In Observance of MLK Day

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

As usual, a date crept up on me.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a secular saint, admired by all Americans who don’t want their neighbors to think they’ve got a white hood in the closet. He deserves such treatment possibly more than any American political figure since Lincoln. The time when half the nation more or less wanted the man dead has largely gone down the memory hole, just like all the people who voted for Richard Nixon vanished after November of 1963 and again in the fall of 1974. We don’t care to remember these things about ourselves. Thus we rewrite our pasts to something more convenient, putting everyone into the hero’s shoes. Confederates become abolitionists, from Lee on down. Everybody marched with King, even if they continue running against him to this very day. Most white hoods live in minds rather than closets.

We find saints, as Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce had it, by revising and editing dead sinners. Like everybody, King had his flaws. Infamously, he had extramarital affairs. It usually comes up in deliberate attempts to derail discussion of substantive issues. This suits many people just fine, as they would prefer almost anything to having that discussion. I raised the issue here not to get it out of the way or to heap aspersions on a man I consider a genuine hero. We all have human flaws. Expecting perfection might sound idealistic of us, but more often it serves as an excuse for self-defeating cynicism or, worse still, indifference or outright opposition to attempts to ameliorate persistent injustices.

But King’s affairs do run together with his activism in one way. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which earned its bones suppressing black social justice movements, tried to use them as leverage to either induce King’s suicide or force him to quit his activism. The Bureau did so as part of a campaign far older than itself by the American establishment to preserve white supremacy. It might sound perverse to remember King’s enemies on a day set aside to remember him, and use a personal failing of his to do it, but we remember King because we want his life and work to say something about us.

I submit that our forgetting says something about us as well. King might not appreciate our airing his dirty laundry in the process, but I don’t think he would mind the attention drawn to the machinery of white power. You can read the full letter the FBI sent to King here. Beverly Gage’s accompanying essay puts it into some modern context. Jeet Heer, who you really should follow on twitter, gives a broader view in his essay. The American security state in the 1960s, just as it had for centuries, set itself firmly on the side of the whites and saw its chief task as suppressing the blacks. Very little has changed since.

These things did not come about by mistake, any more than forgetting them did. We have expended tremendous effort in the service of white supremacy and very little to counter it. We have this history, and this present, because we wanted them and worked hard to make them so. More than once we have realigned our politics to preserve them against challenges.

Could we redistribute our striving? If doing the right thing for its own sake does not suffice, then it would at least speak to genuine virtues demonstrated rather than the pretend kind exercised with a yearly ritual observance deprived of all context and rendered into a bland exercise in civic patriotism. It might get easier if we had some more practice.

What is history for?

John Brown

John Brown

When I had fewer years but more hair and acne, I read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. Through a collection of essays on the most popular survey texts of American History, Loewen tore apart the conventional way that one learns history in high schools. He turned over rocks that the texts would have you believe didn’t even exist, given their complete silence on the subject. He shed light on the deep rifts in American culture and the profound struggles over how the nation ought to behave, scraping back layers of whitewashing so thick that even a teenager already interested in history had entirely missed them. Given how thoroughly even our most dire struggles get sanitized, this proved quite the revelation.

Loewen argued, so far as I can recall now, that the erasure of genuine conflict and its reduction to something more like a squabble over what to have for lunch created essentially feel-good pablum, mostly for white boys, and nothing at all for anybody else. The resulting product bored almost everybody and came off as a collection of trivia. One teacher I had in high school even called the material as much. That trivia collection suited me just fine, as I’ve long liked trivia, but it does raise the question of why anybody would bother. It has since lost its appeal to me in favor of what I consider a deeper inquiry.

It seems children in Denver don’t care for the trivia collection pablum version of history. They have one up on yours truly at that age. There’s much more, and far more useful things, to take from a history class. Their school board disagreed, insisting that their program should include mostly lies their teachers tell them, presenting

positive aspects of the nation and its heritage. It would establish a committee to regularly review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

In the class I’m taking, Eric Foner described this kind of thing as the hobbit’s view of history. A classmate kindly transcribed his words:

In one of my favorite books of history of a kind, The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, he writes about the hobbits quote “hobbits like to have books filled with things that they already knew set out fair and square with no contradictions.” Of course this is a joke. The hobbits didn’t actually know anything. They knew virtually nothing about the world around them but they were satisfied because they had a familiar view of their own history. People like familiar stories. That’s why the term revisionist historian is a term of abuse out there in the public.

Didn’t Governor Christie the other day accused his critics of being revisionist historians? But to us that’s what we do. That is our job as historians to be revisionist. That is to say, to rethink the past, to think about new perspectives, to add new approaches. That’s what historians are supposed to do. But the point is familiarity is not the measure of the truthfulness of historical accounts.

I understand that the Denver affair seems to have wound down, with the board backing off at least until the journalists look away, but the demand for a hobbit’s history recurs throughout the country. Children should believe, to paraphrase David Blight (who does not support this approach at all, I should add) that America, born perfect, then became more perfect still in a steady, unending march of freedom.

But what if the ultimate test of citizenship for much of the nation’s history hinged on the color of your skin?

What if patriotism has generally meant eagerness to go to war, a zeal to suppress dissent at home and support of filibustering and other piracy abroad?

What if the free market involved company towns that paid company scrip, not real money, which you could only use to shop at the company store? What if the free market involved workers locked in a factory as it burned around them and burned them to death? What if the free market produced bosses who hired the mafia to bust up strikes?

What if authority demanded that the law give some people as property to other people, to sell, beat, rape, work to death, or otherwise use like farm animals? What if that authority got its legitimacy from stolen elections, by force, by elections in which few concerned parties could actually vote?

What if the law required you to help arrest and take back to slavery a person who stole himself or herself away? What if it demanded you speak no word against slavery? What if it treated mere public disagreement with the administration as treason?

Does the end of civil order justify the preservation, even the extension, of those and innumerable other injustices? Many people in the past thought so. Apparently some still do.

If I stood before the Denver school board, perhaps I would need to tell them that I did not invent these hypotheticals myself.

The board’s program speaks volumes. It offers not a word in favor of accuracy, nor complexity, nor nuance. Students would not hear about the costs of the free-market system, only its benefits. They would not hear about abuses of authority. They would hear nothing about the denial of individual rights to, for example, four million slaves, to women, to immigrants, to other racial minorities, to socialists and communists, to union organizers, or any of the other people who haven’t counted according to someone in the past. They would hear that civil order is civic virtue, regardless of its nature, that one should presume every law righteous, and that one should view anybody engaged in protest as suspect and alien, fundamentally illegitimate int heir methods and goals as they tend to disorder and strife.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The most hated man in America in the 1950s and 1960s had some words about this:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councileror the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”


I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

On its most basic level, the board’s program and those of like-minded individuals across the country aspire to cultivate that negative peace. People should know their place. Facts that reflect poorly on the nation, that undermine patriotism, that require children to consider complicated and diverse points of view, should be denied to them. This way they will not grow up into adults who continue in the habit of asking uncomfortable and inconvenient questions.

History as pablum does worse than not teaching it does. Rather than offering students simple ignorance, it promotes the false impression that one knows what one does not. To teach a good parts only version of history amounts to denying the bad parts exist and so encourages blind repetition of them. If we have always exhibited perfect righteousness in the past, why should we think we’ve suddenly done wrong now? For that matter, if we have such perfect righteousness all down our history then why should we think anything that we, as a nation, have done should cease?

This does mean that history will make people uncomfortable. A fuller telling will raise inconvenient questions. It will not flatter anybody’s ideological preconceptions. Most people of the antislavery movement, people who probably everybody today admires and counts as ideological ancestors, had truly awful attitudes toward black Americans. David Wilmot made it very clear that he didn’t care in the slightest about the welfare of slaves:

I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause and rights of white freemen. I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.

Others considered white racism so insuperable, or black neighbors so undesirable, that they saw no chance of black and white Americans living in peace together. Thus they supported the removal of black Americans back to Africa, no matter how many generations had gone by between their ancestors’ kidnapping and the day of exile. Even antislavery Americans engaged in what we might consider a heroic, direct, sometimes violent struggle against slavery at risk to their own lives don’t come down to us as perfected saints.

John Brown made history before Harper’s Ferry not by attacking a proslavery paramilitary band, but by hauling proslavery civilians out of their house at night and murdering them for their presumed past and future votes against the policy he preferred. He did not with that start the guerrilla war over Kansas, but he pushed it into a new and more violent phase. The same John Brown rescued nearly a dozen slaves and took them safely off to Kansas, a claim desperately few white abolitionists could make.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Does John Brown count on the side of positive aspects of American history or the negative? What about David Wilmot? What about Abraham Lincoln, who even during the war tried to get a black American colony going on an island off Haiti? I don’t mean to put all these men on the same level as Jefferson Davis, Robert Lee, or Nathan Bedford Forrest, but I have no doubt that someone could scour up ways that each of the latter led exemplary lives. In Lee’s case, entire books already exist on the subject. Anybody, with sufficient editing, becomes a demon or a saint.

Doing history well and developing a robust understanding of the past, and thus how it has shaped our present, doesn’t come easy. It requires us to confront imperfections in our heroes, blind spots in our ideologies, and the often savage limits of the promises America allegedly made to everyone. Does that make for better citizens? I hope so, but I think it worth doing either way. Life often requires grappling with complex issues long after the classroom passes into memory. Where better to hone those skills than in the study of actual complex issues faced by actual people, often in ways that reverberate down the years to us? You can’t understand the present without some appreciation of how we got here. That requires grappling with complexities, among people we want to make heroes and villains alike, that the Denver board and their like-minded confederates elsewhere seek to prohibit.

Those complexities will lead us all down uncomfortable roads. We may not come out better for it; people do study the past intensely and well and go on to happily repeat its worst horrors. But not making the effort only increases our odds of doing so. If history does not strike the reader as a worthwhile pursuit in itself, then I offer the chance to reduce our odds of doing worse as ample justification for its study all the same.

Thomas Jefferson, Antislavery Man?

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

People disappoint us. I think everyone probably wants, at least a little bit, some kind of saintly mouthpiece for their views. We want a pure vessel beyond reproach to illustrate wrongs we see and how to right them. Then, we imagine, the basic decency of humanity will win out. The scales will fall from our enemies’ eyes and they will come over to our side. With everyone together, we could fix things. It wouldn’t take any compromises or half measures; we could really get it done. We could begin the world anew.

I’ve thought about that idea frequently in the last few weeks. It appeals to our sense of fairness. We like to think that everyone, deep down, really thinks and feels and has values more or less like our own. It can take hard work, especially if we don’t have a personal stake in an issue, to resist the notion’s seduction. No one wants relishes perpetual anger and we rightly worry about the potential of a well-cultivated hatred. I see at least two problems with this approach. Firstly, other people do not always share our values. Human beings really do have deep, fundamental, and often irreconcilable differences. Often for one party to win, another party must lose.

We can try to manage those contradictions, but often the compromises we make do nothing more than postpone the conflict. They may even help ensure it. The Armistice’s Fugitive Slave Act got the South little, but gave antislavery men in the North a great issue with which to appeal to less concerned neighbors. Four years later, the KansasNebraska Act purported, again, to settle all controversy over slavery once and for all and so ignited a firestorm of new controversy. Dred Scott, the work of a conscientiously moderate, Unionist court trying to manage the same resolution, did much the same. In more recent times, some Americans did not find the sight of police dogs and fire hoses set on civil rights activists all that horrifying. Quite the opposite, they saw the movement getting what it deserved. More, of course, simply didn’t care one way or another. That put them in the same party as the others, since they would do nothing to stop it but might make excuses and certainly tolerated it.

I wrote all of that so I could write about Thomas Jefferson. The other problem with the idea of a saintly, pure spokesperson comes in the fact that the world does not produce saints. People have flaws and blind spots. They care about some things more than others. Did Thomas Jefferson, as Salmon P. Chase would have us believe, really oppose slavery? He talked a good game, but words come easy. He freed very few of his own slaves. He introduced very moderate, very conditional, very limited antislavery legislation that did little to disturb slavery where it already existed, and then scurried back from it at the first sign of serious opposition. He advised Edward Coles to keep silent, work only in secret, keep his slaves, and keep living in enslaved Virginia. When Virginia made manumission easier in the late 1700s, many Virginians freed their slaves. Jefferson freed only two in his lifetime, despite complaining to Coles years later that the law made manumission much harder then. Other men of his class did much more, swelling the number of free blacks in Virginia.

Does that sound like an antislavery man? It depends on what one means by the term. I do think Jefferson had serious, sincere qualms about slavery and thought it, on some level, bad for white and black alike. He probably thought it much worse for whites and certainly thought blacks an inferior sort of humanity that could positively benefit from bondage. If having some personal sentiment against it makes you an antislavery person, Jefferson qualifies.

But Jefferson’s personal sentiments rarely drove him into any conflict with proslavery men. Quite the opposite, he rarely found occasion to stay in a fight with them. Late in life, he encouraged Edward Coles to do the same. I don’t think that’s good enough. Jefferson’s feelings against slavery might do him some credit, but ultimately they didn’t amount to much.  His actions and words align on that point. Jefferson may have opposed slavery in his heart and wanted it, someday, ended, but he did precious little to make that happen and encouraged others to do less. When Coles asked him to take a stand, Jefferson took one that looked not to slavery’s end but to its perpetuation. Freedom would inevitably come, Jefferson thought, but best it come quarter to never.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

A friend of mine has a saying. I forget the exact words, but it goes something to the effect of this: One should not try to schedule the liberation of another. Jefferson would, and he would always schedule it for “later”. Many white men did. Freedom later meant, of course, slavery now. Writing in a different context, I think Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the essential problem here:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

A. Phillip Randolph

A. Phillip Randolph

Slavery, or segregation, now meant perpetuating the injustices. Righting wrongs can require revolutions, if not always violent ones. The March on Washington happened fifty years and two days ago. I neglected the anniversary, but here’s A. Phillip Randolph speaking there:

We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education, all forms of education. We want a free, democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement of man along moral lines. Now we know that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions. For one thing we must destroy the notion that Mrs. Murphy’s property rights include the right to humiliate me because of the color of my skin.

The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality. It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values, because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property. It falls to us to demand new forms of social planning, to create full employment, and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits—for we are the worst victims of unemployment. Negroes are in the forefront of today’s movement for social and racial justice, because we know we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.

With something as deeply baked into society as racism, removing injustice requires more than taking away the most visible forms. Part of grappling with our past and present inequities involves owning up to how our notions of justice, of how things ought to be, cooked in the same sauce of injustice. Our ideas and our personal behaviors have to change along with our laws. I think that Jefferson, and many men like him, knew that. Abolition could, at least potentially, turn into a widespread social revolution. That scared them, as it should have. We can say that revolution needed to happen and the sooner the better, but of course we have nothing to lose. We don’t own a hundred slaves and a Virginia plantation. But we have our own unfinished revolutions, many entwined deeply with the successes and failures of those long ago.