I try not to be too controversial on here. I try to keep things upbeat, lighthearted, and educational. But I need to speak in this instance. If I try to keep quiet, then all I am doing is allowing the oppressors to win. Please note, today’s post will be hard and maybe offensive. If I’m quoting history, I will use the terms they use. This DOES NOT MEAN that I condone using these words in any way, nor do I use them. I am just being true to history. There are probably also going to be triggers in this post. This is going to be long.
Most days, I am proud to be an American. Going through some family history recently, I discovered that my ancestor sailed over from England in 1635. However, today’s post is not about me.
Recent events that have occurred in America have broken my heart. Seeing a black man killed by a white police officer for a stupid charge and the claim of “resisting arrest” is entirely outrageous. If you are not angered by this, then you need to reexamine your entire beliefs.
I know many white people will say, “Racism isn’t as bad as it used to be.” Look at what’s happening, and try saying that. Because it is just as bad. Let’s talk history.
In 1619, the first ship bearing Africans was transported to the settlement that would be Virginia. If you know anything at all about American history, you know that is the year before the Pilgrims came to America on The Mayflower. Let me repeat that. Africans were here as slaves BEFORE the Mayflower. These people were sold as slaves or indentured servants (indentured servants would work for their master for a set number of years before being freed. Only slightly better than slavery). This wasn’t just regulated to what is today the South. No. Slavery spread everywhere the Europeans lived and settled. After all, who doesn’t want someone to do their work for them?
You may be wondering why I’m starting with slavery? In many ways, slavery is deeply intertwined with racism. After all, you have to believe someone is less than you to have them work for little to no pay in terrible conditions, and beat them if they don’t do their jobs. Not to mention many slaves were denied access to literacy to keep them submissive. So to accurately describe racism in this country, it is NECESSARY to include slavery.
As the number of colonists grew and settlements began to expand into cities, many of these Europeans no longer wished to be under European (mainly English) rule. Through lots of events that don’t need to be rehashed here because that is not what today’s post is about, the colonists wanted to declare their freedom. There was unrest in the city of Boston, and British sent troops and levied taxes against the people of the city. (Yeah, because that’s going to end well). On the night of March 5, 1770, for whatever reasons (there is dispute over the cause), colonists in Boston threw snowballs packed with ice and debris at the British soldiers. Someone gave the command to open fire, and the British soldiers (the only one with guns) responded in kind. Five colonists were killed, the first of which was Crispus Attucks, a mixed dockworker. In the trial that followed, the group of colonists were referred to as “Negroes and molattoes [sic], Irish teagues, and outlandish Jack Tarrs.” Every single one of those names is racist in some way. Negroes are obviously black people, mulattoes are mixed, Irish teagues were Irish stereotypes, and Jack Tarrs were naval men who were often drunk and rowdy. So right there, 1770. A mixed, unarmed man is killed, and is slammed with racial slurs.
Six years later, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed and declared. Thirteen.org puts it this way, “As colonists demanded the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they were forced to question and come to terms with the hypocrisy of slaveholding in their emergent free nation. Slaves also recognized the paradox of living in a country busy promoting fundamental rights while simultaneously holding blacks in bondage.” The white men proclaimed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but for whom? Certainly not for those with darker skin.
Fast forward a bit. The Northern part of the country finally started to realize that slavery was actually a bad thing. The Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery in any new territories in 1787. In 1794, the United States banned American ships from participating in the slave trade or exporting slaves. By 1804, every Northern state had abolished slavery. But this doesn’t mean there wasn’t racism. White people still looked down on black people, even if they were just as equally free. In 1808, importation and exportation of slaves was made a crime. But really that was just a formality. It was easy to forge papers. And plantation owners realized that it was easier and cheaper to keep importing slaves than it was to actually treat them well. I don’t want to go into all the details, but these plantation owners would literally beat their slaves to death in terrible working conditions if they didn’t meet the quota.
Things “settle down” for a while, despite the fact that the number of slaves are growing exponentially (illegal ships, natural breeding, rapes and molestations all contribute). In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law is passed, which says that every escaping slave that is caught is to be returned to his or her owner. Let me clarify that in case you don’t seem to get it. People in government knew how bad slavery was because obviously enough slaves were escaping to create an act. But instead of an act that would help these enslaved people, it was an act that was prejudiced against them. It was an act that would turn them back to the hell they were trying to escape. It would put these men and women at the mercy of their masters, who were enraged that they had tried to leave. After all, masters “were providing a better life.” Or “they liked being enslaved.” And yes, those are real sentiments that people shared. So yeah, the government knew how bad it was and made no move to stop it. Rather, this act encouraged the continuation of slavery and racism.
Seven years later, 1857, the famous Dred Scott Decision (Dred Scott v. Sanford) occurred. Scott was a slave. Scott was purchased and taken to Illinois, a free state. Later, the man who had purchased Scott died, leaving the slaves to his wife. His wife hired out Scott to members of her family once they had returned to the South. Scott felt this was unjust and sued. The basis of his claim was that by living in free states for a number of years, he should be free. This went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled against him, saying that people of African descent were not citizens and had no right to sue in a federal court. The Chief Justice also said that the Missouri Compromise (which was done to balance out the slave and free states so that none were more powerful than the other) was unconstitutional and that the government couldn’t stop slavery from spreading.
This was huge. Do you see how racist this country is yet? A law that they themselves had passed was declared to go against the Constitution because a black man had tried to live by the law. Dred Scott was later given his freedom, but that should not have been an issue. Many people were understandably outraged by this, and it helped fuel and lead to a lot of tension in the United States between all people.
Then, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Many Southern states were outraged because they thought he was going to take away their slaves which was their “right.” This led to eleven states’ secession, and the Civil War. The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American history, resulting in more casualties than World War I AND World War II combined.
“But wait, Kim!” You’re probably thinking. “Weren’t the slaves freed during the Civil War?” Well, yes and no. You see, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862. It was strategically placed to be issued after a Union victory. Well the “victory” in question was Antietam. You may know Antietam as the bloodiest single day of the war. A lot of men died at Antietam on both sides, but the Union got the victory because the Confederates were the one to retreat. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation five days later, it said, “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” That sounds great right? But the truth is a little more complicated. First of all, the states in rebellion were denying that the United States government was their government, which meant a proclamation issued by said government would have no power of what they do or do not do. Also, there were some areas of the rebellious states that had surrendered by this time that still had slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to them.
So the Civil War ended in 1865. One united country, though they were far from unified. The 13th Amendment went into effect as the New Year was rung in, which outlawed slavery in the United States of America. The 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, granted citizenship to all men born in the United States. The 15th Amendment prohibited denial of voting to men based on color, and was passed in 1870.
These were great amendments that should have helped pave the way for equality in this country. Instead, it just allowed white people to get more creative, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, six angry Confederate veterans in Tennessee formed the Ku Klux Klan. As more people joined their cause, Nathan Bedford Forrest was appointed the leader of the KKK. Forrest was a Confederate general who committed one of the most heinous acts of the Civil War. Back in 1864, Forrest was leading a campaign in Tennessee. They came across Fort Pillow, a fort 40 miles north of Memphis. Fort Pillow was manned and protected by Union troops, about half of whom were black. When things turned South for the garrison, they surrendered to Forrest. As a general accepting surrender, Forrest was supposed to take the survivors as prisoner of war. Instead, after the surrender, Forrest ordered his men to kill them. About 300 people were massacred, most of them black. They were massacred AFTER they surrendered. This is the same man who ended up leading the first era of the KKK.
At first, the KKK was limited in action. They attempted to convince black voters that returning to the antebellum way of life–slavery–was in their (the black people’s) best interest. When that didn’t work, threats and violence began popping up in the country, mostly around black families or black people. These acts of violence even progressed so far as to murder. President Grant passed some acts to enforce the black man’s freedom to equal rights under the law. Basically, these acts were to hold people responsible for their racist actions that violated the freedoms that had been granted. These acts helped to suppress the actions of the KKK, and this first era disbanded. But this is not the last we have seen of the KKK.
Reconstruction ended because the Southerners weren’t happy with the way things are run. Specifically, many weren’t happy with the black communities finally getting rights they had been denied. Racism did not end just because slavery did. In the first two decades after the Civil War, many Southern states passed what are today known as “Jim Crow Laws”. Jim Crow was a racist stereotype character created by a white man who portrayed this character using an early form of blackface. The character was based on how white people viewed the black communities, so you can imagine it was very prejudiced, racist, stereotypical, and mostly untrue. Many states passed these kinds of laws that were based on this character. These laws were the way to circumvent the 14th and 15th Amendments and Grant’s Enforcement Acts. Basically, it was the way to get around being racist without being labeled as a “racist.” (News flash: if you do racist things, whether or not you call yourself a racist, you’re still racist). While these states could not deny men the right to vote based on the color of their skin, they could do other things to deny men the right to vote. These included poll taxes, literacy tests (which most freedmen couldn’t pass because their masters had never allowed them to learn to read when they were enslaved), and grandfather clauses (if your ancestor couldn’t vote in this country than neither can you). These terrible laws disenfranchised the newly freed black communities so that they were back to being stripped of their basic rights they had just received. Also at this time, the National League of baseball prohibited a black team from joining the league. Some people would refuse to play against their opponents if there was a black or mixed person on the team.
There was a monumental court case that came about in 1896. Homer Plessy, a man who was only one-eighths black, broke Louisiana’s Separate Car Act, which required for separate train car accommodations for white and non-white passengers. He bought a ticket for and sat in the “Whites Only” car. When he refused to leave, he was arrested for breaking the act. His case made it to the Supreme Court. In the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was Constitutional as long as the accommodations were “separate but equal.” This led to nothing good. “Equal” was a loose definition, and this separation only furthered the idea that blacks were inferior. They had been brought out of the clutches of slavery only to be crushed by this terrible case.
Racism only got worse in the twentieth century. Lynchings (public hangings) of black people were common. One of the better events, however, was the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Their mission was “To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law.” Black men went off to fight for the country in World War I, and did not receive the same recognition, honor, or praise that their white counterparts received.
It was also this time that the KKK reared its ugly head again. This second era of the KKK, while still racist and white supremacist, also expanded to be anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and Prohibitionists. In other words, they reflected what they believed white Protestant culture should be. This era of KKK may not have been as violent, but it honestly was more dangerous. People in political power were often involved in the Klan, and would not charge offenders with a crime. It was often said that these people deserved to be whipped, robbed, burned, branded, or have crosses burning in their yard. Very little was done to stop it, and many political officers, by turning a blind eye, actually encouraged these actions. Women, including white women, were whipped in Alabama on charges of “fornication” and not a single Klan member was ever arrested or charged. This era of the KKK was so appealing to many people that at one point it was estimated that between 4-15% of the United States population was involved in the KKK in some way. The second era of the KKK saw themselves as vigilantes for justice, but their version of justice and who they believed deserved it was flawed, racist, and entirely wrong.
Fortunately, this second era of the KKK was its own downfall. There were a number of financial and sexual scandals in the mid-1920s of the people who held high offices with the KKK. These caused membership to drastically decline. People realized that the version of “law and order” the KKK was skewed because they did the things that were condemned. The most famous of these was D. C. Stephenson. Stephenson was the Grand Dragon of Indiana and 22 other NORTHERN states. (Oh yeah, the KKK was not only in the South. Racism in this country is EVERYWHERE). Stephenson raped a white woman and was charged with second-degree murder. Suddenly, the KKK wasn’t popular anymore. It’s not that the racism was ever dealt with. It’s that the people seen as upholders of the law were the ones committing the heinous crimes. (In truth, they were the ones breaking the law the whole time, but they often got away with it.) People still held these racist beliefs, they were just no longer associating with the KKK.
The KKK was still active in the 1930s, just in a much smaller scale. The next event I want to talk about happened in 1930, but it actually had little to do with the Klan. My great-grandpa was alive in 1930. This is still in some people’s lifetime! This act of racism occurred in Indiana (a Northern, not Southern state). For some reason (again, causes disputed), Claude Deeter (a white man) was killed by one of three black men’s bullets. Supposedly, these black men had raped Deeter’s girlfriend. These men were caught and jailed, but that wasn’t enough for the angry town. They thought that the woman’s purity was of utmost importance and her rape was an egregious crime. A crowd broke into the jail late at night. They captured two of the suspects, and one escaped. They took the two they had captured to the town square, where they publicly beat and hanged them. Their bodies hung until the next day when they were removed. A photographer was present and took a now-famous picture (I’d rather not include it, but if you’re interested, it’s not that hard to find. a basic “1930 lynching” on Google images will show it). There was no evidence that this woman had been raped, and she ended up saying it hadn’t happened. Police officers helped in this lynching, but as usual, no one was prosecuted for it.
After WWII, small pockets of the KKK surfaced again, more focused on the racism of the first era of the KKK rather than the vigilante second era.
As we get into the Civil Rights era, I don’t want to mention too many of those incidents for a couple reasons. One, this post is already getting very long and I have yet to make my point. And two, many of these events are highlighted in various memories or are pretty common knowledge. But that being said, there are about 4 or 5 more events I want to highlight.
The first of these was actually a good Supreme Court ruling. The schools were not equal despite Plessy v. Ferguson, and Linda Brown, a black girl, was denied admittance to an all-white school for a better education. Her father sued, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled an unanimous decision that segregation was not acceptable in schools. Unfortunately, like we’ve seen earlier, people did not accept it, but rather they made their own ways to circumvent the law. In this case, when black students would enter the public schools (often accompanied by security guards or even police), they were met with jeers, taunts, threats, and violence. When the white families could not stop black students from joining the school, there was such a thing as “White Flight.” These white families would move out of these cheaper, “lesser” schools. The disenfranchised black and Latinx communities who could not afford to buy a new house were stuck in these schools, which often received less funding, poorer teachers, and a worse education over all.
The next two events take place in 1955. The first is Emmett Till. Till was a 14-year-old boy who lived in Chicago, but had traveled to Mississippi for the summer to visit relatives. Till was accused of flirting with and even physically assaulting a white woman. The woman’s husband and half-brother abducted Till, beat him, mutilated him, shot him in the head, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. When his body was discovered, his mother had an open casket funeral so that people could see what had happened to this poor boy. The two murderers were not convicted because their trial was an all-white jury. It wasn’t until 2008 that the woman recanted part of her initial testimony.
Four months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up a seat on a bus for a white man. She was arrested. This is a pretty popular demonstration. What you may not know is that this inspired a year-long bus boycott. The bus was important for many black women and men to get to work (the reason for this is most of them could not afford a car). Without these men and women paying for the bus fare, transit companies began losing a lot of money. People were carpooling, black taxi drivers were charging the bus fare rather than the taxi fare. Finally, a year after the boycott started, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., encouraged and supported the boycott. A few days after Rosa Parks’ incident and arrest, “J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI noted the ‘agitation among negroes’ and tried to find ‘derogatory information’ about King.”
Did you catch that? Martin Luther King, Jr., who is today hailed as a hero (rightfully so) was so despised by the FBI that they were trying to dig up dirt on him. Rather than helping out the “agitated” black communities, they tried to find what they could to discredit and further disenfranchise Martin Luther King, Jr. This was only 65 years ago!
Five years later, four black men staged a sit-in at Woolworth’s, a store that sold all kinds of items, usually at a low price (think similar to Walmart). The one in Greensboro, North Carolina, had a lunch counter (precursor to a cafe or restaurant). These four black men sat at these seats and were denied service. These became popular and more people joined in. The sit-ins started in February and lasted all the way until July 1960. More people in more cities took place. The stores that were boycotted and involved in these sit-ins lost a third of their profit, leading to salary cuts. Finally, stores were desegregated as the owners grew more desperate.
The last thing in history I want to mention is one response to all this. The Black Panther Party was a political party from 1966-1980 founded in California, but spread to all parts of the country. “The Black Panther Party’s core practice was its open carry armed citizens’ patrols (‘copwatching’) to monitor the behavior of officers of the Oakland Police Department and challenge police brutality in the city.”
I know this is long, and if you’ve read it all, then I seriously commend you. My point is this: we like to think that things have gotten better in this country. And in a sense they have. History is shredded with all kinds and types of racial discrimination, violence, and genocide. I could have chosen an endless number of events to write about.
So you may be asking, “What’s the point?” The point is that Black Lives Matter. It’s not “All lives matter” because white people’s lives have never been seriously threatened in America. There’s no question of whether a white person’s life matters. History has shown time and time again that’s never been a problem.
I know that I speak from a place of privilege. And I also know that this isn’t about me. I did my student teaching at a very urban school. Most of my students were black, Hispanic, or some mixed combination. I know my parents weren’t thrilled about me teaching there. But I never once felt threatened or unsafe. I was able to love on my students and try to do the best I could in the time I was with them. I will be teaching in the same district this year. The school I will be at is very STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) focused. Do you know how excited I am to teach world history to 7th graders and not mention a whole lot of white people? But in the same boat, do you know how scared I am for the future that my students will face?
It’s not about me. It’s about them. And until there is no more “Them,” it will always be about them. Things need to change. We as white people need to do better. It shouldn’t take the death of an innocent man to raise all these voices. Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing all the voices raised in support. But now we need to fix this. It’s 2020. No group of people should have to live in fear over something they can’t control. This isn’t about you and what you’re comfortable with. This is about millions of people being systemically oppressed because they look a little different. Check your privilege. Check your racism. Take a stand. Because black lives matter as much as yours does.
James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland, (2001).
https://web.archive.org/web/20131207065906/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/to_j_edgar_hoover_from_special_agent_in_charge/ (Here’s a copy of the original memo in case you doubt my sources)