Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Gen. Kelly was Right

November 4th, 2017 No comments

White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly recently remarked that failure to compromise was what caused the Civil War. He was actually correct. Americans had been compromising with slave interests since the Constitutional Convention in an effort to maintain the Union, but Southerners had been agitating for secession over the issue of slavery since at least 1820. The quote by Calhoun below demonstrates the Southern point of view: no compromise. On the other hand, Lincoln and the North were willing to compromise on the issue of slavery, but not union.

The view that the South fought to preserve slavery and the North fought to end it is simplistic. It is symptomatic of Americans’ tragic lack of academic sophistication, particularly about its history. The simplistic view satisfies the American Exceptionalist narrative that the Southerners were the “bad guys” and Lincoln and the Northerners were the “good guys.” But in fact, while the preservation of slavery was integral to Confederate secession, slavery was not an issue for the Union until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 (nearly halfway through the war), that in fact freed exactly zero slaves. The purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation was to associate the war with slavery to make it unpalatable for the British to support the Confederacy, and secondarily to deprive the South of labor. It was a political and tactical act, not a moral one. Because the Proclamation limited emancipation to the states still in rebellion, slavery continued to exist legally in the Union States of Louisiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, until the Thirteenth Amendment.

Nor is it even remotely accurate to suggest that Southerners were racist and Northerners not. In fact, racism was then ubiquitous regardless of region, as it continues to be today. There is no better indication of this than that 313 Union officers resigned after the Emancipation Proclamation because they didn’t want to fight to free slaves. Abolition and racism were (are) two very separate issues, and one could be against slavery and still racist as much as one today can be against animal cruelty but not think of animals as capable of equal citizenship. The myth that racism is limited to the South only unjustly relieves the rest of the country from guilt or complicity. In 1945 when Jackie Robinson became the first Black Major League baseball player, he didn’t integrate Southern baseball, but American baseball. When President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948 integrating the armed services, he wasn’t integrating the Southern armed services, but the American. And I shouldn’t need to point out that Topeka, Kansas (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954) is hardly located in the South. As President Obama once correctly remarked, racism is in America’s DNA. And it will remain so as long as we continue to comfort ourselves with simplistic historical fables.

Saying that inability to compromise was the immediate cause of the Civil War is not racist, it is historically accurate. It does not suggest that one wishes slavery still existed.

By the way, I am a Berniecrat.

“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil”

October 17th, 2017 No comments

I’m not a Republican and i disagree with much of this man’s politics but I respect him as a patriot. His comments about his relationship with Joe Biden provides a model for working with those we disagree with. He inherited the generous vision of America held by his (and my) father’s generation. That vision was blind to a lot, but it was much more hopeful than the dystopian nightmare of the man now in the a White House and his minions. Trump doesn’t even deserve to stand in this man’s shadow.

McCain’s full speech at Liberty Medal ceremony – CNN Video

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Chairman of the National Constitution Center’s Board of Trustees, presented the 2017 Liberty Medal to Senator John McCain for his lifetime of sacrifice and service to the nation.

The Arrogance of Historical Memory

October 9th, 2017 No comments

Social media is abuzz with excitement on October 12: variously known as Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day and there are other names for it. As if we didn’t have enough to be concerned about some of us need to take time out to denounce Sr. Colombo, laying the blame for all that happened in the Americas after 1492 on him. We should not be so quick to pass judgment.
As a historian one of the things I learned early on is that many of us use history as a hammer. We apply our 21st century standards of what we think is right and wrong to actors who lived in a world completely alien to us, so that we can associate our political enemies with their supposed historical misdeeds. This may give us some sense of moral superiority but it doesn’t serve any positive purpose. If we look at history through the lens of our own time we can’t possibly understand it. Then what is the purpose of looking at all? It just becomes another way of dividing ourselves up and casting blame at the “other.”
The historical profession is not about rehashing the crimes of the past. It is not only useless it is redundant for us to smugly condemn historical actors, because their actions wouldn’t be considered crimes if history had not already made that judgment. Our more difficult and profitable task is to try to see the world through the eyes of historical actors, not to excuse them, but so we can understand why they thought what they were doing was legitimate.
When Columbus sailed for the Indies he didn’t start out with the intention of finding geography previously unknown to Europe so that he could rape, pillage and enslave people he had no prior knowledge of. He set out on a perfectly respectable expedition to seek trade in Asia. He carried with him an entire worldview that saw what happened in the Americas as justifiable, even admirable. What kind of thinking would allow that? If we learn that, we can avoid repeating it. Understanding historical actors does not mean we agree with what they did. In fact, if we understand them, we can prevent what they did from recurring.
There is plenty of injustice to address today without casting stones at the past. Much if not all of the injustice that surrounds us is abetted by our failure to understand the past. If we spend our effort working for justice today, maybe our descendants five centuries from now will not remember us as criminals.

The Seductive Exploitation of Race Division

September 28th, 2017 No comments

Demystifying Racism: Race as a Means of Social Domination

Keith W. Cox, Ph.D.

 If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.[1]

Racism is so deeply embedded in American life and culture that until recently it mostly hidden from sight. Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Americans have been content to believe that problems of racial discrimination and race controversy are in inevitable decline. Yes, we acknowledge, there are still some stubborn holdouts against the tide who cling to ignorant racial attitudes, but they are in a diminishing minority that is increasingly powerless, and they will inevitably be swept into the dustbin of history. The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2008 seemed to seal the deal. America is on the march to a post-racial future.

Yet events in the last decade have served to arouse Americans from this comforting illusion. Riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, racial assassination in South Carolina, reports of police brutality and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement tell a very different story. Americans must once again consciously grapple with the issue of race. I believe there are few who do not desire racial justice and reconciliation. But at the same time I think as a society we are baffled about how to achieve it.

Racial injustice exists and is measurable today, but within the lifetime of many still living, including myself, conditions have been much worse. There are many still alive who suffered the indignities and brutality of Jim Crow. Historical memory enflames those living today with a wariness and mistrust not easily overcome by lukewarm displays of goodwill. Historical memory is essential to the reconciliation we seek, but at the same time historical memory can become a burden. And worse, historical memory can be deliberately used to keep past atrocities alive and insurmountable.

Education is proposed as a means of bringing reason and objectivity to our vision of the past so that we can squarely confront it and move on. But too often education becomes a rehashing of grievances and a rekindling of emotions. “How could your people have done this to my people?” And then, because we often fail to differentiate ourselves from historical actors, “How could you do this to me?” This kind of education is not a recipe for healing.

Like much else of interest in the contemporary public arena, objective information is rarely consulted, even by those passionate about achieving change and reconciliation. Too many allow too much public thinking to be accomplished by too few partisan hacks. When we look to historical memory to seek a way to heal, we must lay aside much that is untrue in order to assess and process what is. This is not as easily said as done, because our perception of reality is rooted in knowledge we may not even know we possess, and that knowledge might be, and often is, wrong.

In an insightful essay entitled “An Unthinkable History” historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot considers the question of how an event that is outside of the realm of common consciousness can be assessed historically. In 1793 the French colony of Saint Domingue (today Haiti) was rocked by the world’s first successful slave revolution. White colonists were faced with an event that in their minds was impossible — that African slaves could imagine liberty and organize to gain it. Trouillot tells the story of La Barre, a French colonist, landowner and slave master in St. Domingue who wrote to his wife in France mere months before the salve uprising reporting that,

‘There is no movement among our Negroes…. They don’t even think of it. They are very tranquil and obedient. A revolt among them is impossible….’ And again: ‘The Negroes are very obedient and always will be. We sleep with doors and windows wide open. Freedom for Negroes is a chimera.’[2]

In describing how the incomprehensibility of the events now encapsulated within the framework of the Haitian Revolution were inconceivable to the colonists who were its target, Trouillot writes,

Indeed, the contention that enslaved Africans and their descendants could not envision freedom – let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom – was based not so much on empirical evidence as on ontology, an implicit organization of the world and its inhabitants.[3]

Let’s wrestle for a moment with what that quote. To grasp its meaning we have to consider the word implicit. What does it mean? The word brings to mind something that is implied, but not stated. It this case it is, in effect, something that is known without empirical (observed and recorded) evidence. One definition of implicit is “with no qualification or question; absolute,” as in “an implicit faith in God.” One does not need empirical evidence of God to believe in God. Though the ancillary explanations are multitude the answer to faith in God always resolves on a practical level to the circular argument “I believe because I believe.” That doesn’t make it wrong, untrue or incorrect, but neither does it allow for rational proof.

So when Trouillot tells us that the colonists’ knowledge of slaves’ desires and capabilities was based on ontology, he is proposing a worldview shaped by an implicit belief in a world in which the desire for individual liberty was quantifiable based upon an organization of people based on race.

In other words, if you were to ask La Barre, Trouillot’s white colonist, why he was confident slaves could not imagine freedom, he might reply, “Well, everybody knows that.” (In French, of course.) This indicates, and I know this is a little sticky, it may be possible to know something is true without knowing that you know it. It’s just there: fundamental. And, as the particular case Trouillot discusses demonstrates, we may be motivated by fundamental knowledge that is entirely untrue. Because it is so deeply ingrained, we don’t question it – until some event, like the arrival at your home of a slave with a machete driven by the historical injustice of slavery, calls our implicit knowledge into question, and forces us to reconsider its validity.

I propose that our attitudes about race and racism are ontological. We proceed from assumptions we may not even know we have. And I will further propose that the assumptions we hold are flawed. One of these is most probably that there is such a fundamental category as race. Few scholars today acknowledge any significant biological difference between groups of people that might go by the term race. Another false assumption is that racism has always existed, at least among white Americans. So it may be informative to consider when race actually became a distinguishing factor in American life. And interestingly, we can point to a particular event that leads to the beginning of deliberate segregation of white and black. That event is what is known in history as Bacon’s Rebellion, a class uprising that occurred in the Virginia Colony in 1676.

The rebellion was a rising of working class blacks and whites against the planter class in Colonial Virginia. It demonstrates a number of things about slavery and race during the first few decades of the Virginia Colony. The first is that there was no practical separation of whites and blacks based on race. There are recorded instances of black and white indentured servants joining together in opposition to their common oppression by the planter elite. Blacks and whites recognized the differences between the two groups but could unite to oppose common threats. But while that was possible at the end of the seventeenth century it was unthinkable by the end of the eighteenth, at the time of the founding of the United States.

Nathaniel Bacon, a white man who felt alienated from the elite and who professed concern about Virginia Governor Berkeley’s perceived inaction in protecting the colonists from Native Americans, led a group of approximately 1000 white and black colonists against the Berkeley administration. Bacon died of disease and the rebellion was eventually put down by loyalists and British troops, but our concern here is the consequence. In the aftermath the British colonial authorities began to pass laws that separated blacks from whites, a process which would eventually lead to the Black Codes, the creation of a legally separate enslaved class based on race, and ultimately Jim Crow. You can read about the rebellion here. The response to the unity of poor blacks and poor whites by white elites in Virginia was to erect barriers of segregation between blacks and whites.

It would be a mistake to propose that racism can be traced solely to this incident. In fact, the causes and history of racism are quite complex. White/black racism more likely developed as a justification for European use of Africans as slaves from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Although not as rigidly defined as in British North America, privilege in all American societies came to be associated with whiteness. The more “pure” white one was, the more privilege was afforded. “Pure” blacks and natives were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, the place associated with peonage and slavery. In North America the British invented the “one drop rule,” defining as non-white anyone who had “one drop” of non-white blood. Thus, one was either white or not white, with all privilege reserved to whites.[4]

Yet it is significant that the first traceable instance of racial segregation in what was to become the United States occurred as a strategy to prevent whites and blacks from presenting a unified front against the dominant class. It is significant because that has been the practical consequence of segregation in America since. Poor whites, who are little better off or not better off economically than their black counterparts, can claim at least the status of not being black. It is interesting to note that in the United States, racism is rampant among lower class whites and blacks even while the ruling class is thoroughly integrated.[5]

The tragedy here consists in the fact that the false perception of privilege on the part of poor whites leads them to act in ways that are detrimental to their own interests. It convinces one group to support a status quo that keeps them at the bottom: excluded from wealth and power. They trade the benefits they might receive from common cause with their economic peers to maintain an illusion of privilege. Who benefits from this are those in the dominant class.

This isn’t exactly new. When the writers of the Constitution affirmed the will of “We the People” they meant “we the wealthy, property owning people.” Familiarity with US history will reveal that most people were excluded from the franchise either by race, gender, or property ownership until the 1820s. In the first Presidential election George Washington received 35,866 votes out of a free population of approximately 2.4 million.[6]

In the 1820s the United States moved toward “Universal Manhood Suffrage,” lowering property qualifications, but even then “universal manhood” indicated only white men. In the model of the Greek democracies it was thought that only those who had a material stake in the polity would act for the benefit of the polity. It was acknowledged that everyone acted in their own interests, and so it was assumed that only if one’s interests coincided with the state’s would people act in a virtuous way. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most radical of the founders, promoted middle class property ownership as a way of expanding democracy and creating a “republic of virtue.”

The elitism of the Constitution as it was originally understood was very much in keeping with the liberalism of the day, which, if it considered popular participation in government at all, assumed that only the wealthy would be able to make good decisions about the common welfare. The founders, along with liberals in Europe and later in Latin America, had an aversion to and a fear of the masses. It goes almost without saying that the assumption that the wealthy could and would govern for the benefit of all rather than their own interests was as flawed as the also common assumption that Kings would protect the people rather than exploit them. It was sometimes true, but more rarely than not.

The story we like to tell ourselves about American history is a continuous progress away from this seminal elitism toward ever expanding democracy. And it is true that as time passed more and more groups who had once been excluded: poor people, blacks and other ethnicities, and women, were enfranchised. But early on, beginning with the creation of machine politics in Jackson’s Democratic Party of the 1820s, it was known that the way to make the popular vote count was to create voting blocks. In other words, the solidarity of the masses was the only way to promote the welfare of the masses.

Creating voting coalitions based on class interest can be successful in promoting those class interests but it tends toward corruption. Voters in the voting blocks become convinced that their welfare depends on the election and continuation in office of their preferred candidate. But history shows us that the candidate rarely has the welfare of his constituents uppermost in his mind. The organization of the vote into political machines serves to create an alternative elite, who often has more in common with the original dominant class than with their own constituency. The unity of Democrats and Republicans against Civil Service reform in the Progressive era provides a telling example. Reforming an antiquated Civil Service system based on patronage would make government services more efficient and less prone to corruption, but because the political careers of both Democrats and Republicans were furthered by that very corruption, reforms that would benefit the people were resisted by stalwarts in both parties.

So it remains a truism in American politics that the interests of those who rule are separated from and often at odds with the interests of the masses. This difference, as seen going as far back as Bacon’s Rebellion, is caused by class interests. But, also demonstrated by the same event, race has been the primary instrument by which the elite maintain their hold on power. The ruling elites of Colonial Virginia deliberately used false prestige to drive a wedge between lower class blacks and whites, and were spectacularly successful. Since then racism, along with justifying a brutal system of chattel slavery, has provided different groups of the lower classes with the illusion of privilege. In the South, whites who should have had common cause with blacks aligned themselves with the planter elite because of an imagined solidarity based on whiteness. In the industrializing North and West white workers focused their discontent and fear on Irish, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Hispanics, or Asians, when uniting with them would have been more favorable to their interests.

When viewed in this light, I think, race and racism become less mysterious. What perpetuates a racist system is the interest of dominant elites abetted by the complicity of the false consciousness of the working classes. While the working classes are arrayed against each other they are not able to focus their anger, nor their creative power, on the real problem of their dispossession. In the end, race, which is itself an imagined category, becomes a way of distracting the masses and maintaining the status quo, for the benefit of the dominant elite.

The video linked below demonstrates the surprising result of refusing to allow our actions to be dictated by invented race narratives. As citizens of the United States, there is much more that ought to unite us than we allow to divide us.

Bacon’s Rebellion 1675 – 1676

“[We must defend ourselves] against all Indians in generall, for that they were all Enemies.” This was the unequivocal view of Nathaniel Bacon, a young, wealthy Englishman who had recently settled in the backcountry of Virginia. The opinion that all Indians were enemies was also shared by a many other Virginians, especially those who lived in the interior. It was not the view, however, of the governor of the colony, William Berkeley.

Berkeley was not opposed to fighting Indians who were considered enemies, but attacking friendly Indians, he thought, could lead to what everyone wanted to avoid: a war with “all the Indians against us.” Berkeley also didn’t trust Bacon’s intentions, believing that the upstart’s true aim was to stir up trouble among settlers, who were already discontent with the colony’s government.

Bacon attracted a large following who, like him, wanted to kill or drive out every Indian in Virginia. In 1675, when Berkeley denied Bacon a commission (the authority to lead soldiers), Bacon took it upon himself to lead his followers in a crusade against the “enemy.” They marched to a fort held by a friendly tribe, the Occaneechees, and convinced them to capture warriors from an unfriendly tribe. The Occaneechees returned with captives. Bacon’s men killed the captives They then turned to their “allies” and opened fire.

Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel and charged him with treason. Just to be safe, the next time Bacon returned to Jamestown, he brought along fifty armed men. Bacon was still arrested, but Berkeley pardoned him instead of sentencing him to death, the usual punishment for treason.

Still without the commission he felt he deserved, Bacon returned to Jamestown later the same month, but this time accompanied by five hundred men. Berkeley was forced to give Bacon the commision, only to later declare that it was void. Bacon, in the meantime, had continued his fight against Indians. When he learned of the Govenor’s declaration, he headed back to Jamestown. The governor immediately fled, along with a few of his supporters, to Virginia’s eastern shore.

Each leader tried to muster support. Each promised freedom to slaves and servants who would join their cause. But Bacon’s following was much greater than Berkeley’s. In September of 1676, Bacon and his men set Jamestown on fire.

The rebellion ended after British authorities sent a royal force to assist in quelling the uprising and arresting scores of committed rebels, white and black. When Bacon suddenly died in October, probably of dysentery, Bacon’s Rebellion fizzled out.

Bacon’s Rebellion demonstrated that poor whites and poor blacks could be united in a cause. This was a great fear of the ruling class — what would prevent the poor from uniting to fight them? This fear hastened the transition to racial slavery.[7]

Timothy Breen on the relationship between black slaves and white indentured servants

Q: Given that there is a situation of black and white indentured servants, how did they begin to interact or deal with one another? Is there any sense of a commonality that crosses over differences of race or ethnicity?

A: There are many ways that human beings divide themselves up. Class is one, [and] gender, race, ethnicity. There’s a number of ways that people divide themselves up. And in early Virginia, race was a category that people recognized. Black people recognized difference, and sometimes, I would even argue, celebrated difference. But in this highly competitive, depressingly abusive world, poorer whites and poorer blacks — people who were marginalized in this system of dependent labor — oftentimes reached out to each other in ways that suggest that, at least in the first 50 or 60 years of Virginia, …people of African background and English background were able to work together in ways that, again, in later period of American history, were impossible.[8]

Timothy H. Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University

Margaret Washington on Virginians’ concerns about white and black servants

Q: Given the conditions and the sense of isolation in a colony like Virginia, was there a real concern around this emerging class of white and black workers who begin to become a threat? Do you feel that that has anything to do with why it begins to start shifting towards an enslaved class?

A: You can’t discount the notion that black and white servants and slaves were going to unite over their common oppression. We have evidence of them running away together. We have evidence of them rising against their masters together. They lived together. They slept together. So yes, there was a possibility of a lower class surge against the elites. So that’s a very important consideration for the Virginians, in terms of wanting to create one kind of labor force.[9]

Margaret Washington, Associate Professor of History, Cornell Universiy

Questions for discussion:

  1. What does the discussion about what is ontological in the article have to do with the topic of racism?
  2. How and why did the unity of black and white settlers in the Virginia colony during Bacon’s Rebellion lead to the creation of race segregation?
  3. How might race segregation lead to racism? What does this tell us about the nature of racism (i.e., is it a “natural” human response, or is it a social construct)?
  4. Whose interests does the perpetuation of racism serve?
  5. How does learning about Bacon’s Rebellion affect your own ideas about race and racism? Does it call into question any of your own underlying (ontological) assumptions about race?
  6. Explain how Dr. King’s remarks quoted at the beginning of the article address the practical effects of race segregation.
  7. How can the study of history help us to address the issue of race division in contemporary American society? In what ways can the study of history be counterproductive to understanding the present?

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March” (speech, State Capitol, Montgomery, Al., March 25, 1965), accessed July 15, 2015,

[2] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, ©1995), 72.

[3] Ibid., 73.

[4] The Color of Money: Colonialism and the Slave Trade, (BBC, 2007).

[5] Ibid.

[6] “US President – National Vote,” Our Campaigns, December 24, 2008, accessed September 28, 2017,

[7] “Bacon’s Rebellion 1675 – 1676,” Africans in America, accessed February 18, 2016,

[8] Timothy Breen, “Modern Voices: Timothy Breen On the Relationship between Black Slaves and White Indentured Servants,” Africans in America, accessed February 18, 2016,

[9] Margaret Washington, “Modern Voices: Margaret Washington On Virginians’ Concerns About White and Black Servants,” Africans in America, accessed February 18, 2016,

The right side of history

September 24th, 2017 No comments

Those who make nonviolent revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” – John F. Kennedy

With the exception of committed white supremacists, almost every American holds the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in high regard. This is partially because his legacy has been, to use an ironic term, whitewashed. Few realize how radical King really was. He was radical enough to believe in and try to create a beloved community in which all people could live in peace and harmony. We may tell ourselves this is what we all want, but our history indicates this is far from the pursuit of the American Dream, marinated as it is in solipsism and radical individualism. What may be surprising to some is that after King delivered his most revered address, the “I Have a Dream” speech, he was labelled “the most dangerous Negro” in America by the head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division.[1] Anyone who has ever heard or read the speech would be hard pressed to find much in it very dangerous, unless you are invested in the idea that equality and brotherhood are dangerous.

In the 1960s George Wallace, Governor of Alabama and Presidential candidate, announced his support for running over protesters along with his call for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He also pronounced the Civil Rights Movement a “fraud” and a “hoax.” Richard Nixon invented a war on drugs to criminalize black opposition to his presidency.[2] Right wing politicians and groups were busy trying to associate the Civil Rights Movement with international communism.[3] White clergymen responded to civil rights protests by denouncing King and urging black citizens to “unite locally in working peacefully” to solve racial “frictions.”[4] As if such a thing were possible in the Jim Crow South. In the 1960s America’s cities were aflame with riots ignited by incidents of brutality against the black community. White Americans looked on in horror as political leaders denounced the riots while at the same time remaining silent on the systematic cruelty that enflamed them. The fires were eventually quenched, but the cruelty remained.

In 1968 two black athletes: John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raised black-gloved fists as the Star Spangled Banner played at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City in what came to be known as the Black Power Salute. They were protesting racial inequality and injustice in America. They were vilified. They were ousted from the Olympics. Their medals were taken away from them. Their careers were ruined. Family members were harassed.

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr., is a hero to most. The Civil Rights Movement is seen as a great victory in America’s quest for its potential. White racists are roundly condemned. White moderates who urged caution and patience are viewed as timid and ineffectual. Even the action of Carlos and Smith is considered, in hindsight, heroic.

But the problems that instigated unrest in the 1960s have not gone away. In the 1960s Civil Rights activists used the tools of technology to draw attention to blatant racial injustice. The nation condemned those those injustices, but the racist poison that animated them continues to work under the surface today . This is not hyperbole or conjecture. There is plenty of solid evidence to identify and prove systemic racism. And new technologies can now bring to light what has long been accomplished in secret. Smart phones with video capabilities now catch racists in the act and publish it on social media, where it provides, as coverage of the Civil Rights Movement did, undeniable evidence of atrocity.

The response to demands for equal justice is essentially the same today as it was in the 1960s. Those who stand up for equal rights are painted as agitators, disloyal or worse. They are told they have a right to protest, but only if it doesn’t inconvenience or offend me. I am familiar with a clever cartoon that shows a historian in his study speaking to a younger student saying, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it; but those who remember the past are doomed to watch others repeat it.” As a historian I can see society assuming patterns as if they were formulaic. Perhaps they are. In context, it is astonishing to watch people on the one hand revere the Civil Rights movement and its leaders and on the other condemn today’s Civil Rights activists.

The question is, who was on the right side of history? Was it Nixon, Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover and the John Birch Society? Or was it Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Jackie Robinson, John Carlos and Tommie Smith? In the Twitterverse I ran across this thought provoking tweet: “[I] Remember sitting in history, thinking ‘If I was alive then, I would’ve…’ You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.” There is a right side of history. It is the side, not of law and order, but of justice. Are you on it?

The man who raised a black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games

You’re probably not familiar with the name John Carlos. But you almost certainly know his image. It’s 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics and the medals are being hung round the necks of Tommie Smith (USA, gold), Peter Norman (Australia, silver) and Carlos (USA, bronze).

[1] Charles Blow, “‘The Most Dangerous Negro’,” New York Times, August 28, 2013, accessed September 24, 2017,

[2] Frida Garza, “Nixon advisor: We created the war on drugs to “criminalize” black people and the anti-war left,” Quartz, March 23, 2016, 1, accessed September 24, 2017,

[3] Rachel Tabachnik, “The John Birch Society’s anti-civil rights campaign of the 1960s, and its relevance today,” Political Research Associates (January 21, 2014): 1, accessed September 24, 2017,

[4] Statement by Alabama Clergymen, in the Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle Encyclopedia, accessed September 24, 2017,


John McCain – American Hero

September 23rd, 2017 No comments

Not everyone who serves in the military is a hero. I served, and I am not a hero. I can’t compare my service to the sacrifices many others have made. Who knows if I would have been heroic under the appropriate circumstances? But I care enough about my country to have put on a uniform during wartime, which is something most Americans have not done.  Including our Commander in Chief, who was struggling with a near-fatal case of bone spurs at the time McCain was flying missions over Hanoi, and who thinks not getting venereal disease is equivalent to service in Vietnam.

Heroism can be an act like falling on a grenade, but I think it can also be an accumulation of service. McCain spent seven years in a box, then came home and continued to serve in civilian life. I am not a fan of his politics. I have never voted for him. And politics is a dirty business. But at this point he has nothing left to prove and no need to prove it, yet he made an unpopular stand against his own party out of conviction that democracy is more important than winning. He stood up against extreme partisanship. And, leaving aside his prior service, in today’s political climate, I’d call that heroic.

This video was excerpted from The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Episode 5:

To save a politician’s hide…

August 22nd, 2017 No comments

I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world then I would lose everything at home. All my programs, all my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.[1]

This quote paints a rather complementary picture of Lyndon Johnson and his reasons for escalating the Vietnam War. It is true that the political atmosphere of the era was hysterically anti-communist, and that any politician who could be portrayed as “soft on communism” suffered an inevitable fall. But the communist threat in Vietnam had been created by Americans with their support of the corrupt and unpopular French puppet Ngo Dinh Diem. In fact every American President from Eisenhower on knew that there was no way to overcome the popular appeal of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, but each President in his turn, fearing to be seen as “soft on communism,” essentially kicked the can of inevitable failure to his successor.

The political tactic is entirely understandable. To be sure, Americans then viewed the spread of communism as seriously as Americans today view the spread of terrorism. The Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, beginning American escalation, almost unanimously (407-0 in the House, 88-2 in the Senate). Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of the two to vote against the measure, warned “I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake.” Boy howdy! In spite of near-unanimous support, the situation in Vietnam presented no immediate threat to the United States. Yet Johnson felt compelled to call upon American jingoism and fear as a political expedient. The question is, should we expect politicians to self-immolate to do the right thing? In this case Johnson’s failure to act on principle resulted in the death of over 58,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. How many lives are acceptable in return for saving a politician’s ass?

[1] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written, Eighth Printing edition (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991), 251.

Wake Up!

August 18th, 2017 No comments

You see how it works? Heavily armed nazis marching through the streets with torches spewing hate against Jews and Blacks and you guys are all defending Confederate statues. Wake up people!

“We understand justice very differently…”

August 18th, 2017 No comments

Text of a letter from the Great-Great-Grandsons of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson concerning the removal of a statue to their progenitor in Richmond, Va.

“Last weekend, Charlottesville showed us unequivocally that Confederate statues offer pre-existing iconography for racists. The people who descended on Charlottesville last weekend were there to make a naked show of force for white supremacy. To them, the Robert E. Lee statue is a clear symbol of their hateful ideology.”

“The Monuments Must Go”: An Open Letter From the Great-Great-Grandsons of Stonewall Jackson

Dear Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and members of the Monument Avenue Commission, We are native Richmonders and also the great-great-grandsons of Stonewall Jackson. As two of the closest living relatives to Stonewall, we are writing today to ask for the removal of his statue, as well as the removal of all Confederate statues from Monument Avenue.

The “Lost Cause” should not be glorified

August 16th, 2017 No comments

Statues are not erected to educate, they are erected to glorify. Taking down statues that glorify a lamentable past is not erasing history. It is claiming the present. In a way, it represents the best outcome of a critical understanding of history, because it indicates we have learned that who we once were is not who we want to be. The mythos of the “Lost Cause” is historically inaccurate. It is an invention. The Confederacy did not come into existence to defend liberty but to perpetuate slavery.[1] There was nothing glorious about it. And it’s about time we accepted that.

Analysis | How other countries have dealt with monuments to dictators, fascists and racists

The waning days of the Confederacy did not look so different from the last hours of Nazi Germany. As Matthew Schofield of McClatchy Newspapers explained: “Flags were torn down while defeated cities still burned, even as citizens crawling from the rubble were just realizing that the governments they represented had ended.”

[1] Please don’t take my word for this; read the words of those who moved to destroy the nation: The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States

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