Connecting the historical dots: Ferguson to Charleston

“People should not spend their days mourning relatives they never knew from a war that ended 150 years ago, especially if that feeling is so paramount that it outweighs the sense of brotherhood they might feel toward fellow humans who are alive…”

Little Rock, 1957
Little Rock, 1957
At my relatively diverse, but still primarily white, church, I am the de facto organizer for Black History Month each February. I’ve noticed that 2016 will mark the 90th anniversary of what what was Negro History Week, designed by Carter G. Woodson in 1926. “Besides building self-esteem among blacks, [it] would help eliminate prejudice among whites.”

I think the argument that the United States is “post-racial”, now that Barack Obama has been elected President twice, has been pretty well negated by the events of the past six years. There are those who will seriously argue that because Obama, and for that matter, actress Halle Berry, had white mothers, they shouldn’t be considered black. Anyone passingly aware of the historic obsessive nature of the US government to define race – mulatto, quadroon, octoroon – should know it’s not that simple.

Noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass had white ancestors, very likely his slave-holding father. No one has suggested he wasn’t black. Race in America is…complicated. (I made the tactical error of suggesting, on Facebook, that I related to much of “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, his famous address of July 5, 1852.)

Some suggest that we don’t need black history, because it’s American history. OK, maybe we need to study U.S. history with a different lens. One could compare the earlier drafts of the Declaration with the final version — note the reference to slavery did not make the final cut.

Based on the debate on the Confederate battle flag, we have difficulty agreeing on what history is. Check out The Real History Of The Confederate Flag.

I thought the magazine The Week nailed it: “It should not be controversial to say that people should not spend their days mourning relatives they never knew from a war that ended 150 years ago, especially if that feeling is so paramount that it outweighs the sense of brotherhood they might feel toward fellow humans who are alive, and for whom the flag’s presence and endorsement by the government is the personification of the evil of white supremacy.”

One need understand that it wasn’t just “heritage”, but that South Carolina raised the Confederate flag in 1961 to insult nine black protesters — and took it down to honor nine slain. Surely, I’m happy, and surprised, by the action, so well done, South Carolina; perhaps it is the rebel state no more; OK, not sure I quite believe that, but it’s a major start.

Still, not all South Carolina are happy with their governor, Nikki Haley. And guns are still an issue: read Charleston, and the Next Time.

Maybe we need to be studying much more recent history. In June, on MSNBC, the creator of the classic series, from a quarter century ago, on the Civil War, Ken Burns said the Confederate battle flag is not about heritage. In his remarks, he mentioned Ferguson. The very first comment I read was something like, “I was following him until he mentioned Ferguson,” suggesting that Burns was an apologist for rioting and other bad behavior.

So what WAS Ferguson? It WAS a long time ago, way back in the summer of 2014, so who can remember? If Ferguson was merely – and I don’t make light of it – the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in a St. Louis suburb, it would be troubling enough.

But the Department of Justice report, released WAY back in March 2015, made it clear that, in Ferguson:
*The city’s police practices are shaped by revenue rather than by public safety needs.
*The disproportionate number of arrests, tickets and use of force stemmed from “unlawful bias,” rather than black people committing more crime.
*A single missed, late or partial payment of a fine could mean jail time.
In other words, a microcosm of the New Jim Crow.

Ken Burns said we need to connect the dots between Ferguson and Charleston (and presumably Baltimore, et al.) But it’s difficult. People don’t understand you don’t have to hate anybody to be a bigot. A piece that got of press recently notes, “Racism is the fact that ‘White’ means “normal” and that anything else is different.”

This was interesting: A Conversation With White People on Race. And this: Please Stop Being a Good White Person (TM).

Frankly, I’d be really happy if race were no longer an issue in America, that if by saying “race is just a social construct,” it would magically alleviate the lingering problems of the color line. Still, I think if I limited the “history” of Black History Month to the events of 2015, I think we could come up with enough fodder for some decent discussions.
Famous films re-edited to highlight Hollywood’s race problem.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

2 thoughts on “Connecting the historical dots: Ferguson to Charleston”

  1. The history of the Confederate flag was really interesting.

    The two links on white people discussing race were enlightening. The “Please Stop” article brought up the important point that we’re trained from a young age not to confront racism: “We were reprimanded when we challenged Aunt Evelyn.” That’s true.

    I often wondered why my “enlightened, liberal” male colleagues would not challenge the obvious sexism and sexual harassment by other male colleagues. It’s probably for a really similar reason.

    It hurt, though, and I think I will challenge myself to remember that hurt when the topic of race comes up again.

    Good links.

  2. Wow Roger. We are living in the Shenandoah Valley and there was a debate going on in our county several years ago on whether slavery even existed here and if a big stone in a local park was actually an auction block. Some people insisted despite evidence to the contrary (old housing and oral history) that there were never any slaves here. Our local paper just published a letter that seemed to state that slaves came voluntarily looking for work (rowing their ships no less) and that they were mostly happy and well treated. The writer also claimed that most of the ancestors didn’t even know any slaves. To these folks, the Union Army was an invading force that destroyed their homes and livelihoods and the Confederate soldiers were heroes protecting their land from invaders. They get very emotional about it. I suspect that the education system promoted this idea in the past and that there’s a lot of denial and aggrandizing of ancestors who may or may not have been volunteers.

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