Wednesday, August 24, 2011

He Who Controls the Past Controls the Future

I've begun reading the late Manning Marable's new biography of Malcolm X, which got a lot of attention when it published earlier this year. I'm only about 70 pages in today, but one subject that caught my attention was Marable's account of black people's civil rights struggles in the north, before and during World War II. Lately I've encountered a few references to the Civil Rights Movement by white commentators who seem to have assumed that the movement began in the southern states in the 1950s after the Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. So it's useful to read about matters like this:

In response to blacks' modest gains in employment [in the 1930s and 40s], thousands of white workers participated in "hate strikes" during the war years, especially in skilled positions. In July 1943, for example, white racists briefly paralyzed part of Baltimore's Bethlehem Shipyards. In August the following year, white streetcar drivers in Philadelphia, outraged at the assignment of eight black motormen, staged a six-day strike. In response, Roosevelt dispatched five thousand troops and issued an executive order placing the streetcar company under army control [56].
(No wonder the Right still considers Roosevelt a Communist! He nationalized a streetcar company! Over nothing!) That white Americans were willing to let their racism trump patriotism during wartime is a sign of how deep-rooted -- endemic, to use a word our President doesn't think applies -- white racism is in this country. And the expression of that racism wasn't lost on black Americans at the time.

None of the meaning of these events was lost upon African Americans, many of whom began to question their support for America's war effort. ... Although the vast majority of blacks still supported the war, a militant minority of young African-American males refused to register for the draft; others sought to disqualify themselves due to health reasons or other disabilities.

After a relatively calm period in black-white relations -- or perhaps better put, one with a less aggressive push by blacks for equality -- a new era was opening, characterized by black resistance and militancy. The Negro March on Washington and the civil rights rallies and demonstrations led by [Adam Clayton] Powell [Jr.] in Harlem provoked fear and reaction among whites. Government authorities tried to derail the burgeoning movement by restricting the freedoms or activities of African Americans and to impose Jim Crow even in cities and states without legal racial segregation laws [56-57].
This is an important part of the history that the Right in America wants excluded from history education, because they want the schools to "dispense not knowledge but a compendium of selected events, personalities and interpretations. More important, knowledge was eliminated of such events and personalities as were deemed to have no usefulness by the ideologues" of the Republican party. The words I just quoted, by the way, come from a 1994 letter to the editors of the Wall Street Journal, but I confess I took them out of context: the writer was denouncing the accurate teaching of American history, which he saw as a page from the strategy books of the Bolsheviks and Nazis. The mindset is still with us, closely associated with the Tea Party movement. So, it's important that we educate ourselves, and each other.