Oh, the Irony!

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Editorial in the African American newspaper The Broad Ax, 1904

Here’s a fascinating editorial from a black newspaper in Chicago complaining that black people always vote Republican:

It is inconceivable to us how the Negro can work himself up to the point where he is willing to trifle with his soul’s salvation, for he is willing to forfeit his chances of arriving within the pearly gates of heaven (if there is such a place, which we doubt), by affiliating with all the wildcat churches in existence. He will become a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Mormon, Christian Scientist, Dowieite, and freely follow the religious leaders of all other denominations, and hazard his chances of striking the straight and narrow path, which is supposed to lead to paradise, for it is expressly stated that there is only one true church, that all who fail to march under its banner are eternally lost. With this terrible warning or admonition hanging over his head he is perfectly willing to traverse various roads in order to find a resting place with his imaginary gods throughout eternity.

All this is readily changed with the Negro when it comes down to politics, which only deal with the temporal affairs of men and not with their spiritual welfare, and by permitting the wily and demagogic leaders of the Republican party to mix up his religion and his politics together for him; he has naturally arrived at that mental condition which forces him to believe that he must continue to blindly vote for the party of Abraham Lincoln, regardless of the fact that men and political measures have changed within the past forty years…

As it is he can never regain any of his political power or prestige until he refrains from permitting any one to tell how he is going to vote simply on account of the color of his skin. The members of no other race in America claiming to be civilized, would permit themselves to pursue such a ruinous course of policy.  The members of all other races and nationalities look upon politics as a cold business proposition, and the vast majority of them cast their ballots for the men who will best serve their interests, regardless of their politics, and enable them to enrich their pockets. While on the other hand the Negro continues to live in the dead past, and is ever ready to continue to vote for dead ideas or sentiments. His mental disease in this regard is his greatest curse. He is tolerant or friendly disposed to any other Negro who may happen to differ with him along religious lines, but he places his Republican politics ahead of his Lord and his religion, for with a few honorable exceptions he is willing to tear to pieces every Negro who assumes an air of political independence, that is one who fails to blindly vote and act like himself.

The ironies. The resonances. The questions. Primary sources have a way of surprising us, provoking new questions, giving us a window into a world that we might have thought we knew, but is actually quite unfamiliar and surprising.

Among the surprises here: the mocking attitude toward religion, and the intensity of anti-Republican feeling at this early date. To specialists this probably isn’t surprising, but it is to me. In any case, someone needed to tell the editorialist that political allegiances are sticky and African Americans didn’t really have better options at the time. Sound familiar?

The Moral Stakes of Contingency

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North Carolina Congressman George H. White, elected during the Republican-populist alliance of the 1890s.

Historians are almost allergic to the word inevitable. We talk about contingency, about the what ifs, about the choices people make and how they matter. As we look at the past and see how complex and interconnected everything is, we ponder how history-making events might have turned out very differently but for seeming coincidences, unpredicted variables and—the greatest variable of all—human behavior that defies expectations.

Last week students in my U.S. survey class read an astonishing document from Frederick Douglass. In 1869, Douglass bluntly defended a vision of American society built on diversity and universal equality. At a time when most Americans saw diversity as a problem to be solved, Douglass declared there was nothing wrong with diversity that equal rights wouldn’t solve. In many ways, the document feels incredibly contemporary. Students were naturally sympathetic to it, in contrast to the other materials we read promoting human inequality.

But their sympathy only got them so far. When asked if Douglass’s vision was actually possible to implement in the 1860s and 1870s, the students said it was not possible. The implication—though they didn’t say it in so many words—is that the revival of white supremacy after the civil war and reconstruction was inevitable.

Today, I presented a lecture designed to challenge the assumption of inevitability. Though the end of reconstruction is traditionally dated to 1877, we talked about key moments in the struggle for interracial democracy in the twenty years after the final withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

I emphasized that much of what we imagine would be required to implement Douglass’s vision was actually put in place during his lifetime. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 did much of what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would later do, only to be struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883. The Lodge Force Bill of 1890 would have established federal oversight of elections not so different from the system later created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After passing the House it fell to a Senate filibuster.

For decades after the withdrawal of federal occupation, black southerners continued to vote in large numbers and wield political power. In fact, they forged interracial coalitions with white populists and, in the case of North Carolina, took over the entire state government. After winning big in the election of 1894, the fusion party promptly enacted a reform agenda to relieve poor farmers, invest in public education, and expand access to the voting booth. So popular was this agenda that in the election of 1896 the interracial alliance actually extended its gains. Democrats were almost completely wiped out of the state house and senate.

White supremacists won the election of 1898 not with better or more popular ideas but with more violence. Amid a campaign of relentless demagoguery encouraging poor whites to think about their racial status rather than their class interests, Democrats used violence and intimidation to keep people from the voting booth. In Wilmington, having failed to win the local elections even with such tactics, white militias simply attacked and overthrew the government by force.

Faced with interracial political alliances between poor whites and poor blacks, white elites in the South made the writing of new constitutions a major priority. These constitutions drastically restricted the right to vote using poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. Provisions that were colorblind on their face, they were designed to completely eliminate black voting. They also disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of poor whites.

It took white southern elites the better part of four decades to establish a new system of white supremacy on the ashes of the old. In that time of flux, the forces of democracy might have won. What if the federal government had ensured free elections? What if the Lodge Bill had passed? In the end, after much struggle and violence, the terrorists won. But they almost didn’t.

Having placed the new system of segregation on solid legal and electoral ground, white supremacists in the South promptly began to spin myths about it. Suddenly this new system was not new at all, but a natural state of relations between white and black, a tradition, an inevitability. Tell that to the 1,000 black government officials in 1890s North Carolina.

In the Jim Crow south, inevitability was the ideology of the oppressor and the complacent. Contingency was the resistor’s hope.

This was why it was important for Martin Luther King to write from a jail cell in Birmingham in 1963 that progress was not inevitable, that time would not heal wounds. Civil rights for all was not an idea whose time had finally come. It was an old idea—known and tried and fought for generations before—and now the civil rights movement was trying to rebuild what had been so tragically lost.

Maybe if enough people were willing to make themselves, in King’s words, “coworkers with God,” the passage of time would indeed bring progress. But maybe, had the dice landed slightly differently a century before, had a few more people been willing to act, Dr. King wouldn’t have been in Birmingham at all.

Suggestions for the Next Monument to a Black Philadelphian

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A crowd celebrates the unveiling of the new Octavius Catto statue outside City Hall. September 26, 2017. Photo by Helen Armstrong.

Here’s how out of the loop I am. I was shocked to learn that Philadelphia’s new statue to 19th century African American civil rights leader Octavius Catto is the first monument to an African American on public land in Philadelphia. To put that in perspective, there are hundreds of statues on public land.

I honestly didn’t know who Octavius Catto was. I’m glad he’s getting some well-deserved recognition. For background, listen to today’s Radio Times.

So this got me thinking. Who should be memorialized next? Off the top of my head, here are some worthy figures who were either native Philadelphians or had a significant Philly connection:

Absolom Jones

Richard Allen

William Still

Harriet Tubman

Cecil B. Moore

I’m sure there are many, many others. Who would you nominate?

If I wasn’t a historian who thinks even nasty stuff should be preserved (in museums) I’d say maybe we could melt down the Rizzo statue and recast it in the form of one of these more appropriate figures.

Rediscovering the History of African American Evangelicals

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For too long, the historiography of evangelicalism has reproduced the racial assumptions of its white subjects rather than challenging them. Black evangelicals have been written out of the story and whiteness has been treated as incidental rather than formative to fundamentalism and evangelicalism. That’s why Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’ new book is so important.

Matthews shows that while white fundamentalists largely ignored African Americans, black Christians did not ignore white fundamentalists. Though they shared many of the social mores and theological claims of white fundamentalists, African Americans were unwilling (and unable) to join the racially exclusive white fundamentalist movement. So they created an evangelicalism of their own in the 1920s and 1930s.

Black evangelicals were keen observers of the fundamentalist-modernist debate. According to Matthews, they saw both modernism and fundamentalism as white phenomenons from which they stood apart. White fundamentalism presented American Protestants with a stark choice: “Are you with us or against us?” Black evangelicals heard the question and replied, “neither.” They deplored fundamentalism’s embrace of injustice, but they also decried the higher biblical criticism of the modernists. They forged a faith that was generally theologically and socially conservative, but progressive in its concern for social justice.

By simply shining a light on the voices of black evangelicals, Matthews has complicated the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. The racial and racist character of the white fundamentalist movement becomes immediately obvious when we turn our attention to the people excluded from it. Yet generations of historians treated this as a minor feature of the movement. Take one example: how many historians have written that copies of The Fundamentals were mailed to every Protestant minister in the country? As Matthews shows, there is no good evidence that they were ever mailed to black pastors.

White fundamentalists usually ignored black Christians, except when they wanted to hear them sing, or when they wanted to portray themselves as guardians and spiritual superiors to childlike believers. Had white fundamentalists bothered to listen, they could have learned some valuable lessons. For instance: black evangelicals generally didn’t buy into a full-fledged dispensational premillenialism. Instead, they used eschatological language to dramatize the suffering of African Americans. In other words, black Christians were living through present catastrophe from which Christ would deliver them. Speculating about an end-of-the-world apocalypse was less urgent to people who were living an end of world experience already.

Matthews also draws attention to a fascinating feature of black evangelical rhetoric that  I need to think much more about. While white fundamentalists embraced white supremacy, black evangelicals sometimes used colorblind language to imagine the millennium and to attack segregationist theology. In their context, such language was a threat to the social order. But by the time the descendants of the white fundamentalists took up similar language decades later, it had become the language of the status quo. In the space of a few decades, colorblind Christianity shifted from a spur for reform to a tool of reaction. At least, that’s my early read on it. But I need to think more about this.

Doctrine and Race is flawed but important. One could wish for more context and analysis around the black evangelical voices Matthews has unearthed. Yet simply bringing them to the surface is a significant achievement. Historians of evangelicalism can no longer ignore this important part of the story.

Readings for Juneteenth

Today is Juneteenth. Here’s a roundup of good stuff to read. First, what is Juneteenth and why is it important? Jemar Tisby explains:

Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. It is recognized on June 19th every year. In Texas, where it is a state holiday, slaves learned of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the initial announcement…

Juneteenth matters because in the United States freedom  has always come with an asterisk. While the founding documents of the nation declare “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” not all people were free and not all people enjoyed their unalienable rights. White supremacy asserted its power through the institution of race-based chattel slavery. The legacy of this heinous practice continues into the present. America has still not fully gripped the devastation slavery caused for both the enslaved and the free.

Celebrating Juneteenth gives citizens the opportunity to remember the ways freedom has always been circumscribed for people of color and it serves as motivation to press for continual emancipation from all forms of slavery.

One way to celebrate Juneteenth is to make sure it becomes a day that all Americans commemorate. Sign the Color of Change petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday.”

Celebrating Juneteenth can be one piece of a broader effort to bury the Lost Cause and reclaim a more accurate history and life-giving memory. Westenley Alcenat explains:

Leon Trotsky once noted that “what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.” And yet, that is precisely what took place; the accomplishments of Reconstruction were in fact rewritten and its memory overthrown by white nationalists. Academic historians derided abolitionists, praised the Confederacy, and adorned their books with admiration for Confederate generals and slaveholders. For generations thereafter, the country buried the achievements of the pioneering abolitionists who also helped usher the women’s movement. Meanwhile, the African-American chronicle of slavery to freedom and citizenship was seen by many as a misbegotten adventure.

In place of slavery and Reconstruction, the so-called “Lost Cause” took precedence throughout the former Confederacy. In fact, today Tennessee has more monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and founder of the Klu Klux Klan, than to President Andrew Jackson, a native Tennessean…

To value African-American history is to validate a politics of knowledge and resistance. Black history, in particular, exposes the poverty of memory and the injustices of a past burdened by white identity politics — one that was predicated on epistemic violence. Like the architects of Confederate monuments, racist historians from the Dunning School used their pens as weapons for knowledge destruction. Hoping to redeem white supremacy, they deployed racial terrorism by omission. This violent erasure is a challenge for today’s historian: how to write the history of a paradox — American freedom as defined by slavery? How should historians reconcile the legacy of the American Revolution, which professed natural rights but overlooked women, and especially Black and Brown persons? For many decades before the Civil Rights Movement, many white academics as well as public historians refused to answer these questions.

But there were a number of countervailing Black voices that protested the silence. As historian Albert Raboteau explained, Black congregations “articulated a theology of history in which they lambasted American Christians for turning Christianity into a clan religion…[and] for worshipping Anglo-Saxonism.” That this criticism stems from the ranks of Black Christians is notable: no other people have been more abused by American history and yet insist more persistently on their rightful place in it…

At its core, the contribution of African-American history is to at once liberate and expand the national conscience, holding the nation to the litmus test of what it professes to value. The story of the strivings of Black souls ensures that America does not forget the nightmares that tormented Martin Luther King’s Dream. Indeed, this task is more urgent today as we are confronted by the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts of Native Americans for self-determination.”

Read the whole thing.

Many Americans still have no idea what Juneteenth is about. Ben Baxter takes a look at Alabama’s state calendar and sees a problem:

For many of us, we have lived through June 19 or Juneteenth year after year without any hint of its significance in American history.

At its essence, Juneteenth is a day set to commemorate the abolition of slavery. But that detail is not widely known despite Alabama being a former slave state.

If we want to know why we have maintained this oblivion, we should look no further than the State of Alabama’s official state holiday calendar.

A quick glance will show that Juneteenth is not listed as an official state holiday. That wouldn’t be so bad if three other holidays weren’t given top billing as paid off days for state employees in 2017–Robert E. Lee Day (January 16), Confederate Memorial Day (April 24), Jefferson Davis Day (June 5). See a predicament there?”

That’s grotesque. We don’t remember well without the aid of holidays, special events, and physical spaces. We need to change our calendars and our built environment. Ed Hooper reports on the challenges of preserving a special civil war fort in Nashville as redevelopment threatens the site:

This space contains the remnants of the largest inland stone fort built during the American Civil War. Mayor Barry’s administration has instead chosen to award a developer the right to build condominiums and office spaces on a 21-acre section of it – a move that’s stunned preservationists and park supporters. The Civil War fort is unlike any other. It was constructed by black hands, staffed with some of the nation’s first black soldiers, and evolved from a campsite into a historic African-American community in the city.

Following the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson in 1862, Confederate forces retreated south evacuating Nashville to Union troops. Because of the access to railroads and rivers, Nashville quickly became the second most fortified city outside of Washington, DC. Then military governor Andrew Johnson ordered the city be fortified to defend against a Confederate counter-attack.

More than 2,700 free black tradesmen, newly-freed slaves, both men and women, were pressed into service to assist. The 12th U.S. Colored Troops Regiment that later organized in Nashville contained many of the laborers who built the fort. Union Engineer Capt. James Morton chose a rise southeast of Nashville for the largest structure. A “contraband” camp was established at the construction site to house laborers. The result four months later was a star-shaped limestone fort. The four-acre structure was named after Nashville Post Commander General James Negley. It didn’t come without cost. Historians estimate that between 600-800 died building it and were buried nearby.”

Let us remember. Happy Juneteenth!

Thoughts for Sunday

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A young James Baldwin

In the following excerpt from James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, Florence, suffering from a terminal illness, has entered her brother Gabriel’s storefront black Pentecostal church in Harlem. As Florence tries to pray, she vividly recalls her mother’s faith:

‘Dear Father’—it was her mother praying—‘we come before You on our knees this evening to ask You to watch over us and hold back the hand of the destroying angel. Lord, sprinkle the doorpost of this house with the blood of the Lamb to keep all the wicked men away, Lord, we praying for every mother’s son and daughter everywhere in the world but we want You to take special care of this girl here to-night, Lord, and don’t let no evil come nigh her. We know you’s able to do it, Lord, in Jesus’ name, Amen.’

This was the first prayer Florence heard, the only prayer she was ever to hear in which her mother demanded the protection of God more passionately for her daughter than she demanded it for her son. It was night, the windows were shut tightly with the shades drawn, and the great table was pushed against the door. The kerosene lamps burned low and made great shadows on the newspaper-covered wall. Her mother, dressed in the long, shapeless, colorless dress that she bore every day but Sunday, when she wore white, and with her head tied up in a scarlet cloth, knelt in the center of the room, her hands hanging loosely folded before her, her black face lifted, her eyes shut. The weak, unsteady light placed shadows under her mouth and in the sockets of her eyes, making the face impersonal with majesty, like the face of a prophetess, or like a mask. Silence filled the room after her ‘Amen,’ and in the silence they heard, far up the road, the sound of a horse’s hoofs. No one moved. Gabriel, from his corner near the stove, looked up and watched his mother.

‘I ain’t afraid,’ said Gabriel.

His mother turned, one hand raised. ‘You hush, now!’

Trouble had taken place in town today. Their neighbor Deborah, who was sixteen, three years older than Florence, had been taken away into the fields the night before by many white men, where they did things to her to make her cry and bleed. Today, Deborah’s father had gone to one of the white men’s house, and said that he would kill him and all the other white men he could find. They had beaten him and left him for dead. Now, everyone had shut their doors, praying and waiting, for it was said that the white folks would come tonight and set fire to all the houses, as they had done before.

In the night that pressed outside they heard only the horse’s hoofs, which did not stop; there was not the laughter they would have heard had there been many coming on this road, and no calling out of curses, and no one crying for mercy to white men, or to God. The hoofbeats came to the door and passed, and rang, while they listened, ever more faintly away. Then Florence realized how frightened she had been. She watched her mother rise and walk to the window. She peered out through a corner of the blanket that covered it.

‘They’s gone,’ she said, ‘whoever they was.’ Then: ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord,’ she said.

Thus had her mother lived and died; and she had often been brought lo, but she had never been forsaken. She had always seemed to Florence the oldest woman in the world, for she often spoke of Florence and Gabriel as the children of her old age, and she had been born, innumerable years ago, during slavery, on a plantation in another state. On this plantation she had grown up as one of the field-workers, for she was very tall and strong; and by and by she had married and raised children, all of whom had been taken from her, one by sickness and two by auction; and one, whom she had not been allowed to call her own, had been raised in the master’s house. When she was a woman grown, well past thirty as she reckoned it, with one husband buried—but the master had given her another—armies, plundering and burning, had come from the North to set them free. This was in answer to the prayers of the faithful, who had never ceased, both day and night, to cry out for deliverance.

For it had been the will of God that they should hear, and pass thereafter, one to another, the story of the Hebrew children who had been held in bondage in the land of Egypt; and how the Lord had heard their groaning, and how His heart was moved; and how He bid them wait but a little season till He should send deliverance. Florence’s mother had known this story, so it seemed, from the day she was born. And while she lived—rising in the morning before the sun came up, standing and bending in the fields when the sun was high, crossing the fields homeward when the sun went down at the gates of Heaven far away, hearing the whistle of the foreman and his eerie cry across the fields; in the whiteness of winter when hogs and turkeys and geese were slaughtered, and lights burned bright in the big house, and Bathsheba, the cook, sent over in a napkin bits of ham and chicken and cakes left over by the white folks—in all that befell: in her joys, her pipe in the evening, her man at night, the children she suckled, and guided on their first short steps; and in her tribulations, death, and parting, and the lash, she did not forget that deliverance was promised and would surely come. She had only to endure and trust in God. She knew that the big house, the house of pride where the white folks lived, would come down; it was written in the Word of God. They, who walked so proudly now, had not fashioned for themselves or their children so sure a foundation as was hers. They walked on the edge of a steep place and their eyes were sightless—God would cause them to rush down, as the herd of swine had once rushed down, into the sea. For all that they were so beautiful, and took their ease, she knew them, and she pitied them, who would have no covering in the great day of His wrath.

“I am tired of reading about them.”

Campus Life, an evangelical magazine for high school and college students, began publishing a few stories about African Americans in the late 1960s. This didn’t sit well with some readers. One gets the sense the editors got a kick out of publishing some of the more strident responses. From Birmingham, Alabama, Frank George wrote:

There is too much propaganda about Negroes. I am tired of reading about them.

Old letters to the editor are often fascinating. This one’s a classic. Sadie Caine, librarian of Perry Christian School in Marion, Alabama, was also annoyed. She wrote:

When Campus Life comes to the library of Perry Christian School, it is thrown into the wastebasket immediately. The high Christian standards of our school necessitate the elimination of all degrading reading materials. Please cancel our subscription.

One of the devil’s best tools in trying to spread atheistic Communism is through the infiltration of religious groups.

This, too, is classic. Someone should look into whether or not Perry Christian School was a segregation academy. A quick google search turns up that the school is still around, though it has a new name. It was founded in, wait for it…1965. The school’s description of its history is fascinating:

Knowing that only the truth of God’s Word can build Christian character to reform American society and family life, John and Bobbie Ames grieved over the loss of moral absolutes and methodologies, namely Biblical reasoning and old-fashioned logic. Being unwilling to sit back and do nothing, they took their children out of the Perry County School System and started their own little school in Marion, Alabama, in 1965.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it looks as though Perry County came under a court desegregation order in 1966. This was after a lot of other Alabama counties faced desegregation orders in 1963. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Ames saw the writing on the wall. As any good fundamentalist knew, the mixing of races was another one of atheistic communism’s nefarious plots.

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Take Action: Join the NAACP

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NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers

In the fall of 1954, tensions were rising in Mississippi. The Supreme Court had decided Brown v Board in May, and NAACP chapters around the state were preparing to bring school desegregation suits. Meanwhile, the first White Citizens’ Councils–determined to uphold segregation–had already formed and were on their way to spreading throughout the South.

In October, Byron De La Beckwith of Greenwood, Mississippi, wrote to Senator John Stennis urging him to stand strong against the forces of integration:

This is to let you know that I insist that you openly, clearly, and definitely fight and destroy all those persons in any way connected with integration. Segregation must be maintained at all cost & with any means we find most expedient. I pledge my life to maintain segregation. We must…destroy all those associated with integration.¹

Stennis lamely replied, “Dear Friend Beckwith, I certainly appreciate your letter in which you so forcefully expressed your views on segregation.” It was Stennis’s custom to indulge the violent fantasies of his white constituents with formulaic friendly replies, as he did on this occasion. In contrast, when the NAACP wrote to him, he studiously ignored their queries. In February of 1960 the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP asked Stennis to do something about the Citizens’ Councils:

We want to be free. We want the truth to be known about the Negro in Mississippi. All Negroes are entitled to equal justice, many of whom are afraid to voice their sentiments because of economic reprisals sinfully heaped upon them by their white employers. They are afraid to speak the convictions of their souls because of the hate virus spread by the White Citizens Council and similar organizations. May we impress upon you, Mr. Stennis that America cannot maintain its great heritage with its citizens half free and half slaves?²

As usual, Stennis did not respond to his black constituents. After all, he was busy supporting the Citizens’ Councils behind the scenes. He understood, correctly, that the NAACP was a mortal threat to the white supremacy he held dear.

Though the NAACP by the 1950s and 1960s already had a reputation as the cautious and stodgy old guard of the civil rights movement, it played a crucial role in the struggle. Everyone from white terrorists to U.S. senators correctly perceived that the NAACP was one of their most dangerous opponents.

And so, in the summer of 1963, Byron De La Beckwith would finally make good on his violent intentions. He assassinated NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in the driveway of his own home.

Today, long after other civil rights organizations have faded, the NAACP is still around. And it’s still doing vital work, especially through the legal defense fund. The NAACP is at the forefront of efforts to protect voting rights and resist the resegregation of schools. Joining the NAACP adds your money (a small amount!) and name to the national clout of the organization, but it’s also a way to organize locally, as you can connect with the chapter in your area.

On this shameful day, as a barbarous administration comes to power, let’s take action. Do something positive. Join the NAACP. It–and you–will be needed in the years ahead.


¹Byron De La Beckwith to John C. Stennis, October 25, 1954. Series 29 Box 1 Folder 38. John C. Stennis Collection, Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.

²Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP to John C. Stennis, February 18, 1960, Series 29 Box 7 Folder 16. John C. Stennis Collection, Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.

Notes from the Classroom: Are We A Nation of Immigrants?

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This semester I am teaching two sections of a class called Immigration and the American Dream. I didn’t make the title. Most of the students will be freshman and sophomores, and most of them will not be history majors. As I think about what I want this course to be, I’m grappling with the perceptions of immigration and history my students might have as they enter the classroom on the first day. To speak of Immigration and the American Dream is, I think, to conjure images of the Statue of Liberty, of poor huddled masses yearning to be free, of an exceptional nation made up of freedom-loving people from all over the world. It brings to mind a claim that is practically a part of our civic religion: America is a nation of immigrants.

In structuring the course, part of what I’m setting out to do is to help the students think critically about the “nation of immigrants” narrative. Some students may walk into the classroom with this narrative embedded in their thinking as a kind of common sense:

Of course the United States is a nation of immigrants.

I want to provoke students with the possibility that this simple phrase is not so much a statement of historical fact as it is an ideological claim deployed for specific purposes. Many immigrants have come to the United States; that’s true! But to speak of a nation of immigrants is to make a claim about what kind of country the United States is and what it means. It’s a claim about how the United States is different from, and better than, other countries.

Many historians are uncomfortable with immigration as the defining American story because of the obvious groups it appears to leave out: Native Americans and African Americans. Trying to shoehorn these groups into a nation of immigrants narrative is not an adequate solution.

The better approach might be two foreground the encounters and systems that provided the necessary foundation of mass immigration. To try to do that, I am planning to incorporate a significant amount of transnational history and settler colonial theory¹ in the course. Will it work? I don’t know! But it will be an interesting experiment.

A settler colonial framework takes the conquest of Native American lands not as a given, but as the essential and ongoing act of violence that enabled the American experiment. A settler colonial framing better enables us to see that the nation of immigrants was possible because–and only because–of violence and dispossession on an extraordinary scale. Invasion and conquest, enslavement and expropriation, preceded and accompanied migration.

Lorenzo Veracini has theorized a model in which settler colonial states tend to have a “triangular relationship” between settlers, indigenous groups, and “exogenous others.” While settler states often exclude these exogenous groups in various ways, they may also selectively include them over time, allowing them to become, in effect, “probationary settlers.” Precisely because they are imagined as having no prior claim to land, such groups can potentially be incorporated into the settler colonial polity.² For all the discrimination exogenous groups such as Irish and Italians faced, they were always potential settlers.

The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886. It was the beacon that would greet millions of Eastern European “probationary settlers” in the era of mass immigration at the turn of the century. That same year, the United States Army continued its campaign of conquest in the west, attacking Native Americans and seizing the land that some of those probationary settlers would one day occupy. Immigration was not only the familiar flight from European squalor to the shores of American opportunity. It was invasion; it was opportunity for some and dispossession for others.

As students encounter this framework, they can hopefully begin to understand that it is not the way to understand the history of American immigration, but a way to do so. In the process, the nation of immigrants story is not debunked, but is dislodged from its commonsense status. If I’m lucky, students might get a taste of looking at the same event with two sets of glasses, and have an “Aha!” moment as it dawns on them that both sets of glasses help them see something important about the world.

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¹See Patrick Wolfe’s 2001 article, “Land, Labor, and Difference: Elementary Structures of Race,” in the American Historical Review.

²Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).