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.