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Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did
January 20, 2014 10:35 AM   Subscribe

This will be a very short diary. It will not contain any links or any scholarly references. It is about a very narrow topic, from a very personal, subjective perspective. The topic at hand is what Martin Luther King actually did, what it was that he actually accomplished. The reason I'm posting this is because there were dueling diaries over the weekend about Dr. King's legacy, and there is a diary up now ... entitled, "Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dream Not Yet Realized." I'm sure the diarist means well as did the others. But what most people who reference Dr. King seem not to know is how Dr. King actually changed the subjective experience of life in the United States for African Americans. And yeah, I said for African Americans, not for Americans, because his main impact was his effect on the lives of African Americans, not on Americans in general. His main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That's why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind.

Slavery by Another Name (84:57)
Directed by Sam Pollard, produced by Catherine Allan and Douglas Blackmon, written by Sheila Curran Bernard, the tpt National Productions project is based on the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Blackmon. Slavery by Another Name challenges one of our country’s most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery ended with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The documentary recounts how in the years following the Civil War, insidious new forms of forced labor emerged in the American South, keeping hundreds of thousands of African Americans in bondage, trapping them in a brutal system that would persist until the onset of World War II.

Based on Blackmon’s research, Slavery by Another Name spans eight decades, from 1865 to 1945, revealing the interlocking forces in both the South and the North that enabled this “neoslavery” to begin and persist. Using archival photographs and dramatic re-enactments filmed on location in Alabama and Georgia, it tells the forgotten stories of both victims and perpetrators of neoslavery and includes interviews with their descendants living today. The program also features interviews with Douglas Blackmon and with leading scholars of this period.
- Produced by PBS
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (54:35)
Documentary detailing the Jim Crow era when state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and ending 1965 with the Civil Rights Act. They mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy, with a "separate but equal" status for African Americans. - Produced by PBS
Works by James Balwin in the Open Library at the Internet Archive
James Arthur Baldwin was an American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist. Most of Baldwin's work deals with racial and sexual issues in the mid-20th century in the United States. His novels are notable for the personal way in which they explore questions of identity as well as the way in which they mine complex social and psychological pressures related to being black and homosexual well before the social, cultural or political equality of these groups was improved.
Excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X on History is a Weapon
The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been "whitened" -when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out. Mr. Muhammad couldn't have said anything that would have struck me harder. I had never forgotten how when my class, me and all of those whites, had studied seventh-grade United States history back in Mason, the history of the Negro had been covered in one paragraph, and the teacher had gotten a big laugh with his joke, "Negroes' feet are so big that when they walk, they leave a whole in the ground."

This is one reason why Mr. Muhammad's teachings spread so swiftly all over the United States, among all Negroes, whether or not they became followers of Mr. Muhammad. The teachings ring true- to every Negro. You can hardly show me a black adult in America-or a white one, for that matter- who knows from the history books anything like the truth of the black man's role. In my own case, once I heard of the "glorious history of the black man," I took special pains to hunt in the library for books that would inform me on details about black history.
James Farmer
James Leonard Farmer, Jr. (January 12, 1920 – July 9, 1999) was a civil rights activist and leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was the initiator and organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride, which eventually led to the desegregation of inter-state transportation in the United States.
In 1942, Farmer co-founded the Committee of Racial Equality, which later became the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that sought to bring an end to racial segregation in the United States through nonviolence. Farmer was the organization's first leader, serving as the national chairman from 1942 to 1944.
posted by Blasdelb (99 comments total) 133 users marked this as a favorite

 
King’s radicalism is lost to the obfuscating fog of memory. In American culture today, we have several Martin Luther King, Jrs: the Commemorative King, the Therapeutic King, the Conservative King, and the Commodified King. Each of these Kings competes for our attention, but each of them represents a vision of King that he himself would not have recognized.
Thomas Sugrue: Restoring King
posted by RogerB at 10:49 AM on January 20 [10 favorites]


Just want to add a link to a fantastic PBS documentary on the Freedom Rides.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:50 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


Fantastic post!

In 1967 MLK spoke at my church, which is next to Harvard University. He was refused permission to speak at Harvard not because he was black, but because he was speaking out against the Vietnam War. So, the church invited him in. Dr. Benjamin Spock also spoke at the same event.

The young son of the assistant priest made a little drawing of MLK, and got him to sign it. It's one of our proudest pieces in the archives.

James Farmer came to speak in my college history class in ~1990. During that time we watched the entire "Eyes on the Prize" series (pre-internet, when we couldn't easily look up all the events and people and places). Fondly remember that class.
posted by Melismata at 10:55 AM on January 20 [8 favorites]


sigh - i just don't know about this - to a certain degree dr king did improve the climate of fear that african americans felt

but then i remember that a few years back, when our union couldn't manage to find a place for our xmas party in town and had to settle for a place in a small town ten miles or so out of the city, that the african americans strongly objected to this - they didn't want to go out there because they'd get pulled over by the police

so things have improved - but there's still some distance to go, i think - there's still some fear and i don't think it's unreasonable fear, either
posted by pyramid termite at 11:00 AM on January 20 [12 favorites]


I've been reading quite a bit lately that defines the Jim Crow era as successful domestic terrorism (ref Ta-Nehisi Coates, and here as well), but this is the kind of white supremacy cliche-buster that I'm going to be thinking about for a long time.
posted by muddgirl at 11:01 AM on January 20 [4 favorites]


That Hamden Rice piece is brilliant. I've had vague shadows of those thoughts poking around in my mind, but have neve been able to put them into words.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:02 AM on January 20


Absolutely, pyramidtermite; prejudice of any kind isn't the sort of thing you can get rid of once and have not come back. It's something you always have to keep working at, like fleas.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:05 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Now imagine MLK in an alternate reality where George Wallace was elected president in 1964...
posted by ennui.bz at 11:12 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


I have little to add to this excellent post, except to say that those who are interested in life under Jim Crow ought to read Leon Litwack's Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.
posted by dhens at 11:14 AM on January 20 [6 favorites]


I have always been completely convinced that the myth of colorblindness is the predominant way in which racism operates in our modern North American climate - I've always known this even as a small child, where I felt the pressures of a societal refusal to acknowledge and respect my race and culture far greater than any overt form of bigotry or racism. This is especially egregious in how so many racial activists including MLK have had their work ignored, rewritten and reinterpreted to fit a white narrative of a comfortable post-racial society: it is history being rewritten by white supremacy all over again.

It is racism when we willfully ignore and deny the existence of structural and institutional forms of racism; it is racism when we deny equitable practices in favor of "equality" or due to "reverse racism"; it is racism when we ignore, repurpose, and erase a century of activism and collective struggle to pit racial groups against each other; and it is racism when we twist statistics and science claim that the American dream is colorblind, and if racial groups would only bow their heads and assimilate, they could as equally succeed. Yet these are all acceptable forms of racism in today's North American society that has brought so heavily into the colorblindness myth that they see racism as purely historical - and racial slurs to be the only possible modern form of racism.

MLK's legacy was not to make white people feel better about themselves, or even comfortable - and especially not when they passively continue to enable racism in the form of colorblindness.
posted by Conspire at 11:31 AM on January 20 [42 favorites]


And Garry Trudeau, as always, had it right back in 1993.
posted by Melismata at 11:37 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


As a white southerner whose family background is of a similar sort to the DailyKos author's (rural, poor, peasant-ish, insular, but not lived under terrorism), that link was extremely eye-opening. Thank you for that.
posted by Sara C. at 11:39 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]


It's also worth being reminded on a day like today that it would have been families like my family who were the source of the terror inflicted on families like the author's family.

Maybe everybody in my family was enlightened and kind and didn't want bad things to happen to black people. But even so, black men would have walked single file in the presence of my grandmother. Whether she asked for it or not.
posted by Sara C. at 11:42 AM on January 20 [10 favorites]


I think it's a shame the way we teach about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks in our elementary schools. To be in your 20s and 30s and read for the first time that they were much more to the lengths of Malcolm X is shocking. You should respect their bravery from the time you are a child.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:47 AM on January 20 [3 favorites]


Video of King's "I Have A Dream" speech.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:47 AM on January 20


[Couple comments removed, let's maybe try harder not to start a fight in here.]
posted by cortex at 11:57 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:01 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


It occurs to me that Hilary Clinton could look really good and seriously make this the author's day by tweeting him a response or whatever it is that politicians do this days.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:05 PM on January 20


It occurs to me that Hilary Clinton could look really good and seriously make this the author's day by tweeting him a response or whatever it is that politicians do this days.

Well, the article is three years old now. Not that it's not still relevant, but the tweet wouldn't be timely.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:06 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


I read the works of Baldwin and X as a kid, but I was an adult before I saw and heard them speak and realized how absolutely riveting they were. I can't imagine what that, combined with King's well-known stage presence and oratory skills, must have had on a national audience of all backgrounds at the time.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:07 PM on January 20


I look forward to Americans really internalizing the hate and oppression which is part of its history, truly learning what the Civil Rights movements of both the 1860s and 1960s were, so we can finally move on to becoming a better place for everyone.

Did anyone who went to public high school in the US in the 70's, 80's or 90's learn anything substantive about the civil rights movement? I know I did not.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:12 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]


We should keep in mind when people wax nostalgic for the 1950s this is part of what they're waxing nostalgic for. Thanks for the great post.
posted by maxwelton at 12:29 PM on January 20 [12 favorites]


... in today's North American society that has brought so heavily into the colorblindness myth that they see racism as purely historical - and racial slurs to be the only possible modern form of racism.

This. I went to a public junior high school in one of the most PC, liberal enclaves in the country in the early 80s. We're all equal, we were taught. We're all the same, we're no different. This bit me in the ass in college: a black friend of mine was upset because some white people were glaring at her in a small town; I was very dismissive. We're all the same, I lectured her. It doesn't matter what they think. Ooh, I cringe at that memory. (She also complained how her family was telling her that she sounded white, and I could do nothing but stare at her and nod in faux-sympathy, because I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.)

But in terms of learning the history of the movement, the school was fairly good, though it was very MLK-oriented and we learned almost nothing about Malcolm X or anyone else who may have conflicted with MLK's nonviolent dreams.
posted by Melismata at 12:32 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


Did anyone who went to public high school in the US in the 70's, 80's or 90's learn anything substantive about the civil rights movement? I know I did not.

I did, but my 7th grade history teacher was loosely affiliated with the civil rights movement in Chicago, it was a majority-minority classroom, and I suspect that I grew up in an alternate universe whenever other people start talking about US history. There are pockets, and I always suspect that people are far more willing to teach the facts to minorities - the facts might make white parents uncomfortable.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:32 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


I have to slightly disagree with the thesis of the main article, only because he absolutely did leave a legacy for white Americans, specifically around his labour advocacy. He was shot the night after speaking at a rally of sanitation workers.

Obviously poverty and worker rights have a racial dimension in America (and many other places), so there was obvious alignment with his civil rights work. But it has been mentioned before that the glossing over of his fights for workers' rights is yet another way Dr. King's legacy gets contorted into a modern narrative where everyone is not only supposedly colour blind, but a good little capitalist as well. Hell, being pro-union is almost something you have to keep quiet about these days in a way that being pro-equality isn't.

Anyway, while I wouldn't begrudge African-Americans trying to reclaim his legacy at all, to say that MLK didn't have a direct and tangible positive impact on the lives of white Americans (and not in an abstract "he showed us how to be better people" way), feels to me like more contorting of the whole picture.
posted by dry white toast at 12:33 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]


I did, but with two caveats:

- I went to a fairly quirky public high school where we learned about a lot of the "lies my teacher told me" type stuff, probably because the teaching staff was free to design their own curricula. I had access to a much higher level of social studies than most American public school students.

- One of my history teachers at said school started his teaching career in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement, and taught in high schools that were integrating. IIRC he was also a freedom rider and was a part of the Civil Rights movement in whatever way a white southerner could be. Kind of hard not to learn about the Civil Rights Movement in a substantive way when your US history teacher was part of it.
posted by Sara C. at 12:41 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


Did anyone who went to public high school in the US in the 70's, 80's or 90's learn anything substantive about the civil rights movement? I know I did not.

For the most part, no. My school offered an elective history course, in which half the semester was about racism in American society, but it wasn't part of the mandatory curriculum and was only available to seniors. I finally learned how bullshit the colorblindness myth was.

Up until then, everything I learned about the civil rights movement was part of a historical narrative constructed so as to avoid making white people uncomfortable. There was also the complete irony of being taught that we were all equal, that racism was bad, while living in one of the most segregated parts of the county.
posted by inertia at 12:50 PM on January 20


I don't think my school classes even covered the Civil Rights movement, at least in high school. I went to a very-majority-white (like, really really really white; I think we had 3% African-Americans?) high school in the South and our AP US History teacher was considered a bit odd because he was unequivocally biased against the Confederacy and its goals when he taught the Civil War. We did read a number of first-hand accounts of slavery in that class, though, which was, again, a little transgressive for the "colorblind liberal-ish" demographics of the school. He was a great teacher.
posted by jaguar at 12:53 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


James Farmer taught at Mary Washington University. There is a statue of him on campus, and they have a freshman seminar class dedicated to studying his life. My son took that class his freshman year. I'm sad to say I had no idea who he was prior to seeing the statue on campus, reading the placard, and getting curious enough to Google him and learn more.

Doesn't say a whole lot for my 3 college degrees.
posted by COD at 12:55 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Honestly one problem is just that we teach history to children — and so most people stop studying it or thinking about it before they're really ready to comprehend it.

I was a pretty smart 12-year-old. I didn't know a damn thing about shame or internalized prejudice. (I don't just mean "I hadn't experienced those things much," though that's definitely true. I also mean "To the limited extent that I had experienced them, I wasn't at all conscious or self-aware about it, and wouldn't be for a long time into the future.") I didn't get that self-imposed limits can be stronger than externally imposed ones. I didn't understand anything about trauma or real fear. I was a white kid in a white neighborhood and the biggest clue I had about race and ethnicity came from watching Sesame Street.

Even if I had been exposed in middle school or high school to an idea like "Once the beating was over, we were free," it would have made no damn sense to me at all. At best I'd have forgotten it. At worst I'd have converted it into support for a familiar reactionary cliché: "Gee, I guess that means that downtrodden people are really Noble and Authentic" or some crypto-racist bullshit like that. One way or another, it was not about to do me any good.
posted by this is a thing at 1:17 PM on January 20 [15 favorites]


"Anyway, while I wouldn't begrudge African-Americans trying to reclaim his legacy at all, to say that MLK didn't have a direct and tangible positive impact on the lives of white Americans (and not in an abstract "he showed us how to be better people" way), feels to me like more contorting of the whole picture."

I don't think the piece is saying that MLK had no positive effect on white Americans, that would indeed be pretty absurd, but that despite the active whitewashing of his legacy, what effect he did have on white people is at most trivial next to his real legacy. The white-centric perspective on King isn't wrong, but it isn't really at all important.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:20 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]


I have a vague recollection of our civil rights lesson plan in AP US History, but I'm sure I learned more in 2 hours at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis than in 12 years of schooling. Our teacher was progressive and well-meaning, but the AP test was invariably focused on what white people did in response to the civil rights movement, rather than the movement itself.
posted by muddgirl at 1:21 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


Sorry, meant to link National Civil Rights Museum.
posted by muddgirl at 1:24 PM on January 20


Did anyone who went to public high school in the US in the 70's, 80's or 90's learn anything substantive about the civil rights movement? I know I did not.

We studied In the Heat of the Night in my public school in Canada. I think that and maybe a few statements about Civil Rights while we studied The Handmaid's Tale were about it. In Canada, mind you.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 1:28 PM on January 20


How The FBI Invaded Martin Luther King Jr.'s Privacy -- And Tried To Blackmail Him Into Suicide
posted by homunculus at 1:29 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


Did anyone who went to public high school in the US in the 70's, 80's or 90's learn anything substantive about the civil rights movement?

Define substantive and the ask how was learned about other subjects.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:30 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Honestly one problem is just that we teach history to children — and so most people stop studying it or thinking about it before they're really ready to comprehend it.

Though, just in case it didn't go without saying: it's also true that we teach minority history and activist history really badly, and even given the limitations that come from trying to teach history to kids, we could be doing a hell of a lot better.
posted by this is a thing at 1:30 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


Dec. 19, 1956 - Integrated Bus Suggestions
posted by madamjujujive at 1:44 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]


I've occasionally had clueless white students who asked why people were so upset about using different water fountains. Really not their fault except for them being incurious; it says more about how variable education is in Texas and how bad it can be if you're saddled with a single bad teacher in a dinky little town. Anyway, I took to preemptively starting my intro-to-American-politics section on civil rights with pictures of Emmitt Till, Jesse Washington, Will Brown, the "THIS NIGGER VOTED" effigy being hanged, and so on. I keep looking for good pictures of stuff like keep-away signs for sundown towns or THE KKK WELCOMES YOU TO $CITY, but have yet to find good ones.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:09 PM on January 20 [6 favorites]


As a white person who grew up far away from the US, MLK was one of the first "famous" names I'm aware of hearing about. We were taught that he worked to end racism by non-violent means and was a direct inspiration for our own Civil Rights movement. This post has given me a really different and arresting perspective on his struggle and those of African Americans. "Once the beating was over, we were free" is just so powerful, in the context of this struggle but also life in general, I think. Thanks for the post.

Also madamjujujive thanks for that Slate link. It was moving to see how much of the language was about love, goodwill and prayer despite the overwhelming anger and fear people must have been experiencing. I particularly loved the line "Be quiet but friendly; proud, but not arrogant; joyous, but not boisterous." Again, good advice for life in general, but oh how hard that must have been to follow in the circumstances.
posted by billiebee at 2:19 PM on January 20



I was listening to "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" (April 4, 1967) earlier today. Every time I listen or read, it staggers me how much we need to hear this, and how little we do. I love "I Have a Dream" as much as anyone else, but we really need to hear this today as much as ever.
…many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask?

…It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

… So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

…For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America."…Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men -- for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the "Vietcong" or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

…I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

… True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…
I'm always reminded of that last bit when I hear rich people who don't want to pay the taxes they owe to reinvest in the society that allowed them to prosper saying that poor people should just go begging to charity when the system lets them down.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:24 PM on January 20 [15 favorites]


"I keep looking for good pictures of stuff like keep-away signs for sundown towns or THE KKK WELCOMES YOU TO $CITY, but have yet to find good ones."

Well, these SUPER DISTURBING pictures are certainly arresting and many are from Texas. It is slowly being forgotten, but lynchings in America were carefully documented by the people who did them as souvenir postcards that show them being performed all over the US in public places that are generally still there today.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:32 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


Ok, but he also made white people nicer and fairer.

I think it's important to note that that may not be the most important thing he did. But he did do it. Speak the truth and it resonates with people.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 2:32 PM on January 20


"Ok, but he also made white people nicer and fairer."
This is kind of a WTF non-sequitor objection to the piece, this is even the rest of the sentence you're quoting here and to be clear it is even bolded in the original article as if to foresee this madness,
"And yeah, I said for African Americans, not for Americans, because his main impact was his effect on the lives of African Americans, not on Americans in general. His main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer."
"His main impact."

Hamden Rice is explicitly, clearly, obviously, not even remotely close to not saying that MLK didn't have a positive impact on the niceness and fairness of white people; he is even actually affirmatively saying that. He is however also saying that, regardless of the racialized narcissism that dominates white perceptions of MLK's legacy as well as it seems much of this thread, the niceness and fairness of white people did not fucking matter next to the truly salient and meaningful things MLK accomplished. He is saying that black experiences of MLK's life work are really changed America, not white ones.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:50 PM on January 20 [9 favorites]


> I have to slightly disagree with the thesis of the main article, only because he absolutely did leave a legacy for white Americans

> Ok, but he also made white people nicer and fairer.

I think it's important to note that we can't seem to have a thread about his importance for black people without the "Oh, but he was important for white people too!" derail. Cf. the male response to any feminism thread.

> We should keep in mind when people wax nostalgic for the 1950s this is part of what they're waxing nostalgic for.

Oh, come on, that's reductionist bullshit. I'm glad we're all so aware of and sensitive to the dark sides of American history, but people seem to feel they get merit badges every time they point them out. Washington? Had slaves! Jefferson? Had slaves! The fifties? Racism! I mean, yes, of course, those things are true, but other things are true too, and when people are nostalgic for the fifties, most of the time it is not in fact racism they are nostalgic for, just as when Russian exiles were nostalgic for the time before the Revolution, it wasn't because they enjoyed the idea of Cossacks beating up Jews and leftists. And I'm pretty sure if there were a post on, say, Jefferson's amazing prose style, the thread would immediately turn into yet another Sally Hemings rehash. History is a complicated and interesting place, and it's made to seem less interesting when you insist on repeating the same few things about it.

Anyway, an excellent post; I was particularly glad to see the first link, having read that powerful essay elsewhere and been impressed by it.
posted by languagehat at 2:54 PM on January 20 [6 favorites]


@ROU_Xenophobe: I'm assuming you've seen sundown.afro.illinois.edu/sundowntowns.php? Unfortunately I think many of the Library of Congress' pictures have yet to be digitized but there are some relevant pages:

http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/085_disc.html


Picture search for subject=Segregation

posted by adamsc at 2:55 PM on January 20


Well, these SUPER DISTURBING pictures are certainly arresting and many are from Texas

Thanks, but the pictures of Jesse Washington and Will Brown already make a few students cry, so I really don't want to make that part any more brutal.

I'm assuming you've seen sundown.afro.illinois.edu/sundowntowns.php

Yeah, but it's hard to navigate around that site looking for photos. I hadn't seen the LOC search though, thanks.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:04 PM on January 20


Ok, but he also made white people nicer and fairer.

He might have made some white people nicer and fairer. And considering that large parts of the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action have been dismantled or are in the process of being dismantled, and that modern US conservatives seem hell-bent on resurrecting Jim Crow in as many insidious forms as they can dream up, there's a strong argument that they haven't gotten nicer and fairer at all.
posted by zombieflanders at 3:09 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


The LOC site has been undergoing a multi-year reorganization merging a bunch of different collections so there are some other searches which might be of interest:

New search for “segregation”

The older American Memory collection has links to a number of interesting items, albeit with some old-school navigation:

“My Daddy said they didn't seem to mind servin' him on the Anzio beach head…”
posted by adamsc at 3:10 PM on January 20


when people are nostalgic for the fifties, most of the time it is not in fact racism they are nostalgic for

Inasmuch as American conservatives are nostalgic for The Olden Times When People Knew Their Place, yes, they absolutely are nostalgic for Jim Crow.

It is true that, if I throw a Sock Hop theme party, or watch an episode of I Love Lucy on cable, or put on a Connie Francis record, I'm not, by association, being nostalgic for Jim Crow.

But, yeah, The Good Old Days as used as a dog whistle very specifically refers to a time before the social movements and cultural changes of the 60's, when white men held more power than they perceive themselves to hold today.
posted by Sara C. at 3:15 PM on January 20 [8 favorites]


Excellent article but the author doesn't talk about what might have happened if the oppressive response went way beyond beatings and jail by the police , and why it didn't. (He brings up Gandhi and his successful non-violent resistance campaign against British colonial rule and oppression in India . It reminded me of Gandhi's well-meaning but terrible advice to Europeans /Jews to try peaceful resistance against the Nazis )
posted by Bwithh at 3:16 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


why it didn't

Because overt ethnic cleansing probably was not a realistic response, with the Holocaust still in very recent memory.
posted by Sara C. at 3:24 PM on January 20


Though yes, of course, King could have been wrong. This is why it's important to recognize the very real fight that black people engaged in through the Civil Rights Movement. Jim Crow wasn't dismantled because white people found it distasteful.

Black people (and some white people) put their bodies on the line. People died to win these freedoms. Black people were not "given" anything. They fought and earned it.
posted by Sara C. at 3:27 PM on January 20


I read Taylor Branch's history of the civil rights movement a few years ago, and I was astonished at not only how virulent racism was in the deep south, but how institutionalized it was as well. Not only were there lynchings and beatings, but in many places they had the full support of elected officials. It was really eye-opening and an excellent read. I highly recommend reading it if you're interested in understanding the history of the civil rights movement. It gave me enormous respect for Dr. King and other civil rights activists. The Freedom Rides documentary linked at the top of the thread is excellent as well.
posted by pombe at 3:35 PM on January 20


ROU_Xenophobe: "I've occasionally had clueless white students who asked why people were so upset about using different water fountains. "

This is one of the things that I remember struggling with in school (mind you in Canada) when we touched on racism in the states. Course material always seemed to show white and black facilities paired up like men's and women's washrooms are paired up today and it seemed like a weird go to example when there were so many other horrific physical and legal abuses. They never showed a difference in facilities like a town with 30 water fountains might only 2 available for African Americans and those on the edge of town instead of centrally located. Rosa parks was always presented as merely a needing to move to the back of the bus (which as a school bus rider was where the best seats were).

And it wasn't until I was in college that I learned that miscegenation was both a thing someone put enough thought into to give it a name and illegal in some places in the past. I honestly thought I was being made fun of.

Every time I dive into civil rights history I'm appalled at the conditions minorities experienced/are experiencing. That things like segregated proms still persist blows me away.
posted by Mitheral at 3:44 PM on January 20


I was astonished at not only how virulent racism was in the deep south, but how institutionalized it was as well.

In honor of Martin Luther King, I feel honor bound to bring up that he found it more difficult to address racial inequality in the North than he ever had in the South. Talk about institutionalized racism: Daley threw all of his immense power in shutting King down.
posted by dinty_moore at 4:06 PM on January 20 [6 favorites]


Did anyone who went to public high school in the US in the 70's, 80's or 90's learn anything substantive about the civil rights movement? I know I did not.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:12 PM on January 20


Unfortunately in 1976 when I was 7, I had to live out some of this history myself. The Milwaukee Public Schools were desegregated that year (22 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, mind you) and the local Nazi Party chapter had no problem showing up to my new "white" school to intimidate us as we alighted from the bus while the cops stood a respectful distance across the street.

Nor did it stop a white woman from pointing at me like she'd seen a mountain of roaches and shrieking, "This! This is what we're trying to prevent! Do you see this abomination of God, this half-breed monster?" Take a look at my profile. Yup, I was a 7-year-old "half-breed monster", probably a criminal too, and stupid, and out to steal all her money and, and, and...

Boy, I know 40 kids that day who needed some James Farmer style-coaching to enable us to take the invective from these people.

But other than that, no, I didn't learn about Civil Rights at school. This is Milwaukee we're talking about. I read books on my own and asked relatives. At least the city's public library had decent books on the subject, unlike my textbooks (which only in high school went as far as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, with all praise going to Kennedy and Johnson for being such swell, benevolent guys) or the books in the school libraries (where you'd be lucky to find a copy of Rolling Thunder, Hear My Cry). College courses in Modern American History were definitely more expansive on the subject.
posted by droplet at 4:42 PM on January 20 [21 favorites]


Did anyone who went to public high school in the US in the 70's, 80's or 90's learn anything substantive about the civil rights movement? I know I did not.

We did. This was in suburban New England. We took weeks to watch and talk about Eyes on the Prize (and not just during Black History Month, which was just barely a thing) and did big sections on Civil Rights not just in social studies classes but also in You and the Law classes and read about civil rights stuff in English class. Then again it may have just made a big impression on me because my (somewhat hippie) parents were pretty aggressive about making sure I was aware of and knowledgeable about people whose backgrounds were different from mine (race, class, disability &c). We had dolls of different races and my mom was always trying to get our local small town library to have more books by and about people of color. Until I was a lot older, I didn't know that this wasn't what everyone dealt with in small towns.
posted by jessamyn at 5:04 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


I'm a few years younger than droplet. I grew up in NC, in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, which were truly integrated by busing only a few years before I started kindergarten. We grew up knewing about that, hearing about integration from our teachers who had begun their careers in all-white schools and all-black schools and now were teaching in a system that over the years became a true success story for integration (after I graduated high school, some recent transplants from other parts of the country sued the school system and re-segregated the schools, and like most of the country now, they remain de facto segregated in the 21st century, a true shame on my hometown).

In our schools, the Civil Rights Movement was definitely taught--primarily during February, yes, but it was taught. We learned about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, yes, but also Malcolm X, and who SNCC and the SCLC were. We learned about the Birmingham church bombing and the Freedom Riders. We knew who Emmett Till was, we knew what lynching was, and we sure as hell knew who the Klan were, because they were still around holding marches and generally embarrassing the hell out of civilized kids.

We also learned about the Civil Rights Movement in our North Carolina history classes in 4th grade and 8th grade, especially about the Greensboro sit-ins and Dorothy Counts fighting to attend the very schools we attended. In high school, my US History AP teacher was a Vietnam vet, and in addition to teaching the protests and the laws, he also discussed the overlap of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement (something that was undoubtedly not on the AP test).
posted by hydropsyche at 5:07 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Did anyone who went to public high school in the US in the 70's, 80's or 90's learn anything substantive about the civil rights movement? I know I did not.
In Southern California, I did but largely because of two teachers who assigned things like A People's History or Lies My Teacher Told Me in addition to the textbooks (one teacher had a lesson anchored by his personal experience being hauled away by riot police at SDSU, so this qualified as having mellowed with age). Most of the standard material followed the factual but incomplete pattern other people mentioned above, and tellingly for areas with major Mexican / Mexican-descended populations, it heavily focused on the Southern racism which happened safely far away with perhaps a cursory mention of César Chávez.
posted by adamsc at 5:08 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


I have to slightly disagree with the thesis of the main article, only because he absolutely did leave a legacy for white Americans, specifically around his labour advocacy. He was shot the night after speaking at a rally of sanitation workers.

Sanitation workers who were *black*. I am not at all denying that King was pro-union, but the Sanitation Workers strike in Memphis was a result of the racism of a white city government that did not give two shits about the people who picked up their trash.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 5:10 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


We moved to Boston two years after this photo was taken. We very nearly moved to Charlestown, but for the kindness (?) of a woman in a coffee shop who suggested to my (white) mother that I might not fare so well in the schools there.
posted by rtha at 5:37 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


And it wasn't until I was in college that I learned that miscegenation was both a thing someone put enough thought into to give it a name and illegal in some places in the past.

The very recent past. Although they weren't enforceable on a practical level because of Federal rulings, there were anti-miscegenation laws on state books as recently as 2000.

Did anyone who went to public high school in the US in the 70's, 80's or 90's learn anything substantive about the civil rights movement? I know I did not.

It must have been covered at some point, but it also must have been done in so perfunctory a manner that I have no clear memory at all of learning anything about the Civil Rights movement in my (white, Northern, small-town) K-12 schools.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:56 PM on January 20


dinty_moore: "In honor of Martin Luther King, I feel honor bound to bring up that he found it more difficult to address racial inequality in the North than he ever had in the South. Talk about institutionalized racism: Daley threw all of his immense power in shutting King down."

Yeah, this is what gets shut out of school history really effectively. It's entirely possible I learned that King came anywhere near Chicago from the Simon and Garfunkel song Silent Night. I don't think it was ever mentioned in school.* Though, to be honest, I don't remember a whole lot of the second half of the twentieth century getting a lot of coverage in AP US History generally. I mean, we did it, but I think a lot was lost in a mad rush to get through the AP syllabus before the exam. (The same fate befell anything after the Second World War in Modern Euro. I think we were in about 1943 at the time of the exam and then fast-forwarded to 1989 after it because the teacher was going to teach the fall of communism, damn it, even if it had rendered his calling as an anti-communist a bit surplus.)

I went to the Martin Luther King, Jr National Historic Site two summers back, which is full of stark reminders that a lot of this history is swept under the rug. But it was also a reminder of how ill-equipped I am to even talk about the Civil Rights Movement--two of the people I was with were from Iran and China and had read some relevant Wikipedia articles after they decided to come, but the other two of us were trying to fill in the gaps en route and didn't really do it justice.

*Small disclaimer: I didn't have eighth grade history, which would have covered the appropriate time period.
posted by hoyland at 6:00 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


My son and I just watched the Slavery By Any Other Name documentary referenced in the original post. My thought after it was that Sherman should have burned a a hell of a lot more of the South on his march to the sea. Also, once again the appalling holes in my history knowledge were revealed. Although I was aware of sharecropping and chain gangs and prison labor, the extent of what was essentially slavery throughout the South right up to WWII was not real clear to me until about an hour ago.

And peonage was an entirely new concept to me.

So two thumbs up for the documentary. It's depressing as all hell, but something that horrible should be.
posted by COD at 6:36 PM on January 20


We moved to Boston two years after this photo was taken.

The city recently dedicated a statue of Bill Russell on the exact spot that attack took place.
posted by adamg at 7:19 PM on January 20


Sorry, that's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I haven't read that book since 3rd grade; I knew I'd gotten the title wrong.

And just reading the plot recap in the link is upsetting all over again. This is why it's so important that true American history is taught, so that people like Sarah Palin can't go around trolling about "race cards" to President Obama, so that people like her can be called out on their bullshit, their willful ignorance, their greed, and their unspoken, but apparently limitless desire to lord it up over others. America needs to own its stuff. Nothing will change until that happens, which was what Dr. King was saying all along.
posted by droplet at 7:29 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


On King in Chicago - It's not covered because it's not a success story. And if there was a problem in 1966, someone's going to ask when it was fixed - when did housing segregation stop being an issue? It ruins the hagiography and maybe makes people admit that there might still be issues we have to face.

Which depresses me because in a lot of ways, the Daley vs. King interplay seems to be a very good lesson on how powerful institutions can fight against change without even showing their hand, and how media coverage can influence an outcome. It's a less direct story.

Daley's savvy enough to keep the police out of the first response. There's just a couple bricks and bottles thrown from buildings into the marching protesters. Someone in the crowd maybe throws some of the bricks and bottles back. Then the police intervene, because of course they have to. People get hurt. The papers (even those that covered King favorably when he was in the south) focus on the nonviolent protesters throwing broken bottles at innocent bystanders and condemn King for going too far and inciting violence. If I recall correctly, the city denies a few permits after that - the administration is sympathetic, of course, but they just can't allow its citizens to get hurt like that.

In the end, King gets a couple of promises out of Daley to help fix housing, and Daley is free to ignore them. Nobody is going to hold Daley accountable.

So, here's the thing that really gets me when we talk about the complexity of this issue and how appropriate it is to learn about it - I learned this version of the story when I was 12. I was writing a list of stuff that I must have learned in elementary school and junior high that didn't seem to be covered elsewhere, and some of it are seemingly complex concepts - DuBois vs. Garvey in assimilation vs. separatism, the idea that there were a hierarchy of slave jobs and light skinned slaves with more European features were more likely to get better jobs, the dangers of sharecropping while illiterate, the mutability of race over time and in different cultures. And we got it. Okay, we might have been the smart kids and nobody had to explain the basics of racism to us to begin with, but we got it. The only reason why you wouldn't teach these ideas is if you didn't want kids to think about them too much.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:45 PM on January 20 [7 favorites]


Dr. Arthur Johnson was a classmate of Martin Luther King and a leader in the civil rights movement. He was the President of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP from 1987 to 1993, served as Assistant Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, and was a Vice-President at Wayne State University. Today, on Martin Luther King's birthday, it seems appropriate to share this (rather long) interview from 2009 (when Dr. Johnson was 83 years old) from WDET's Craig Fahle's show. Dr. Johnson died in 2011. Dr. Johnson is an eloquent and articulate speaker, spend a few quiet moments, as we end this day honoring Martin Luther King, hearing words from a leader of that most important movement.
posted by HuronBob at 9:26 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Lonnie, the grandson of slaves, was born at the turn of the 20th century. He became a hosteler later houseboy for my children's paternal grandmother when she married and moved to her husband's farm in the early 1920s. I got the sense Lonnie was selected to go with her to her new household. By the time I met Lonnie in 1956, he had already worked for her for 35 years and he would continue another 24 years until he died in 1981, four months after her death.

Lonnie lived in a house in 'the quarters', so named because they were the former slave quarters. He came to work very early every morning and sat on the back steps until S let him in. As times grew more modern, there were fewer household servants and Lonnie did more of the work. He worked long hours, did all the heavy lifting and cleaning, cared for the animals, garaged the cars, did the gardening and helped with cooking. When there were guests, he put on a white coat and served as footman. Lonnie was not allowed to eat the food he cooked but was given cheaper food. The pantry was locked at all times. Lonnie was not permitted to use the bathrooms he cleaned but had an outhouse behind the barn and an outdoor sink. Every few years, Lonnie would negotiate for some better treatment, like a little bit better house or, when he got older, a designated bathroom in the main house.

Theoretically, Lonnie could have gone elsewhere to work at any time in his young life but considering vagrancy laws, economic disparity, illiteracy, the tremendous intimidation of racism and servitude, and the sense of both responsibility and entitlement projected by his employer, Lonnie was never free. It was sad to know that despite her treatment of him, Lonnie genuinely cared for S and for her family and to know at the same time that Lonnie had never been free.

I think -- I always think -- that although S was abusive in many ways and everybody knew, it was treated as normal and nobody changed anything. The South, the rural South, the racist, classist system, everybody was kept in their place. It shames us all and sears my conscience especially as Lonnie was so very longsuffering and gentle for all of his life because I think it is true that were it not for his gentle temperament, Lonnie would not have lived very long. Virtual slavery didn't end with WWII. I remember Lonnie and Lonnie was never free.
posted by Anitanola at 12:12 AM on January 21 [21 favorites]


Isn't it unlikely that the holocaust could've gone worse for Europeans Jews if they had staged large non-violent protests, Bwithh? In principle, non-violent resistance could've increased awareness of the holocaust amongst the public, possibly encouraging more jews to flee, bringing the U.S. into the war effort earlier, etc.

An oppressed group always has better odds if they resist than if they acquiesce, that includes both violent and non-violent resistance against a genocidal government. Your personal safety is frequently best served by fleeing oppression though, assuming you've anyplace to flee to.
And the group fares better if they flee crimes against humanity like genocide and torture, although that's hard because crimes against humanity are committed in secret.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:18 AM on January 21


We'd live in a very different world if the South had routinely massacred African American protestors, Bwithh. America would've suffered a devastating setback in their propaganda war against the Soviet Union. There would be vastly more outright communists or similar living in Western Europe and the U.S., and probably more communist nations in Asia and South America. Johnson aided the civil rights movement largely to prevent this.

American racial politics would feel quite different today too : Johnson might've used federal troops more aggressively in the South, or even used the CIA against Southern states, making desegregation feel more forced. Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad would be much more influential today, surely meaning more African American converts to Islam, maybe holding their movement together, etc. In any case, violence against the police would feel more socially acceptable today. Some African Americans would've fled the South to the North, Mexico, and Canada, possibly shifting wages and industry slightly, maybe the South would be poorer today. And the war on drugs would gone differently, maybe even more racially tinged, maybe the South would've wound up more like Mexico, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:13 AM on January 21


dinty_moore: "On King in Chicago - It's not covered because it's not a success story. And if there was a problem in 1966, someone's going to ask when it was fixed - when did housing segregation stop being an issue? It ruins the hagiography and maybe makes people admit that there might still be issues we have to face."

Oh, I think we skipped it because it would have entailed looking at ourselves a little too closely. That's maybe closely related to ruining the hagiography, but I think there was a personal/local motivation.

(I remembered this morning that we talked about de jure vs de facto segregation, so we must have talked about Chicago at least a little--kids in my class were dumb, but not so dumb that they wouldn't have put that one together. I also remembered my high school had an entire year of African-American history on offer that was fairly popular, but if you could hack the honors/AP classes, you weren't going to deviate from that path, so I'm not sure I knew anyone who took that class.)
posted by hoyland at 6:27 AM on January 21


One thing you never hear much about is, the men and women who were permanently crippled by police violence in the civil rights march era. I saw one interview in one documentary with a wheelchair bound man, paralyzed by a police beating.
posted by thelonius at 6:40 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


4 Ways Martin Luther King Was More Radical Than You Thought (from ThinkProgress, not a Buzzfeed/Cracked listicle)
posted by zombieflanders at 8:24 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


How The FBI Invaded Martin Luther King Jr.'s Privacy -- And Tried To Blackmail Him Into Suicide

What. The. Fuck.
posted by ymgve at 8:42 AM on January 21


How The FBI Invaded Martin Luther King Jr.'s Privacy -- And Tried To Blackmail Him Into Suicide

What. The. Fuck.


I actually learned about that one on The X-Files. I've always said one of the reasons conspiracy theories are so popular is that most of them are no more outlandish that the batshit stuff powerful people have been proven to have actually done.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:51 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


Isn't it unlikely that the holocaust could've gone worse for Europeans Jews if they had staged large non-violent protests, Bwithh? In principle, non-violent resistance could've increased awareness of the holocaust amongst the public, possibly encouraging more jews to flee, bringing the U.S. into the war effort earlier, etc.

There's a rule of thumb when it comes to non-violent resistance. If the government is insufficiently ruthless to machine gun you all and lie about it in the papers the next day, then non-violent resistance is often the best strategy. If the government is ruthless enough to do that, then it tends not to work, and can even make things worse.

Let's say that Germans held a non-violent protest against the Nazis in the middle-late thirties... the SA comes in and beats up or kills the protesters, the families of the protesters are rounded up and 'dissapeard', the extended social network of each protester is put in danger. The next day, the world's newswires carry a story about how heroic police quelled a riot caused by anti-German communist Jews who did all sorts of horrible things to innocent people until the insurrection was brought under control.

In fact, there was a good deal of passive and active resistance to Nazism from many quarters (including some of my Jewish relatives). But it had to be subtle or secret, because anything that lacked subtlety or secrecy was met with overwhelming brutality. Would this have made things worse? Well the people involved would have had no chance to escape, and (since nobody knew where things were ultimately headed) that probably looked like a bad deal for no return at the time.
posted by Dreadnought at 9:05 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


Statistics meets rhetoric: A text analysis of "I Have a Dream" in R
posted by bukvich at 9:28 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


On King in Chicago - It's not covered because it's not a success story.

BPI's housing work began in 1970 when Alexander Polikoff joined BPI and brought with him the Gautreaux litigation. Filed by Polikoff in 1966, against the background of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Chicago open housing marches, Gautreaux et al. v. Chicago Housing Authority was the nation's first major public housing desegregation lawsuit.

The Gautreaux lawsuit charged that by concentrating more than 10,000 public housing units in isolated African-American neighborhoods, the Chicago Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had violated both the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all citizens equal protection of the laws, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlaws racial discrimination in programs that receive federal funding. Decisions at the district, appellate and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court levels affirmed the Gautreaux plaintiffs' position, finding both CHA and HUD guilty of discriminatory housing practices.

The Gautreaux public housing desegregation lawsuit has helped to change the face of public housing in Chicago, reform national public housing law and policy, and inspire some of the nation's most innovative housing programs.

posted by dhartung at 1:32 PM on January 21


Isn't it unlikely that the holocaust could've gone worse for Europeans Jews if they had staged large non-violent protests, Bwithh? In principle, non-violent resistance could've increased awareness of the holocaust amongst the public, possibly encouraging more jews to flee, bringing the U.S. into the war effort earlier, etc.

There was a lot more of that than you probably think, but it's been overshadowed by the Holocaust itself. None the less, you still get neo-Nazi types claiming that the Jews were "waging war" against Germany by, e.g., staging boycotts. There was also a different dynamic before the Holocaust in that while Jews attempting to evade anti-Jewish legislation were seen as sneaky law-breakers, Jews advocating for rights as Jews were seen as treacherous. It was a catch-22 that didn't really exist in the USA, despite the FBI's attempt to portray the Civil Rights movement as Communist. Once the war started it was too late, of course: Jews couldn't travel, possess radios, communicate freely and so forth; and if they did, they'd be shot as spies or traitors.

Incidentally, the USA was very much aware of anti-Jewish actions in Europe before the Holocaust. It was officially deplored, but it didn't go further than that. Roosevelt was (in modern terms) at least something of an anti-Semite; the USA entered the war for a number of reasons, but protecting European Jews was hardly a factor.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:53 PM on January 21 [4 favorites]


Honestly one problem is just that we teach history to children — and so most people stop studying it or thinking about it before they're really ready to comprehend it.

I think that's even pretty true. I remember reading "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" (though that summary seems off, like, not what I remember) and all sorts of things. I remember learning a lot about Civil Rights, and Black History Month, in elementary school. But because you're so young, there's not much they can really do with it. As I recall, my Black History Month project was making a diorama of what it looked like in Nigeria. And of course we learn about the I Have A Dream Speech and how isn't it great that little black boys and girls can sit with little white boys and girls? YAY VICTORY. Looking back, I wince for myself.
posted by corb at 12:27 PM on January 22


Take a look at my profile. Yup, I was a 7-year-old "half-breed monster"

Droplet, according to your profile picture you are an adorable kitten. This adds kitten-hating to the list of things I don't like about neo-Nazis.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:47 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]


Though looking at the actual article, I have an issue (and some thoughts) about

White people also occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty. With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of "assault," which could be anything from rape to not taking off one's hat, to "reckless eyeballing."

This, paired with the idea in the article to "Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it" makes me wonder about the rise of street harassment. Was that also a response to the repression of Jim Crow? A punishment against the women that were perceived as contributing to making black men's lives worse, or whose dignity had insisted they walk in a single file line previously?
posted by corb at 1:29 PM on January 22


No, but I do think the rise of interracial relationships probably spoke to that particular form of terrorism on the black community.

Keep in mind that there never actually was a wave of black-on-white rape which created so much hysteria in the white community and ethnic cleansing in the black community.

The reaction against this dynamic was not for black men to begin raping white women, it was for black men to begin interacting normally with white women.

Civil Rights leaders did not suggest that the black community actually behave like the monsters white people made them out to be, they suggested that the black community go about their lives normally, sitting in the fronts of buses and walking down streets without cowering.

(Also to be extremely frank I think it's fucked up to nail "street harassment" as a category on black men.)
posted by Sara C. at 1:37 PM on January 22 [8 favorites]


Yeah, street harassment and accusing black men of assaulting white women are not cause and effect - rather, they have the same cause: treating women's bodies as men's property. White women were seen to belong to white men.

Women of color also face street harassment, and there certainly weren't lynchings in response to them being assaulted.
posted by dinty_moore at 1:46 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


Right, but what I mean is, what is normal? Normal according to the norms of what women or men of which socioeconomic class were used to? To be clear, I'm not suggesting there was a wave of rape, I'm thinking more of that "eyeballing" stuff, or overt propositions - stuff which occurred from men of all types to women who were low on the socioeconomic scale, but which women of a certain socioeconomic scale had not, in that time period, typically been used to.

FWIW, I and my friends have personally have been subject more to far more street harassment from black and Hispanic men (though more attempted sexual assault from white men, weirdly, which may also have something to do with what certain types of men believe they can get away with in court and power dynamics there). Then again, I'm Hispanic, not white, as are many of my friends, so that may have something to do with it.
posted by corb at 1:47 PM on January 22


Black and other non-white women are also targets of street harassment, so the idea that black men are getting back and white women doesn't appear to hold water.
posted by muddgirl at 1:49 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Right, but what I mean is, what is normal? Normal according to the norms of what women or men of which socioeconomic class were used to? To be clear, I'm not suggesting there was a wave of rape, I'm thinking more of that "eyeballing" stuff, or overt propositions - stuff which occurred from men of all types to women who were low on the socioeconomic scale, but which women of a certain socioeconomic scale had not, in that time period, typically been used to.

I don't understand why we're suddenly in such a theoretical place here.

I grew up in the south and was absolutely steeped in the opposite side of the first link in this FPP (the post-Jim Crow version, of course). While I wasn't specifically instructed to get pearl-clutchy in response to X or Y behavior from black men, I definitely witnessed it. Mostly in subtle ways that I had to leave the south to realize were racist.

For example, yes, if a black man looked at you he was obviously leering/staring/being creepy. If a black man talked to you he was obviously propositioning you. Any casual interaction between a white woman and a black man was potentially sexualized. And, yes, if any part of that interaction was a black man just being normal, there was a strong possibility that intent would be ascribed. A lot of talk about parts of town being dangerous, or general fears about rape/assault/etc. is racialized in ways that it's hard to explain to people who didn't grow up in that environment.

This goes hand in hand with, say, black people being followed in stores, or something like the Trayvon Martin case (or, more mildly, the trope of white women crossing the street when they see a black man approaching).

So, I don't know, to me, when I hear street harassment and black men in the same sentence, I start to feel a little suspicious as to the motives of the speaker. Especially if the speaker is insinuating that Civil Rights activists encouraged black men to harass white women, which is not something I think is documented, and is something that plays to racist and sexist fears about black men defiling white men's property.
posted by Sara C. at 2:22 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


Yeah, to be honest, the South is all kind of a theoretical place to me. Growing up in NYC, there was a horror of "going South of the Mason-Dixon line". My knowledge of it, and of social mores there, are all academic/theoretical. So, for example, I know academically that there were stronger similarities in the late 1800s among upper class Southerners to English aristocratic etiquette than there were to Northern etiquette of any form, with twisted racial overtones added in, (and that some carryover from those similarities persist culturally to this day), but I have no idea what it must have felt like to live that. And being as that my interest is primarily academic and theoretical - and the focus of my interest tends to be women, how things affected women, how things changed to affect women - I do sometimes have a bit of a tendency to natter curiously (and theoretically) on the possibilities of how various events affected women. I apologize if I went too far into head-space-land!

I don't think that Civil Rights activists intentionally encouraged black men to harass white women in any way, shape or form. But I could understand, and was speculating on, how a sudden freedom could result in this kind of upswell of, "I am just as good a MAN as any other man, and now I am going to show that freedom by behaving to other people's women as other people behave to my women." (because nobody of any race was free of sexism, and because there is often this thing that happens where oppressed people sometimes want to put on the role of the oppressor once they can to demonstrate their power and to demonstrate that they are a part of the power) And particularly because women of color, and especially African-American women, particularly at that time period, were treated badly and hypersexualized by white men, it seemed reasonable to wonder if part of the "evening the scales" served not to lift all women up, but to tear the women who had previously been unassailable down.
posted by corb at 3:11 PM on January 22


I could understand, and was speculating on, how a sudden freedom could result in this kind of upswell...

You know, these are real issues about systemic and institutional racism that a lot of people have to deal with, still, on a nearly daily basis. Having this "just wondering..." discussions about how people not of your race might be actually worse than they are depicted is very difficult to not look at as a completely clueless way to have a discussion in a thread about MLK Day.
posted by jessamyn at 3:14 PM on January 22 [12 favorites]


Perhaps someone else will correct me, as a white female northerner, I'm obviously not the best person to comment on this, but I was not under the impression that the Civil Rights movement resulted in a "sudden freedom" for black southern men.

From my understanding of the Hamden Rice article, he talks about ending the terrorism of living in the south--when the "wrong" look, comment, or anything else could get a person beaten or killed. And while I understand that, it doesn't seem to me like this immediately resulted in black southern men being treated as MEN who were free to not only fully participate in society, but also to harass white women free from consequence.

I think Sara C. really nails it here:
I grew up in the south and was absolutely steeped in the opposite side of the first link in this FPP (the post-Jim Crow version, of course). While I wasn't specifically instructed to get pearl-clutchy in response to X or Y behavior from black men, I definitely witnessed it. Mostly in subtle ways that I had to leave the south to realize were racist.

I am not saying that men of color don't commit street harassment, or that it's acceptable in any way. But I am saying that how we interpret and respond to a person's behavior is effected by their race and the ways we expect a person of that group to behave.
posted by inertia at 9:20 AM on January 23 [5 favorites]


Brilliant article, thanks :)
posted by jebs86 at 1:01 AM on January 26


The most important verse is the one they wrote in Montgomery, Alabama
WE ARE NOT AFRAID
posted by Blasdelb at 2:14 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


I was thinking about this article, today, in relation to the shooting of Jonathan Ferrell but really all violence from authority figures towards black men and women over the past few years. After the shooting of Trayvon Martin quite a few commentators expressed fear - for themselves and for their children. It seems like it's harder to pin down this kind of oppression and give it a Name. Now it looks like individual Bad Actors (a single cop, a single city's stop and frisk policy) and it's easier for people to dismiss each incident as a one-off.
posted by muddgirl at 2:40 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


(a single cop, a single city's stop and frisk policy)

Mayor Says New York City Will Settle Suits on Stop-and-Frisk Tactics
posted by homunculus at 9:06 AM on January 31


(justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow, my Twitter profile picture also used to be on that page, but it's gone! Oh, well.)

It seems like it's harder to pin down this kind of oppression and give it a Name. Now it looks like individual Bad Actors (a single cop, a single city's stop and frisk policy) and it's easier for people to dismiss each incident as a one-off.

Which, as much as Gawker Media can irritate me, I'm glad every single time Cord Jefferson posts about something like this happening, and talks about the toxic, festering environment that allows for these bad actors to do their damage on the soul of this country. It can't be dropped or let off the hook. Sorry not sorry, America!

Now that tomorrow is the start of Black History Month in the US, I hope I have it in me to hold down the bile that comes up from all the "Why do they get a whole month?" comments I'm bound to hear and see all over the place.
posted by droplet at 2:33 PM on January 31


The History of Surveillance and the Black Community
posted by homunculus at 1:24 PM on February 14


Sibling feud tarnishes Martin Luther King, Jr., family
posted by homunculus at 2:27 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]


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