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Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

“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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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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A Rebellious Act: The Founding of Charleston’s African Church


Emanuel AME Church

Emanuel AME Church. (Photo: wenzday01 flickr CC)

Last week, Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an act of white supremacist terror, once again introducing violence into a church with deep roots in the history of Charleston. Founded in 1818 as the first A.M.E. Church in the South and one of the largest black Methodist congregations in the country at the time, the church served as a symbol of black resistance to white supremacy from the moment of its founding. As such, it almost immediately drew the ire of white Charleston. As many have observed, the church’s revolutionary potential was realized in 1822, when it became implicated in the insurrection scheme planned by a free black man named Denmark Vesey. The very founding and existence of the church, however, was in itself a revolutionary and rebellious act.

Richard Allen founded America’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1816. Two years later, after disputes with the city’s Methodist church over the use of church funds and of its burial ground, black Charlestonians sought to form their own independent black church. In 1818, after being ordained in Philadelphia, a free black man named Morris Brown founded Charleston’s “African Church,” – it wasn’t until after the Civil War that it became known as Emanuel A.M.E. – which was affiliated with the A.M.E. Church. Over 4,000 black Charlestonians subsequently joined, making the African Church not only the oldest independent black congregation south of Maryland, but also the largest A.M.E. Church outside of Philadelphia. During the slave trade era, 2 of every 5 enslaved people imported into the United States came through the port of Charleston, and at the time of the African Church’s founding enslaved people constituted 70% of Charleston County’s population. In a city and region so deeply invested in the slave system, defying white authority and establishing an independent black church was a revolutionary act.

The African Church was a unique institution in black Charleston because of its ability to bring together people of African descent from different backgrounds. Charleston’s black community was often divided along class, color, and status lines – free people of color tried to distance themselves from slavery, people of mixed racial ancestry tried to derive advantage from their lighter complexions, and skilled artisans and business owners strove to increase social distance between themselves and unskilled free and enslaved laborers. The African Church’s congregation blurred the lines dividing black Charlestonians, fostering a sense of common, racial identity that may not have existed elsewhere in the city.

White authorities feared the church’s revolutionary potential, and almost immediately began enacting measures to counteract it. From the moment of its founding, the African Church dealt with regular and persistent harassment from whites and from Charleston authorities. Charleston’s city guard arrested 140 members and ministers in June 1818, including founder Morris Brown, for violating the states prohibition on educating slaves. Each of the ministers arrested were encouraged to leave the state, but also offered the opportunity to pay fines or face imprisonment. Morris Brown chose prison and remained in Charleston.

Two years later in 1820, a group of prominent white Charlestonians petitioned the state legislature to express their continued concern about the presence of an independent black church in the city. The petitioners called the legislature’s attention to the “evils” they felt the African Church represented. These men pointed to the “spacious building that has lately been erected in the immediate neighborhood of Charleston for the exclusive ownership of negroes and colored people, from means supplied to them by abolition societies.” The gathering of an all black congregation was a self-evident evil, one made all the more concerning by the congregants’ alleged affiliation with northern abolitionists. Whites feared the possibilities of free and enslaved blacks meeting together outside the supervision and control of whites. Not only did these petitioners want to prevent this black congregation from meeting, they sought specifically to prohibit “free negroes and colored people” from visiting “the eastern states for ordination and other religious pretences and again returning.” White Charlestonians felt they actively needed to prevent the independent worship of free and enslaved blacks.

In 1822, whites’ worst fears about the insurrectionary possibility of the African Church came to fruition in the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, a plot that deeply implicated the African Church. Many of the accused leaders of the conspiracy played active roles in the church, with some, like Vesey, serving as class leaders. The authors of the published Official Report of the plot condemned the African Church in no uncertain terms, placing blame squarely on the church for fostering an environment in which the seed of such an insurrection could grow. They decried its “inflammatory and insurrectionary doctrines” and accused the church of instilling “perverted religion and fanaticism” in its congregants. Many of the slave witnesses implicated the African Church as well, though certainly under pressure (if not torture) from their white interrogators, whose views towards the church were well known. An enslaved man named William Paul, in his testimony against one of the conspirators, claimed to have been told that “all those belonging to the African Church are engaged in the insurrection.”

Another published account of the proceedings that followed the Vesey plot’s discovery argued that “religious fanaticism has not been without its effect on this project,” and that “the secession of a large body of blacks from the white Methodist church, with feelings of irritation and disappointment, formed a hot bed” which gave “life and vigor” to insurrectionary ideas. It continued, noting “Among the conspirators, a majority of them belonged to the African Church and among those executed were several who had been class leaders.” In the immediate aftermath of the conspiracy, Charleston authorities directly tied the insurrectionary activity to the African Church. By all accounts, the Vesey conspiracy would not have been possible without the independent space and inspiration the African Church provided.

Denmark Vesey also allegedly used his knowledge of the Bible to denounce the slave system and recruit other slaves and free people of color to his insurrectionary plot. The Official Report accused Vesey of having “rendered himself familiar with all those parts of the scriptures, which he thought he could pervert to his purpose; and would readily quote them to prove that slavery was contrary to the laws of God.” Benjamin Ford, a white Charleston resident aged 15 or 16, told the court that when Vesey came into his family’s shop, he would readily discuss the hardships faced by blacks. Further, Ford claimed, “his general conversation was about religion which he would apply to slavery,” and “all his religious remarks were mingled with slavery.” Vesey, an active member of the African Church with experience with and exposure to the political and ideological currents of the Atlantic World, espoused radical religious views and was, according to the witnesses who cooperated with white authorities, unafraid to share them with any who would listen.

Deeply implicated in the Denmark Vesey insurrection conspiracy, the African Church was burned by whites when its role in the affair became clear. Though congregants attempted to re-establish the church, the state would soon reaffirm its commitment to outlawing black churches and schools. Black congregants continued to meet, often in secret, through the rest of the antebellum era. As in many other southern communities, the church was one of the first things to be re-established in the wake of the Civil War and emancipation.

Though the veracity of the details of the Vesey conspiracy remain contested, they reveal how the African Church specifically, and religion more broadly, figured significantly in the 1822 insurrection plot and in the lives of black Charlestonians. Many of the accused conspirators played active roles in the church. Beyond that, the African Church could have facilitated the planning of the conspiracy and fostered a sense of racial solidarity by bringing together members of Charleston’s black community across class, color, and status lines. The church may have even instilled in some black Charlestonians, both free and enslaved, a sense of religious duty to revolt against the slave system. At the most basic level, free and enslaved blacks leaving a white-controlled congregation in 1818 to form an independent black church in the heart of the South Carolina lowcountry and the slave South represented an inherently rebellious act. From the moment of its founding, Charleston’s African Church was a site of protest, rebellion, and revolutionary possibility. It was perhaps this status as a site of black independence and rebellion that made Emanuel A.M.E. a target.

The murder of 9 people there continues a long history of white violence.

A version of this article originally appeared on Marksism.

About the Author

John Marks

John Marks is a doctoral candidate in history at Rice University interested in race, slavery, and identity in the Atlantic World. His dissertation examines racial identity among free people of color in Charleston, South Carolina and Cartagena de Indias during the Age of Revolutions.

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Reconstructing the American Tradition of Domestic Terrorism


African American men, women, and children outside of church

African American men, women, and children outside of church, 1899. Compiled by W.E.B. Du Bois (Photo: Library of Congress)

Yesterday’s horrific murder of nine people worshipping at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church replayed a central theme in American history. It is the question, fought for centuries with both words and weapons: to whom does this country belong?

The alleged gunman, twenty-one year old white man Dylann Roof, killed six women and three men, including pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator. A witness to the shooting reported that the killer said: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

That a white terrorist murdered an African American politician and African American bystanders in a black church, using language straight out of Reconstruction, is not an accident. It reflects the vital intersection of American politics, race, and religion since 1866.

In the wake of the Civil War, white southern Democrats initially refused to face the reality that they would have to share any sort of economic, political, or social power with their former slaves. With the encouragement of President Andrew Johnson, who had taken over from the slain President Lincoln during Congress’s long summer recess, white legislatures in the South ratified the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, but then promptly set about recreating the conditions of servitude. In most states, black people could not congregate, had to sign year long work contracts, and could be arrested on charges of “vagrancy,” fined, and then bound to whoever paid their fine. Nowhere could a black person testify in court against a white person, so nowhere could a black American claim the protection of the law against theft, rape, or murder.

When Congress reconvened in December 1865, congressmen refused to return their black wartime allies to quasi-slavery under the very men who had spent four years trying to destroy the Union. They put forward the Fourteenth Amendment to give black men a civic identity that would give them legal rights as a condition for the readmission of the southern states to the Union. When southern whites retorted that they would rather remain under military rule than submit to black equality, northern congressmen passed the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, which called for new southern state constitutional conventions to rewrite state constitutions providing for black civic rights before the states could be readmitted to the Union. Crucially, the Military Reconstruction Act permitted African American men to vote.

White southern Democrats recoiled at the idea of sharing political rights with black men. But African Americans and white southern Republicans, who had supported the Union during the war, recognized the power of their position. Republicans across the South began to organize black voters. One of their most common venues for political organization was among the very powerful black churches, especially the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and many of the early leading black politicians were clergymen.

At first, white Democrats stood against the political awakening of southern African Americans by simply refusing to enroll voters. This prompted Congress to put the military in charge of voter registration. When both white and black Republicans registered to vote and elected moderate constitutional conventions, white Democrats organized a new force to stop their political opponents from taking over their states: the Ku Klux Klan. Before the 1868 elections, members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered at least a thousand African Americans and their white allies. In South Carolina, they killed African American clergyman and state legislator B. F. Randolph at a train depot in broad daylight.

Congress stood against Klan terrorism with an 1871 law making their political intimidation a federal offense, a distinction that enabled President Grant to stop the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan by imposing martial law in parts of the South and by having federal courts, rather than local courts, try offenders. For the next twenty years, white southerners controlled black political voices by finding ways either to work with black voters or to silence them. This was imperative, they insisted, for black voters were only interested in social welfare legislation that would cost tax dollars and thus “corrupt” the American government.

In 1889, the threat of a new Republican administration to mount a federal defense of black voting brought a new construction to the idea of the corruption of government. A new generation of white Democrats worried far less about political than about social issues. They insisted that black men must not vote because if they voted, they would take local political offices. This would give them patronage power, for in the nineteenth century, local positions depended on the goodwill of local politicians. Black men would, for example, become school principals. There, they would use their power to hire teachers to force young innocent white girls to have sex with them in exchange for jobs. This political exchange very quickly turned to the idea that black political power meant widespread rape. By the early twentieth century, lynching black men was almost a civic duty for white citizens: only by purging the government of black voices could the nation be made safe.

When Roof said: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,” he was echoing the fear of black political power laid down in the aftermath of the Civil War, when white American men had to face the reality that this nation is, in fact, made up of far more women and people of color than it is of white men. That fact inspired terror – and terrorism – among white men in the late nineteenth century. It did so again after 1954, when Brown v. Board warned white Americans that they would again have to share their country with African Americans. Then, as in the late nineteenth century, white Americans turned to terrorism against black political voices as, for example, when four Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and murdered four little girls.

Yesterday, it seems, our history echoed again.

About the Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Historian. Author. Professor. Budding Curmudgeon. Heather Cox Richardson studies the contrast between image and reality in America, especially in politics.

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Getting Right with Brown

Brown vs Board team

Brown v. Board team.(Photo: NAACP Legal Defense

For over sixty years, no matter where you stand on the constitutional spectrum, you have had to get right with Brown v. Board of Education. Decided sixty-one years ago this coming May 17, Brown is one of the best-known decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, one of the Court’s most beloved – or at least well-regarded – decisions, and a key juncture in the development of American constitutional law.

There are several reasons why Brown should matter that much.

First, Brown was a watershed decision by the Supreme Court, putting an end, at least on paper, to nearly sixty years of “separate but equal” as a constitutional rule governing access to public facilities and accommodations. Ever since the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, in which the Court established the “separate but equal” rule as a guide to interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, a central goal of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (usually called the “Inc Fund”) was to end “separate but equal.” For years, Thurgood Marshall led the Inc Fund in combating “separate but equal” by applying legal ju-jitsu to the rule: if facilities were not equal, they could not be separate. If they were unequal and the state insisted on separation, the state had to create a whole new facility equal to the segregated facility for African-Americans to use. Thus, in a lawsuit requiring the University of Oklahoma to integrate its law school, the Court held that a roped-off desk in the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s library was not an equal law school for the African-American who had been admitted to the University of Oklahoma’s law school. Either the state had to create a new law school matching the existing one lecture-hall for lecture-hall, library for library, moot-court society for moot-court society, brick for brick, or it had to integrate its existing law school and admit the black student. Thurgood Marshall had tired of this incremental game, realizing that segregationists would apply legal ingenuity to create new ways of segregating so that the Inc Fund would have to fight each one, step by step. Thus, Marshall concluded, it was time to “go for the whole hog” and mount a head-on attack on segregation as inherently unequal.

Second, Brown was a triumph for public-interest lawyering. Marshall and his colleagues at the Inc Fund had won, at least on paper, an epochal victory for equality before the law. It would encourage lawyers taking on many other kinds of cases – for women’s equality, for equality of gays and lesbians, to name just two categories – and to use American constitutional law as an instrument of reform. In particular, when political processes were unresponsive to the growing demand for embracing racial equality, lawsuits seeking judicial action would prove to be an effective and versatile tool of forcing social change.

Third, Brown was a test of the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. It opened the door for a generation of litigation and appeals focusing on defining what the commands of the original Brown decision meant and should mean.Brown launched an era of judicial intervention in school governance, in public accommodations, and in other areas of law. The courts would superintend the ways that an entire society treated the black and white races. No longer could discrimination continue in schools or in other forms of public accommodations, without having to meet the scrutiny of courts and judges using the equal-protection clause as a yardstick.

Fourth, Brown was a test of the Constitution itself, and of ways to interpret it. The debate sparked by Brown (and the line of cases following and developing its holdings) focused on the Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment and its history. The Court had decided that the passing of time and the evolution of values might render a rule of constitutional interpretation no longer valid. Scholars debated whether the Court had overreached in deciding Brown as it had. Some emphasized the need for “neutral principles” of constitutional law as the only sound basis for sweeping constitutional change via courts – and disputed whether Brown was based on such principles. Some emphasized the need for judicial prudence and self-restraint in exercising judicial review – and disputed whether Brown had been consistent with or in gross violation of such judicial prudence and self-restraint. Some insisted that the Court had to be bound by the original intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, while others argued that an originalist methodology of constitutional interpretation needlessly froze the Constitution as of 1868. Many disputes still roiling the waters of American constitutional jurisprudence can trace their roots to the dispute over Brown.

At the same time, a fifth significance of Brown is that the decision found surprisingly swift acceptance by many Americans as just, symbolizing the Court’s role in American life as distilled by the inscription over the front door of the Supreme Court Building: EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW. The decision signaled a major shift in public opinion about how the nation ought to treat African-Americans and a major public reconceptualization of the Court itself, one that to some degree is still with us. One source of the anger that many Americans feel against the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on gun rights and campaign finance is the disparity that they see between such decisions and what the Court achieved in Brown.

On May 17, 1954, the announcement of the Court’s unanimous decision of Brown v. Board of Education set off a constitutional earthquake that shook all of American society and law. That earthquake still reverberates among us, as it enters its seventh decade – and we all should remember it.

About the Author

R. B. Bernstein

R. B. Bernstein teaches at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School and New York Law School; his books includeThomas Jefferson (2003), The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (2009), the forthcoming The Education of John Adams, and the forthcoming The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction, all from Oxford University Press.

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The Historical Roots of Fraternity Racism

HNN   March 10, 2015

The response of the University of Oklahoma to the tape of its campus Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) members cheerfully singing a vile racist chant has been one of shock and outrage. This has been reflected in public rallies on campus condemning the ugly racism on that tape and in the swift and decisive action by the university president David Boren in denouncing and closing down the offending fraternity. But while my initial reaction too was outrage at this racist display, as a historian who has researched segregationist student activism in the 1950s and 1960s South, my next thought was of how eerily familiar the fraternity behavior on that tape seemed to be.

The tape shows cheerful, white, well dressed frat boys repeatedly singing “You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a nigger SAE.” What astonished me was how reminiscent this chant by Oklahoma fraternity members in 2015 was of the chant of segregationist fraternity members at the University of Georgia in January 1961. Though separated by more than a half century in both cases a lynching reference was combined with the chanting of a pledge to keep the segregationist fraternity tradition in tact.

The only difference between the racist chants in 2015 and 1961 that I can discern is that the fraternities today seem more inclined to do their chanting in private. At Oklahoma this semester the chant came in what started out as a private fraternity setting (a bus apparently transporting fraternity members from some fraternity-related event). The privacy was, of course, violated by the leaking of the tape of the chant, but clearly the chant was not designed for public consumption. The Georgia chant, on the other hand, was made in public, at a segregationist rally at the campus historic archway entrance in January 1961 at the height of the university’s integration crisis. Some 150-200 Georgia students had just hung a black faced effigy of Hamilton Holmes, who along with Charlayne Hunter, had in January 1961 become the first African American student to attend the historically segregated University of Georgia. The white students first “serenaded the effigy with choruses of Dixie and then sang “There’ll never be a nigger in the ________ fraternity house,” whose various names they inserted. Clearly, UGA students in 1961, operating in a historically segregated university and a segregated college town (Athens, Georgia) did not feel the pressure their 21st century fraternity counterparts do – at racially integrated campuses – to keep their racist displays to themselves. But if the venue was different the racist sentiment and mode of expression were virtually identical.

The coupling of lynching metaphors with the chanting of a segregationist pledge “never” to integrate is not accidental. Lynching symbolizes black powerlessness, while white pledges to sustain segregation permanently evoke the power and endurance of white supremacy. The implication seems to be that even if the university integrates the fraternity will remain an outpost of white supremacy and racial exclusion.

The similarity between the racist fraternity chants in these two centuries raises questions about fraternity history and culture that should be of as much interest to university presidents as to historians. It suggests that the responsibility for the ugly racist chant at the Oklahoma SAE rests not merely with the individuals who sang on that bus but the larger fraternity culture. How ,we ought to ask, is it possible that these racist chants have endured for generations? Who is it that preserves such racist traditions and transmits them to each new college generation? This seems a clear case of cultural preservation, transmission, and reproduction. And it is all the more striking because this hoary racist tradition attracts adherents and admirers well into our century when modern science and social science have long since refuted white supremacist assumptions. Finally, we need to ask why even on racially integrated campuses, such as Oklahoma, fraternities remain so racially exclusive that such vintage segregationist chants can be sung so shamelessly. The historical roots of this racist fraternity tradition and the political, cultural and demographic props that sustain it must be understood and confronted honestly if the ghost of Jim Crow is ever to be banished from frat row.

Robert Cohen is a professor of Social Studies and History at New York University, co-editor with David J. Snyder of “Rebellion in Black and White: Southern Student Activism in the 1960s” and editor of “The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings That Changed America.”

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The Historical Roots of the Ebola Scare in the United States

HNN October 24, 2014

For many weeks, on television, in newspapers and magazines, and especially on the Internet, there has been a steady drumbeat of fear, panic, paranoia, misinformation, and ignorance about an Ebola “outbreak” in the United States. Perhaps most regrettable, has been the effort to politicize the illness and blame the “outbreak” on President Obama. Some have gleefully called the virus “Obola;” others have even charged that the administration deliberately introduced this African disease as a covert form of slavery reparations to punish white America for the crime of slavery. There have also been much more serious allegations that the government is covering up the frightening truth that Ebola is transmitted through the air as well as through contact with a patient’s bodily fluids; this view has been espoused by Senator Rand Paul, who told college students that “This thing is incredibly contagious” and the Obama administration “has downplayed how transmissible it is,” and echoed by political analyst George Will, who warned ominously against believing the medical and scientific experts. New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown insists that an Ebola epidemic is coming, carried by arrivals from Africa and even by illegal immigrants with ties to ISIS crossing the Mexican border. It is common sense, he contends, for the public to reject the views of so-called experts.

Of course, there is no Ebola “outbreak” in the United States. Thus far three people have been diagnosed with Ebola in Texas and one in New York. There has been just one fatality, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national visiting his family in Dallas. The two nurses who came into direct contact with his bodily fluids have recovered. The lax medical protocols in Dallas that contributed to the illness of the two nurses have already been tightened so that the New York case is very unlikely to lead to additional infections.

Meanwhile, during the same period, some seven hundred American children and adolescents in 45 states and D.C. have been diagnosed with the Enterovirus, and at least two have died. That virus is easily transmitted, much like the common cold or the flu. It seems, according to the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, “When people are anxious about a threat like Ebola, it doesn’t necessarily matter if they look at numbers, facts and probabilities. Because of the way our brains work, something rare and exotic is much scarier than something that’s familiar.”

Is it just “the way our brains work” or is something else at work here that has deep roots in the American past? Duncan’s family, with whom he stayed for several days after becoming ill, has now gone through the 21-day quarantine period. None contracted Ebola. But, an online news site immediately questioned whether the incubation period may really be longer than 21 days, and another proclaimed that Duncan’s family would still be burdened with the stigma of having been exposed to Ebola—a claim notably absent in the cases of the three white American doctors who contracted the disease in Africa but were successfully treated after returning to the United States.

Anyone familiar with America’s racial past will detect some disturbing parallels in these irrational if not hysterical fears: bringing to mind, for example, the 17th century conviction that blackness was a physical and moral curse that consigned Africans to the status of diseased outcasts who must remain permanently under white control; the 19th century defense of slavery as a “positive good” for blacks and whites alike; the popular early 20th century “scientific” literature which proclaimed “The Negro, A Beast;” and the defense of segregation as the last hope for preserving a pure and separate white America.

The response to the thus far much more serious Enterovirus has generally been muted and reasonable. But, what if that virus, rather than Ebola, had been brought to the United States from Africa? Would it now be politically exploited as the Onterovirus and linked to fears of a conspiracy at the highest levels of the government? If one looks at the photos of Thomas Eric Duncan’s family in Texas, what you see is a group of poor, scared, and isolated people who are learning that the stigma associated with Ebola is, at least for them, irreversible, in part because it is embedded in attitudes long associated with blackness itself in our nation’s history.

Sheldon M. Stern is the author of numerous articles and Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), and The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970 and was historian at the JFK Library in Boston from 1977 to 2000. 

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