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Where are the abolitionist statues? – posted 6/28/2020

June 28, 2020 3 comments

Since the start of the George Floyd protests, removal of Confederate statues moved center stage. Over the last 150 years, these statues proliferated across the South. There are over 700 monuments and statues to the Confederacy although some are now coming down.

Overwhelmingly, these monuments were built during the Jim Crow era after the defeat of Reconstruction. They exist as a symbol of white supremacy and the disenfranchisement of black people.

President Trump has stepped forward in defense of Confederate statues as part of American heritage. He has advocated that a Washington D.C. statue of Confederate Brigadier General Albert Pike be put back up. Protesters recently knocked it down. Trump has also tweeted in favor of long prison sentences for anyone causing injury to Confederate statues.

One reaction I have: how come there are so many more memorials and statues dedicated to Confederates than to abolitionists and to soldiers who died for the Union? There are some statues dedicated to abolitionists but way less than there should be.

I think that speaks to the depth of racism in this country. Even during the Civil War, there was deep ambivalence about abolition of slavery among those on the Union side. Plus black people and abolitionists were subject to hateful slander. That slander began long before the Civil War and has continued.

Even in the North until the civil rights era, black people were often depicted as illiterate, uncouth and lecherous. Racists saw Blacks as unfit for citizenship as well as innately inferior. After the Civil War, Black Codes reimposed a new form of slavery.

Racists saw abolitionists as narrow-minded fanatics and extremists opposed to the entire Southern way of life. They were often compared unfavorably to political moderates and those who were more willing to compromise.

I remember in high school American history class a very negative characterization of Reconstruction. Northerners who came to the Southern states were “carpetbaggers”. White Southerners who supported the Republicans were “scalawags”. The stereotype was that Blacks and Radical Republicans were out to loot and plunder the defeated South. And I have to acknowledge I went to school in the Philadelphia area, not a Confederate stronghold.

The historian Carol Anderson has written:

“We de-Nazified Germany. We never de-Confederalized the South.”.

The Confederacy has escaped much of the awful press it has deserved. It dishonors the Union dead to celebrate the men who killed them and who tried to kill the nation to maintain something truly monstrous.

While negative stereotypes of abolitionists still hold some sway, I wanted to cite some abolitionist heroes who deserve greater recognition and honor than they have received. I will offer six names on what could be a much longer list. Each went all in on the abolitionist struggle.

  • Frederick Douglass. I would put him on a list of one of the five greatest Americans ever. Born a slave, he dedicated his life to the freedom of his enslaved brothers and sisters. A master orator and a skilled journalist, over a long career Douglas remained a stalwart Radical Republican. His autobiography is a classic.
  • Thaddeus Stevens. Radical Republican leader in Congress who ferociously opposed racial discrimination. He pushed President Lincoln to oppose slavery at every turn. He played a critical role in passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. His last wish was to be buried in an integrated cemetery.
  • Lucretia Mott. A Quaker, Mott helped organize women’s abolitionist societies since anti-slavery organizations in the 1830’s would not admit women as members. Mott remained a radical abolitionist activist until her death in 1880.
  • Benjamin Wade. A U.S. Senator from Ohio, Wade was one of the most radical Republicans. He also pushed Lincoln and supported the Freedman’s Bureau. He pushed hard for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson because Johnson conciliated slaveowners and Confederates.
  • Sojourner Truth. Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth sued to recover her five year old son who had been illegally sold to an owner in Alabama. She won, which was incredibly unusual for a black woman suing a white man. She went on to a long activist career in support of abolition and women’s rights.
  • John Brown. A highly controversial figure, Brown advocated the use of armed struggle to overthrow slavery. He led a raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in an effort to start a slave liberation movement. Brown intended to arm slaves. He was captured, hastily tried for treason against Virginia and hanged.

In asking where are the abolitionist statues, the deeper question is why abolitionists have gotten such short shrift historically. They are largely unknown but the abolitionists are among our true American heroes.

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What happened in Tulsa 99 years ago – posted 6/21/2020

June 21, 2020 Leave a comment

With President Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, attention shifted to that city and its history. I know in all my years in school I never heard about a race riot in Tulsa in 1921. The story was somehow purged from U.S. history courses. Until the last week or so, the story had been disappeared. I had not seen it even in places like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

The events of May 31 and June 1, 1921 began with a newspaper report that a black man had assaulted a female white elevator operator. The story has never been verified. It is the same racist stereotype that often has proceeded a lynching.

The accused man, Dick Rowland, was arrested for the alleged assault. An angry crowd of white men gathered at the courthouse. A number of Black World War I veterans rushed to the courthouse to stop what they feared would be a lynching attempt. Shooting ensued and quickly 12 people died.

In a short time, a much larger crowd of white men congregated and went on a rampage, killing, looting and burning through Tulsa’s Greenwood district. At the time, Greenwood was one of the largest and wealthiest Black communities in the United States. It was called Black Wall Street. Greenwood had the largest black-owned hotel in the United States as well as black-owned banks. medical practices, law offices, restaurants, and a library.

For two days Greenwood was under mob rule. The city had deputized white men and handed them weapons. Blacks in Greenwood had the option to stay in their homes and be burned to death or they could try to run out in the street and hope they would escape getting shot.

In addition to the vigilante mob, private planes bombed the black community from the air. Buck Colbert Franklin, a lawyer and the father of the historian John Hope Franklin, wrote an eyewitness account:

“ I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could see something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from the top.”

The governor declared martial law but the mob destroyed over 35 square blocks, including more than 2000 black-owned businesses and homes. An estimated 100-300 people died and another 800 were admitted to the hospital for injuries. 10,000 people were left homeless. The City locked up 6000 Black people who were held for several days.

Black Wall Street was destroyed. This was the worst civil disturbance since the Civil War. The historian Scott Ellsworth described it:

“It looked like Hiroshima and Nagasaki afterwards.”

Yet no one was ever held accountable for these crimes. There were no murder or other prosecutions. Insurance companies refused pay-outs, citing riot clauses in their contracts. To this day the Tulsa local government has refused to pay reparations and the Federal Court dismissed claims based on the statute of limitations.

It misconstrues these events to call them “race riots”. Pogrom or massacre are more accurate. Where else have private planes dropped incendiary devices on American citizens?

Questions arise about how and why this massacre could have happened as well as about why the public does not know about it. Was the mob violence spontaneous or organized? Was there Ku Klux Klan involvement ? Is the death count accurate? Mass graves are still being excavated. Was jealousy about black accomplishment in Greenwood why whites went so berserk?

As to why we do not know about the Tulsa massacre, how much is the result of a conscious effort by Tulsa and Oklahoma leaders to suppress this story? How much is self-censorship? Why was the suppression of this story so successful for so long?

I think these events only make sense in the context of our white supremacist history. In the 1920’s racism was ubiquitous in America. Historians have described the early 20th century as a nadir of race relations.

The Klan was enjoying a resurgence nationally in the aftermath of the release of the movie Birth of a Nation. By the 1920’s the Klan had between two and five million members and millions more who were sympathizers.

Lynchings were common. Between 1907 when Oklahoma was admitted as a state and 1921, Oklahoma had 31 lynchings. The Klan carried out hundreds of night rides, beatings and whippings.

From the time Oklahoma became a state, racial segregation was the general rule. Among the first laws passed by the Oklahoma state legislature were laws that segregated rail travel and that disenfranchised black voters.

In 1916, Tulsa passed an ordinance that mandated residential segregation. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ordinance in the following year but the city ignored the court ruling. Tulsa maintained segregated public facilities such as restrooms and water fountains. Tulsa remains hyper-segregated now.

A vast silence was the public response to the massacre and this went on for decades.

In 1996, 75 years after the massacre, the Oklahoma state legislature authorized a commission to investigate these events. Historian Ellsworth says that 1996 was the first time the massacre was ever mentioned on national TV. The Commission delivered a final report in 2001 recommending reparations but the Oklahoma legislature has refused. The Commission had identified 118 living survivors of the massacre. The State gave survivors a gold-plated medal bearing the state seal rather than reparations.

The racism has not stopped. By failing to follow the recommendations of the massacre commission, Oklahoma has dismissed the suffering that occurred and added to the state’s legacy of shame.

It is past time for denial.. The black community in North Tulsa still experiences high poverty rates and lower life expectancy than other Oklahomans. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, Oklahoma should rectify its disgraceful record of segregation, silence and inaction. Oklahoma is still not doing the right thing.

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We Face an Authoritarian Threat – posted 6/17/2020

June 17, 2020 Leave a comment

Over four years ago, I wrote an article about whether Donald Trump was a fascist. We now have more historical experience to consider that proposition. My last time out, I mostly raised the question and weighed the evidence without coming to a definitive conclusion.

I think the question itself is problematic. Fascism as exemplified in the Hitler and Mussolini incarnations was a one party state. No opposition was tolerated. Those fascists employed systematic violence to crush and eliminate all opponents.

What we are dealing with now does not fit that old model. At the same time, it can hardly be called normal and mainstream politicians, liberal and conservative, need to stop pretending it is.

Fascism can evolve and take different forms in different historical periods. Trump and other kleptocratic world leaders like Putin, Bolsanaro, Orban, Duterte and Erdogan reflect a new model of fascism and authoritarianism.

In this model, a degree of political opposition is allowed. The semblance of democracy remains and the machinery of elections persist. Other countries like Russia, Hungary and Turkey are further down the road of overpowering and repressing opposition.

In our country, the possibility of reversal is real. Trump can be beaten electorally and both Houses of Congress could swing Democratic. Authoritarian transformation is not a fait accompli.

Still, democracy is increasingly fragile as Big Money remains the dominant force and voter suppression becomes a calculated, employed strategy. Checks and balances have largely failed to restrain this President. He ignores Congress and stonewalls all demands and subpoenas.

Trump promotes a cult of personality to inspire adulation and unquestioning loyalty. He surrounds himself with yes-men and sycophants. His megalomania feeds off the fawning subservience of his base. Trump appears to need his rallies like a drug. He is even willing to risk the health of his own supporters in Tulsa out of some uncaring political calculation.

The historian, Ruth Ben-Ghiat has said that Trump is emotionally training his base to be cruel and violent. Fascists dehumanize people they don’t like and any sense of compassion dies for groups deemed “out”. This, after all, is the Administration that puts children in cages.

For Trump, it is not enough to disagree with opponents. He has repeatedly railed that Hillary Clinton belongs in jail. Trump has also demanded that both Obama and Biden get jail time. He has recommended 50 year sentences for their involvement in the Michael Flynn case.

This is not the behavior of a normal politician. Whatever you might have thought of the Bushs, Bill Clinton, or Obama, they never advocated jail time for their rivals. Trump’s “lock her up” chants are a sick departure from any democratic norms.

Calling independent media “the enemy of the people” reflects fascist values. Fascists cannot allow critical and free thinking. Look at Trump’s response to books like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, John Bolton’s book or his niece, Mary Trump’s new book. He consistently threatens or sues to stop publication.

Since the Floyd protests began, Trump has blamed journalists for fomenting unrest. He regularly calls journalists “very bad people” and incites his base against them. According to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, police nationally have arrested or attacked journalists more than 110 times since May 28. How much Trump’s attacks on the press have encouraged police attacks on journalists is an open question. Trump has unquestionably made journalism a much more dangerous career.

Threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act and raising the possibility of using the military against peaceful protesters as Trump did is crossing a dangerous line. Protesters are not terrorists who must be dominated. Negative characterizations of protesters could easily lead to interference with protected First Amendment rights.

Trump will try and use the Floyd protests as a way to advance his Executive power. While part of Trump’s agenda has been the appointment of conservative judges, it has also been about the creation of an imperial presidency, beyond judicial control. Witness his firing Inspector Generals who were supposed to hold him accountable. He has now fired five Inspector Generals. Probably no earlier president could have gotten away with even firing one.

Scapegoating Antifa also fits the fascist playbook. Trump has now placed Antifa at the top of his hate list along with immigrants and Muslims. He has threatened to designate Antifa as a terrorist organization although he lacks that legal power. Yet, Antifa is not even an organization and unlike his white supremacist allies it is responsible for no deaths.

It is ironic that, like Nixon, Trump claims the mantle of “law and order” president even though he is awash in corruption. In violation of the emoluments clause, Trump has used his presidency for private gain. Unlike previous presidents, he never divested from his private businesses. Foreign governments, congressmen and private businesses curry favor by staying at Trump hotels.

Trump’s record of fraud and deceit is long-standing and well-documented. Trump University, cheating on taxes, nepotism with Ivanka, Jared and Don Jr. and the over 20 women who have complained about sexual harassment come immediately to mind and that is barely scratching the surface. No one will ever accuse Trump of being an ethical individual.

The Washington Post says that Trump has made over 19,000 false or misleading claims during his time in office including crazy lies like the claim coronavirus will magically disappear or the claim Joe Scarborough committed murder. Trump uses his loose-cannon tweeting as a way to connect to his base and to attack his enemies. This is a weapon earlier 20th century fascists never had.

There is a history in America of trivializing the danger of fascism . That occurred back in the 1930’s. Many wrongly assumed Hitler would be controlled by conservatives and others mistakenly felt he would pivot and take a more moderate course. Neither happened. Denial and the idea that it cannot happen here remain a powerful force.

An authoritarian future is not a done deal. As a nation with a powerful tradition of democracy, Americans can reverse course. We have the unique and rare opportunity to vote out an authoritarian government. The power remains with the people – let’s use it.

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June walk – posted 6/15/2020

June 15, 2020 1 comment
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Racism and the Shadow Side of American History – posted 6/6/2020

June 7, 2020 Leave a comment

The names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are the latest on a very long list. A few years back it was Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Laquan McDonald.

Racist killings of black people run deep in America’s DNA. I would suggest these killings can only be understood in the context of American history, a history that remains dishonestly told.

There is a narrative war about that history. What I would call the heroic or triumphalist narrative has been, far and way, the dominant story. This version features great presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR), the Constitution and an independent judiciary and Manifest Destiny. There were wars along the way, especially the Revolution, the Civil War and World War 2 but this is a story of a great nation built and overcoming adversities.

This version is much loved by mainstream politicians, most newspapers and media outlets and school boards. It is a top-down story, safe and sanitized history.

Unfortunately, this is only one side of the coin. The dark or shadow side is still obscured and there has been an extensive effort to hide it away that amounts to a cover-up.

I think we need to re-look at what we call American history. Bill Barr recently said that the winners write history and that is the problem. It is why we as a society remain incapable of responding to murders like George Floyd’s. We miss what our blinders do not let us see.

If we tried to look at the whole tapestry of American history we would see something very different than a triumphalist narrative. As the historian Walter Johnson has written, American history has unfolded from the juncture of empire and anti-Blackness. The genocide of Native Americans paved the way for the creation of mass plantation slavery.

In his new book, The Broken Heart of America, Johnson presents a re-telling of American history. The book challenges all prevailing views of what we thought American history was about. Johnson acquaints us with an alternative perspective and a largely unknown cast of characters. Where characters are known, Johnson sees them in a new light. Others he mentions seem to have been purged from collective memory.

When Napoleon sold the Louisiana Purchase territories to Thomas Jefferson and the United States he did so without regard for the Native American inhabitants of that land. Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark west, in part, to spy on and enumerate the Indians and to announce to them the subordination of their nations to the United States.

Indian removal was a central project of the westward expansion and it was incredibly violent. Many of the treaties made were with Indians who were being dispossessed a second time. Johnson discusses the role of William Harney, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and a white supremacist. The Native Americans called him “Woman Killer”. Harney later became a general. He was a southerner and a slaveholder.

Harney gained fame for leading a viciously punitive expedition against the Sioux in 1854. He was selected by Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War (and later president of the Confederacy), for the Sioux mission. Harney would not accept the Sioux’s request to negotiate. His forces trapped and massacred 86 men, women and children. Earlier, in 1834, Harney had beaten an enslaved woman, Hannah, to death with his cane. He had misplaced his keys and he blamed her for hiding them.

Harney’s actions in killing Hannah were questioned by authorities but he was never punished. After his case was removed to a pro-slavery jurisdiction he was quickly acquitted of murder. Harney’s acquittal is an early historical example of the type of justice we have so frequently seen where police avoid punishment even in the relatively rare situations where they are charged.

Johnson also tells the story of Frances McIntosh, a free Black sailor who was lynched in St. Louis in 1836.This is likely the first lynching in the history of the United States.

Two white men accosted McIntosh on the street. Because there was no uniformed police in the city in 1836, McIntosh resisted when the white men tried to drag him to jail. He drew a knife and killed one of the men. He tried to kill the other as well.

McIntosh attempted to escape but he was surrounded by a crowd of 50 men who took him to jail. A further mob formed, moved on the jail and they removed McIntosh. He was moved a couple blocks away. The neighborhood fire company proceeded to stack wood around McIntosh’s feet. McIntosh begged to be shot as he was burned alive. No one was ever convicted of this murder either.

The newspaperman, Elijah Lovejoy reported the story in his newspaper the St. Louis Observer. The reaction against Lovejoy was so fierce, he had to leave St. Louis for Alton, Illinois, across the Mississippi. He had already survived three attacks on his printing press. The judge who had refused to convict anyone in McIntosh’s case made remarks insinuating that abolitionists, including Lovejoy, had incited McIntosh in the stabbings.

In the following year, a St. Louis mob sought out Lovejoy and set fire to the Illinois warehouse where he kept his press. Lovejoy was shot and the mob literally carried his press down to the banks of the Mississippi where they broke it into pieces and tossed it into the Mississippi. Lovejoy became the first abolitionist martyr. No one was ever convicted of Lovejoy’s murder. The jury foreman was a member of the mob attacking Lovejoy and the judge also doubled as a witness in the proceedings.

In the early 20th century, Johnson recounts the story of the East St Louis Massacre of 1917. Over a two day period in July 1917, a mob of over 1000 white men turned on their black neighbors, shooting them, hanging them from lampposts and burning their bodies in the street. Other cities including Chicago and Tulsa experienced similar massacres.

I offer these vignettes to show the depth of our white supremacist history. They are arbitrary but quite representative. When people wonder why nothing ever changes with police murders of black people, I would cite history. We have remained unwilling to look at and acknowledge the centrality of racism in the American experience.

We need something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as was done in South Africa after apartheid. The purpose would not be to determine guilt or innocence of historical actors. It is about bearing witness and truth-telling so there is a more honest historical record.

When there have been efforts to look at our history, such as with the Kerner Commission in the 1960’s, the government and corporate leaders ignored the commission’s findings.

It is past time to get over the fairy tale version of American history. To extirpate racism and white supremacy, we need to study it, understand its manifestations, and dig it up by the institutional roots.

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