposed to Malcolm or the ideas of "Black Power."  I am not suggesting that they are mistaken, but I do find it curious that my students have such little patience for "revolutionary" language as black Americans sought to bring about the most basic of civil rights in the late 1950s and 1960s.  [From the television I hear patriotic music as the colonists have declared their independence from England.  The narrator: "If one wants to be free, one must choose."] 

In all my years of teaching I fail to remember one moment where my students questioned the violence that preceded the American Revolution.  When I teach the Revolution I make sure that we look at it on a number of levels, from the actions of the Sons of Liberty to the philosophical arguments being offered by the likes of John Adams, John Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, etc.  My students read and discuss the very violent actions of the Sons of Liberty in Boston along with the burning of Thomas Hutchison’s home.  We read accounts of tarring and feathering and countless other examples of the destruction of private property.  Never has a student questioned whether any of this was justified.  I try to play devil’s advocate and suggest that the colonists were over reacting.  My students find it easy to counter my argument as if the Revolution must happen. 

Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that the Revolution was or was not justified or that young black Americans would have been justified in violent revolution in the 1960s.  It is important to remember that very few black leaders were actually advocating violence against whites; that’s more about our perceptions of so-called black militancy in the 1960s.  [Check out Curtis Austin’s Up Against the Wall: The Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party.]  What I am curious about is the apparent rub between our responses to these two cases that involve injustice.  On the one hand we fail to question at all the justification of the colonists as they engaged in violent revolution against the British government, while on the other hand we seem to have difficulty with even the hint of aggressive language within the Civil Rights Movement.

More on this apparent double-standard later.

7 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Apr 15, 2007 @ 7:53

    Hi Rebecca, — I really wanted to go to the Virginia Forum, but unfortunately my department decided to make the NCHE one of those bonding experiences. That was fine, but the conference was a real disappointment. I thought the highlight was going to be a general session with Gordon Wood, but he basicall pulled out his lecture notes. I assume you had a good time since last year’s meeting was such a success. Perhaps I will see you in November in Richmond at the SHA. Send my best to Pepper.

  • Rebecca Apr 15, 2007 @ 7:45

    Aha! So that’s where you were instead of hanging with the Virginia Forum in Richmond.

    I had an interesting experience discussing Lexington and Concord with some Big H students a few years ago. We were talking about how the colonials basically sniped at the retreating British all the way back to Boston. One student at that moment said, “wow–they were kinda like terrorists.” Whether or not one agrees with the metaphor, it was the first and only time a student has questioned the oft-repulsive violence of the American Revolution…

  • d Apr 14, 2007 @ 0:45

    We prefer King in August 1963 in Washington as opposed to his speaches in 1968 about the Vietnam War.

    It’s interesting that almost everything most Americans know about King — and the only works of his they can cite — are from 1963. Few have read his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, or his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” address, but nor have many folks read “Birth of a New Nation,” delivered in (I think January) 1957. It’s an amazingly raucuous, revolutionary speech that’s filled with the kind of language most Americans don’t associate with King. He explains, for instance, that “the oppressor” never gives an inch unless he’s forced to, and that “the oppressor” plans to keep blacks in submission — and will, unless “persistent agitation” thwarts him. He also warns, in language reminiscent of David Walker’s Appeal, that the nation is doomed unless it reconciles itself to the possibility of black freedom.

    It’s an amazing address (there’s audio of it available on the inter-tubes), and it always blows my students away to hear it….

  • J. L. Bell Apr 13, 2007 @ 23:29

    A quibble: Lt. Gov. Hutchinson’s home wasn’t burned in 1765; the North End neighborhood was too densely built for locals to risk that.

    Rather, men looted the home and stripped away its furnishings, inside and out, over several methodical nighttime hours. Mobs were damned determined in those days.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2007 @ 17:09

    Matt, — Thanks again for the reference. It is now on my short list of books to be used in class next year. You are absolutely right re: this supposed split within the civil rights movement. We prefer King in August 1963 in Washington as opposed to his speaches in 1968 about the Vietnam War.

    Will, — Your point is well-taken. I was trying to hit on that observation when I mentioned my attempt at taking the devil’s advocate position. My students can’t even fathom questioning the justification of the violence because of what it brought about. I love that idea of “stakeholder” as a way to understand the violence as “inherently just.”

    Thanks guys!

  • Will Keene Apr 13, 2007 @ 10:28


    Good stuff. Two thoughts:

    Outcome — the success of the American Revolution generates its own justification. The general view (whether correct or not) is that MLK’s efforts led to the sucesses of the Civil Rights Movement, thus the post hoc view that his way was better.

    Stackholders — American whites perceive the Revolution as integral to their heritage, thus creating a need for it to be essential righteous and any violence is presented as inherently just. In my experience, American whites have not fully accepted the place of the Civil Rights Movement in ‘their own’ history (thus we see a distinction made between ‘black’ history and just plain history).

  • Matt Apr 13, 2007 @ 10:00

    Great post, Kevin. It’s actually one that I’ve been thinking of writing for quite some time, in one form or another. I’m not sure I would have ever made the connection between Revolutionary War violence and Black Power, but it’s apt. Very interesting.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve recommended it before, but again, I’ll say that you should have your students read Tim Tyson’s *Blood Done Sign My Name*. It’s part-memoir, part-history, an engrossing story, and a lightning-fast read. Better yet, it forces you to ask some questions about the difference between violence and non-violence during the civil rights movement. Just last night I came across this exchange which lays out some of the questions:

    Plus, let’s not forget that many of the more famous “non-violent” activists (including King) believed at one time in carrying guns or at least in having bodyguards that did so.

    Too much is made of the split between violence/non-violence in my opinion. Look at the famous “Project C” in Birmingham in 1963, which was a calculated effort to provoke violence. Couldn’t it be argued that provoking violent acts violates the principles of non-violence?

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