Archive for the 'History and Politics' Category


Separate Pasts, Shared Future?

I stopped posting on this blog more than a year ago, but in the last couple of days, I’ve had a strong urge to reopen it. I don’t know if anyone else will even read this, but as I reflect on the election of our first African-American president, I am been inspired to write something for public consumption. Given what it used to be, I thought this an appropriate forum.

Yes, we can.

Obama’s signature line, which clearly resonated with so many Americans, sums up what his campaign was all about. With his promise of “change,” he managed to turn out millions of new voters, most of whom seem to view him as the last great hope for a much-needed national revitalization project. Political buzzwords aside, many Americans–especially the ones that did support Senator Obama–expect a change not only in policy, but in the relationship between the American people and their government. “I’m asking you to believe,” reads the quotation from the top of Obama’s campaign website. “Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington… I’m asking you to believe in yours.”

Yes, we can.

To many in the African-American community, it seems that “we can” represents the logical culmination of “we shall”–as in “We Shall Overcome.” To see John Lewis and Jesse Jackson choking up and shedding tears on national television makes this link obvious. With that said, I was actually rather surprised by the media’s extraordinary focus on race in the immediate aftermath of the election. Of course, it’s to be expected given that we have elected the first African-American president in our nation’s history. The magnitude of that fact simply cannot go unrecognized. It is an extraordinary event, and as such, it deserves extraordinary coverage.

But at 11:00 pm on Tuesday night, just after they called the crucial West Coast states for Obama, the media (MSNBC, at least) chose to portray the victory celebration in a curious way. Immediately, they cut to Atlanta, flashing scenes of all-black crowds at Spelman College and Ebenezer Baptist Church across the screen. In doing so, they seemed to portray African-Americans as a group still somehow “apart” from American society. Perhaps it’s naive–especially for a historian of the South–but to me this seemed somewhat amiss.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that race was not a factor in this election. To anyone who understands “the arc of history” (in Obama’s words) in even the crudest of terms, it is undeniable. If you doubt it, take a look at the maps below.



The first map (courtesy of the University of Virginia’s Historical Census Browser) is of slave population by county in 1860. The counties in the darkest shade of green all had more than 5000 slaves just prior to the Civil War. The second map (courtesy of the New York Times) is of counties in the Deep South where Obama won a majority of votes on Tuesday. The connections should be apparent, and we know from exit polls that Obama received upwards of 95% of the “African-American vote” nationwide. Of course, Obama won none of these Deep South states, and perhaps that says something about American society in the 21st century, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Nevertheless, Obama ran not as an “African-American candidate,” but as an American candidate who happened to be of African descent. (I could make a tenuous claim about the political necessity of such a strategy and what that might say about American society, but I’ll leave that for another day as well.) Instead, at the risk of sounding more controversial than I really intend to, what I will say is this: those shots of Spelman and Ebenezer are not indicative of the “change” that Obama really represents.

I certainly understand the symbolism of Obama’s victory to African-Americans, and they have every right to celebrate this victory as their own. They have overcome, and so in a sense, we have all overcome. For that reason, November 4th, 2008 will go down as an important day in American history.

But the true genius of Obama’s campaign–and the reason for its tremendous success–could be seen not in Atlanta, but in Chicago’s Grant Park, where nearly a quarter of a million people celebrated victory. The crowd in Chicago included many prominent African-Americans, but it also represented a true cross-section of the American electorate. Citizens of every race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and age showed up to show their support.

Unreconstructed rebels may take issue with this next claim, but it’s only fitting that in a park named for a man whose military efforts helped end the Civil War and made it possible to put our great nation back together, Obama promised the American people–in terms that sounded not unlike Martin Luther King, Jr.–that “we will get there.”

In an interesting op-ed from earlier this week, John McWhorter suggests that of all the issues facing the United States today, racism is relatively low on the list in terms of urgency. “America has problems,” he writes, “and our new president knows it. However, is America’s main problem still ‘the color line’ as W.E.B. DuBois put it 105 years ago? The very fact that the president is now black is a clear sign that it is no longer our main problem, and that we can, even as morally informed and socially concerned citizens, admit it.”

McWhorter’s intent is not to deny the existence of racism in the U.S. Instead, he argues that American attitudes toward race have changed such that racism has become socially unacceptable, that out-and-out racists, while still around, have been pushed to the fringes of society. “[Y]esterday,” he writes, “we saw that this ‘out there’ brand of racism cannot keep a black man out of the White House. . . . Sure, there are racists. There are also rust and mosquitoes, and there always will be. Life goes on.”

He points out that when asked for his immediate reaction to Obama’s victory, John Lewis described it as “amazing–almost unreal.” McWhorter, however, concludes that “There is nothing at all ‘unreal’ about this. It is, after all, what we were supposed to be working toward. We must embrace it.”

Should we acknowledge that, even with the election of our first African-American president, racism still exists in our nation? Of course we should. But can we also say that the election of Barack Obama is proof that we, as Americans, have the capacity to set race aside and come together in the best interest of our shared future? Can we say that racial differences no longer define our nation?

Yes, we can.


The Mouthpiece Meets His Maker

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should state plainly that I have never been a Jerry Falwell fan. And that is probably an understatement.

Oh, but if I could be a fly on the wall in his meeting with the Lord. That, I expect, would be an interesting encounter. I wonder how the Lord felt all these years about Falwell’s ham-handed fatwas. I also wonder, for someone who put forth the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, how closely Falwell read it.

“For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment.” (Genesis 18:19)

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Falwell and his ilk have certainly doled out their fair share of judgment, and when he was in the pulpit, (self?) righteousness flowed like a swollen river during flood season. But how often did Falwell “do justice” in equal measure?

The second quotation is particularly relevant, because of its use by another well-known preacher who had a radically different world-view. Let us not forget the Jerry Falwell who once decried the “civil wrongs movement” and claimed that the separation of church and state was invented by the Devil “to keep Christians from running their own country.” Only a few years before, he had asserted that preachers had no place in politics. “Preachers are not called to be politicians,” he said, “but to be soul winners.” If only he had listened to himself.

Certainly, Jerry Falwell will be remembered for his tremendous impact on the history of our nation, and on the South in particular. For many, he became a hero and a role model, and in some ways that legacy is justified. But while I’ll leave it to others to debate the relative worth of his “rights,” let us never forget his “wrongs.”


Worthless Apologies

Don Imus. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Believe it or not, I actually didn’t plan to write about him, but after I titled this post, I realized I couldn’t help but mention his name. I won’t weigh in on the Imus fiasco except to say that I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during his meeting with C. Vivian Stringer and her Rutgers players last night.

Speaking of worthless apologies, noted historian James Cobb recently published an op-ed in the The New Republic (also available on his blog without registration) arguing that all of these recent apologies for slavery are actually bad for blacks, and he makes a compelling argument.

I’ll admit that I was impressed by the first apologies, and generally think that any public acknowledgment that slavery was wrong is a step in the right direction. However, I did find it curious that they began to snowball, and after reading Cobb’s take, I’m considerably more skeptical now.


Bibles in the Classroom

The Bible is “not just ‘The Good Book.’ It’s a good book.” So says Tommie Williams, Majority Leader of the Georgia State Senate. As reported by AP, Williams sponsored a bill that will make Georgia the first state to fund Bible classes in public schools. According to the article, “The Bible already is incorporated into some classes in Georgia and other states, but some critics say the board’s move, which makes the Bible the classes’ main text, treads into dangerous turf. The U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion is often interpreted as implying a separation of church and state.”

Although I consider myself something of a skeptic, I feel compelled to respond: on the face of it, I have no major problem with this. During my senior year of high school, my English teacher had us read selections from the Bible, as well as from Greek and Roman mythology, in order to identify the allusions frequent in other literary works. I didn’t feel that my rights were infringed upon. Honestly, it was an informative and generally enjoyable set of lessons. These days, I don’t read my Bible very often, but I think Williams is right: it is a good book.

As a graduate of Thomas Jefferson’s University, I don’t see that this violates the separation of church and state, provided that it is taught in an “objective and non-devotional manner.” To be honest, I would like to see classes on the Koran and the Torah as well. (I’d like to think that Mr. Jefferson—we refer to him as though he were still alive—would agree with me on this.) Whether or not a bill that offered such classes would pass might say something about the state of politics today, but I’ll leave that for another place and time.

I will grant that the “temptation” for proselytism by teachers exists, but religious supporters of the bill might argue that it is no different for biology teachers who teach the “theory” of evolution. Let’s remember that the evolution v. creationism debate is very much alive, particularly in the public school systems of the South. Nevertheless, these are courses that should be taught very carefully.

One final disclaimer: the article does not make clear whether or not these courses would be electives, but I will assume that they are. If my assumption is wrong, this entire post can be disregarded.


Looking Past Little Rock

As reported on CNN, a federal judge recently ruled that Little Rock’s school district has integrated and no longer requires federal supervision. Given that city’s well-documented past, this is a certainly a symbolic achievement and one that deserves praise. It gives hope that the process begun more than a half century ago was not in vain. It can, however, be overstated.

Although court rulings and legislation have done much to abolish segregation in schools over the past fifty years, it would be unwise to assume that segregation in schools has been eradicated. My own research in one rural Alabama county shows that, as recently as 2004, the public school system educates 1199 black students and exactly two whites, while a private school is home to 72 whites and 17 blacks.

The sample size is admittedly small, but it nevertheless shows that in some places, integration has been slow in coming—or has yet to arrive at all.

Currently Reading

Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain