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.


The Tough Questions

At the end of What This Cruel War Was About Chandra Manning offers some final thoughts about the challenges that the war presented to Americans in 1865 and by extension to the way we remember.

First, Confederate soldiers’ admirable devotion to their families and abhorrent attachment to the enslavement of other human beings sound a cautionary note because those impulses were so closely related.  There is little doubt that most white southern men cared first and foremost about the well-being and material advancement of their loved ones, and the steadfast love so many displayed for their families surely stands among the noblest of human emotions.  Yet that love led otherwise good and ordinary men to embrace and fight for an institution that stole the lives and bodies and families of other human beings.  Clearly, the connection between soldiers’ attachment to their families and the institution of slavery does not suggest that love of family is to be disparaged, or that it inevitably leads to an atrocity like slavery, but it does raise sobering questions about the ills that human beings will justify when they convince themselves that they owe no obligation to anyone beyond those to whom they are related or who are like themselves.

Second, astonishing changes took place in many white Union men’s ideas about slavery and eventually, if more fragilely, about racial equality.  When ordinary men, many of whom began the war without a single black acquaintance but with plenty of prejudice toward African Americans, actually met black people face to face and often came to rely on the aid, comfort, and military intelligence that former slaves offered to the Union Army, they found reason to discard old views.  Those changes remind historians of the power of events to rearrange even the most seemingly immovable cultural ideas and attitudes among people in the past, and they alert all of us to the dramatic changes in attitude and achievement that can take place when people who think they have nothing in common find themselves thrust into interaction and interdependence.

Finally, the vision of a very different United States could be seen clearly by men like David Williamson in the spring of 1865 but had faded tragically by the turn of the twentieth century.  Taken together, the vividness of the vision and its eventual fading challenge historians to investigate more rigorously exactly how the United States could in the crucible of war create such vast potential for change and then, in the end, fail to fulfill it. (pp. 220-21)

I can remember reading one of Manning’s North and South articles last year with my Civil War class and wondering how she would end this study.  After reading this book I am more convinced the Manning is going to divide Civil War enthusiasts right down the middle.   That divide will be drawn between people who are comfortable discussing the way in which Union and Confederate soldiers thought about race and slavery over the course of the war and those who will interpret Manning’s conclusions as an indictment of the Confederacy or perhaps “Pro-Union.”  Another way of framing this is that Manning risks having the contours of her preferred debate relegated to Robert Penn Warren’s wonderful distinction between “the great alibi” and the “treasury of virtue.” That would be unfortunate as Manning has given us a very thoughtful and analytical study with a great deal of wartime sources to think about.  It is one of the most complete accounts of what soldiers thought about race and slavery published to date.  In some ways I can’t help but think of this book as a challenge to our Civil War community – broadly understood.

It seems clear to me that we can have this discussion without it being reduced to a childish debate about which region of the country can claim moral superiority.  And the reason is because the nation as a whole moved in a direction that did not include reinforcing or protecting the Reconstruction amendments.  The national agenda changed owing to the reconstruction agendas of white southerners, the Republican Party (by 1877), and the federal government.  By 1900 GAR camps in the North were largely segregated.  That said, I find that Manning’s emphasis on contingency in 1865, or the claim that the future could have been different, is enough to force readers to move away from a more defensive posture that involves interpreting the past in ways that reinforce contemporary political, cultural, and racial assumptions.  In other words, there was a salient distinction between the way that Union and Confederate soldiers understood race and slavery and it is our job as serious students of history to deal with it regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us.


Hey Rudy, Is It Just About State’s Rights?

Politics surely makes bad historians of us all.  Take Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani who recently addressed the Alabama State Legislature on flying the Confederate flag atop the state capitol:

"One of the great beauties of the kind of government we have, which is a national, federal government, [is that] on a broad range of issues, we can make different decisions in different parts of the country," the GOP presidential front-runner said after addressing the Alabama Legislature.  "We have different sensitivities and at different times we’re going to come to different decisions, and I think that is best left to the states," Giuliani said.

Perhaps Rudy should have reminded the state legislature about when those Confederate flags were placed atop the state capitols in the South.  In 1956, 82 of 106 southern congressmen signed a Southern Manifesto, denouncing the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision as a "clear abuse of judicial power," and calling for resistance to "forced integration" by "any lawful means."  States took various measures, including banning the NAACP from operating within their borders.  My own state of Virginia took the step of closing the public schools rather than have black and white children learn together.  Finally, as a symbol of defiance, Georgia’s legislature incorporated the Confederate battle flag into its state flag in 1956, and Alabama and South Carolina soon began flying the battle flag over their state capitol buildings.

Hey Rudy, good luck courting those conservative white southerners.


A Few Thoughts About Don Imus

Unless you’ve had your head under a rock you have heard about Don Imus’s incredibly insensitive comments made about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team.  Last Wednesday Imus described the predominantly black team as "nappy-headed hos."  The issue came up this morning in my Women’s History course.  Keep in mind that my students are all females, but I was asked what I thought should happen to Imus.  As a teacher my first instinct is to throw the question back and ask the students what they think, which I promptly did.  There were a number of questions and suggestions, but I was finally asked again to weigh in.  First, I reminded my female students that this is as much a gender as it is a racial issue.  Would Don Imus have said the same thing about a male team?  In terms of punishment, however, I expressed more concern about the way in which the question has been framed and discussed in the mainstream media.  As a society we have little patience in dealing with racial issues and fewer people even know how to honestly engage in dialog.  I don’t know what kind of punishment Don Imus should get because I find the question itself confusing.

What I don’t understand is why as a society we continue to tolerate this kind of language. Don Imus has one of the most popular radio talk shows (broadcasted live on MSNBC) and is a regular stop for politicians on the campaign trail, well-regarded journalists, and other popular figures.  What I have difficulty understanding is the fact that he apparently felt comfortable enough to say those things at all.  There was no hesitation in sharing these thoughts over the airwaves owned by NBC. The same can be said in regards to the comedian Michael Richards who also let loose a barrage of racial invectives on his black audience a few months ago.  I don’t believe for a minute that either Imus or Richards are rotten to the core, but they are clearly racially insensitive.  Their actions speak for themselves.  If as a society we believe that this language should not be countenanced in any way shape or form than we have to ask what consequences reflect those values.  In the end I’m not really concerned about Imus’s feelings of regret and the possibility of redemption.  I am much more concerned about the members of the Rutgers basketball team who didn’t do anything wrong apart from the fact that they are predominantly black and women.

This kind of racist-sexist language has a long history in this country  There are times when we slide into oversensitivity, but I don’t believe that this is an example.  To those people whose first instinct it to throw out the old "PC" arguments I think it is necessary to ask at what point a certain kind of language becomes unacceptable in the public discourse.


Sherman’s March on the History Channel: Update

Today I received a very complimentary email from the Bill Oberst Jr. who played Sherman in the upcoming History Channel film on Sherman’s March.  He wrote me a lengthy email which showed him to be incredibly thoughtful about both the history of Sherman’s March and the production of the film.  I invited Bill to think about writing a guest post that would be included along with my own review on April 22.  Luckily he agreed to do it.  I look forward to reading his thoughts.  I am sure that our two posts will give readers a great deal to think about.