Archive for marzo 2015

Members of the Black Panther Party are met on the steps of the California State Capitol in Sacramento by state police Lt. Ernest Holloway, May 2, 1967. World-Telegram / Library of Congress

African Americans have sought liberation from racial oppression by virtually every form of protest, with nonviolent resistance the most lauded in national memory. Appeals to law, such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and public opinion, such as the 1963 March on Washington, have left impressive legacies. Directed by racial integrationists such as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, and the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), this strand of protest challenged and changed but did not seek to alienate or overthrow the white establishment, at least those sectors of it amenable to liberal racial reform.

A competing strand pledged to use “any means necessary” to gain and exercise self-determination. The most influential champions of this approach sought a radically reconfigured society, not one in which blacks are merely assimilated into existing hierarchies. Compared to the likes of King and Marshall, the figures and organizations associated with the more disruptive tradition—Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, the post-1965 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party—have not fared nearly so well in public esteem. In the popular memory of the 1960s and 1970s, the ascendant view holds that black power protest contributed little to improving black lives and, through its violent rhetoric and action, undercut the efforts of the integrationists. Revisionists have come forward to challenge this view. The late Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, Peniel Joseph’s Stokely: A Life, and Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.’s Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party all seek to elevate the reputations of black power radicals. But their efforts are subverted by sloppy argumentation and insistent adulation. In each of these books, analysis is overshadowed by hagiography.

Malcolm X

UnknownNamed Malcolm Little by his parents, the man later dubbed Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska, May 19, 1925. He suffered a traumatic childhood. At the age of two, he moved with his parents to a house on the outskirts of Lansing, Michigan. Perhaps unbeknownst to the Littles, the house was encumbered by a racially restrictive covenant—a contract in which the previous owner of the property had promised not to sell it to blacks. White neighbors sought and obtained a court order evicting the Littles. Before the order could be carried out, other whites adopted a more aggressive means of driving the Littles away: they burned the house down.

When Malcolm was only six, his father was run over by a streetcar. Maybe the death was an accident. But Malcolm perceived the matter differently as an adult, and not without justification. Earl Little may well have been murdered by white supremacists who were angered by his independence and racial pride; he was a stalwart and vocal supporter of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. After her husband’s death, Louise Little broke down mentally and was institutionalized for the remainder of her life. Consigned to foster care or the loose supervision of older siblings, Malcolm was eventually expelled from school. He supported himself with menial employment in New York City and Boston, took illicit drugs, and eventually turned to serious crime. At twenty-one he was sentenced to prison in Massachusetts for burglary and larceny.

In the course of his six-year incarceration, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam (NOI). His older siblings extolled the virtues of the sect. Its autocratic leader, “The Messenger” Elijah Muhammad, preached a unique theology, which synthesized some of the nomenclature and symbolism of Islam with a cosmology that refracted the peculiar experience of blacks in America. While American culture, secular and religious, has typically privileged whiteness and derogated blackness, the NOI reversed this paradigm.

According to Elijah Muhammad, blacks were the Earth’s “original” people. An evil scientist, Dr. Yakub, created whites, who succeeded for centuries in enslaving and otherwise exploiting and oppressing blacks. Whites, whom Elijah Muhammad called “devils” and “archdeceivers,” succeeded in divesting blacks of virtually everything valuable, including their very names. The surnames of most blacks, Elijah Muhammad asserted, were shameful “slave names” that obscured their true identities. Elijah Muhammad, named Elijah Poole at birth, assured his followers it was God’s will for blacks to regain their initial and rightful ascendancy. He insisted, though, that in preparation for that glorious and fast-approaching turnabout, blacks should separate themselves from whites, develop economic self-sufficiency, and cleanse themselves physically and morally by forsaking liquor, drugs, swine, and fornication.

Upon leaving prison in 1952, Malcolm X showed himself to be a driven, resourceful, and charismatic disciple. He drew converts, resuscitated failing temples and established new ones, and delivered countless speeches differentiating what he depicted as the dignified separatism of Black Muslims from the craven integrationism of Uncle Toms and other “so-called Negroes” who begged the white man for acceptance. While civil rights activists encouraged blacks to vote and otherwise participate in every sphere of American life, Malcolm X, following the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, eschewed voting and protest, reasoning that the United States was unchangeable and irredeemable. While civil rights activists repudiated the notion that the United States was a white man’s country, Malcolm X insisted it was and always would be.

With his provocative speeches, military bearing, forbidding countenance, and biting wit, Malcolm X captured the attention of curious whites, such as the television journalist Mike Wallace, who aired a show, “The Hate That Hate Produced,” which elevated Black Muslims’ public profile. Ironically, while Malcolm X at this time constantly expressed contempt for whites, deriding them as “blue-eyed devils,” it was the fascination of white journalists and academics that made him into a minor celebrity on television, radio, and college campuses.

That very fascination helped to undo Malcolm X. It brought to him prestige and prominence that exceeded the notice accorded others in the Black Muslim leadership. Envious of his protégé, Elijah Muhammad first muzzled and then hounded Malcolm X, prompting him to leave the NOI in March 1964.

In the last year of his life, Malcolm X conducted himself with the whirlwind energy of a man who intuited that he had little time left. He embraced orthodox Islam, completed the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are obligated to undertake if possible at least once in their lifetime), renamed himself El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, traveled widely in Africa and the Middle East, renounced the NOI’s anti-white theology, threw himself into political activism that had previously been off limits, founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and collaborated with Alex Haley in writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Black Muslims accused Malcolm of betrayal. “Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death,” Louis X, now known as Louis Farrakhan, proclaimed in December 1964. Weeks later, on February 21, 1965, assailants affiliated with the NOI assassinated Malcolm X in Harlem.

Malcolm X has been the subject of several biographies, the most recent and comprehensive of which is Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Marable’s mission was to “go beyond the legend; to recount what actually occurred in Malcolm’s life.” He pursued that aim earnestly, probing the whole of his subject’s story, personal and public, no matter how embarrassing the findings. He recounts Malcolm X’s secret 1961 meeting with representatives of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan to discuss their shared insistence on racial separation. He notes that at a few NOI rallies Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad hosted George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party. In Marable’s telling Elijah Muhammad believed himself divinely omniscient, directed Malcolm X to pay tribute, prohibited him from working with civil rights activists, and even prevented him from confronting Los Angeles police who had maimed and killed members of the NOI. Elijah Muhammad’s manipulations extended to all his deputies: he insisted that ministers desist from buying life insurance so that they would be all the more subservient out of fear for their families in the event of their incapacitation or death.

According to Marable, jealousy, enmity, pettiness, and corruption poisoned the inner circle of the NOI. He describes NOI officials beating followers as a mode of discipline and demanding increased tithes to pay for personal extravagances, such as luxury automobiles. He maintains that Malcolm X’s marriage to Betty Shabazz was a loveless affair, marked by neglect (his) and infidelity (hers). He claims that «circumstantial but strong evidence» suggests that at least once Malcolm X indulged in a paid homosexual liaison. He confirms Malcolm X’s allegations that Elijah Muhammad, while married, seduced young followers, got them pregnant, and then abandoned them and their children, all the while preaching the virtue of chastity and patriarchal duty.

Marable’s provides abundant resources from which to draw for purposes of castigating Elijah Muhammad, the NOI, and Malcolm X. Many of these ugly facts had been previously uncovered by other researchers, but none had Marable’s academic stature or political credentials. Marable was the founding director of the Columbia University Institute for Research in African American Studies and was an important, well-respected figure among left black activist intellectuals. His candor is impressive; he must have known it would provoke accusations of rank betrayal. He certainly understood that some admirers and apostles of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad would berate him for publishing material that hurts the reputation of twentieth-century black nationalism, and would claim that he was doing so opportunistically while feeding off of white, elite institutions—Columbia University and the Viking Press publishing house—that are largely unaccountable and indifferent to black folk.

These and other allegations and insinuations can be found in two compilations of essays, A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X (2012), edited by Jared A. Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs, and By Any Means Necessary: Malcolm X: Real, not Reinvented—Critical Conversations on Manning Marable’s Biography of Malcolm X (2012), edited by Herb Boyd, Ron Daniels, Maulana Karenga, and Haki Madhubuti. While the latter collection contains several instructive essays, the former is uniformly tendentious, with piece after piece asserting not just that Marable is mistaken or negligent but that he knowingly spreads falsehoods. “More than merely viewing Marable’s reinvention of Malcolm as false,” Ball writes, “we have, beginning with our choice of book title, unapologetically laid down our claim that it is a lie.”

These overheated ad hominem attacks lack substantiation. Those who accuse Marable of lying fail to adduce credible evidence. They cavalierly fling charges that should only be made with care.

They are also wrong in another way. They maintain that Marable fails to accord Malcolm X sufficient credit. Actually, though, he gives the man too much credit. Marable remains enmeshed in the Malcolm X legend. He declares in the final sentence of his biography that “Malcolm embodies a definitive yardstick by which all other Americans who aspire to a mantle of leadership should be measured.” Yet Marable’s narrative indicates that Malcolm X was actually a poor leader, subject to all manner of bad ideas, who constantly misjudged people and events. For most of his post-prison life, he was the mouthpiece for a theocrat who, claiming access to divine revelation, propagated an escapist, socially conservative (e.g., anti–birth control) black nationalism that was sexist in its subordination of women and racist in its condemnation of whites.

Elijah Muhammad’s racial teachings must be recalled with particularity. To him, not some whites but all whites were “devils,” doomed by their race to be evildoers. In Message to the Blackman in America (1965), he insists, “The origin of sin, the origin of murder, the origin of lying are deceptions originated with the creators of evil and injustice—the white race.” Whites, he writes, “cannot produce good for they are without the nature of good.” “None of them are righteous—no not one,” he proclaims. “They are ever seeking to do harm to [blacks] every second of the day and night.” Angered and disgusted by “the most wicked and deceiving race that ever lived on our planet,” he foresaw and eagerly anticipated the destruction of whites. Nothing else could bring relief because “as long as the devil is on our planet we will continue to suffer injustice and unrest and have no peace.” But deliverance is coming, The Messenger prophesies: “The guilty who have spread evilness and corruption throughout the land must face the sentence wrought by their own hands.”

Malcolm X dutifully echoed his spiritual master, albeit with élan and greater attentiveness to current events, domestic and international. A good example of Malcolm X ’s oratory as a NOI minister is his address “Message to the Grassroots,” delivered in Detroit at the King Solomon Baptist Church in November 1963. In it he expressed his disgust at the government’s broken promises with an uninhibited candor that many blacks found thrilling.

The speech was one of the last Malcolm X delivered prior to leaving the NOI, and, in it, he voiced signature themes. One is the need to recognize the shared adversary: “Once we all realize that we have a common enemy, then we unite . . . . And what we have in common is that enemy—the white man. He’s the enemy to us all.”

A second theme is the importance of a united black front free of white influence. “We need,” Malcolm X declared, “to stop airing our differences in front of the white man, put the white man out of our meetings, and then sit down and talk shop with each other.” Railing against what he saw as the dilutive effect of white participation in the Civil Rights Movement, he turned to mockery: “It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak.” It was because of the need to accommodate whites that the March on Washington “lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all. . . . it was a sellout.”

A third, related, theme is the absence of authentic black leaders accountable to black folk. The white man, Malcolm X charged, “takes a Negro, a so-called Negro, and makes him prominent, builds him up, publicizes him, makes him a celebrity,” and then foists him upon blacks as a leader. The white man then uses these manufactured Negro leaders “against the black revolution.”

Just as the slavemaster . . . used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, twentieth-century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, to keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent.

What caused the most excitement and earned the most denunciation was Malcolm X’s observation regarding violence. “If violence is wrong in America,” Malcolm X thundered, “violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her.” Before King and others related domestic race relations to U.S. foreign policy, Malcolm X did so.

He also reproached blacks for what he saw as their failure to defend themselves adequately. “You bleed for white people,” he said. “But when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven’t got any blood. . . . How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi, as violent as you were in Korea?” As for the philosophical nonviolence insisted upon by King and others, Malcolm X was downright contemptuous. “Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms . . . singing ‘We Shall Overcome’? Just tell me. You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing, you’re too busy swinging.”

While Malcolm X and other followers of Elijah Muhammed put on cathartic performances in safe surroundings, however, King, Carmichael, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, James Lawson, and others risked their lives repeatedly in face-to-face confrontations with heavily armed, trigger-happy white supremacists. While Malcolm X was taunting King and company for rejecting violence, the tribunes of the Civil Rights movement were successfully pressuring the federal government to bring its immense weight to bear against the segregationists through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While Malcolm X talked tough—“if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery”—he and the NOI refrained seeking revenge when racist police brutalized Black Muslims. While Malcolm X spoke with apparent knowingness about racial uplift, at no point did he communicate a cogent, realistic strategy for elevating black America.

Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality, unmasked the emptiness of Malcolm X’s thinking during a debate in 1962. “We know the disease, physician,” he said, “what is the cure? What is your program and how do you hope to bring it into effect?” At a loss for anything pertinent to say, Malcolm X chastised Farmer for having married a white woman.

Marable emphasizes that Malcolm X displayed a remarkable capacity for growth and reinvention, especially during his final year of life. Tragically, however, he was murdered by former comrades before his transformation could fully develop. In subsequent decades, propagandists, activists, politicians, rappers, and filmmakers have remade Malcolm X, portraying him as a figure who rivaled King in vision and achievement. By downplaying Malcolm X’s complicity in spreading a morally bankrupt and socially backward ideology, by exaggerating the significance of that final year, and by failing to examine more searchingly Malcolm X’s proposals, Marable contributes to this mythology. He accords to his hero a stature in memory that he lacked in history.
Stokely Carmichael

imagesWhile Malcolm X is the most celebrated figure in the black power line of African American protest, Stokely Carmichael occupies a unique place as the person who popularized the “black power” slogan.

His key intervention came on June 16, 1966, during the March Against Fear, which had been initiated by James Meredith, the black man who broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi. Meredith had planned to walk alone from Memphis to Jackson to dramatize the determination of blacks to exercise freedoms long denied them. After a white man shot and wounded Meredith on the second day of his trek, Carmichael joined activists from across the Civil Rights Movement to resuscitate the effort. Along the way, Carmichael was jailed for defying an order against raising tents to shelter marchers on the grounds of a black public school. Upon release, Carmichael declared, the “only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying ‘freedom’. . . and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start sayin’ now is ‘black power’!” The crowd responded with exhilaration: “Black Power! Black Power! Black Power!”

Carmichael joined the March Against Fear as the newly elected chair of SNCC. Born in Trinidad in 1941, raised in New York City, and introduced to serious political activism at Howard University, Carmichael was part of that remarkable cadre of reformers whom Howard Zinn called “the new abolitionists” and whom Jack Newfield dubbed the “prophetic minority.” He joined in freedom rides, sit-ins, and voter registration drives. He canvassed places in the Deep South where “uppity Negroes”—that is, blacks who sought to take advantage of their rights as American citizens—were murdered with impunity. On his twentieth birthday he found himself incarcerated in Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Prison for entering a white waiting room in a train station in Jackson. When he and his associates climbed out of a paddy wagon, an officer drawled, “We got nine: five black niggers and four white niggers.” By the time of the March Against Fear, Carmichael had been jailed at least two-dozen times.

Peniel Joseph’s biography, Stokely: A Life, is an admiring depiction of a brave, handsome, talented, well-spoken man who gave himself unstintingly to the Civil Rights Movement during its most glorious years in the early 1960s. The key moment for Carmichael, Joseph agrees, is the evening he shouted “black power” to that crowd in Mississippi:

by his ambition, stood at the center of this storm deploying provocative rhetoric with passion and eloquence. He instantly commanded the space previously occupied by Malcolm X, assassinated sixteen months earlier.

After that Carmichael became a celebrity. He was invited onto television programs such as Meet the Press and Face the Nation and was profiled in Time. He was vilified by politicians seeking the support of anxious or angry white voters and invited to speak at colleges and universities.

Working in the Deep South with his comrades in SNCC prior to black power—figuring out how to present to the nation the lawless oppression that blacks endured and experimenting with methods for raising the political consciousness of African American serfs—Carmichael distinguished himself in an inspiring campaign of social justice. His colleagues admired his dedication, persistence, idealism, loyalty, and courage. As he rose in prominence, however, the quality of his character, political and personal, deteriorated.

Although SNCC was already in decline when Carmichael was elected to head it in 1966, he failed to slow its descent and probably accelerated it. Carmichael’s predecessor as chair was John Lewis, a remarkable figure then who has only become more extraordinary over the years during his tenure as a Democratic member of the Georgia congressional delegation. Lewis’s reelection as chair initially appeared pro forma. But some in SNCC complained that he was insufficiently militant and too much of an interracialist. They wanted to assert a right to respond to violence with violence; they thought SNCC should be run by and for blacks; and they insisted that whites exercise negligible, if any, influence within the organization. Though Lewis was at first re-elected, opponents challenged the ballot, and Carmichael prevailed in a recount. The awkward reversal poisoned Lewis’s relationship with Carmichael. Soon the triumphant militants ran away the whites on SNCC’s staff.

According to Joseph, “Carmichael used his one-year tenure as SNCC Chairman to thrust himself into the stratosphere of American politics.” He hobnobbed with the heads of the other leading civil rights organizations—Farmer, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the National Urban League and, of course, King. He socialized with activist entertainers such as Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, whom he later married. He interacted, too, with important white politicians, often refusing to abide by conventional standards of decorum: he spurned a White House invitation and declined to shake the mayor of Atlanta’s outstretched hand.

The more defiant Carmichael’s actions, the more provocative his rhetoric, the more attention he received. This fed his ego but did little to buoy SNCC’s sagging fortunes, a fact that did not escape the notice of colleagues who began to deride him as “Stokely Starmichael.” “SNCC’s organizational strength seemed to decline,” Joseph maintains, “in proportion to Carmichael’s growing fame.” Rather than seek a second term as Chair, Carmichael turned the leadership of SNCC over to H. Rap Brown, who fecklessly presided over the organization’s quickening slide. In an ugly spectacle, SNCC tore itself apart, pathetically betraying the racial unity its leaders trumpeted. In the summer of 1968, it expelled Carmichael.

After a dalliance with the Black Panther Party, including as its honorary prime minister, Carmichael journeyed abroad where he was received as an esteemed revolutionary in some quarters and established the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, which never amounted to much. Eventually he settled in Guinea, where he changed his name to Kwame Turé in homage to Kwame Nkrumah, the deposed first president of Ghana, and Sekou Turé, Guinea’s dictatorial president. Stricken by prostate cancer, Carmichael/Turé died in Guinea on November 15, 1998.

Joseph has studied black power deeply, producing a series of well-regarded articles and books including, most notably, Waiting ’til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (2006). His biography of Carmichael, however, is not nearly as informative as it should be. Joseph stresses that Carmichael was a skillful and effective organizer in the Deep South during his early days with SNCC. Missing, however, is a detailed rendering of what being an organizer meant. What did Carmichael say to vulnerable black farmers he sought to bring into the political process? How did he earn their confidence and respect? What did he do day by day?

Joseph relies upon confidently asserted adjectives, usually flattering ones, to do what should be done by careful, patient, and detailed exposition. For instance, he describes Carmichael’s 1966 New York Review of Books essay “What We Want” as “brilliant.” According to Joseph, “‘What We Want’ intellectually disarmed some of Carmichael’s fiercest critics and in the process announced SNCC’s Chairman as a formidable thinker.” Joseph neglects, however, to identify the critics to whom he refers, the criticisms to which he alludes, or, most importantly, the reasons why an observer ought to agree with his attribution of brilliance. He quotes a passage from Carmichael’s essay:

For too many years, black Americans marched and had their heads broken and got shot. They were saying to the country, ‘Look, you guys are supposed to be nice guys and we are only going to do what we are supposed to do—why do you beat us up, why don’t you give us what you ask, why don’t you straighten yourselves out?’ After years of this, we are at almost the same point—because we demonstrated from a position of weakness. We cannot be expected any longer to march and to have our heads broken in order to say to whites: come on, you’re nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out.

Is this brilliant? Not self-evidently so.

Joseph spends less than two pages on the most important of Carmichael’s writings: Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (1967), coauthored by political scientist Charles Hamilton. According to Joseph, Black Power is a “still-powerful diagnosis of America’s tortured racial history” and “an intellectually rigorous and theoretically subtle political treatise whose unexpected breadth and depth surprised critics.” Joseph, however, offers no detailed and sustained description of Black Power. “Carmichael and Hamilton offered an alternative reading of American history,” Joseph writes. “They replaced optimistic narratives of democratic ascent with the reality of racial oppression, white violence, and a national failure on racial matters.” But a summary so abstract offers readers little insight into Black Power’s contribution to the literature produced by the civil rights revolution. Joseph notes that Black Power was reviewed in several magazines and newspapers upon publication. That is useful. But what have commentators said about Black Power over the past four decades? And how does the book look in comparison with the writings of others and in light of subsequent developments? Answers are not to be found in Stokely.

Joseph discusses Lewis’s ouster from the chairmanship of SNCC all too briefly. Devoting less than a page to this episode, Joseph alludes to it as if readers should be so familiar with the dispute that further elaboration isn’t needed. I have my doubts. Moreover, whether or not readers are familiar with it, the contest between Lewis and Carmichael was so important and remains sufficiently divisive that it warrants comprehensive evaluation. In Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998), Lewis spends an entire chapter on the disputed election. In Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (2003), Joseph’s hero offers a very different story. Which account is more credible? Is there a synthesis superior to both? Again, Joseph offers no guidance.
Huey Newton

51Ok4OtnVaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In 1966, in Oakland, California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale set in motion what became the Black Panther Party. Newton was a child of the Great Migration. He was born in 1942 in Monroe, Louisiana, the youngest of seven, and moved to Oakland in 1945. His parents were drawn by the prospect of economic opportunities stemming from the World War II industrial boom. In the early ’60s, Newton attended Merritt College, where he met Seale. Seale was also a migrant—born in Dallas in 1936 and raised in Oakland in a working-class family. He did a stint in the Air Force before enrolling at Merritt where, along with Newton, he immersed himself in roiling debates about black history, socialism, black nationalism, integration, and anti-colonialism.

Frustrated by continuing racial subordination notwithstanding the apparent victories of the Civil Rights Movement, Newton and Seale decided to express themselves in a fashion that would appeal first and foremost to the “brothers on the block.” Their audience comprised working- and lower-class blacks who were impatient with appeals to the conscience of the white establishment and who hungered instead for an assertive, defiant politics, a politics that expressed demands for black power not only in rhetoric but in deed. Newton and Seale objected to the entire gamut of obstacles and disabilities that burdened poor urban blacks. The scope of their discontent, the depth of their ambition, and the radicalism of their methods can be seen in the most impressive writing they produced—the “Ten Point Program” that served as a platform for the newly formed Panthers. “To those poor souls who don’t know Black history, the beliefs and desires of the Black Panther Party may seem unreasonable,” Newton and Seale wrote. But “to Black people, the ten points covered are absolutely essential to survival.” Echoing calls for “Freedom Now,” the program complained that Blacks “have listened to the riot producing words ‘these things take time’ for 400 years.” Newton and Seale itemized “What We Want”:

1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.

2. We want full employment for our people.

3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black and oppressed communities.

4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.

5. We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of the decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.

6. We want completely free health care for all Black and oppressed people.

7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people, other people of color, all oppressed people inside the United States.

8. We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression.

9. We want freedom for all Black and oppressed people now held in U.S. Federal, State, County, City and military prisons and jails. We want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.

10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology.

The program is an arresting synthesis. It echoes the ten-point platform that Malcolm X created for the Nation of Islam in 1963. It also expressly invokes the most iconic documents of the United States, repeatedly alluding to the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment right to bear arms. The program concludes with the prologue to the Declaration of Independence.

Newton and Seale chose as their key issue police misconduct, especially the use of excessive force. They borrowed a tactic other activists had deployed after instances of police misconduct. They would follow and observe Oakland cops, all the while carrying loaded firearms publicly, which state law then permitted them to do. Although this tactic prompted confrontations with police, Newton and Seale refused to back down. They believed that routine humiliation and brutalization by police epitomized blacks’ racial subordination, and they insisted that blacks had a right to defend themselves against police misconduct.

Three confrontations with police in 1967 forged the Panthers’ reputation. In January a contingent led by Newton entered the lobby of the San Francisco airport. In Black Against Empire, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. write that the Panthers were “dressed in uniform—waist-length leather jackets, powder blue shirts, and black berets cocked to the right.” The men displayed shotguns and pistols—again, legally. They had come to the airport to receive Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, and to escort her to an interview with an ex-convict journalist writing forRamparts magazine, Eldridge Cleaver. At the Ramparts office, Newton got into an altercation with a reporter. According to Bloom and Martin:

Police officers reacted, several flipping loose the little straps that held their pistols in their holsters. One started shouting at Newton who stopped and stared at the cop. Seale tried to get Newton to leave. Newton ignored him and walked right up to the cop. ‘What’s the matter,’ Newton said, ‘you got an itchy finger?’

The cop made no reply and simply stared Newton in the eye, keeping his hand on his gun and taking his measure. The other officers called out for the cop to cool it, but he kept staring at Newton. ‘O.K. you big fat racist pig, draw your gun,’ Newton challenged. The cop made no move. Newton shouted, ‘Draw it, you cowardly dog!’ He pumped a round into the shotgun chamber.

The other officers spread out, stepping away from the line of fire. Finally, the cop gave up, sighing heavily and hanging his head. Newton laughed in his face as the remaining Panthers dispersed.

A second episode, in May, earned the Panthers their first brush with national media attention. A group of uniformed Panthers entered the California capitol building with their firearms in full view to denounce proposed legislation that, if enacted, would outlaw the carrying of loaded guns in public. Bloom and Martin portray this demonstration as profoundly significant:

The Sacramento protest attracted a wider movement audience and established the Black Panther Party as a new model for political struggle. Soon students at San Francisco State College and the University of California, Berkeley flocked to Panther rallies by the thousands. Countless numbers of young blacks—looking for a way to join the ‘Movement,’ or just to channel their anger at the oppressive conditions in which they lived—now had a political organization they could call their own.

Finally, on the evening of October 27, Newton killed an Oakland police officer, John Frey. Newton was charged with murder and convicted of manslaughter, though his conviction was overturned on appeal. Two retrials ended with hung juries. The “Free Huey” campaign made Newton one of the most publicized inmates of the 1960s.

Bloom and Martin maintain, “From 1968 through 1970, the Black Panther Party made it impossible for the U.S. government to maintain business as usual, and it helped create a far-reaching crisis in U.S. society.” For substantiation, they turn to a witness on the left, the Students for a Democratic Society, which called the Panthers the “vanguard in our common struggles against capitalism and imperialism.” They also turn to a witness on the right, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who in 1969 declared, “The Black Panther party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Indeed, according to Bloom and Martin, the Panthers’ impact did not stop at the border, as the party “forged powerful alliances, drawing widespread support . . . from anti-imperialist governments and movements around the globe.” “Without the Black Panther Party,” Bloom and Martin insist, “we would now live in a very different world.”

The authors are unabashed in their admiration for the Panthers. They praise the Panthers’ revolutionary aspirations—their demand for a new, post-capitalist, anti-racist social order as opposed to integrationist reformers who merely wanted a larger piece of the American pie. They laud the Panthers’ willingness to confront police in word and practice. They applaud the party’s efforts to suppress homophobia and sexism within its own ranks. They acclaim the Panthers’ efforts to feed children through a much-heralded breakfast program and to make accessible to poor people much-needed medical care. They commend the Panthers for having been more cosmopolitan and open to interracial coalitions than were other champions of black power in the late ’60s, for having been more radical than the establishment’s favorite organs of civil rights protest, for having opposed U.S. foreign policy even in a time of war. They rightly note that the party was the victim of a ruthless campaign of suppression by local, state, and federal officials. Its ranks were infiltrated by government agents and its members abused by police. Making a mockery of legal protections for freedom of expression and association, the FBI sought to turn local constituencies against the Panthers and tried, sometimes with deadly effectiveness, to turn Panthers against themselves and other radicals.

As they go about correcting what they perceive as misimpressions that minimize the Panthers’ significance and sully their character, Bloom and Martin accuse several historians of having “effectively advanced J. Edgar Hoover’s program of vilifying the Party and shrouding its politics.” These detractors “omit and obscure the thousands of people who dedicated their lives to the Panther revolution, their reasons for doing so, and the political dynamics of their participation, their actions, and the consequences.”

But Bloom and Martin’s effort to rehabilitate the Panthers’ reputation founders on tendentious advocacy. Read again their description of the confrontation at the Ramparts office. It wholly indulges the Panthers’ portrayal of what transpired. In another depiction of Newton and Seale facing down Oakland cops, Bloom and Martin have Newton pushing a policeman out of a parked car, leaping out of the vehicle with shotgun in hand, and shouting, “Now, who in the hell do you think you are, you big rednecked bastard, you rotten fascist swine, you bigoted racist? . . . Go for your gun and you’re a dead pig.”

This reads like a script from a Melvin Van Peebles film—in other words, a fantasy in which Newton is the swashbuckling hero who mouths all of the baddest lines. But how do Bloom and Martin know that Newton whipped the cop and then called him a “rednecked bastard”? “The description of the event,” they declare in their endnotes, “comes from Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton . . . and from Joshua Bloom’s tour of the site of the incident with Bobby Seale.” Seale’s memoir is certainly a pertinent source, but one that a responsible historian would handle skeptically, on guard for bias and inaccuracy. It must be corroborated before its claims can be represented as fact.

Bloom and Martin, however, make little effort to look beneath the swaggering veneer of Panther reminiscences. In Reviews in American History, historian Jama Lazerow notes that, in Black Against Empire, “It is not clear just what constitutes historical proof.” Writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Héctor Tobar observes that Bloom and Martin’s “most dramatic failing” is “their lack of critical distance from their subjects. . . . Many passages read as if they were written in the pages of the Panthers’ official publication, ‘The Black Panther,’ circa 1970.”

Bloom and Martin also produce little evidence or sustained argument to support their assertions of the Panthers’ significance. Here is a characteristic formulation: “For a few years, the Party seized the political imagination of a large constituency of young black people.” What do they mean by “large”? Thirty percent of black people between the ages of eighteen and fifty in the late ’60s or early ’70s? Forty percent? They don’t say.

They further maintain that by 1970 “what was once a scrappy local organization was now a major international political force, constantly in the news, with chapters in almost every major city.” It is true that the Panthers were “constantly in the news.” But was that media presence an accurate reflection of their activity and influence, or a reflection of journalists’ hunger for the sensational (albeit marginal)? Perhaps both, but Bloom and Martin fail to examine the matter carefully.

At one point, they do attempt to inject some quantitative specificity into their narrative. By 1970, they write, the Panthers “had opened offices in sixty-eight cities,” that “the Party’s annual budget reached about $1.2 million (in 1970 dollars),” and that the “circulation of the Party’s newspaper . . . reached 150,000.”

While this is an improvement over vague adjectives (“large,” “major”), Bloom and Martin never subject their evidence to rigorous analysis. The Panthers may have opened sixty-eight offices, but what constituted an office? A post office box, two conveners, and a casual nod from party authorities in Oakland? Bloom and Martin don’t say. This proliferation of offices may signal far less than they imply. As for the $1.2 million budget, that figure would be more meaningful if compared to the budgets of, say, the SCLC, NAACP, and other black defense and uplift organizations. Sociologist Herbert Haines generated useful insights by pursuing such comparisons in Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954–1970 (1988). He found that the NAACP and kindred organizations were even more attractive to donors thanks to militant activism: “moderate groups . . . profited immensely from the pressure created by more radical groups and rebellious ghetto-dwellers.” In light of Haines’s research, one might investigate whether the Panthers exerted a notable influence as a threat even when their own activity was negligible. Yet here, as elsewhere, Bloom and Martin fail to pursue potentially fruitful inquiries. As Fabio Rojas writes acidly in The American Historical ReviewBlack Against Empire “shies away from the most important question about the Black Panther Party.”

Bloom and Martin rightly criticize writings that tendentiously assail the Panthers, pay little heed to the inequities they sought to remedy, the repression they faced, and the benefits they bestowed. Bloom and Martin especially loathe the work of David Horowitz, a leftist who became a conservative in part out of disgust with the party. They also cite The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America (1994), by Hugh Pearson, who was, when he authored that book, an editorial writer for the Wall Street JournalThe Shadow of the Panther chronicles a long and lurid list of legal and moral crimes, including extortion, drug trafficking, and murder. To Bloom and Martin, Horowitz and Pearson are simply continuing Hoover’s vilification of the Panthers.

Detractors, however, would be hard pressed to sow more suspicion than Bloom and Martin themselves do. They write, for example, that Newton’s “street knowledge helped put him through college, as he covered his bills through theft and fraud.” Nothing is said about what Newton did, the identities of those hurt, or the extent of their losses. Far from criticizing Newton, Bloom and Martin leaven their description with a hint of esteem, noting, “When Newton was caught, he used his book knowledge to study the law and defend himself in court, impressing the jury and defeating several misdemeanor charges.” Later, Bloom and Martin consign the killing of Frey, a key event in the history of the Panthers, to obscurity. “There are conflicting accounts of what happened,” they say, but they do not describe those accounts and thus leave readers without guidance as to which ought to be believed and why.

Bloom and Martin mention that Newton fled to Cuba after being indicted in 1974 for killing a seventeen-year-old prostitute and beating a man. But again they forgo exploring the circumstances surrounding these allegations, insinuating that the charges were meant to demonize Newton and the Panthers. On the other hand, they concede, albeit grudgingly, there is reason to believe that “for much of the 1970s, Newton ruled the Party through force and fear and began behaving like a strung-out gangster.”

If Bloom and Martin refer to Newton as a gangster, his misdoings must have been awful indeed, for they hold to a minimum any information or conclusions that reflect badly on the Panthers. They relegate to a mere clause in a sentence the sensational fact that in 1973 Newton expelled Seale from the party. Excessively condensed, as well, is their rendition of the sad story of Newton’s end. With conspicuous terseness, they note simply that on August 23, 1989, he was killed by “a petty crack dealer from whom he was likely trying to steal drugs.”

• • •

In assessing Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton it is important to keep in mind that they tried to act against the racial injustice that has befouled America. That alone entitles them to some respect. It is important to acknowledge, too, the profound obstacles they encountered within and outside black communities. At this moment when civil liberties are threatened by new, disturbingly powerful surveillance technologies, we must remember that the self-destructive paranoia and divisiveness that menaced black power leaders stemmed in large part from the devious and illicit machinations of Hoover and other enforcers of law and order.

It is also important to acknowledge that Carmichael was only twenty-five when he shouted “black power!” and that Newton was only twenty-four when, with Seale, he founded the Panthers. It should come as no surprise that young people sometimes display bad judgment in confronting daunting conditions. Without a sympathetic appreciation of peoples’ problems, internal and external, there is no realistic way to take stock of their accomplishments and defeats.

But this does not lessen the responsibility of scholars to be exacting, especially when they self-consciously pursue their studies in order to advance social change, as the progressive revisionists of black power do. The art of social transformation is demanding. Those who portray the past for instruction and inspiration must not shrink before its imperatives, lest today’s activists learn the wrong lessons.

Randall L. Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School and author, most recently, of For Discrimination.

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My Lai Revisited: 47 Years Later, Seymour Hersh Travels to Vietnam Site of U.S. Massacre He Exposed

Democracy Now    March 25, 2015

Fifty years after the U.S. ground invasion of Vietnam began, we look back at the 1968 My Lai massacre, when American troops killed hundreds of civilians. Journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story of the massacre and cover-up, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his work. But Hersh never actually went there — he interviewed soldiers stateside. Forty-seven years later, he recently traveled to My Lai for the first time, which he documents in a new article for The New Yorker, «The Scene of the Crime: A Reporter’s Journey to My Lai and the Secrets of the Past.» Hersh joins us to discuss how he exposed the massacre nearly five decades ago and what it was like to visit My Lai for the first time.

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Lying to Children About the California Missions and the Indians

By Deborah A. Miranda

Huffington Post March 23, 2015

All my life, I have heard only one story about California Indians: godless, dirty, stupid, primitive, ugly, passive, drunken, immoral, lazy, weak-willed people who might make good workers if properly trained and motivated. What kind of story is that to grow up with?

The story of the missionization of California.

In 1769, after missionizing much of Mexico, the Spaniards began to move up the west coast of North America in order to establish claims to rich resources and before other European nations could get a foothold. Together, the Franciscan priests and Spanish soldiers «built» a series of 21 missions along what is now coastal California. (California’s Indigenous peoples, numbering more than 1 million at the time, did most of the actual labor.) These missions, some rehabilitated from melting adobe, others in near-original state, are now one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions; in the little town of Carmel, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo is the biggest attraction. Elsewhere, so-called Mission décor drenches Southern California, from restaurants to homes, apartment buildings, animal shelters, grocery stores, and post offices. In many neighborhoods, a bastardized Mission style is actually required by cities or neighborhood associations. Along with this visual mythology of adobe and red clay roof tiles comes the cultural storytelling that drains the missions of their brutal and bloody pasts for popular consumption.

In California schools, students come up against the «Mission Unit» in 4th grade, reinforcing the same lies those children have been breathing in most of their lives. Part of California’s history curriculum, the unit is entrenched in the educational system and impossible to avoid, a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in Mission Mythology to which 4th graders have little if any resistance. Intense pressure is put upon students (and their parents) to create a «Mission Project» that glorifies the era and glosses over both Spanish and Mexican exploitation of Indians, as well as enslavement of those same Indians during U.S. rule. In other words, the Mission Unit is all too often a lesson in imperialism, racism, and Manifest Destiny rather than actually educational or a jumping-off point for critical thinking or accurate history.

In Harcourt School Publisher’s California: A Changing State, the sacrifice for gold, riches, settlements, and violence by Spanish, English, and Russian explorers is well enunciated throughout Unit 2 and dressed in exciting language such as on page 113: «In one raid, Drake’s crew took 80 pounds of gold!»

In four opening pages to Chapter 3 devoted to Father Junípero Serra, the textbook urges students to sympathize with the Spanish colonial mission:

Mile after mile, day after day, week after week, the group traveled across the rugged terrain. As their food ran low, many of the men grew tired and sick. Father Serra himself suffered from a sore on one leg that grew worse each day. And yet he never gave up, calling on his faith in God to keep himself going.

The language jumps between an acknowledgement of the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and of mutually beneficial exchanges. In Lesson 3, «The Mission System» opens: «Indians were forced to build a chain of missions.» Subsequent language emphasizes the alleged benefits to the Indians:

At the missions, the priests worked to create loyal Spanish subjects. . . . They would move the California Indians into the missions, teach them to be Christians, and show them European ways. [Emphasis added.]

Visiting the mission as an adult, proud, mixed-blood California Indian woman, I found myself unprepared for gift shops well stocked with CDs of pre-researched Mission Projects; photocopied pamphlets of mission terms, facts, and history (one for each mission); coloring books; packaged models of missions («easy assembly in 10 minutes!»); and other project paraphernalia for the discerning 4th grader and his or her worried parents.

The Carmel Mission website maintains a «4th Grade Corner» where daily life for padres and their «Indian friends» who «shared what little food and supplies they had» is blissfully described. Other websites offer «easy,» «quick,» and «guaranteed A+!!!» Mission Projects, targeting those anxious parents, for a price.

Generations of Californians have grown up steeped in a culture and education system that trains them to think of Indians as passive, dumb, and disappeared. In other words, the project is so well established, in such a predictable and well-loved rut, that veering outside of the worn but comfortable mythology is all but impossible.

On my visit to Mission Dolores, I found that out in a particularly visceral way.

It was over winter break, 2008. I was in San Francisco for a conference, and my friend Kimberly and I had hopped on a streetcar to visit Mission Dolores. As we emerged from the mission church via a side door into a small courtyard (featuring one of those giant dioramas behind glass), we inadvertently walked into video range of a mother filming her daughter’s 4th-grade project.

Excusing ourselves, we studiously examined the diorama while the little girl flubbed her lines a few times. She was reading directly from the flyer given tourists in the gift shop and could say «basilica» but not «archdiocese,» but she maintained her poise through several takes until she nailed it.

Both mothers ourselves, Kimberly and I paused to exchange a few words of solidarity about school projects with the mother, which gave Mom the chance to brag about how she and Virginia were trying to «do something a little different» by using video instead of making a model.

«That’s great!» I said, giving them both a polite smile. «I’ll bet your teacher will be glad to have something out of the ordinary.»

«Well, it is different actually being right here,» Mom said excitedly. «To think about all those Indians and how they lived all that time ago, that’s kind of impressive.»

I could not resist: «And better yet,» I beamed, «still live! Guess what? I’m a member of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation myself! Some of my ancestors lived in this mission. I’ve found their names in the Book of Baptism.» (I didn’t mention that they are also listed in the Book of Deaths soon afterward.)

The mother was beside herself with pleasure, posed me with her daughter for a still photo, and wrote down my name so she could Google my work. Little Virginia, however, was shocked into silence. Her face drained, her body went stiff, and she stared at me as if I had risen, an Indigenous skeleton clad in decrepit rags, from beneath the clay bricks of the courtyard. Even though her mother and I talked a few more minutes, Virginia the 4th grader—previously a calm, articulate news anchor in training—remained a shy shadow, shooting side glances at me out of the corner of her eyes.

As Kimberly and I walked away, I thought, «That poor kid has never seen a live Indian, much less a ‘Mission Indian’—she thought we were all dead!» Having me suddenly appear in the middle of her video project must have been a lot like turning the corner to find the (dead) person you were talking about suddenly in your face, talking back.

Kimberly, echoing my thoughts, chortled quietly, «Yes, Virginia, there really are live Mission Indians.»

The problem is, thanks to Mission Mythology, most 4th graders will never know that and the textbooks don’t help to give visibility to modern California Indians.

Throughout the rest of California: A Changing History, mentions of California Indians are brief and as victims fading into history. On page 242, under the heading of «A Changing Population,» Harcourt states simply, «California Indians were hurt by the gold rush. . . . Many were forced off their lands when the miners found gold there.»

Many pages later, California Indians are mentioned again when the textbook devotes five paragraphs to Indian Governments.
Although 109 tribes are recognized in California, in the text, they are faceless and noted only by red square dots on a map.

It’s time for the Mission Fantasy Fairy Tale to end. This story has done more damage to California Indians than any conquistador, any priest, and soldado de cuera(leather-jacket soldier), any smallpox, measles, or influenza virus. This story has not just killed us, it has also taught us to kill ourselves and kill each other with alcohol, domestic violence, horizontal racism, internalized hatred. We have to put an end to it now.
This article is adapted from Deborah Miranda’s book Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoirand is reprinted here with permission of the author. This article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s If We Knew Our Historyseries.

deborah_miranda_credit_kevin_remintonDeborah A. Miranda is the author of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir(Heyday Books, 2012). Miranda is an enrolled member of the Ohlone /Costanoan-Esselen Nation of California, and is also of Chumash and Jewish ancestry. She is a John Lucian Smith Jr. Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, and says reading lists for her students include as many books by «bad Indians» as possible. Visit Deborah Miranda’s blog, BAD NDNS.

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‘The Age of Acquiescence,’ by Steve Fraser

Naomi Klein

The New York Times  March 16, 2015


Nishant Choksi

For two years running, Oxfam International has traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to make a request: Could the superrich kindly cease devouring the world’s wealth? And while they’re at it, could they quit using “their financial might to influence public policies that favor the rich at the expense of everyone else”?

In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.

Dropping this news in Davos is a great publicity stunt, but as a political strategy, it’s somewhat baffling. Why would the victors of a class war choose to surrender simply because the news is out that they have well and truly won? Oxfam’s answer is that the rich must battle inequality or they will find themselves in a stagnant economy with no one to buy their products. (Davos thought bubble: “Isn’t that what cheap credit is for?”)

Still, even if some of the elite hand-wringing about inequality is genuine, are reports really the most powerful weapons out there to fight for a more just distribution of wealth? Where are the sit-down strikes? The mass boycotts? The calls for expropriation? Where, in short, are the angry masses?

Oxfam’s Davos guilt trip doesn’t appear in Steve Fraser’s “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power,” but these are the questions at the heart of this fascinating if at times meandering book. Fraser, a labor historian, argues that deepening economic hardship for the many, combined with “insatiable lust for excess” for the few, qualifies our era as a second Gilded Age. But while contemporary wealth stratification shares much with the age of the robber barons, the popular response does not.

As Fraser forcefully shows, during the first Gilded Age — which he defines loosely as the years between the end of the Civil War and the market crash of 1929 — American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).

To solve the mystery of why sustained resistance to wealth inequality has gone missing in the United States, Fraser devotes the first half of the book to documenting the cut and thrust of the first Gilded Age: the mass strikes that shut down cities and enjoyed the support of much of the population; the Eight Hour Leagues that dramatically cut the length of the workday, fighting for the universal right to leisure and time “for what we will”; the vision of a “ ‘cooperative commonwealth’ in place of the Hobbesian nightmare that Progress had become.”

He reminds readers that although “class war” is considered un-American today, bracing populist rhetoric was once the lingua franca of the nation. American presidents bashed “moneycrats” and “economic royalists,” and immigrant garment workers demanded not just “bread and roses” but threatened “bread or blood.” Among many such arresting anecdotes is one featuring the railway tycoon George Pullman. When he died in 1897, Fraser writes, “his family was so afraid that his corpse would be desecrated by enraged workers, they had it buried at night . . . in a pit eight feet deep, encased in floors and walls of steel-reinforced concrete in a lead-lined casket covered in layers of asphalt and steel rails.”

652c3bb7622f54e59746d4bd7b5e8431Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.

This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.

It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.

Fraser devotes several chapters to outlining the key “fables” which, he argues, have served as particularly effective ­resistance-avoidance tools. These range from the billionaire as rebel to the supposedly democratizing impact of mass stock ownership to the idea that contract work is a form of liberation. He also explores various forces that have a “self-­policing” impact — from mass indebtedness to mass incarceration; from the fear of having your job deported to the fear of having yourself deported.

With scarce use of story or development of characters, this catalog of disempowerment often feels more like an overlong list than an argument. And after reading hundreds of pages detailing depressing facts, Fraser’s concluding note — that “a new era of rebellion and transformation” might yet be possible — rings distinctly hollow.

This need not have been the case. Fraser spares only a few short paragraphs for those movements that are attempting to overcome the obstacles he documents — student-debt resisters, fast-food and Walmart workers fighting for a living wage, regional campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or the various creative attempts to organize vulnerable immigrant workers. We hear absolutely nothing directly from the leaders of these contemporary movements, all of whom are struggling daily with the questions at the heart of this book.

That’s too bad. Because if hope is to be credible, we need to hear not just from yesterday’s dreamers but from today’s as well.


The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power

By Steve Fraser

470 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $28.

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist, and author. 

Steve Fraser is Visiting Associate Professor of Economic History  at New York University.

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Mobilizing Ideas

Fifty years ago, on March 8, 1965, the U.S. Marines landed in Da Nang, marking the beginning of the American ground war in Vietnam. Protests erupted all over the U.S., with the largest anti-war demonstration in the U.S.—the March Against the War organized by the Students for Democratic Society—taking place in April 17. Radicalism in the 60s has been the subject of social movement theories that set the direction of contemporary scholarship. But scholars in the field were remiss in examining a contentious group in American society: Asian Americans.

While Sid Tarrow was visiting Pittsburgh early this month, we had a conversation about the dearth of studies on Asian American mobilization, especially in the 1960s. In recent years, we have noticed a rise in scholarship on the Asian American movement (AAM). But based on a cursory look of undergraduate and graduate courses in social movements, Asian Americans remain invisible in mainstream…

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How Cotton Remade the World

The Civil War cotton shock didn’t just shake the American economy

Politico.com January 30, 2015

The American Civil War is one of the best-researched events in human history. Hundreds of historians have dedicated their professional careers to its study; thousands of articles and books have been published on its battles, politics and its cultural and social impact. Discussions of the war permeate everything from popular films to obscure academic conferences. Would we expect any less for a defining event in our history—an event that can persuasively be described as the second American Revolution? Certainly not.

Yet given all that attention, it is surprising that we have spent considerably less effort on understanding the war’s global implications, especially given how far-reaching they were: The war can easily be seen as one of the great watersheds of 19th-century global history. American cotton, the central raw material for all European economies (and also those of the northern states of the Union), suddenly disappeared from global markets. By the end of the war, even more consequentially, the world’s most important cotton cultivators, the enslaved workers of the American South, had attained their freedom, undermining one of the pillars on which the global economy had rested: slavery. The war thus amounted to a full-fledged crisis of global capitalism—and its resolution pointed to a fundamental reorganization of the world economy.

When we look at capitalism’s history, we usually look at industry, at cities and at wage workers. It is easy for us to forget that much of the change we associate with the emergence of modern capitalism took place in agriculture, in the countryside. With the rise of modern industry after the Industrial Revolution of the 1780s, the pressures on this countryside to supply raw materials, labor and markets increased tremendously. Since modern industry had its origins everywhere in the spinning and weaving of cotton, European and North American manufacturers quite suddenly demanded access to vastly increased quantities of raw cotton.

That cotton came almost exclusively from the slave plantations of the Americas—first from the West Indies and Brazil, then from the United States. When American cotton growers began to enter global markets in the 1790s after the revolution on Saint Domingue—once the world’s most important cotton-growing island—they quickly came to play an important, in fact dominant, role. Already in 1800, 25 percent of cotton landed in Liverpool (the world’s most important cotton port) originated from the American South. Twenty years later that number had increased to 59 percent, and in 1850 a full 72 percent of cotton imported to Britain was grown in the United States. U.S. cotton also accounted for 90 percent of total imports into France, 60 percent of those into the German lands and 92 percent of those shipped to Russia. American cotton captured world markets in a way that few raw material producers had before—or have since.

Planters in the United States dominated production of the world’s most important raw material because they possessed a key combination: plentiful land, recently taken from its native inhabitants, plentiful slave labor, made available by the declining tobacco agriculture of the upper South and access to European capital. European merchants’ earlier efforts to secure cotton crops from peasant producers in places such as Anatolia, India and Africa had failed, as local producers refused to focus on the mono-cultural production of cotton for export, and European merchants lacked the power to force them. It was for that reason that cotton mills and slave plantations had expanded in lockstep, and it was for that reason that the United States became important to the global economy for the first time.

Slave plantations were fundamentally different sites of production than peasant farms. On plantations, and only on plantations, owners could dominate all aspects of production: Once they had taken the land from its native inhabitants, they could force enslaved African-Americans to do the backbreaking labor of sowing, pruning and harvesting all that cotton. They could control that labor with unusual brutality, and could deploy and redeploy it without any constraints, lowering the costs of production. With the expansion of industrial capitalism, this strange form of capitalism expanded, and European capital in search of cotton flowed to the slave areas of the world in ever-greater quantities. This world was not characterized by contracts, the rule of law, wage labor, property rights or human freedom—but by the opposite—arbitrary rule, massive expropriations, coercion, slavery and unfathomable violence. I call this form of capitalism “war capitalism”; it flourished in parts of the United States and eventually resulted in civil war.

Slavery stood at the center of the most dynamic and far-reaching production complex in human history. Herman Merivale, British colonial bureaucrat, noted as much in 1839 when he observed that “the greater part of our cotton [is] raised by slaves,” and Manchester’s and Liverpool’s “opulence is as really owing to the toil and suffering of the negro, as if his hands had excavated their docks and fabricated their steam-engines.”

As the cotton industry of the world expanded, with spinning and weaving mills cropping up in fast-industrializing areas, the cotton-growing complex migrated ever further into the American West, to Alabama, Mississippi and eventually Texas, drawing on ever more slave labor. By 1830, one in 13 Americans grew cotton, one million people in total, nearly all of them enslaved. In one of the most violent episodes in American history, one million enslaved workers were uprooted and sold from the upper South into cotton growing states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, where their labor fueled a vast profit-making machine. This machine enriched not just the plantation owners, but also merchants in New York and Boston and Liverpool, as well as manufacturers in Alsace, Lancashire and New England. Slavery in the United States had become central to the functioning of the global economy, as South Carolina cotton planter Sen. James Henry Hammond observed quite accurately when he argued, “Cotton is king.”


When war broke out in April of 1861, this global economic relationship collapsed. At first, the Confederacy hoped to force recognition from European powers by restricting the export of cotton. Once the South understood that this policy was bound to fail because European recognition of the Confederacy was not forthcoming, the Union blockaded southern trade for nearly four years. The “cotton famine,” as it came to be known, was the equivalent of Middle Eastern oil being removed from global markets in the 1970s. It was industrial capitalism’s first global raw materials crisis.

The effects were dramatic: In Europe, hundreds of thousands of workers lost employment, and social misery and social unrest spread through the textile cities of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Russia. In Alsace, posters went up proclaiming: Du pain ou la mort. Bread or death. Since very little cotton had entered world markets from non-enslaved producers in the first 80 years after the Industrial Revolution, many observers were all but certain that the crisis of slavery, and with it of war capitalism, would lead to a fundamental and long-lasting crisis of industrial capitalism as well. Indeed, when Union Gen. John C. Frémont emancipated the first slaves in Missouri in the fall of 1861, the British journal The Economist worried that such a “fearful measure” might spread to other slaveholding states, “inflict[ing] utter ruin and universal desolation on those fertile territories” and also on the merchants of Boston and New York, “whose prosperity … has always been derived” to a large extent from slave labor.

Yet to the surprise of many, the American Civil War did not result in a permanent crisis of industrial capitalism, but instead in the emergence of a fundamentally new relationship between industry and the global countryside, one in which industry drew on peasant, not slave, produced cotton. Already during the war itself, determined European manufacturers and imperial statesmen opened up new sources for raw cotton in India, Brazil, Egypt and elsewhere. So rapid was the expansion in Egypt, for example, that Egyptian historians consider the American Civil War one of the most important events in their own 19th-century history. New infrastructures, new laws, new capital and new administrative capacities were pushed into the global countryside. Combined with rapidly rising prices for raw cotton, these changes resulted in a world where for the first time ever, peasant producers sold large quantities of raw cotton into world markets, preventing the total collapse of the European industry and connecting the countryside to the cities in ways that had never been seen before.

India provides a good example for these transformations. The British imperial government built railroads into the cotton-growing hinterland. It changed Indian contract law to enable merchants to advance capital to cultivators on the security of their crop and land. European merchants, who had until then played a subordinate role in trading Indian cotton, now moved into cotton-growing regions, advanced capital to growers and built steam-powered cotton gins and cotton presses. The newly invented telegraph enabled price information to travel quickly, and by the 1870s European manufacturers could order cotton from hinterland towns in India and have it delivered to their factories in just six weeks.

Indian cultivators, like those elsewhere, increasingly specialized in the production of cotton for export, moving away from their old domestic industry of cloth production, and replacing food crops with cotton. Many of them turned into sharecroppers, highly indebted to local merchants. This model also travelled to the American South in the wake of the Civil War, when freedpeople’s efforts to gain access to land failed just as much as the efforts of landowners to hire them as wage workers. As a result, in Alabama and Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi, formerly enslaved cotton growers became sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Railroads pushed ever further into the American cotton-growing countryside, bringing with them a new generation of merchants and European and North American capital. So called “Black codes” and new laws regulating advances to sharecroppers attached freedpeople, and, increasingly, white yeoman farmers, to the global cotton empire.

Slavery might have been at the center of the European cotton industry for three generations, but by the last third of the 19th century the new strength of European and North American capital and state power (with its vast infrastructural, administrative, military and scientific might) paved the way for other forms of labor mobilization—solving what was, from the perspective of the Economist,, one of the core problems the world faced at the end of the American Civil War: “It is clear that the dark races must in some way or other be induced to obey white men willingly.”

So successful was the transition of slave labor into sharecropping and tenant farming during and after the war that cotton production actually expanded dramatically. By 1870, American cotton farmers surpassed their previous harvest high, set in 1860. By 1877, they regained and surpassed their pre-war market share in Great Britain. By 1880 they exported more cotton than they had in 1860. And, by 1891, sharecroppers, family farmers and plantation owners in the United States were growing twice as much cotton as in 1861.

As nation states became more central to the global cotton industry, and as the cotton industry remained important to European economies, European states increasingly also tried to capture and politically control their own cotton-growing territories. With the United States now an important—and eventually the most important—industrial power in the world, Europeans wanted to follow the United States model and control cotton growing territories of their own. Pushed by manufacturers concerned about the security of their cotton supply, European colonial powers embarked upon new cotton-growing projects. No one did so more successfully than Russia, which by 1900 already secured a significant share of its cotton needs from its colonial territories in Central Asia. The Germans followed suit in their western African colony of Togo; the British in Egypt, India and throughout Africa; and the French, Belgians and Portuguese in their respective African colonies. Even the Japanese built a small cotton-growing complex in their colony, Korea.

Along with this expansion of cotton agriculture, a new wave of violence descended upon large swaths of the global countryside, as colonial powers forced peasants to grow cotton for export. As late as the 1970s in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, the word cotton still evoked, according to two historians, “an almost automatic response: suffering.” Slavery may have disappeared from the empire of cotton, but violence and coercion continued. Moreover, the post-war reconstruction of the global cotton-growing countryside provided ever increasing quantities of ever cheaper cotton to industry, but at the same time created huge new risks for rural cultivators, as plunging prices and political repression brought extreme poverty. In India, in the late 19th century, millions of cotton growers starved to death because the crops they grew could not pay for the food they needed. The British medical journal The Lancet estimated that 19 million Indians died in the famines of the late 1890s, most of them cotton growers.

The American Civil War thus marked one of the most important turning points in the history of global capitalism. The last politically powerful group of cotton growers—the planters of the American South—were now marginalized in the global economy, a global economy newly dominated by its industrial actors. More importantly, slavery, which had been so central to the first 80 years of the expansion of a mechanized cotton growing industry—and thus to global capitalism—had ended. New ways of mobilizing the labor of rural cotton-growing cultivators—in the United States and elsewhere—had emerged. War capitalism’s core features—the violent appropriation of the labor of African slaves, the violent expropriation of territories in the Americas by frontier settlers and the violent domination of global trade by armed entrepreneurs—had been replaced by a new world in which states structured sharecropping regimes and wage labor, built infrastructures and penetrated new territories administratively, judicially and militarily. This industrial capitalism contained within itself the violent legacy of war capitalism, and was all too frequently characterized by significant degrees of coercion. Still, it was a fundamentally new moment in capitalism’s long history.

And while today the world’s cotton growing countryside has changed once more, it is still often characterized by extreme poverty, political repression and a powerful presence of the state. In many years, huge government subsidies keep American and European producers in business, while a semi-military unit of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is perhaps the single most important producer of cotton in the world today. Children still are forced to harvest cotton in some parts of the world. Extreme poverty characterizes the cotton growing areas of western Africa. As many as 110 million households are involved in the growing of cotton worldwide, testifying to the continued importance of the countryside and of agriculture to global capitalism.

As this episode from the endlessly fascinating global history of cotton shows, the significance of the American Civil War went well beyond the borders of the United States, and indeed, can only be fully understood from a global vantage point. And the same applies to the history of capitalism. Only a global perspective allows us to understand how this vastly productive and often violent new system of economic activity came into being—and only a global perspective allows us to understand the origins of the modern world we live in.

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The Real Irish American Story Not Taught in Schools 

By Bill Bigelow

Zinn Education Project  March 16, 2015

The Irish Famine, 1850 by George Frederic Watts. Source: Views of the Famine.

The Irish Famine, 1850 by George Frederic Watts. Source: Views of the Famine.

“Wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or get pinched.” That pretty much sums up the Irish-American “curriculum” that I learned when I was in school. Yes, I recall a nod to the so-called Potato Famine, but it was mentioned only in passing.

Sadly, today’s high school textbooks continue to largely ignore the famine, despite the fact that it was responsible for unimaginable suffering and the deaths of more than a million Irish peasants, and that it triggered the greatest wave of Irish immigration in U.S. history. Nor do textbooks make any attempt to help students link famines past and present.

Yet there is no shortage of material that can bring these dramatic events to life in the classroom. In my own high school social studies classes, I begin with Sinead O’Connor’s haunting rendition of “Skibbereen,” which includes the verse:

… Oh it’s well I do remember, that bleak

            December day,

The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive

            Us all away

They set my roof on fire, with their cursed

            English spleen

And that’s another reason why I left old



This textbook calls the famine a “horrible disaster,” as if it were a natural calamity like an earthquake.

By contrast, Holt McDougal’s U.S. history textbook The Americans, devotes a flat two sentences to “The Great Potato Famine.” Prentice Hall’s America: Pathways to the Present fails to offer a single quote from the time. The text calls the famine a “horrible disaster,” as if it were a natural calamity like an earthquake. And in an awful single paragraph, Houghton Mifflin’s The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People blames the “ravages of famine” simply on “a blight,” and the only contemporaneous quote comes, inappropriately, from a landlord, who describes the surviving tenants as “famished and ghastly skeletons.” Uniformly, social studies textbooks fail to allow the Irish to speak for themselves, to narrate their own horror.

These timid slivers of knowledge not only deprive students of rich lessons in Irish-American history, they exemplify much of what is wrong with today’s curricular reliance on corporate-produced textbooks.

To support the famine relief effort, British tax policy required landlords to pay the local taxes of their poorest tenant farmers, leading many landlords to forcibly evict struggling farmers and destroy their cottages in order to save money. From Hunger on Trial Teaching Activity.

First, does anyone really think that students will remember anything from the books’ dull and lifeless paragraphs? Today’s textbooks contain no stories of actual people. We meet no one, learn nothing of anyone’s life, encounter no injustice, no resistance. This is a curriculum bound for boredom. As someone who spent almost 30 years teaching high school social studies, I can testify that students will be unlikely to seek to learn more about events so emptied of drama, emotion, and humanity.

Nor do these texts raise any critical questions for students to consider. For example, it’s important for students to learn that the crop failure in Ireland affected only the potato—during the worst famine years, other food production was robust. Michael Pollan notes in The Botany of Desire, “Ireland’s was surely the biggest experiment in monoculture ever attempted and surely the most convincing proof of its folly.” But if only this one variety of potato, the Lumper, failed, and other crops thrived, why did people starve?

Paddy’s Lament” recounts the famine and the Irish diaspora to America

Thomas Gallagher points out in Paddy’s Lament, that during the first winter of famine, 1846-47, as perhaps 400,000 Irish peasants starved, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry—food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, as Gallagher notes, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet the landlords exported it to markets abroad.

The school curriculum could and should ask students to reflect on the contradiction of starvation amidst plenty, on the ethics of food exports amidst famine. And it should ask why these patterns persist into our own time.

More than a century and a half after the “Great Famine,” we live with similar, perhaps even more glaring contradictions. Raj Patel opens his book, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System: “Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight.”

Patel’s book sets out to account for “the rot at the core of the modern food system.” This is a curricular journey that our students should also be on — reflecting on patterns of poverty, power, and inequality that stretch from 19thcentury Ireland to 21st century Africa, India, Appalachia, and Oakland; that explore what happens when food and land are regarded purely as commodities in a global system of profit.

But today’s corporate textbook-producers are no more interested in feeding student curiosity about this inequality than were British landlords interested in feeding Irish peasants. Take Pearson, the global publishing giant. At its website, the corporation announces (redundantly) that “we measure our progress against three key measures: earnings, cash and return on invested capital.” The Pearson empire had 2011 worldwide sales of more than $9 billion—that’s nine thousand million dollars, as I might tell my students. Multinationals like Pearson have no interest in promoting critical thinking about an economic system whose profit-first premises they embrace with gusto.

Hunger on Trial teaching activity available online.

Hunger on Trial teaching activity available online. online.

As mentioned, there is no absence of teaching materials on the Irish famine that can touch head and heart. In a role play, “Hunger on Trial,” that I wrote and taught to my own students in Portland, Oregon—included at the Zinn Education Project website— students investigate who or what was responsible for the famine. The British landlords, who demanded rent from the starving poor and exported other food crops? The British government, which allowed these food exports and offered scant aid to Irish peasants? The Anglican Church, which failed to denounce selfish landlords or to act on behalf of the poor? A system of distribution, which sacrificed Irish peasants to the logic of colonialism and the capitalist market?

These are rich and troubling ethical questions. They are exactly the kind of issues that fire students to life and allow them to see that history is not simply a chronology of dead facts stretching through time.

So go ahead: Have a Guinness, wear a bit of green, and put on the Chieftains. But let’s honor the Irish with our curiosity. Let’s make sure that our schools show some respect, by studying the social forces that starved and uprooted over a million Irish—and that are starving and uprooting people today.


Bill Bigelow taught high school social studies in Portland, Ore. for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the online Zinn Education Project, www.zinnedproject.org. This project, inspired by the work of historian Howard Zinn, offers free materials to teach a fuller “people’s history” than is found in commercial textbooks. Bigelow is author or co-editor of numerous books, including A People’s History for the Classroomand The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

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Could the South Have Won the War?

disunion45By March 1865, it was obvious to all but the most die-hard Confederates that the South was going to lose the war. Whether that loss was inevitable is an unanswerable question, but considering various “what if” scenarios has long been a popular exercise among historians, novelists and Civil War buffs

To explore that question, historians often use a concept known as contingency: During the war, one action led to a particular outcome, but if a different action had been taken it would have led to a different outcome. The problem with each scenario, though, is that although superficially persuasive, it collapses under the weight of contradictory facts.

Perhaps the most common scenario centers on the actions of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Some modern historians have attributed the Confederate defeat to Lee’s aggressiveness, implying that, if he had adopted a more defensive strategy, or even carried out guerrilla warfare after Appomattox, perhaps Lee could have held the North at bay until it tired of the conflict and sought a negotiated settlement.

But was this really possible considering the expectations of the Confederate people? Southerners were convinced they were superior soldiers and expected their armies to defeat the enemy on the battlefield. Politically, Lee could not have adopted a purely defensive strategy because the people would not have stood for it. Nor was guerrilla warfare an option. Events in Missouri, Tennessee and other areas where guerrillas operated during the war clearly showed how such brutal warfare devastated entire regions and broke down morale. There simply would not have been enough popular support to sustain such a strategy for long.

Some argue that the Confederates could have won if they had held Atlanta, Mobile, Ala., and the Shenandoah Valley beyond the 1864 election. Northern voters, dispirited by the stalemate, would have elected George B. McClellan president, and he would have bowed to the Democratic Party’s peace faction and opened negotiations with the Confederates.

Such speculation, however, is not supported by historical fact. In his letter accepting the Democratic nomination, McClellan clearly rejected the peace plank. There seems little doubt McClellan would have continued to fight if he became president, and the Union would still have eventually won. Also, a defeated Lincoln would have had four months left in office to achieve victory by launching winter campaigns. As it turned out, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant forced Lee to surrender just over one month after the inauguration. If a lame-duck Lincoln had adopted a more aggressive policy, Grant probably would have forced an Appomattox-like surrender before McClellan ever took office.

Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendering to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, April 9, 1865.

Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendering to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, April 9, 1865.Credit Library of Congress

Confederate defeat has also been blamed on King Cotton diplomacy. If the Confederates had sent as much cotton as possible to Europe before the blockade became effective instead of hording it to create a shortage, they could have established lines of credit to purchase war material. This argument is true, but it misses the point. While the Confederates did suffer severe shortages by mid-war, they never lost a battle because of a lack of guns, ammunition or other supplies. They did lose battles because of a lack of men, and a broken-down railway system made it difficult to move troops and materials to critical points. Cotton diplomacy would not have increased the size of the rebel armies, and an increasingly effective Union blockade would have prevented the importation of railroad iron and other supplies no matter how much credit the Confederates accumulated overseas.

Another diplomatic “what if” concerns European intervention. In the fall of 1862, Britain and France were prepared to extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy and offer to mediate a peace, but they backed away when the Union won the Battle of Antietam. In this scenario, if Lee had won the battle, Britain and France would have recognized the Confederacy and secured a peace ensuring Southern independence.

In reality, there is little likelihood the Europeans would have become involved in the war. They had already extended belligerent status to the Confederacy, which allowed it to purchase supplies and use European ports. Diplomatic recognition would have enhanced the Southerners’ prestige — but it would not have materially affected their ability to wage war.

And if the British had offered to mediate a peace, Lincoln certainly would have rebuffed them. Then what? It’s unlikely Britain would have rushed to the Confederates’ aid by breaking the blockade and provoking a war with the Union. By late 1862, emancipation had become a Union goal, and the abolitionist British people would never have supported their government becoming militarily involved to defend slavery. British officials also had not forgotten that American privateers devastated their merchant fleet in the War of 1812. And there was no economic incentive for Britain to become a Confederate ally, because the cotton shortage created by the blockade was soon alleviated by cotton from Egypt and India — and the trade Britain conducted with the Union far outweighed the value of Southern cotton.

Some historians have blamed the Confederate defeat on its strict adherence to states’ rights and a failure to develop a strong sense of nationalism. If the Southern people had been more successful in forming a national identity, Jefferson Davis could have nationalized the railroads and industry, and the governors would have cooperated more with Richmond. A powerful central government and a stronger sense of national identity would also have helped sustain morale when the war began to go badly. Instead, the Southerners’ belief in states’ rights kept the governors at odds with the central government, and the breakdown in civilian morale weakened the army by causing more soldiers to desert.

But that assessment underestimates what the South managed to accomplish. Rather than blaming the Confederates’ defeat on a lack of nationalism, one should marvel that they maintained their government as long as they did. From scratch, Southerners created a functioning constitutional government and a formidable military that included 80 percent of the eligible white males. The Confederates quickly developed a sense of nationalism in the first year of war because they believed they had no choice but either to form a separate nation or to face complete ruin. The string of victories in Virginia in 1861 and 1862 only increased this national pride. Even when the war began to go badly and the enemy occupied large sections of the Confederacy, most Southern whites were determined to fight on because they knew their homes would be the next to feel the invaders’ wrath if they did not.

civil-war-sumter75-popupSlavery and racial views also played an important role in Confederate nationalism. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Southern whites’ resolve strengthened because they realized if they lost the war, the very cornerstone of their society would be destroyed. The sight of black soldiers deep in the Confederate heartland outraged Southern whites, but in the war’s last year those same Southerners were willing to enlist slaves to fight on their side. Confederate emancipation would have been unthinkable earlier in the conflict, but by 1865 many Southerners supported recruiting slaves as a way to strengthen the army and win European recognition. To achieve independence, they were willing to sacrifice the very thing they went to war to protect

There are notable examples in history where a weaker people defeated a stronger one. The American Revolution and the Vietnam War immediately come to mind, but the Americans and North Vietnamese had the military backing of the superpowers France and the Soviet Union, respectively. In virtually all cases where a weaker people have prevailed, they had a greater determination to win and were willing to fight for years and suffer horrendous casualties to wear down the enemy.

The Confederacy had no such backing, and a credible argument can be made that its defeat was inevitable from the beginning. What many fail to recognize is that Northerners were just as committed to winning as the Southerners. Some saw it as a war to free the slaves, while others fought to ensure that their republican form of government survived. Northerners believed that America was the world’s last great hope for democracy, and if the South destroyed the Union by force, that light of liberty might be extinguished forever. Lincoln once said the North must prove “that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”

The South may have been fighting to preserve a way of life and to protect its perceived constitutional rights, but so was the North. If the Southern people kept fighting even after the devastating defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, why should we not believe the North would have kept on fighting even if the Confederates had won Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga? The fact is that both sides were equally brave and equally dedicated to their cause. Commitment and morale being the same, the stronger side prevailed.

Sources: Terry L. Jones, “The American Civil War.”

 Terry L. Jones

Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana, Monroe and the author of several books on the Civil War

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American Hegemony or American Primacy?

Joseph S. Nye

Project Syndicate      March 9, 2015

CAMBRIDGE – No country in modern history has possessed as much global military power as the United States. Yet some analysts now argue that the US is following in the footsteps of the United Kingdom, the last global hegemon to decline. This historical analogy, though increasingly popular, is misleading.

Britain was never as dominant as the US is today. To be sure, it maintained a navy equal in size to the next two fleets combined, and its empire, on which the sun never set, ruled over a quarter of humankind. But there were major differences in the relative power resources of imperial Britain and contemporary America. By the outbreak of World War I, Britain ranked only fourth among the great powers in terms of military personnel, fourth in terms of GDP, and third in military spending.

The British Empire was ruled in large part through reliance on local troops. Of the 8.6 million British forces in WWI, nearly a third came from the overseas empire. That made it increasingly difficult for the government in London to declare war on behalf of the empire when nationalist sentiments began to intensify.

By World War II, protecting the empire had become more of a burden than an asset. The fact that the UK was situated so close to powers like Germany and Russia made matters even more challenging.

For all the loose talk of an “American empire,” the fact is that the US does not have colonies that it must administer, and thus has more freedom to maneuver than the UK did. And, surrounded by unthreatening countries and two oceans, it finds it far easier to protect itself.

That brings us to another problem with the global hegemon analogy: the confusion over what “hegemony” actually means. Some observers conflate the concept with imperialism; but the US is clear evidence that a hegemon does not have to have a formal empire. Others define hegemony as the ability to set the rules of the international system; but precisely how much influence over this process a hegemon must have, relative to other powers, remains unclear.

Still others consider hegemony to be synonymous with control of the most power resources. But, by this definition, nineteenth-century Britain – which at the height of its power in 1870 ranked third (behind the US and Russia) in GDP and third (behind Russia and France) in military expenditures – could not be considered hegemonic, despite its naval dominance.

Similarly, those who speak of American hegemony after 1945 fail to note that the Soviet Union balanced US military power for more than four decades. Though the US had disproportionate economic clout, its room for political and military maneuver was constrained by Soviet power.

Some analysts describe the post-1945 period as a US-led hierarchical order with liberal characteristics, in which the US provided public goods while operating within a loose system of multilateral rules and institutions that gave weaker states a say. They point out that it may be rational for many countries to preserve this institutional framework, even if American power resources decline. In this sense, the US-led international order could outlive America’s primacy in power resources, though many others argue that the emergence of new powers portends this order’s demise.

But, when it comes to the era of supposed US hegemony, there has always been a lot of fiction mixed in with the facts. It was less a global order than a group of like-minded countries, largely in the Americas and Western Europe, which comprised less than half of the world. And its effects on non-members – including significant powers like China, India, Indonesia, and the Soviet bloc – were not always benign. Given this, the US position in the world could more accurately be called a “half-hegemony.”

Of course, America did maintain economic dominance after 1945: the devastation of WWII in so many countries meant that the US produced nearly half of global GDP. That position lasted until 1970, when the US share of global GDP fell to its pre-war level of one-quarter. But, from a political or military standpoint, the world was bipolar, with the Soviet Union balancing America’s power. Indeed, during this period, the US often could not defend its interests: the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons; communist takeovers occurred in China, Cuba, and half of Vietnam; the Korean War ended in a stalemate; and revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were repressed.

Against this background, “primacy” seems like a more accurate description of a country’s disproportionate (and measurable) share of all three kinds of power resources: military, economic, and soft. The question now is whether the era of US primacy is coming to an end.

Given the unpredictability of global developments, it is, of course, impossible to answer this question definitively. The rise of transnational forces and non-state actors, not to mention emerging powers like China, suggests that there are big changes on the horizon. But there is still reason to believe that, at least in the first half of this century, the US will retain its primacy in power resources and continue to play the central role in the global balance of power.

In short, while the era of US primacy is not over, it is set to change in important ways. Whether or not these changes will bolster global security and prosperity remains to be seen.

Photo of Joseph S. Nye

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government. He is the author, most recently, of Is the Ame… read more

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