Thaddeus Stevens, Anti-Racist American Hero – posted 8/8/2020

August 9, 2020 4 comments

Among truly great Americans, I would bet Thaddeus Stevens might be the least well known. An extremely controversial figure in his lifetime, Stevens was a leading light of the abolitionist movement both before and immediately after the Civil War.

Because of his heroism, he deserves far more recognition than he has ever received. He threw in his lot with African Americans at a time that was exceedingly rare among any white people. If anyone is looking to put up statues, Stevens is a great candidate.

Born in Vermont, he grew up extremely poor. His father abandoned the family when he was an early adolescent, leaving his mother with four young boys to raise. Thaddeus was born with a clubfoot. There was no treatment for him and he had to live with his deformity and the cruel reaction of other children. He always identified with disabled people and other persecuted minorities.

Since he could not physically labor on the family farm, his mother sacrificed and worked continuously so he could receive an education. He attended the University of Vermont and then Dartmouth College.

In 1815, Stevens moved to Pennsylvania and decided to become a lawyer. He developed a very successful law practice. He had a knack for business and he also started an ironworks which also did well. He ran for the Pennsylvania state legislature and got elected in 1831.

He was an advocate for free public education in the state and his legislative effort ended in a huge victory. It was 1835. Many states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, not to mention the entire South, did not have state-wide free school systems until after the Civil War. He knew from personal experience the impediment that illiteracy and ignorance were to the poor.

From early in his career Stevens had a reputation for generosity. One story had him coming up on a sheriff’s sale where a widow was about to lose her farm. Stevens joined the bidding and bought the farm. He then wrote a check for the debt owed and ordered the sheriff to make the deed to the widow.

Many requested his help and he gave unstintingly. I think it is fair to say Stevens had a dark view of humanity though, especially the mercenary side of people. Still, he was an idealist with a sense of pragmatism. He was hell-bent on ending slavery and that always was his moral touchstone. He looked through the lens of whether a particular bill or project would advance the struggle against slavery and racism.

Stevens became an abolitionist in the 1830’s. He was active in the Underground Railroad. His home in Lancaster, Pa., had a concealed section where fugitive slaves hid. As a lawyer he defended fugitive slaves and as a legislator he fought pro-slavery legislation.

In 1851, Stevens led a team of four lawyers who defended 38 African Americans accused of treason against the United States. Slavecatchers came into Pennsylvania attempting to hunt down four escaped slaves. Supporters of the escaped slaves came to the rescue and a melee ensued. A Maryland slaveholder was killed.

After a trial held in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the jury acquitted the defendants on the treason charge. Fortunately for them, they were not charged under the new Fugitive Slave Act.

Stevens had been a Whig but he decided to become an early member of the Republican Party. Slavery supporters called him a Jacobin. He was a leader of the militant, anti-slavery Radical Republicans, a faction in the party. He got elected to Congress for a second time in 1858. He opposed any concessions to the South. After President Lincoln’s election, he constantly pushed Lincoln on slavery and related issues.

By any accounting, Stevens’ accomplishments in Congress were tremendous. He was appointed Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where he played a central role in financing the Civil War for the Union.

As early as November 1861, he introduced a bill in Congress providing for total emancipation of slaves. He believed President Lincoln had the necessary war power to free all the slaves and he repeatedly went to the White House and urged Lincoln to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation which Lincoln eventually did.

He was one of the first politicians to push for enlistment of black men into the all-white Union Army. He also successfully advocated for equal pay for the black soldiers with their white counterparts.

Stevens later played a central role in passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Upon passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, Stevens said:

“I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.”

Stevens did not want the political gains of the Civil War to slip away. His biographer, Fawn Brodie, called him “a father of Reconstruction”. He favored the radical position that the federal government should confiscate the lands owned by the Southern aristocracy and give it to the former slaves as 40 acre farms.

Against great opposition, he fought for universal suffrage. He locked horns with now-President Andrew Johnson over suffrage as well as a raft of other issues. Stevens became an impeachment manager in the effort to impeach Johnson. He said:

“The President would have the former Confederacy remain a slave empire under a different name. We cannot allow that or forgive that.”

Called “the Great Commoner”, Stevens always remained a unique character. He was not religious. He loved gambling. He lived with a woman of mixed race, Lydia Smith, which was scandalous at the time. The circumstances of the relationship were a mystery. In his movie, Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has Tommie Lee Jones play Stevens and Spielberg made it clear he believed Lydia Smith and Stevens were lovers.

Stevens had a rapier wit which he used to advantage in Congress. He was also a master of parliamentary procedure. In introducing a speaker, he once said, “I yield to the gentleman for a few feeble remarks”.

On one occasion walking a narrow path in Lancaster, he encountered a political enemy who said, “I never get out of the way for a skunk”. Stevens stood aside and replied, “I always do”.

Stevens’ last wish was to be buried in an integrated cemetery in Lancaster. He chose the words for his tombstone;

“ I repose in this quiet and secluded spot,
Not from any natural preference for solitude
But, finding other Cemeteries limited as to Race
By Charter Rules
I have chosen this that I might illustrate
In my death
The Principles which I advocated
Through a long life

In this era of George Floyd, when America is trying to find its soul, the example of Thaddeus Stevens shines.

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August – posted 8/2/2020

August 2, 2020 4 comments
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Sundown Towns and the Great Retreat – posted 7/26/2020

July 26, 2020 5 comments

One positive by-product of the Black Lives Matter movement is a new willingness to honestly explore our national history. I think this has been reflected in efforts like the New York Times 1619 Project. American history, as conventionally told, has big gap areas. Much about America’s racial history is left out or misunderstood.

I have been interested in the question of how we got to be so racially segregated as a nation. Residential segregation receives surprisingly little attention as a subject.

Until recently, I had never heard the term “sundown town”. In his book “Sundown Towns”, the writer James Loewen defines sundown town as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus “all-white” on purpose”.

Loewen argues that sundown towns exist almost everywhere in America although almost no literature exists on the subject. He says sundown towns are a bigger issue in the North than the South. His argument flies in the face of the usual good North/bad South racial narrative. The North has its own horrible racist story.

I must say I immediately wondered about New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Has northern New England always been so white? Was there ever a time in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century when more African Americans did live in a wider range of locations in the area? I know Portsmouth and the Seacoast have had some black history but it is hard to find information about other places in Northern New England.

Loewen offers some provocative ideas about our racial history. He points to the years 1890 to 1940 as being decisive. That period is often considered the low point of American race relations. Support for civil rights generally and particularly the rights of African Americans seriously deteriorated. The Republican Party stopped being an anti-racist force. The Democrats were known as “the white man’s party”. No political party supported African American rights.

It was the era when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Plessy v Ferguson, justifying segregation. Jim Crow laws proliferated and Presidents like Woodrow Wilson were openly white supremacists. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a rebirth and its membership grew dramatically. Rather than racism being seen as a problem, white Americans generally blamed black Americans for their inferior status. A racist culture demonized black people.

From the perspective of 2020, it is hard to appreciate how racist the United States became in this earlier period. Many have probably heard of the Great Migration when black people left the South in droves to stake out a new life in the North. The story is beautifully told in Isabel Wilkerson’s book “The Warmth of Other Suns”.

Much less well known is a movement Loewen calls the Great Retreat. White people started forcing African Americans out of towns, suburbs and rural areas across the North and Midwest into ghettos in the large cities. The forced withdrawal happened by multiple means. Violent expulsions, lynchings, the use of threats and legal ordinances, freeze-outs by creating a hostile atmosphere, buy-outs and the use of devices like restrictive covenants were all part of the picture.

Loewen shows the Great Retreat by examining the population of African Americans by county. Between 1890 and 1930, the absolute number of African Americans in many northern counties and towns plummeted. Many northern counties that previously had African American residents in 1890 no longer had them by 1930.

While we are just learning about historical events like the massacre against the Black community in Tulsa in 1921, it would appear that ethnic cleansing against African Americans was widespread across the United States. Little race riots broke out in many places during the 1890 to 1940 period but historians have not written about it.

The typical scenario was a supposed act of violence committed against a white person that led to a white riot. Sometimes it was an alleged rape featuring a black man accused of assaulting a white woman.

In Springfield Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1844 to 1861, white rioters destroyed the black business district in 1908 following what turned out to be a false accusation of rape. The mob wanted a lynching but when they were foiled by the sheriff they went on a two-day rampage. The rampage ultimately did end in two innocent black men being lynched.

The goal of the riot was to drive black people out of Springfield. Out of a total black population of 3,100 in a city of 48,000, over 2,000 black people fled Springfield. No one was ever convicted for murder, arson, or any other crimes committed against African Americans in Springfield.

Loewen wrote that Springfield was a prototype for small race riots that happened in many other communities that wanted to become all-white. This ethnic cleansing has become hidden history in America. We have buried it and pretend there is no relationship between this past and our still largely segregated present.

Americans do like to show the sunny side. Whether the reason for this historical suppression is shame, embarrassment, adverse business consequences or straight up racism, we are late in the day for silence.

If we are ever going to address the structures of institutional racism, we need to understand history and how exclusion worked. Sundown towns are a national issue. Understanding the truth about exclusion is an ongoing project that has barely begun.

Residential segregation remains an overwhelming fact of life in America. Secrecy about our history helps the racism endure. A renewed commitment to racial integration in all neighborhoods must become part of 21st century politics.

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July day with Shady and Blue – posted 7/26/2020

July 26, 2020 5 comments
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DeSean Jackson and Taking Anti-Semitism Seriously – posted 7/18/2020

July 19, 2020 5 comments

Probably like most NFL fans, I have my favorite players. As a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, I admit DeSean Jackson is a favorite of mine. For speed, hands, and athleticism, there are not many players who can match DeSean. I could not believe it when Chip Kelly let him walk in 2014. His return to the Eagles was a very happy event.

I bet most Eagles fans remember DeSean’s game-winning punt return for a touchdown on the last play of the game against the Giants in 2010. The play has been called the Miracle of the Meadowlands II. In 2013, readers voted Jackson’s punt return the greatest play of all time.

So I have to say that reading about DeSean Jackson’s anti-semitic post was distressing to me. Not just am I an Eagles fan, I am Jewish.

Jackson posted a fake quote incorrectly attributed to Adolf Hitler saying that white Jews “will blackmail America. They will extort America, their plan for world domination won’t work if the Negroes know who they are”.

Jackson later apologized in an Instagram video saying he “knows Hitler is a bad person”. He went on to say:

“I do not have hatred towards anyone. I really didn’t realize what that passage was saying. Hitler has caused terrible pain to Jewish people like the pain African-Americans have suffered. We should be together fighting anti-semitism and racism. This was a mistake to post this and I truly apologize for posting it and sorry for any hurt I have caused.”

The reaction to Jackson’s post was underwhelming. There were few posts in response by other NFL players. Former NBA player Stephen Jackson defended DeSean’s comments as speaking the truth as did DeSean’s teammate, Malik Jackson.

The best response to Jackson’s post was from New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who is the NFL’s most prominent Jewish player. While acknowledging Jackson said ugly things, he looked at the anti-semitic post as a teaching moment. He suggested they go together to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and the National Museum of African American History.

Edelman is a mensch. The usual tenor of social media response is vicious. I liked that Edelman did not get up on any high horse. He was not exiling DeSean from the human race over his comments. He noted that he respected DeSean Jackson and his game at the same time as he criticized the post. An engaged response like that is so rare and so positive.

Usually people are immediately thrown under the bus. The way people typically relate on social media is dehumanized. Denunciation and demonization precede disposal. If someone says something dumb, they are removed to an ideological trash heap. There is a denial that people can learn and change from their mistakes.

I find it disheartening though to see denial of anti-semitism. Jackson’s Hitler post smacked of conspiracy theory of the “Jews control the world” variety. There are no shortage of these nutty theories. Let me name some of them: “George Soros is behind everything”, “Jews are ruthless capitalists”, “Jews are communist”, “Jews have an international conspiracy to control the world” and “the Jews killed Jesus and their descendants should be punished for that crime”.

As someone from the 1960’s-1970’s generation of progressives, I think there has been a failure of understanding around anti-semitism. Many more people in my generation took up the struggle against racism and sexism than against anti-semitism. While it is good that millions of people self-consciously looked at their understanding of race and sex, the same cannot be said for anti-semitism.

We are 75 years past the Holocaust and anti-semitism has aggressively re-emerged.. I think we need to ask why. And why is it back in force? I would suggest we have not looked at anti-semitism seriously enough and there are reasons for that. Many Jews have been very successful financially. That fact has probably short-circuited exploration of oppression against Jewish people. The success of some likely stopped this inquiry.

If Jews were so all-powerful as suggested by anti-semitic conspiracy theorists, how come they could not intervene to stop or lessen the Holocaust? And how come President Trump still defended white supremacists snd neo-nazis at Charlottesville?

The rabbi and activist Michael Lerner provides the best explanation I have seen. Lerner says Jews have been set up in intermediate positions between those with real power and those without. Jews can be a convenient locus of anger when the pain caused by capitalism becomes acute for people on the lower rungs. To quote Lerner:

“Because Jews are placed in positions where they can serve as the focus for anger that might otherwise be directed at ruling elites, no matter how much economic security or political influence individual Jews may achieve, they can never be sure that they will not once again become the targets of popular attack should the society in which they live enter periods of severe economic stress or political conflict.”

Lerner wrote those words almost 30 years ago and they ring true now. Anti-semitism is rooted in peoples’ resentment of their oppression in daily life but the resentment is misdirected against Jews rather than against the economic elite who do hold the levers of power.

As for DeSean Jackson, people can learn and change their views. Nobody is perfect and I think DeSean’s apology was sincere. Hopefully he and Julian Edelman can collaborate in the struggle for social justice.

With the growth of the white supremacist movement and with the increasing trend of authoritarianism, more scapegoating of Jews is a safe bet. Taking anti-semitism seriously is a moral and political necessity.

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July swim – posted 7/11/2020

July 11, 2020 4 comments
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Why the Confederacy should not be honored – posted 7/5/2020

July 5, 2020 1 comment

President Trump has complained loudly about the attacks on Confederate statues. He has also criticized the idea that military bases named after Confederate generals should be renamed.

Trump has said that this is “a battle to save the Heritage, History and Greatness of our country”. At Mt. Rushmore he described a merciless campaign to defame our heroes and erase our values. He vowed to veto a defense bill if it stripped Confederate officer names from military bases.

I do think it is valuable to revisit this history. We are now 155 years after the Civil War but too many Americans suffer from misremembering or lack any historical awareness.

The Confederacy was not a noble cause and its leaders were not heroes. It was a treasonous, secessionist movement dedicated to the maintenance of slavery and white supremacy.

Confederate sympathizers have tried for generations to spin a narrative of the poor victimized South facing a war of Northern aggression. They present a picture of Southern pride and rebellion with supposedly saintly leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Their army of Johnny Rebs was the bravest. In this narrative, Black folks were incapable of freedom and were better off back on the plantation under benevolent paternalistic care.

This story was sold by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy who fought to put up statues honoring Confederates. They also fought to get Southern military bases named after Confederate generals. Their story hides the moral horror of slavery and evinces a total disregard for the humanity of Black people.

We should take a close look at who the Confederate leaders were who Trump believes we are supposed to celebrate. It is a safe bet Trump has never looked at any specifics about who these men were. Trump thought Frederick Douglass was still alive and he thought Andrew Jackson lived during the Civil War. Intellectual investigation would be entirely out of character.

A good place to begin is with Nathan Bedford Forrest, a much celebrated Confederate. Tennessee alone has 32 historical markers dedicated to Forrest. A current battle is going on over whether his bust should be removed from the Tennessee state capitol building.

Forrest was a Confederate general. His bust has been in the state capitol for 42 years. Supporters have praised him as a daring military tactician and as representing the heritage of the Old South.

Left out is Forrest’s role in the April 1864 massacre of 300 Black Union troops in the battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee. Troops under Forrest’s command slaughtered the Union troops after they had surrendered. Forrest, who was a slaveholder, joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1867 and was elected its first Grand Dragon.

Then there are the Confederates who have had military bases named after them. Henry L. Benning, a lawyer and slaveowner, had his name bestowed on Georgia’s Fort Benning.

Benning played an important role in the secessionist movement. In 1849, twelve years before the Civil War, he advocated Southern secession as the only way to protect slavery. He led a walk-out of pro-slavery Southern delegates from the 1860 Democratic Party Convention after Northern Democrats refused to explicitly support slavery in the party platform. He called Blacks “savages who would exterminate the white race”.

Fort Bragg in North Carolina is another military base named after a Confederate leader. Braxton Bragg served as a general in the Confederate Army. A sugar plantation owner, Bragg used 105 enslaved Africans for his personal profit. He was widely considered one of the worst generals of the Civil War.

Leonidas Polk, a major general in the Confederate Army, was the military leader who provided the name for Fort Polk in Louisiana. Polk had an unusual resume. He was Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. He was also a very large slaveholder, owning between 215 to 400 slaves. Union forces killed Polk in 1864. Although he had a poor record as a field commander, the South greatly mourned his loss.

The Army still has 10 bases named after Confederate leaders. There is a failure of reckoning here. Celebrating Confederate generals would be akin to Germans now celebrating Nazi General Erwin Rommel. You do not see it happening there. Being a skilled military tactician cannot be celebrated outside the context of the horrible cause served.

Confederate generals represent a heritage of treason against the United States. That is true for all the Confederate generals, including Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Even worse, the naming of military bases after Confederate leaders covers up the betrayal of Black Americans since Reconstruction.

There is a cluelessness about Jim Crow laws, lynching and segregation that amounts to disrespect about the struggle for Black equality. The army is made up of people from all races. You simply cannot have bases named after oppressors.

It also must be noted that we live in a time when the white supremacist movement is a clear and present danger. Under Trump, that movement has surged, including in our armed forces. Part of rooting out racism is rooting out the insidious Confederate legacy that exists inside all branches of the military. It is past time to remove all memorials, statues and bases named after Confederates.

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

June 28, 2020 5 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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