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Posts Tagged ‘African Americans History’

The Security State, COINTELPRO, and Black Lives Matter

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI.(Photo: NYT/NARA)

The revelations reported over the last several weeks that various federal, state, and local authorities have been regularly monitoring individual organizers and protest activities associated with the Black Lives Matter movement may seem unsurprising in light of the expansive American state security infrastructure developed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Such covert operations nonetheless remain deeply disturbing. They are embedded in a long history of government officials equating civil rights activism with subversion and of a mindset that understands black leaders and black citizens as dangerous when they demand an end to the racism underpinning the socioeconomic and political order of the United States.

Arguably that mindset dates back to the era of slavery, when whites patrolled for and snuffed out signs of potential unrest among the enslaved, understood black churches and ministers as possible agents of dissent, and tried to embargo word of international events like the Haitian Revolution and British abolition lest enslaved people get any ideas. But nothing in recent memory more clearly demonstrates how concerns about threats originating abroad can bleed into government efforts to contain black domestic activism than the project known as COINTELPRO.

Shorthand for Counter Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO formally began in 1956 as a secret program led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Its goal was to infiltrate the Communist Party USA, disrupt its activities, and monitor its members for signs that they agitated against the American government or even fed intelligence to the Soviet Union. Within months, however, Hoover had begun widening the purview of COINTELPRO, and by the late 1960s the FBI’s targets included a large number of individuals and groups Hoover and his agents considered “subversive.” These sometimes included white supremacist and hate groups on the far right, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the National States’ Rights Party, and the American Nazi Party. But far more frequently, domestic organizations targeted by COINTELPRO were leftist groups associated with socialism, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s rights movement.

None of the activities falling under the COINTELPRO umbrella, however, were more notorious or extensive than those directed at the black civil rights movement. The FBI had been monitoring black leaders of the burgeoning movement long before 1956, claiming that they harbored communists in their ranks. But over the course of the ensuing fifteen years, agents of the COINTELPRO program trained their sights on almost every organization and individual working on behalf of black civil rights. Suspicions of communism gradually became little more than a pretext for clamping down on protest, and in 1967 COINTELPRO undertook an operation entirely focused on black activism. Ostensibly created in response to growing black nationalist and black power movements in the United States, the operation not only targeted groups willing to countenance relatively radical ideas and activities such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Black Panther Party, and the Nation of Islam, but also mainstream groups like the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the NAACP.

The directive creating the “racial intelligence” operation made no pretenses about its aims, which were to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of civil rights organizations and to frustrate the “efforts of the various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents.” Although the directive claimed that the organizations most heavily targeted were “hate-type organizations and groupings” with a “propensity for violence and civil disorder,” few people came under greater scrutiny than Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to King’s assassination in 1968, the FBI bugged King’s home and every hotel room in which he stayed, sent him audio recordings that supposedly captured his adulterous liaisons along with a blackmail letter urging him to commit suicide, and smeared him publicly as a communist and a “notorious liar.”

These tactics, nasty as they were, barely begin to capture the range of COINTELPRO’s activities, which included rooting through people’s mail and trash, breaking into organizational offices and the homes of individuals to conduct searches, planting false rumors and informants to turn activists and groups against one another, creating false documents and correspondence, attempting to get people fired from their jobs, fabricating evidence and perjured testimony at trials, carrying out acts of vandalism, soliciting beatings and sometimes assassinations, and otherwise engaging in a campaign of nearly unrestrained harassment, psychological warfare, and violence.

COINTELPRO might have continued indefinitely had it not been for a group of citizen activists who broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania early in 1971, stole a number of incriminating documents, and released them to the press. The ferocity of the ensuing criticism led Hoover to announce several months later that COINTELPRO had ceased to exist. But resignations, lawsuits, and investigations followed for years, and in 1976 a Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church investigated the FBI generally and COINTELPRO specifically. Its report blasted the entire American intelligence community for engaging in domestic activities that went well beyond the boundaries of what was either acceptable or legal. Senior intelligence officials, the report concluded, sanctioned operations that routinely violated Americans’ constitutional rights and failed entirely to control field agents, who often neglected to consider the law and sometimes purposefully violated it.

With regard to COINTELPRO in particular, the Church Committee concluded that “many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that.” The FBI, the Committee reported, had been less involved in legitimate counterintelligence than it had been conducting “a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”

The exposure of COINTELPRO substantiated legitimate and accurate accusations about government abuses that had been floated for years. If it also lent credence to some wilder claims about government surveillance and repression that likely amount to conspiracy theories, the FBI has only itself to blame. Moreover, while public knowledge of COINTELPRO helped produce some reforms of American intelligence agencies, a number of the tactics used under COINTELPRO to investigate domestic activists and their organizations continued long after the program formally ended. Today, government officials scrutinizing those in the Black Lives Matter movement who stand on the front lines of the battle against white supremacy might be wise to direct more of their time and resources toward monitoring right-wing racist and antigovernment extremists, who have carried out nineteen lethal attacks resulting in the deaths of nearly fifty people since 2001. That is what a genuine domestic threat looks like.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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Race to Nowhere

For over a century, black elites have pushed improved “race relations” instead of redistribution as the solution to inequality.

Jacobin  Issue 18 Summer 2015

“The Union as It Was. The Lost Cause, Worse than Slavery.” Illustration by Thomas Nast, 1874.

The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

When black progressives today think about the Civil War, they are often more struck by what didn’t happen than what did.

Michelle Alexander’s much-lauded The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a case in point. Citing W. E. B. Du Bois’s lament that “former slaves had ‘a brief moment in the sun’ before they were returned to a status akin to slavery,” Alexander intimates that abolitionists failed to see that slavery was just one instance in a series of forms of “racialized social control” that not only have reappeared, but have also “evolved” and “become perfected, arguably more resilient to challenge, and thus capable of enduring for generations to come.”

What this narrative of unremitting bleakness overlooks is that the South chose armed rebellion in order to maintain political control over its system of labor — a system that enslaved blacks while impoverishing white agricultural and industrial laborers. From the standpoint of Southern planters and industrialists, the most terrifying prospect of emancipation was the possibility that laborers, black and white, would eschew elite guidance and wield political power in the form of the ballot and office-holding to further their own interests.

It came as no surprise, then, that when former slaves did begin to make this prospect a reality, Southern elites responded not only with violence and political fraud, but also with an intellectual campaign carried out in newspapers, journals, fiction, poetry, and historical writing to demonstrate the incapacity of blacks for self-government and the corruption that would ensue when the unlettered and inexperienced held the reins of power.

What is more surprising, if lesser known, is the role that many black elites (along with their sympathetic white counterparts) played in ratifying aspects of white reactionary thought toward the end of the nineteenth century. Some twenty-five years after Appomattox the fact that black men and unpropertied whites could vote made possible the rise of the Populist Movement, which directly challenged the economic order of the South by “proposing to substitute popular rule for the rule of capital.”

Black elites, whose political viability depended on their perceived legitimacy as “race leaders,” were disturbed by the reality of poor blacks acting politically without their guidance or sanction. And when the planter and industrial elite struck back against Populism with violence and disfranchisement — a backlash that tended to make all blacks, and not merely workers, its target — black elites sought to meliorate these effects by proposing a transformation — not of the economic basis of society, but rather of the black image in the white mind — to improve “race relations.”

Indeed for nearly 130 years, black elites in the United States have been offering up improved “race relations” rather then interracial workers alliances against capital as the primary solution to American inequality.

From the moment the Civil War ended, the question of what an American society without slavery would look like dominated political discussion. If the inaugural issue of the Nation magazine opined that“Nobody whose opinion is of any consequence, maintains any longer that [blacks’] claim to political equality is not a sound one,” the actual picture was more complicated.

While many black commentators and freedmen expected emancipation to usher black Americans fully and without restriction into the nation’s civic, social, and economic life, relatively few white Americans — even among those who abhorred slavery and championed the freedman’s political rights — felt similarly.

And while many Americans, black and white, celebrated the idea that the freedmen would now be able to join the ranks of wage laborers, few of either race saw this change as a significant step towards enhancing the political and economic power of workers generally against employers and landowners in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Recent commentary on the limits of emancipation has typically made much of the lack of racial egalitarianism within the Republican Party and even among abolitionists, seeing within this the seeds of subsequent political defeats.

On this account what made the Civil War and the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s something like “non-events” (and what could likewise undermine any success at ending mass incarceration) was the failure to, as Michelle Alexander puts it, “address . . . racial divisions and resentments,” which thereby allowed the next “system of racialized social control [to] emerge.”

In bringing slavery to an end the Civil War opened up contestation not only over the place that former slaves would have in American society, but also over the role that wage earners and women would play in a post-slavery political order.

Jacobin-Series-3bdd91b95cfc219305403acaa1630163

Egalitarian visions, however, were met by concerted forces that did not want the end of slavery to lead to the complete emancipation of wage laborers. That is, any newly won freedoms should not address the way that market coercion severely limited the capacity of working Americans to control their lives and destinies. And while this limitation would ultimately prove equally consequential for the subsequent history of social justice, it has often been hidden by the significant shadow cast by the narrative of American racism and white supremacy.

When John William De Forest, a former Union officer and Freedman’s Bureau administrator, published his 1867 novel Miss Ravenal’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty — which is perhaps the only significant novel about the Civil War written by an actual combatant — he sought, among other things, to champion a view that the “victory of the North is at bottom the triumph of laboring men living by their own industry, over non-laboring men who wanted to live by the industry of others.”

Steeped in the free labor ideology of the North, De Forest’s novel spliced a love story onto a realist account of the war in a way that reflected even as it sought to suppress tensions within the idea of free labor that had come to mark the difference between North and South.

In finally uniting the book’s hero Captain Edward Colburne of the Union army with erstwhile Southern sympathizer, Miss Lillie Ravenal, whom he has loved from the beginning of the novel, De Forest reveals that his view of the ideal free laborer was less the “propertyless proletarian” whose “freedom derived not from the ownership of productive property but from the unfettered sale of . . . labor power — itself a commodity — in a competitive market” than the “independent proprietor,” who had long been identified as being independent enough to secure the freedom of thought and action necessary for responsible citizenship.

We can see the inadequacy of wage labor in Colburne’s assessment of his economic situation after the war. Here we learn that “his salary as captain” had enabled him “to lay up next to nothing,” and that rising gold prices had diminished “the cash value” of what salary he did earn.

These dire prospects, however, do not turn out to be ultimately damning. Trained as a lawyer and in possession of a small inheritance from his dead father, Colburne, by partnering with a colleague, is able in short order to find himself “in possession of a promising if not an opulent business” and is ready to assume his role as head of household with the widowed Lillie Ravenal as his wife and her son as his stepson.

As the novel moves toward a full elaboration of its vision of free labor, it also leaves by the wayside the attempt by Lillie’s father, Dr Ravenal, to reconstruct black labor. Despite being born in South Carolina and having resided in New Orleans for twenty years, Dr Ravenal is a staunch Union man. At a moment when it appears that the Union forces have secured the area around New Orleans, Dr Ravenal determines to demonstrate the superiority of free labor to slave labor by eagerly taking charge of a plantation leased to him by the federal government. His responsibility, as he sees it, is not only economic, but also ideological and pedagogical. To be successful he must “produce not only a crop of corn and potatoes, but a race of intelligent, industrious and virtuous laborers.”

So, with lectures to the ex-slaves about the virtue of labor, sobriety, and the like, Dr Ravenal sets out to put black labor to work for wages. A Confederate counterattack cuts short his “grand experiment of freedman’s labor,” but not before the novel has had time enough to make clear its view that while reconstructing black labor may ultimately succeed, the effort will take time because the habits and attitudes ingrained by a history of enslavement will not disappear overnight.

Contrasting the realities of the South as he sees it to the “pure fiction” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, Dr Ravenal asserts, “There never was such a slave, and there never will be. A man educated under the degrading influences of bondage must always have some taint of uncommon grossness and lowness.” De Forest reiterated this vision in his reflections on his experience with Reconstruction in South Carolina, observing that “the Negro’s acquisition of property, and of those qualities which command the industry of others, will be slow. What better could be expected of a serf so lately manumitted?”

Undergirding De Forest’s vision of black freedmen gradually acquiring the skills and habits necessary to become prosperous cooperative laborers is what Eric Foner terms free labor’s belief that “a harmony of interests” defined the relation of capital to labor. The conditions necessary for capital to profit from its outlays were deemed to be those that were most conducive to the flourishing of labor. Class conflict could be imagined only in terms of deficiencies of character among the uncooperative.

Thus, despite their sympathies for the freedmen, black and white elites in the North generally embraced a view of the recently emancipated as a population in need of tutelage and leadership rather than as peers who had the capacity to present their own visions of social and economic life.

Black novelist, former abolitionist, and temperance advocate Frances E. W. Harper begins her 1892 novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, with depictions of illiterate and semi-literate black slaves debating among themselves the best course of action to take in response to the approaching Union army.

However, by the later chapters of that novel, as she seeks to validate genteel black leadership, a less flattering view of freed people emerges. In one instance Harper has one of her exemplary black characters respond to a claim in the newspaper that “colored women were becoming unfit to be servants for white people,” by concluding “that if they are not fit to be servants for white people, they are unfit to be mothers to their own children.”

This character’s readiness to interpret the uncooperativeness of black domestics as indication of debility is of a piece with the novel’s larger attempt to present black labor as educable and not rebellious. As we learn from another of the novel’s admirable characters, “the Negro is not plotting in beer-salons against the peace and order of society. His fingers are not dripping with dynamite, neither is he spitting upon your flag, nor flaunting the red banner of anarchy in your face.”

These sentiments were echoed by black social reformer, Anna Julia Cooper, in her landmark 1892 work of cultural commentary, A Voice From the South, which famously asserted that it would only be when the black woman was able to enter into American society on terms of equality that true social justice would be achieved. While on Cooper’s account genteel black women should expect acceptance as full equals, laboring blacks were to be prized for racial qualities that guaranteed their capacity as tractable workers.

Cooper writes that the Negro’s “Instinct for law and order, his inborn respect for authority, his inaptitude for rioting and anarchy, his gentleness and cheerfulness as a laborer, and his deep-rooted faith in God will prove indispensable and invaluable elements in a nation menaced as America is by anarchy, socialism, communism, and skepticism poured in with all the jail birds from the continents of Europe and Asia.”

To be sure black workers were not often met with open arms by their white counterparts. And it was not always the case that black novelists assumed innate antagonism between black and white laborers. J. McHenry Jones’s 1896 novel, Hearts of Gold, depicts Welsh miners in a Southern town who, moved by their sense that convict labor “degraded” labor generally and by “a deep-seated hatred . . . against systematic cruelty,” harbor a black runaway from a convict labor camp and then march en masse to destroy the camp and liberate its inmates.

Nonetheless, the representational tendency to align black Southern labor with the interests of their employers also reflected the continued commitment of black elites to the idea “that a community of equal men could be created by allying labor (blacks) and capital to produce material progress and enlightenment,” rather than by allying black laborers with their white counterparts. Instead of building the political power of labor, they called for building the integrity and esteem of the black race.

But whether these representations of black and white labor were disparaging or laudatory, what connected them was that they were, in some way or another, a response to the rise of the Southern Alliance in the 1880s, which was followed by the emergence of the Populist Party in the 1890s.

More to the point, according to Judith Stein, the Southern Alliance was paralleled by and helped fuel the Colored Farmers Alliance, which grew to encompass more than a million black farmers by the early 1890s. While in many cases the political organization of black farm laborers strengthened the hand of black political elites in seeking concessions from white industrialists and landowners, the efficacy of these alliances also challenged the ability of these elites to set the terms and goals of black political activity.

Black elites had sought to assure whites in both the South and the North that black political participation was consistent with the idea of rule by the “best” men of society. In principle then, if not always in fact, the stance of black political elites placed them at odds with the idea that relatively uneducated laborers could wield political power effectively. Thus, in novel after novel produced by the black political class, writers inserted scenes where unschooled black laborers pleaded for the leadership and guidance of their black genteel betters.

Of course, the most egregious disparager of interracial labor alliances against capital was Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Indeed, historian Michael Rudolph West has credited Washington with inventing “race relations.” Washington’s 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, attributed Southern labor unrest to the interference of “professional labour agitators” who had their eyes on the savings of thrifty workers and goaded them into going out on strikes that would leave them “worse off at the end.”

Washington’s rise as a political force in the South coincided with the rise of Populism. The ability of Populists to mount successful political challenges to Southern Democrats depended on the votes of black Alliance members.

It was their awareness of this fact that drove white industrialists and planters in the 1890s to secure the dominance of the Democratic Party by pursuing across-the-board disfranchisement of blacks as well as many poor whites. Jim Crow America was the result of a successful counterrevolution against an interracial labor threat — a counterrevolution aided and abetted by the rise of Bookerism and the Tuskegee Machine.

What Tuskegee represented as an institution, and what Up From Slavery testified to as a program, was the idea that the problem of the South was not primarily a problem of who held political power, but rather one of determining how best to incorporate a despised caste into the social and economic fabric of the nation. In the place of political transformation Washington offered up race relations, with Tuskegee positioned to provide an army of “trained men and women to confront the militancy of an industrial proletariat.”

Viewed against the rise of Populism one can see that the Civil War, by granting blacks political rights, set the stage for what would become one of the most profound challenges to capital in the history of the United States. That the Populist challenge was defeated does not diminish its significance. And given that it was only after the defeat of Populism that disfranchisement and Jim Crow were able to succeed suggests the potential instructiveness of that history for the present moment, a history that does not attest simply to the periodic reemergence of white supremacy across time as Alexander and so many others have alleged.

Rather, if racialized forms of exclusion tend to rise in the wake of successful efforts by industrial and financial interests to undermine the political power of labor, to make our primary task that of addressing “racial divisions and resentments,” as Alexander calls for, risks giving pride of place to a new era of race relations, and not the broader vision of social justice that she describes at the end of The New Jim Crow.

Then, as now, the most reliable path to a progressive politics that produces true justice and human rights is that which begins with building the political power of workers. It is this proposition that has often made elite opponents of white supremacy — both black and white — deeply uncomfortable.

Kenneth W. Warren is a professor of English at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is What Was African American Literature?

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The Cold Cases of the Jim Crow Era

The New York Times  August 28, 2015
At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

In March 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from a desperate mother. Her son, who was black, had been killed two years earlier, his body pulled from a river near Pickens, Miss.

“I am sending a contract in regards to the lynching of my son Willie Jack Heggard,” wrote Jane Heggard. “I have tried every way to have a trial, but no lawyer will accept the case, because a white man killed an innocent man.”

Despite her plea, it is unlikely we will ever know who killed Ms. Heggard’s son. Roosevelt’s assistant attorney general said it was up to the state of Mississippi, which apparently failed to investigate the crime. Like the thousands of Latin American “desaparecidos” who were terrorized in the 1970s and ’80s, Willie Jack Heggard is among America’s “disappeared,” one of hundreds of black Americans who were victims of racial violence from 1930 to 1960.

Our opportunity to capture their stories — and an important part of our nation’s history — is quickly vanishing as memories fade, witnesses die and evidence disappears. Time is running out to achieve some measure of justice.

For the past seven years, we have traveled throughout the South to document these cold cases. Many of the documents — sworn statements, court transcripts and coroners’ reports — are stored in dusty courthouses, threatened by fires, floods and rodents. Compared with the relatively robust archive on lynchings between 1882 and 1930, researchers have not fully explored the social and political costs of racial violence during the 30 years before 1960.

In 2008, Congress acknowledged this gap in our historical knowledge and passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named for the 14-year-old boy who was pulled from his bed in Mississippi on Aug. 28, 1955, tortured and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. His case has not been fully resolved, although his killers confessed to a magazine in exchange for $4,000. The Emmett Till act authorizes the Department of Justice to coordinate with local authorities and investigate racially motivated homicides that occurred before 1970.

The problem is, the act has not been adequately funded, and its narrow focus on viable prosecutions limits its efficacy. Many homicides can no longer be prosecuted. In some cases, the government has limited federal jurisdiction. In others, witnesses and perpetrators have died. This year, the Department of Justice reported that it had completed just 105 investigations and three prosecutions over the past several years.

Clearly, the federal government needs to expand the act’s focus. Even if they are largely symbolic, prosecutions themselves are a form of truth telling, and require local governments who often ignored or sanctioned the killings to help re-examine this history.

In addition, prosecutions should be considered alongside remedies like truth commissions, restitution and official apologies which acknowledge that these murders were part of a pattern of intimidation against entire communities, intended to stifle full citizenship. Finally, along with better funding for the Till act, President Obama and Congress should establish an initiative to collect oral histories from this period.

It wouldn’t be the first time the federal government has undertaken a large oral history project. From 1936 to 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project conducted over 2,300 interviews with elderly former slaves. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 funded oral histories and gave reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. In 2000, Congress created the Veterans History Project so Americans could “better understand the realities of war.”

And several states — including North Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida — have already sponsored commissions on race riots before 1930 that attempted to assess the long-term impact of the murders, looting, arson and other property damage that ruined thriving African-American communities. Some recommended monetary reparations, economic redevelopment or commemorative monuments. Not all of the solutions were implemented, but the work itself was a significant step forward.

Some countries are confronting shameful episodes in their histories that had been intentionally ignored. In 2007, Spain passed the Law of Historical Memory to recognize those who suffered under Franco, which has supported the exhumation of graves from that era. In June, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the decades-long abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools “cultural genocide.”

A full accounting of the past may evoke shame, pain and impulses to remember and forget. But an acknowledgment that this legacy of violence still haunts African-American communities may foster more productive conversations and help generate trust in our legal system.

Emmett Till, who was killed 60 years ago today, is a victim whose story we know. His name endures because his mother “wanted the world to see what they did.” His memory beckons us to learn the fate of hundreds of others, like Willie Jack Heggard. We must find America’s disappeared, learn their stories and allow them to live in our history.

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Lyndon B. Johnson-Remarks on the Signing of the Voting Rights Act (August 6, 1965)

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“Everybody’s talking bout…” – The Music of Nina Simone for Today’s Frustrations

It has been a year since the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Their deaths kicked off a movement challenging police brutality.  From the deaths of Garner and Brown slogans like: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” “I Can’t Breathe!” and most notably “Black Lives Matter” arose to proclaim the value of Black lives in the midst of an overwhelming tide of racial violence.  One year later, the list of victims keeps growing.  Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, the murder of the Charleston Nine at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church, Sandra Bland in Texas, Sam DuBose in Cincinnati, and many others keep engaging the conversation on the value of Black lives.  New hashtags like “#SayHerName and #IfIdieinpolicecustody reflect what has become a disturbing reality.  In one year the list as well as people’s frustration keeps growing.

On any given day, I can open up my Facebook newsfeed, and see a diverse list of postings from militant outrage to statements proclaiming love, compassion, and understanding are the answers to people decrying that Black people must value their own lives first to the questioning of whether the victims truly met the standard of etiquette as dictated in politics of respectability.  A post by one of my friends punched through the noise of Facebook.  She recently attended an event in a local national park.  When she left the party, she unwittingly drove in the wrong direction and was stopped by Park Police.  In that moment, she was absolutely terrified.  In that moment, she realized that any action might be misconstrued by the police officer, and she could become the next victim.  The traffic stop went surprisingly well, yet my friend’s experience reflects the nature of the times.

My colleague Rhon Manigault-Bryant posted “Life Goes On:” A Meditation from Howard Thurman as a source of solace.  I have also found the writings of Howard Thurman, but at this particular moment I find myself in need of a stronger expression of what I can best describe as righteous indignation.  Approximately 50 years ago, Nina Simone captured her frustration with the violence against Blacks in her iconic song “Mississippi Goddam.”   The song is a melodic indictment of the violence, the calls for Blacks to act respectably, and the requests for slow methodic change.  The song would ultimately have a deleterious effect on Simone’s career, but it remains a significant musical expression of the Civil Rights era.

Noelle Trent

UntitledNoelle Trent recently earned her doctorate in American history at Howard University. Her dissertation, “Frederick Douglass and the Making of American Exceptionalism,” examines how noted African-American abolitionist and activist, Frederick Douglass, influenced the development of the American ideas of liberty, equality, and individualism which later coalesced to form the ideology of American exceptionalism. Dr. Trent also holds a Master’s degree in Public History from Howard University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She has worked with several noted organizations and projects, including the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Park Service, Catherine B. Reynolds Civil War Washington Teacher’s Fellows, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History. She has presented papers and lectures at the American Historical Association, Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Lincoln Forum, and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. She currently resides in suburbs of Washington, DC.

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Why Are So Many Distraught to Learn that Slavery Was the Cause of the Civil War? 

HNN   July 19, 2015

We would all like to be able to believe stories and events that we have heard throughout our life. Regardless of where we acquire them, no one likes to feel as though they need to fact check. In history as well as other disciplines, the need to corroborate the narrative is simply a given. We refer to this study as historiography. Essentially the examination of not just the history, but who is telling the history. Who are the individuals, are they objective in recording the events, and do they have biases that would alter what we would otherwise take as truth? More importantly, it is an excellent life lesson, being able to be critical in a constructive manner. In other words, not being gullible.

I always begin the semester by showing my classes a clip of Ron Paul giving a lecture on the origins of the Civil War. To sum up this lengthy talk, he is advocating that the Civil War was fought solely based on state’s rights issues, little to do with slavery. That being said, today nearly all scholars would argue that this belief is a complete fallacy. The catalyst for the Civil War was one hundred percent based on the issue of slavery, more specifically the expansion of such. However, the more imperative issue I try to convey to my students is who wrote such a narrative that made its way into our country’s story and there became taken as truth?

The answer is actually surprisingly simple, the losers. There was a massive campaign throughout the South, years following the Civil War, to illustrate the South did not fight for such an institution, but for individual rights. The comparison of the South to our Founding Father’s similar fight during the American Revolution is a noteworthy example. Of course, over time this becomes even more deeply engrained, even making its way into the textbooks.

Why? Because who in the middle of the twentieth century wanted to admit great grandpa fought for something other than an honorable and admirable ideology. Ron Paul would be the product of this faulty narrative being taught in school and he would then go on to proliferate that same message. An individual who did not study the American Civil War in depth, would potentially take what a well thought of leader such as Ron Paul said simply as the truth, without hesitation.

It is normal and expected to trust individuals whom we admire or appear to be knowledgeable on a topic. There are countless times I find myself falling into this same trap. Whether it is our banker, our politicians, or others, history teaches us that a society that flourishes questions what has always been accepted as reality. Therefore we enable modifications to the status quo and perhaps affect positive change.

South Carolina recently signed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from their capitol. Despite the arguments of a loss of history to some degree, we could argue questioning the meaning of a Confederate flag flying above a government institution in the twenty-first century leads us to be more sensitive to race relations and equality in a progressive nation. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the flag’s removal is irrelevant. The significance is to applaud the idea that we are being constructively critical, questioning what our ideology as a society may be lacking, and possibly teaching our younger generations to follow suit in the world they will be creatimg.

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College and Northwest Vista College. Dale has two new books available, Tracking Life’s Lessons: Through Experiences, History, and a Little Interpretation and Education Decoded (A Collection of My Writings) now available on Amazon.

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For all the hereafter

 

African American Intellectual History Society July 5, 2015

The Fourteenth Amendment is a living document, and Clarence Thomas is a terrible historian

June 26 was a pretty good day for civil rights: the Supreme Court guaranteed the right for same-sex couples to marry by a 5-4 majority in Obergefell v. Hodges.

True to form, the conservatives dissented, drawing upon arguments from strict construction and original intent. Clarence Thomas served up one particular flavor: “Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits.” The presumption being that the benefits of marriage are somehow a government give-away, like those apocryphal Obama cell phones. 

This is the same strange logic that led Andrew Johnson to veto the Civil Rights Act of 1866 on the grounds that guaranteeing equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race or former status as slaves, constituted granting African Americans “special” rights. In protecting the rights of the freedpeople, Johnson argued, the bill established “safeguards which go infinitely beyond any that the General Government has ever provided for the white race. In fact, the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.”

Of course this is not the case.  Freedom is not a government give-way, it’s a government guarantee.

Marriage has been many things over many years, but in our day it is foremost a contract that imparts particular benefits and responsibilities. The government has no compelling interest in impeding that contract, only prejudicial ones. Repeat: The case for same-sex marriage is not a reach. For the government to stand aside and let people do what they will is entirely in line with old-school liberalism, and even what passes for modern libertarianism.

It may indeed be right that, as Thomas writes, “government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.” But it sure can mess with your ability to enjoy the basic benefits of the society around you, as Thomas’s own examples (slavery, Japanese internment) deftly illustrate. (Great example of reactionary mentality masquerading as race pride.)

Oppressive policies such as segregation and internment may or may not degrade their victims in their own minds, but that is not the point. The point is that these are state-sponsoredefforts to try to make that degradation succeed. By Thomas’s warped interpretation of African American history, slavery was just fine, for even if the state practiced and championed the institution, the slaves’ sense of self could never be obliterated. It is not the consequence on the psyche of the oppressed that matters, it is the states’ intention and practice of oppressionthat requires remedy.

Antonin Scalia may not like it, but “normal” changes (sometimes remarkably rapidly), and same-sex marriage is the new normal. Thankfully, what was acceptable in 1787 or 1866 may not be acceptable now, and vice versa. The Constitution is not a stone tablet. As attests what happened in 1972, when Title IX was created to protect women’s rights, the protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment adapt to the times.

If we’re going by original intent, then the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was flexibility.  The Fourteenth Amendment was created not just to protect the rights of freed slaves, but to let the national government protect the rights of all threatened minorities, far into the future.

It’s worth a read – at least, of the critical Section I.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

You don’t hear anything at all about the actual rights that are protected, do you?  That’s because the intent of the amendment was much broader than that.

The amendment does specify who rights belong to, for it defines federal and state citizenship — clearly, and really for the first time.  That dealt with problem number one, for if the oppressed (in this case, freed slaves) had the rights of citizens, they themselves could invoke the full force of the law on their own behalf. Good old American individualism and small-government mentality.

But there was a second problem the framers also had to address. The original Constitution severely constrained the power of the federal government to impair the individual liberties of American citizens — that’s the Bill of Rights, and particularly the Fifth Amendment. At the time, this all fit nicely with the political ideology of the revolution: liberty was thought kept safest when distributed far from central government, in the states.

But what happened when the states themselves acted against individual liberties? In a contest between state and federal government, which would prevail? To put it another way: the Constitution (through the Bill of Rights) protects individual liberties against the unjust exercise of federal power; what, though, would protect individual rights against the unjust exercise of state power?

In asserting the primacy of federal over state authority, the 39th Congress crafted a sweeping reconceptualization of federal-state relations, making the federal government the ultimate and final arbiter in cases where individual rights are infringed upon by the power of government.

So let’s imagine going back in time (cue wavy-screen-time-machine effect), so we can be there at the birth of the thing.

An ongoing problem did indeed spark the creation of the Fourteenth Amendment. This was the plight of four million bondspersons now free, who were being subjected to virtual re-enslavement not simply by their former masters, but by the states of what had been the Confederacy. When former planters and their representatives returned to southern statehouses just after the Civil War, the states immediately passed a series of debilitating black codes, which strictly limited blacks’ political participation, their access to the political process, and their paths to economic mobility.

Events such as the Memphis Riot of 1866 demonstrated that those freed from slavery required the full protections of citizenship, which only the federal government could provide (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Events such as the Memphis Riot of 1866 demonstrated that those freed from slavery required the full protections of citizenship, which only the federal government could provide (image courtesy Wikipedia)

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 sought to remedy this by defining American natives as citizens, and extending to all in the southern states equal rights of federal citizenship.

The immediate purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to ensure the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, so that any southern-controlled Congress of the future could not repeal it. James Garfield proposed to “lift that great and good law above the reach of political strife, beyond the reach of the plots and machinations of any party, and fix it in the serene sky, in the eternal firmament of the Constitution, where no storm of passion can shake it and no cloud can obscure it.” What happened to the Fourteenth in the courts of the late 1800s mocked such high-minded hopefulness (more on this in a little), but it does signal the framers’ deep and lasting purposes. The framers viewed their work as repairing a flaw in the original Constitution.

They didn’t change the Constitution to pass a law; they passed the law because they had fixed the Constitution.

They posed their solution in broad and principled terms precisely because they realized that the specific case they confronted could come up again and again in other guises, whenever states sought to undermine liberty. Despite Andrew Johnson’s objection, the amendment did not promote the interests of one special group – what was termed “class legislation” back in the day. It was meant to clearly establish the principles that granted Congress the ability to step in and protect the rights of any group targeted by the states for unequal treatment.

To be sure, there was a cost to framing the amendment in terms of broad principles, for such general language could be interpreted in many ways, some contrary to the original spirit and purpose of the amendment. This is exactly what happened in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the next, when the Supreme Court began eviscerating the amendment’s role in protecting freedpeople’s rights. Instead, the court transformed it into a tool for corporations to resist government regulation. No conservatives at that time complained about original intent.

This process went stunningly far. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that in being compelled to sit in a segregated streetcar Homer Plessy had not had his civil rights violated. Why not? Because according to the majority opinion, the Fourteenth Amendment “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” A rather profound misreading of the amendment’s original intent, no? Again, conservatives didn’t complain.

But the very vagueness that permitted such atrocious misreadings is now serving its purpose exactly as intended. As with the framers of the original Constitution, the framers of the Fourteenth understood that they were making rules not just for their day, but to serve the following generations as well. And they knew that those who followed would likely need their creation for new purposes. They knew they were crafting a broad protection of liberty, and they did not care to specify the conditions under which it should operate, because that was the job of the generations to follow. Their job was simply to secure Congress the right to step in whenever the states impaired the rights of individuals. That’s the whole purpose of the powerful Section I.

So though they clearly sought to root out an existing evil against the freedpeople, the framers of the amendment explained it as having broad application. Foremost among these men was Ohio Congressman John Bingham, who put the question simply to Congress: “whether you will give by this amendment of the people of the United States the power, by legislative enactment, to punish officials of States for violation of the oaths enjoined upon them by their Constitution?”

The Congressmen debating the measure clearly thought about its wide application. They wondered if it might be used by married women to argue for expanded rights to property, and they anticipated (and affirmed) that the amendment would create naturalized citizens of everyone native-born, regardless of their heritage. William Pitt Fessenden of Maine went so far as to suggest that Bingham had not even proposed the measure to support the Civil Rights Act of 1866. “During all the discussion in the committee that I heard,” he stated, “nothing was ever said about the civil rights bill in connection with that. It was placed on entirely different grounds.”

When asked directly if the amendment were not intended solely to protect the rights of freed slaves, Bingham replied that “it is proposed as well to protect the thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of loyal white citizens of the United States whose property, by State legislation, has been wrested from them under confiscation, and protect them also against banishment.” (This was a reference to Confederate treatment of Union loyalists.) He also suggested that it would apply to states that violated the rights of blacks from antebellum-era racial prohibitions in nominally “free” states such as Indiana and Oregon.

Moreover, Bingham understood Congress to be undertaking a work of long-term constitutional significance. The Fourteenth Amendment constituted a redemptive effort to fix a fundamental flaw in the original plan of government. When South Carolina had sought to nullify federal law back in 1833, Bingham argued, Congress had “looked in vain for any grant of power in the Constitution” to support the civil rights of South Carolinians who dissented from their state’s policy.

In fixing this flaw, the new amendment would clarify the issue not just in the present. Forever after, it would “protect by national law the privileges and immunities of all the citizens of the Republic and the inborn rights of every person within its jurisdiction whenever the same shall be abridged or denied by the unconstitutional acts of any State.”

This long-term security was needed, Bingham believed, for the Confederacy had demonstrated just how much damage could be wrought in the name of states’ rights. The Civil War’s untold losses in lives and property had made this clear. The nation now demanded “something in the shape of a security for the future against the recurrence of the enormous evils under which the country has labored for the last four years.” This echoed the language of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, on which Bingham served, which asserted the government’s duty “to secure itself against similar wrongs in the future.”  The framers understood themselves to have provided an ongoing solution for a general problem (the states’ interference with individual liberties) that might arise at any time in the future.

Ohio Congressman John Bingham, one of the framers of the 14th Amendment, and the its most vocal champion in the House

Ohio Congressman John Bingham, one of the framers of the 14th Amendment, and its most vocal champion in the House

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the majority ruled sagely, and completely within the original intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. The rights its confers are not government give-aways or special favors. They are a bold assertion of the federal government’s responsibility to secure the liberties of minorities singled out for state-sponsored prejudice.

If, as Clarence Thomas and his strict constructionist colleagues assert, we should consider original intent, then we cannot do better than the words of the amendment’s most important framer. According to Bingham, those who wrote, championed, and passed the Fourteenth Amendment sought nothing more than “the care of the Republic, not only for the present, but for all the hereafter.”

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Confederate Flags in the Jim Crow North

by 

The African American  Intellectual History Society   July 1, 2015
Bronx Confederate Flags 003

Photo: Opponents of local civil rights activists raise a Confederate flag in the Bronx, July 1963

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Over the years, what many people recognize as the Confederate flag, the “Stars and Bars,” which decorated several official flags that insurrectionists who fought against the United States flew during the Civil War (1861-1865), has symbolized different types of American identity.

During the 1950s, white Southerners who opposed racial integration and civil rights for black Americans used the Confederate flag as a symbol of their resistance against what they saw as a tyrannical federal government that sought to eradicate their cultures and customs. Some Southerners called these mores their “way of life.”

They were not totally wrong since their official “way of life” involved oppressing American blacks in practically every possible way.

White people could treat black citizens like dogs, or worse, outright terrorize them, at voting polls, in courts, at workplaces, in stores, at theaters, in public schools. Racial segregation even ruled cemeteries.

Racial segregation dominated the South.

So, when Supreme Court decisions and federal laws sided with citizens who fought against racist segregation, white Southerners knew their way of life’s days were numbered. They resisted the civil rights movement. They opposed equal citizenship for black Americans and equal protection of the law for black people.

They showed their defiance the same way Southern insurrectionists did during the Civil War: they flew their Stars and Bars.

Nowadays, some white Southerners (and black ones too) say that the flag serves as a symbol of their heritage. It honors their ancestors. They argue that the Confederate flag does not stand for slavery; even though that flag flew over armies that marched to create a new nation built to preserve white supremacy and racial slavery.

The Confederate political leader, Alexander Stephens, made plain why the insurrectionists fought that war and flew their flag when he explained that his new government’s, “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the (N)egro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Perhaps the cultural and political meanings that the Confederate flag represented in the 1860s and in the 1950s have changed.

Perhaps now, in the 2010s, the Confederate flag means different things – heritage and sectional pride – than it meant in the past: massive resistance against the civil rights movement and a new nation to protect white people’s ability to enslave black people.

Perhaps.

But that flag’s connection to the white nationalist terrorist’s shooting of 9 Black people in Charleston, South Carolina, proves that the Stars and Bars still have a great amount of white nationalist, racist, segregationist meaning woven within its fabric.

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During today’s raging culture wars over the Confederate flag, Americans should remember that white Southerners do not have a monopoly on the Confederate flag’s meaning, or its use.

Historians have shown how supposedly “Southern” forms of racism and terrorism, as well as activist movements against those cultural and political practices, existed throughout the nation.

For example, contrary to notions of its strictly rural Southern existence, during its resurgence in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan wielded power and influence in cities across the country.

Even during the 1960s, when some whites outside the South wanted adamantly to oppose any type of civil rights for black Americans, they used two of the strongest, clearest symbols to communicate their political views and cultural identity: KKK hoods and Confederate flags.

In the summer of 1963, black and white civil rights activists in the Allerton Avenue section of the northeast Bronx, New York, staged nonviolent protests for black people to have more jobs at local White Castle restaurants.

Some of their opponents paraded in KKK hoods, waved Confederate flags, and donned Confederate garb (see below pictures). One counter demonstrator tried to have a nine-month old pose for a picture wearing a replica of a Confederate officer’s hat.

Bronx Confederate Flags 002

Bronx Confederate Flags 004

Ironically, many of the white residents of the northeast Bronx neighborhood where those protests occurred descended from Italian immigrants. They stood next to Confederate flags and a person dressed like a Klansman, but at one time the white American nationalists who used those symbols throughout the decades also violently opposed southern Europeans and Catholics immigrating into the United States.

When Bronx whites who opposed the civil rights movement in their own community wanted to express their nationalism and identity, and their political opposition against black employment at White Castle, they knew exactly what symbols to use, what flags to fly, and what chants to shout. They sang, “Dixie.” They yelled, “Go home nigger.” A taxi driver from the community told a New York Post reporter, “We aren’t going to let the colored people take over our neighborhood like they have everywhere else in the city.”

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Over the years, the Confederate flag emerged as a very American symbol of white nationalism, white identity, and opposition against any type of civil rights and civil equality for black people in the United States.

Some Southerners claim the Confederate flag as a symbol of their cultural identity and historical heritage, and the Stars and Bars may very well have such sentimental value.

But personal heritage cannot erase or replace national history.

Since the Civil War, Americans around the country have used that flag to symbolize their opposition of black civic equality, even black people’s very humanity.

As twenty first century Americans call for the flag’s removal from public buildings, especially state capitals, historians should also do more research into the ways the Confederate flag served as a powerful national symbol, not merely a regional or sectional one, for white nationalism and domestic racist terrorism.

Brian Purnell

Brian%20Purnell%200454Brian Purnell is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Bowdoin College. He is the author of Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn (Kentucky, 2013), which won the New York State Historical Association Manuscript Prize in 2012. He has worked on several public history projects with the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Bronx County Historical Society, the Brooklyn Public Library and the University of South Carolina. Before joining the faculty at Bowdoin, he worked for six years at Fordham University as Research Director of the Bronx African American History Project and as an Assistant Professor of African American Studies (2006-2010). He is currently working on two books. The first is an oral history autobiography of Jitu Weusi (Leslie Campbell), a prominent educator and Black Nationalist activist in Brooklyn, New York, during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. The second is a history of urban community development corporations since the mid-1960s tentatively entitled, “Unmaking Ghettos: The Golden Age of Community Development in America’s Black Metropolises.” Brian lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Leana Amaez, and their four children: Isabella, Gabriel, Lillian and Emilia.

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America’s Long History of Racial Fear

By

We’re History  June 24, 2015
An Amalgamation Waltz

An Amalgamation Waltz. Edward Williams Clay, 1839 (Photo: American Antiquarian Society)

Calling Wednesday’s shootings in Charleston a “tragedy” makes this explosion of murderous violence seem like an accident. It isn’t an accident. It is the legacy of an excruciating history that began with racial slavery and continued through the post-Civil War campaign to maintain white supremacy – a campaign that has persisted to the present day and which shapes how many white Americans think about and respond to black Americans.

At the heart of Wednesday’s violence is America’s history of chattel slavery, a labor system built on violence, in which all whites were effectively authorized to do violence to African Americans in order to keep them at work and prevent them from challenging their enslavement. But this brutal system also produced rebellions. Whites – even those who never owned a slave – lived with the fear that that racial order might be turned upside down, destroying everything that they held dear. In other words, whites attributed to blacks the same desire for domination that they themselves were exercising. It is no accident that the alleged shooter is reported to have said: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

The history of chattel slavery, upended in the Civil War, was followed by the history of Reconstruction, a moment during which America’s racial hierarchy was unsettled, and black people were able to claim a measure of political and civil equality. But the moment was a brief one. White conservatives all over the South, abetted by many white northerners, denounced the new interracial Southern governments as exactly the “world turned upside down” that they had feared during slavery. They overthrew those governments by force and fraud and set about reconstructing white supremacy as best they could without the law of slavery as a foundation.

The Reconstruction years thus gave way to another history: the continuing struggle by white supremacist activists to create and enforce Jim Crow’s exclusion, segregation, and lynching. This struggle took a lot of work, and it required that whites remain intensely fearful of blacks. One of the greatest victories of white supremacy in this era was to persuade whites that they confronted an epidemic of black men raping white women. Despite overwhelming evidence that this claim was unfounded (especially as revealed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett), the fantasy that predatory black men routinely victimized white women became the justification for lynching. Those fears may have run deepest in the South, where the great majority of the black population resided well into the twentieth century, but they found a home in the North and West as well.

As Jim Crow began to crack beneath the blows of the post-WWII black freedom movement, politicians drew on that history to sustain white racial domination. Scare campaigns against the Civil Rights Movement promised that civil and political equality would unleash black men’s alleged sexual ambitions and, once again, overturn a well-established racial hierarchy. The power and persuasiveness of those arguments helped explain the residential segregation and redlining across the North that lies at the heart of so many of today’s inequities. It lay behind the differential sentencing laws for powder and crack cocaine and undergirded the fearful discussion of “super-predators” in the 1980s and 1990s. It is still used to justify the overwhelmingly disproportionate police scrutiny, arrest, and conviction and incarceration of African Americans.

America’s long racial history of imagining blacks as fearsome, criminal, and bent on political and sexual domination has never gone away. This is not because the fantasy is real, but because it has played such a powerful role for hundreds of years. No wonder that it is so readily wielded as a weapon, whether through cynicism, ignorance, or ruthlessness. No wonder that its murderous version of history was so easy for Dylann Roof to find and embrace.

Dylan Roof’s murderous night is not simply a South Carolina tragedy. It is an expression and a consequence of American history – a history that the nation has hardly reckoned with, much less overcome.

About the Author

Stephen Kantrowitz

Stephen Kantrowitz is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of several books, including Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy.

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NPR JUNE 22, 2015 
These historical photographs depict the forearms of human test subjects after being exposed to nitrogen mustard and lewisite agents in World War II experiments conducted at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

These historical photographs depict the forearms of human test subjects after being exposed to nitrogen mustard and lewisite agents in World War II experiments conducted at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory

As a young U.S. Army soldier during World War II, Rollins Edwards knew better than to refuse an assignment.

When officers led him and a dozen others into a wooden gas chamber and locked the door, he didn’t complain. None of them did. Then, a mixture of mustard gas and a similar agent called lewisite was piped inside.

“It felt like you were on fire,” recalls Edwards, now 93 years old. “Guys started screaming and hollering and trying to break out. And then some of the guys fainted. And finally they opened the door and let us out, and the guys were just, they were in bad shape.”

About This Investigation

This is Part 1 of a two-part investigation on mustard gas testing conducted by the U.S. military during World War II. The second story in this report will examine the failures by the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide benefits to those injured by military mustard gas experiments.

Edwards was one of 60,000 enlisted men enrolled in a once-secret government program — formally declassified in 1993 — to test mustard gas and other chemical agents on American troops. But there was a specific reason he was chosen: Edwards is African-American.

“They said we were being tested to see what effect these gases would have on black skins,” Edwards says.

An NPR investigation has found evidence that Edwards’ experience was not unique. While the Pentagon admitted decades ago that it used American troops as test subjects in experiments with mustard gas, until now, officials have never spoken about the tests that grouped subjects by race.

For the first time, NPR tracked down some of the men used in the race-based experiments. And it wasn’t just African-Americans. Japanese-Americans were used as test subjects, serving as proxies for the enemy so scientists could explore how mustard gas and other chemicals might affect Japanese troops. Puerto Rican soldiers were also singled out.

Rollins Edwards as a young soldier in 1945 at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Rollins Edwards as a young soldier in 1945 at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Courtesy of Rollins Edwards

White enlisted men were used as scientific control groups. Their reactions were used to establish what was “normal,” and then compared to the minority troops.

All of the World War II experiments with mustard gas were done in secret and weren’t recorded on the subjects’ official military records. Most do not have proof of what they went through. They received no follow-up health care or monitoring of any kind. And they were sworn to secrecy about the tests under threat of dishonorable discharge and military prison time, leaving some unable to receive adequate medical treatment for their injuries, because they couldn’t tell doctors what happened to them.

Army Col. Steve Warren, director of press operations at the Pentagon, acknowledged NPR’s findings and was quick to put distance between today’s military and the World War II experiments.

“The first thing to be very clear about is that the Department of Defense does not conduct chemical weapons testing any longer,” he says. “And I think we have probably come as far as any institution in America on race. … So I think particularly for us in uniform, to hear and see something like this, it’s stark. It’s even a little bit jarring.”

NPR shared the findings of this investigation with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who sits on a House subcommittee for veterans affairs. She points to similarities between these tests and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where U.S. government scientists withheld treatment from black sharecroppers in Alabama to observe the disease’s progression.

“I’m angry. I’m very sad,” Lee says. “I guess I shouldn’t be shocked when you look at the syphilis studies and all the other very terrible experiments that have taken place as it relates to African-Americans and people of color. But I guess I’m still shocked that, here we go again.”

Segregated troops practice movement in protective gear at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland in the early 1940s.

Segregated troops practice movement in protective gear at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland in the early 1940s. Army Signal Corps via National Archives

Lee says the U.S. government needs to recognize the men who were used as test subjects while it can still reach some, who are now in their 80s and 90s.

“We owe them a huge debt, first of all. And I’m not sure how you repay such a debt,” she says.

Mustard gas damages DNA within seconds of making contact. It causes painful skin blisters and burns, and it can lead to serious, and sometimes life-threatening illnesses including leukemia, skin cancer, emphysema and asthma.

In 1991, federal officials for the first time admitted that the military conducted mustard gas experiments on enlisted men during World War II.

According to declassified records and reports published soon after, three types of experiments were done: Patch tests, where liquid mustard gas was applied directly onto test subjects’ skin; field tests, where subjects were exposed to gas outdoors in simulated combat settings; and chamber tests, where men were locked inside gas chambers while mustard gas was piped inside.

Even once the program was declassified, however, the race-based experiments remained largely a secret until a researcher in Canada disclosed some of the details in 2008. Susan Smith, a medical historian at the University of Alberta in Canada, published an article in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics.

U.S. troops in Panama participate in a chemical warfare training exercise with smoke during World War II.

U.S. troops in Panama participate in a chemical warfare training exercise with smoke during World War II. Howard R. Wilson/Courtesy of Gregory A. Wilson

In it, she suggested that black and Puerto Rican troops were tested in search of an “ideal chemical soldier.” If they were more resistant, they could be used on the front lines while white soldiers stayed back, protected from the gas.

The article received little media attention at the time, and the Department of Defense didn’t respond.

Despite months of federal records requests, NPR still hasn’t been given access to hundreds of pages of documents related to the experiments, which could provide confirmation of the motivations behind them. Much of what we know about the experiments has been provided by the remaining living test subjects.

Juan Lopez Negron, who’s Puerto Rican, says he was involved in experiments known as the San Jose Project.

Military documents show more than 100 experiments took place on the Panamanian island, chosen for its climate, which is similar to islands in the Pacific. Its main function, according to military documents obtained by NPR, was to gather data on “the behavior of lethal chemical agents.”

Document

One of the studies uncovered by NPR through the Freedom of Information Act was conducted in the Spring 1944. It describes how researchers exposed 39 Japanese American soldiers and 40 white soldiers to mustard and lewisite agents over the course of 20 days. Read the study.

Lopez Negron, now 95 years old, says he and other test subjects were sent out to the jungle and bombarded with mustard gas sprayed from U.S. military planes flying overhead.

“We had uniforms on to protect ourselves, but the animals didn’t,” he says. “There were rabbits. They all died.”

Lopez Negron says he and the other soldiers were burned and felt sick almost immediately.

“I spent three weeks in the hospital with a bad fever. Almost all of us got sick,” he says.

Edwards says that crawling through fields saturated with mustard gas day after day as a young soldier took a toll on his body.

Rollins Edwards, who lives in Summerville, S.C., shows one of his many scars from exposure to mustard gas in World War II military experiments. More than 70 years after the exposure, his skin still falls off in flakes. For years, he carried around a jar full of the flakes to try to convince people of what happened to him.

Rollins Edwards, who lives in Summerville, S.C., shows one of his many scars from exposure to mustard gas in World War II military experiments. More than 70 years after the exposure, his skin still falls off in flakes. For years, he carried around a jar full of the flakes to try to convince people of what happened to him. Amelia Phillips Hale for NPR

“It took all the skin off your hands. Your hands just rotted,” he says. He never refused or questioned the experiments as they were occurring. Defiance was unthinkable, he says, especially for black soldiers.

“You do what they tell you to do and you ask no questions,” he says.

Edwards constantly scratches at the skin on his arms and legs, which still break out in rashes in the places he was burned by chemical weapons more than 70 years ago.

During outbreaks, his skin falls off in flakes that pile up on the floor. For years, he carried around a jar full of the flakes to try to convince people of what he went through.

But while Edwards wanted people to know what happened to him, others — like Louis Bessho — didn’t like to talk about it.

His son, David Bessho, first learned about his father’s participation as a teenager. One evening, sitting in the living room, David Bessho asked his dad about an Army commendation hanging on the wall. David Bessho, who’s now retired from the Army, says the award stood out from several others displayed beside it.

“Generally, they’re just kind of generic about doing a good job,” he says. “But this one was a bit unusual.”

The commendation, presented by the Office of the Army’s Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, says: “These men participated beyond the call of duty by subjecting themselves to pain, discomfort, and possible permanent injury for the advancement of research in protection of our armed forces.”

Attached was a long list of names. Where Louis Bessho’s name appears on Page 10, the list begins to take on a curious similarity. Names like Tanamachi, Kawasaki, Higashi, Sasaki. More than three dozen Japanese-American names in a row.

“They were interested in seeing if chemical weapons would have the same effect on Japanese as they did on white people,” Bessho says his father told him that evening. “I guess they were contemplating having to use them on the Japanese.”

(Left) A portrait of Louis Bessho from 1969. (Right) Military orders from April 1944 for Japanese-American soldiers, including Bessho, who were part of the military's mustard gas testing at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.

(Left) A portrait of Louis Bessho from 1969. (Right) Military orders from April 1944 for Japanese-American soldiers, including Bessho, who were part of the military’s mustard gas testing at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.

Documents that were released by the Department of Defense in the 1990s show the military developed at least one secret plan to use mustard gas offensively against the Japanese. The plan, which was approved by the Army’s highest chemical warfare officer, could have “easily kill[ed] 5 million people.”

Japanese-American, African-American and Puerto Rican troops were confined to segregated units during World War II. They were considered less capable than their white counterparts, and most were assigned jobs accordingly, such as cooking and driving dump trucks.

Susan Matsumoto says her husband, Tom, who died in 2004 of pneumonia, told his wife that he was OK with the testing because he felt it would help “prove he was a good United States citizen.”

Matsumoto remembers FBI agents coming to her family’s home during the war, forcing them to burn their Japanese books and music to prove their loyalty to the U.S. Later, they were sent to live at an internment camp in Arkansas.

Matsumoto says her husband faced similar scrutiny in the military, but despite that, he was a proud American.

“He always loved his country,” Matsumoto says. “He said, ‘Where else can you find this kind of place where you have all this freedom?’ ”


NPR Investigations Research Librarian Barbara Van Woerkom contributed reporting and research to this investigation. NPR Photo Editor Ariel Zambelich and reporters Jani Actman and Lydia Emmanouilidou also contributed to this story.

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