While the nation is having a conversation about Confederate flags, with mixed results (according to a recent poll), and that conversation has extended to monuments, I'd like to take it one step further and talk about the racist history that still isn't taught or memorialized in many schools, and about the sanitizing and whitenizing of history books to ensure our children remain ignorant of our collective his- and her-stories.
Gutzon Borglum and the KKK:
Gutzon Borglum was, at one time in his life, a powerful member of the Ku Klux Klan, the nationalist, white supremacist organization created after the fall of the South in the American Civil War. He held a lifetime membership, was on their payroll for the Stone Mountain project, and he was also known to be a member of the Imperial Koncilium, a council of high ranking Klansmen who oversaw the transfer of power from one Imperial Wizard to another.
He also later repudiated his involvement with the Klan. Whether the repudiation was sincere or not depends upon who is being asked, as some modern critics as well as some modern Klansmen alike prefer to think that the repudiation was political rather than sincere.
When we talk of Confederate flags today, revived in order to combat the movement for civil rights, we should remember also other periods of history when the flames were fanned to heighten hate. Stone Mountain is a monument to such a revival.
The Revival of the KKK:
The popularity of The Birth of a Nation, and specifically its appearance in Atlanta in December 1915, proved the major impetus for the reemergence of the Klan. Equally significant was the Leo Frank case, which culminated in his August 1915 lynching in Marietta by a group of armed men who had organized themselves as the Knights of Mary Phagan,named for the young murder victim in the case. The anti-Semitic sentiments aroused by that case (Frank was Jewish), along with the ongoing racism fueled by Griffith's film, led William J. Simmons, a local recruiter for men's fraternal societies, to establish a new KKK.
Restricting the group's membership to white American-born Protestant men, Simmons designed the notorious hooded uniform, composed an elaborate ritual for the secret order, and secured an official charter from the state of Georgia. On Thanksgiving evening in 1915, Simmons and sixteen other members of the new order, several of whom also belonged to the Knights of Mary Phagan, ascended Stone Mountain, ignited a flaming cross, and proclaimed the rebirth of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
This is not the first time that protest has swirled around symbols of hate. The Olympic Games in Atlanta was another such occasion.
Los Angeles Times: Mountain of Racist History Casts Shadow on Olympics : Games: Atlanta wants the world to see a harmonious city. But anger has flared over flag and other issues.
ATLANTA — When Tyrone Brooks was a child growing up in rural Georgia, he learned from his elders that the freakish outcropping of granite east of Atlanta known as Stone Mountain was a frightful--even evil--place.
The Ku Klux Klan marked its rebirth early this century by torching a cross upon its peak. And in olden times, his grandmother told him, black people had been lynched and thrown from the mountaintop. "I did not grow up with a good feeling about Stone Mountain," Brooks said. "I still don't have a good feeling about it."
A year from today, when Atlanta hosts the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, 2 million visitors will be expected to feel good about Stone Mountain and the numerous other reminders that the city known as the cradle of the civil rights movement also has a vivid historical flipside.
From the grandiose Confederate memorial carved into the mountain to the ever-present evocations of "Gone With the Wind" to the contentious Rebel emblem that dominates the state flag, Atlanta's Civil War and antebellum history will be much in evidence during the Games. Many visitors will find it charming.
There are movements underway to mark the history of the underbelly of American racism, and one is being spearheaded by Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative
, which released a report on lynching in America
, earlier this year. Stevenson is on a mission to de-sanitize history.
Civil rights lawyer seeks to commemorate another side of Southern heritage: Lynchings
Bryan Stevenson was driving to a jailhouse meeting in the morning gloom, through stands of loblolly pines and sweet gum trees, when he spotted the mammoth Confederate flag unfurled along Interstate 65, near a town called Clanton.
He flinched. And looked away: He'd seen the image too many times. "It's an insult," Stevenson, 55, said of the banner at Confederate Memorial Park and Museum. "It evokes memories of how those rebel flags were brought out whenever people started to talk about integration."
The sight of that blood-red flag also reminded Stevenson of a personal mission: The Harvard-educated lawyer and great-grandson of a slave wants to erect his own civil rights symbols across the South. His plan is to place memorial markers at lynching sites, where black men, women and children were strung from trees and hanged from telephone poles, sometimes at the rate of one per week, for "offenses" that could be as trivial as playing music too loudly or failing to tip a hat to a white man — or for nothing at all.
Side by side with the issues of monuments, flags and markers, is of course how we teach history, and the texts that are used.
Texas officials: Schools should teach that slavery was ‘side issue’ to Civil War:
Five million public school students in Texas will begin using new social studies textbooks this fall based on state academic standards that barely address racial segregation. The state’s guidelines for teaching American history also do not mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws. And when it comes to the Civil War, children are supposed to learn that the conflict was caused by “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery” — written deliberately in that order to telegraph slavery’s secondary role in driving the conflict, according to some members of the state board of education.
Slavery was a “side issue to the Civil War,” said Pat Hardy, a Republican board member, when the board adopted the standards in 2010. “There would be those who would say the reason for the Civil War was over slavery. No. It was over states’ rights.”
The killings of nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church last month sparked a broad backlash against the Confederate battle flag , to some a symbol of Southern heritage but to others a divisive sign of slavery and racism. There is also a call to reexamine a quieter but just as contentious aspect of the Civil War in American society — how the history of the war, so central to our nation’s understanding of itself, is presented in public school classrooms and textbooks.
Texas is of course not the only state where texts are used which obfuscate history (or science). Combating the lies should become one of our causes, and there are books which provide ammunition. I've written here before about A People's History of the United States
, by Howard Zinn, which IMHO should be required reading; however, I'd like to highlight some other work that should be in your library and part of school curricula, starting with the work of James W. Loewen.
Loewen, sociologist and author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, talks about a Confederate monument in Alexandria, Virginia, which had the name of James W. Jackson added to it.
James W. Jackson (ca. 1824-1861) was an ardent secessionist and the proprietor of the Marshall House, an inn located in the City of Alexandria during the time of the American Civil War. During the capture of Alexandria, Jackson used an English-made double-barrel shotgun to kill Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth as he descended the stairs of the hotel with the Confederate flag he had just removed from the flagpole over the roof. In retaliation, Francis E. Brownell of Ellsworth's 11th New York Zouave regiment killed Jackson.
Loewen calls Jackson the cold-blooded murderer he was.
James Loewen's gripping retelling of American history as it should, and could, be taught, Lies My Teacher Told Me, has sold more than 1,333,333 copies and continues to inspire K-16 teachers to get students to challenge, rather than memorize, their textbooks. Jim Loewen taught race relations for twenty years at the University of Vermont. Previously he taught at predominantly black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. He now lives in Washington, D.C., continuing his research on how Americans remember their past. Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong came out in 1999. The Gustavus Myers Foundation named his book, Sundown Towns, a "Distinguished Book of 2005." In 2010, Teachers College Press brought out Teaching What Really Happened, intended to give K-12 teachers (and prospective teachers) solutions to the problems pointed out in Loewen’s earlier works. As the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War approached, Loewen asked thousands of K-12 teachers in workshops and audiences about its cause(s). Depressed at their replies, he recruited a co-editor and published The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader (University Press of Mississippi, 2010), which sets the record straight in Confederates' own words.
His other books include Mississippi: Conflict and Change (co authored), which won the Lillian Smith Award for Best Southern Nonfiction but was rejected for public school text use by the State of Mississippi, leading to the path breaking First Amendment lawsuit, Loewen et al. v. Turnipseed, et al. He also wrote The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White, Social Science in the Courtroom, and Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus.
He has been an expert witness in more than 50 civil rights, voting rights, and employment cases. His awards include the First Annual Spivack Award of the American Sociological Association for "sociological research applied to the field of intergroup relations," the American Book Award (for Lies My Teacher Told Me), and the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship. He is also Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, Visiting Professor of Sociology at Catholic University in Washington, DC, and Visiting Professor of African-American Studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign. In 2012 the American Sociological Association gave Loewen its Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award, for "scholarship in service to social justice." He is the first white person ever to win this award. Also in 2012, the National Council for the Social Studies gave Loewen its "Spirit of America" Award, previously won by, inter alia, Jimmy Carter, Rosa Parks, and Mr. Rogers.
I am not an historian. I was blessed to be raised by parents who ensured that I learned history that wasn't being taught on the classroom. Consequently, I developed a love of history that was neither whitewashed or sanitized. We have a responsibility to pass this history on, and if you find out it isn't being taught in your state or city you can take steps to correct it, by paying attention to your local and state boards of education
. Give some of these books as gifts, to young people, or to family and friends who may still be holding onto racist and/or mistaken ideas and ideologies.
This isn't the first time I've written about important history books and won't be the last. You can go back and read:
Does your state get an 'F' for how it teaches the civil rights movement?
Black History is American history: Books you should read
How much do you know about black history?
For outstanding reading on Native American history, you need go no further than here at Daily Kos and read Ojibwa's series: Indians 101.
History is a stream and our knowledge of the past affects how we respond in the present day. Knowledge of history must be a motivation for us all to take action today. Simply taking down flags, or putting up markers is not enough, though it is an important step. Knowing history without taking action negates its importance.
Let me end by quoting Rev. William Barber, from the North Carolina NAACP and Moral Mondays Movement:
Our position has always been that the Confederate war flag belongs in a museum — not over or on our state house or on state-issued license plates. It is a symbol of terror, hatred and treason to America’s ideal.
Our position, however, is that not only should the flag come down, but we must work together to dismantle racism and structural systems of oppression. Our society’s commitment to address racism cannot stop with the removal of symbols — however odious they are — but must also include opening the path to upward social mobility for those who are trapped at the bottom due to blocked opportunities and the hoarding of economic resources by a small minority.
In other words, politicians can’t get a pass on addressing systemic policy racism simply because they have reluctantly moved to remove the flag in the wake of the Charleston massacre. Nine lives and the blood of nine of God’s children and all of the blood of the martyrs is too much hurt for a symbolic action, alone, against racism that does not go deeper into structural and systemic change. If we don’t address this, then the flag may come down, but opportunity barriers and racism will still wave over and run through the political terrain of our democracy.
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