St. Louis Riot, 1917

The story I’m about to share is one I had never heard until I really started looking into #OurHistory through the lens of the African-American experience. It may be new to you as well, so please don’t skip over this. It’s important we all understand and truly listen to what it tells us.

July 2, 1917.

This was right in the heart of the Great Migration, as scores and scores of African Americans fled the South in hopes of a brighter future. Certainly, they were fleeing the terror of the lynch mobs, but the driving force was the hope of better financial opportunities than the subtle (reinvented) slavery of sharecropping. When they arrived North, I wish I could say the experience was different. 

In East St. Louis, labor agents had successfully recruited thousands of black men to work in the city’s aluminum factories. The predominantly white work force was on strike at the time, so the new labor force was brought in to keep production moving. The race card was played on purpose, and as expected, it infuriated the striking workers.

Little skirmishes broke out here and there as the black workers entered the factory, but before long it evolved into open violence throughout much of East St. Louis. The police force, which was largely white, decided to look the other way as those within the black community were assaulted, clubbed, and stabbed. Riots broke out, and when it was all said and done, 9 white people and at least 40 black people died.

“AT LEAST 40…”

The ambiguity there is one of the saddest parts of this story. Many remained unaccounted for after the dust settled. The number was likely far greater, based on eyewitness accounts of black bodies being thrown in ditches and in the Mississippi River, never to be recovered. One of the pictures in this post is an image of the aftermath, the search for bodies among the debris.

The massacre did not go unnoticed.

Just 3 weeks later, the NAACP organized a silent march in NYC, down Fifth Avenue. With only the sound of muffled drums, ten thousand men, women, and children marched from Harlem to Manhattan. No words, no shouting. They carried signs, some of them displaying messages like these:

“Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?”

“Mother, do lynchers go to heaven?”

This was a silent protest because it seemed that nobody would hear their cries out loud.

#OurHistory

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Plessy v Ferguson, 1896

As I’ve continued to learn these last few months- time and time again- the injustices throughout our history to people of color have not been merely individual, one-on-one discrepancies. It would certainly make the problem of inequality easier to conquer if they were simply isolated instances between depraved individuals. But what I’m finding (and I hope beginning to communicate) is that the injustices and inequality over the years have been systematic and structural. For years, the US government has twisted and manipulated the Constitution to say what it wanted it to say, and in so doing continually departed from the original intent. There’s few examples of this better than the Supreme Court case of Plessy v Ferguson. Though this decision was made in 1896, it would go on to profoundly affect the African-American experience until its eventual overturning in 1954. At the time of this writing, that was just 63 years ago.

The case is named after a man named Homer Plessy. From just looking at his light skin complexion you wouldn’t be able to readily tell that he was black. However, on June 7, 1892, Plessy sat in the “White” car of the East Lousiana Railroad and identified himself as black. This wasn’t an accident of ignorance. His intent was to deliberately make an issue out of the Jim Crow laws of the day- legislation designed to separate the races- knowing full well it would get him arrested and hoping it would end up in the Supreme Court where it could produce change.

Like so many African-Americans who have risen out of the history books, I so admire Plessy’s courage and willingness to sacrifice his own freedom for the good of his neighbor. There’s something very Jesus-like about that. He was not violent in his protest of the wrongs around him, but yet firmly resolved to challenge the ideologies of inequality protected by the law.

He was arrested, and eventually the case did make its way to the highest court of the land. His lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendment.

In 1896, the ruling came down.

Listen to these DEVASTATING words by Justice Henry Brown, and try to follow the (twisted) logic in his statement. It is mind-boggling to me the LENGTHS they had to go to in order to safely continue the injustice within the confines of the Constitution:

“A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races — has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races. … The object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”

Of the seven Justices, there was just one that spoke words of dissent to the decision- John Marshall Harlan. He could see the carnage awaiting if this went through and tried to speak reason… but to no avail. Look at his words in this excerpt from his statement:

“Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. … The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution.”

In hindsight today, we can see the very prophetic nature of his words.

One Justice spoke up. The other six went along with the prevailing thought of the day.

Today I wonder how the landscape of our history would have changed if just three other Justices on the bench engaged a little bit deeper with the checks in their soul in the moment… if just three others had the courage to side with Harlan?

This is yet again another example where the silence of a few contributed to the harm of many.

When we today see injustice or inequality, do we speak up? Are we so afraid of our social status and standing that we remain in the shadows… when our neighbor is dependant on our voice to change the cultural tide?

#OurHistory

Remembering Thomas Moss, 1892

The story of Thomas Moss is one I’m convinced everyone needs to hear.

It was March of 1892, the year when lynchings in the South were at an all-time high. The number of lynchings for a single year would never be higher than in 1892.

Thomas Moss was a highly respected postman within the black community of Memphis, Tennessee. Seeing an opportunity for some healthy competition, he started a grocery store called the People’s Grocery. The problem was, it was across the street from another grocery store, one owned by a white man named William Barrett. The effect this had on his customer base enraged Barrett to the point that he hired some off-duty deputy sheriffs to vandalize and destroy the store. Moss and two of his friends, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart, not knowing who they were dealing with, resisted the attack and before long, a gun battle broke out, wounding several of the deputies. As a result, Moss, his two friends, and 100 other black supporters were arrested. A few nights later, Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were dragged out of their cells, taken to a deserted railroad yard, and shot to death.

No trial.
No witnesses.

One of the reasons this particular account is so significant is that Thomas Moss was a friend of the now famous Ida B. Wells. Like many middle-class African-Americans, she had believed the myth that only low-income blacks were lynched for heinous crimes. Wells now couldn’t escape the fact that even innocent middle-class black people could be targets. As a result, this event sent Ida B. Wells on a crusade to lift the carpet of these lynchings up and expose them for what they really were.

The prevailing narrative of the day used to spread fear was that these lynchings were a means to “protect white women from rape” and that avenging a wrong by lynching was “manly”.

I found this chilling quote from Rebecca Latimer Felton, a former slave owner and women’s rights activist: “When there’s not enough religion in the pulpit… then I say lynch. Lynch a thousand times a week if necessary.”

I realize this is hard to look at. But it’s so important that we not ignore it. Just as it’s important to visit the Holocaust Museum and remember the horrific events in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, it’s important that we remember what occurred just a few generations ago.

Depending on the historian, there were nearly 5,000 recorded lynchings between 1882-1968, 73% of which were of African-Americans. It’s important to note that these are the number of RECORDED lynchings. There were many more that never hit the record books.

These lynchings ranged from simple, quiet events with only a few people present, to large festivals with huge crowds of spectators. Admission by ticket was not uncommon.

People were coming out to these LIKE A FREAKIN’ MOVIE ON FRIDAY NIGHT.

It disgusts me to even write that.

Yale Professor, Jonathan Holloway said, “In its own grotesque way, slavery afforded a level of protection for blacks. It certainly wasn’t there after emancipation. Of course, that is not a defense of slavery, but that is just sort of an element to consider in this equation.”

If you go to the link below, you can see a collection of postcards with actual pictures from some of these lynching festivals collected by James Allen. They are hard to look at, but I want to encourage you to do so. http://buff.ly/2kB55Oe

About these images, historian Leon F. Litwack wrote: “The photographs stretch our credulity, even numb our minds and senses to the full extent of the horror, but they must be examined if we are to understand how normal men and women could live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities, even reinterpret them so they would not see themselves or be perceived as less than civilized. The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings. Few had any ethical qualms about their actions. This was not the outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another.”

That last line is really, really important.

“This was … the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another.”

As if the horrors of slavery weren’t enough, the lynchings of the 1880’s through the 1960’s again and again and again told the African-American community that their lives didn’t matter.

#OurHistory

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Ida B. Wells

This woman.

Overflowing with holy discontent.
Emboldened with a contagious fury for justice.
Unwilling to sit idly by while injustice got the last word.

Ida B. Wells.

Without fear of her own well-being, she broke the silence and helped the world see the disparity that existed between the perception of lynchings in the late 1800’s, and the horrific reality of what was actually occurring.

And she wouldn’t stop sharing it until she had no more breath with which to share.

I have learned much from this incredible woman, and I deeply admire her courage and resolve.

#OurHistory

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Strange Fruit

Every American should know this song, because its inspiration is (sadly) part of #OurHistory.

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This was originally written as a poem by a teacher, Abel Meeropol (Lewis Allen) in 1937, then made famous as a song performed by Billie Holiday in 1939.

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Controlling The Voting Rolls

As I looked at the Post-Emancipation South, a common theme of “control” clearly rose out of the history books. The southern white population continually asked and answered questions related to how they would now control the Black population in the wake of slavery:
– “What are we going to do about the rising number of African-Americans on the voting rolls?”
– “How will that affect jury selections?”
– “What does this mean for the elections and at the local, state, and national level?”
– “How will we maintain the southern economy that up until this point was borne on the backs of slaves?”

These are legitimate questions… questions that, (with humility), I must recognize are questions I’d likely be asking if I were living in this place and time. We ought not to be so arrogant to think we wouldn’t have fallen under the same mindset of the day.

There’s a whole book that could be written on the Sharecropping system. It’s easy to think that slavery ended with the 13th Amendment, but it’s not that simple. I think it might be benficial for all of us to zero in on that topic more, though I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing about it today. It was certainly eye-opening for me to see the ways the South reinvented itself as soon as the Union troops left in the wake of the Civil War’s end. While you couldn’t any longer legally “own” a slave and call him property, you could certainly manipulate the labor system to force the African-American population to remain in the system, year after year, with very little hope of being able to establish themselves on their own. Essentially, slavery simply reinvented itself under this new labor system. A yearning to break out of this oppression is the primary reason why an astounding number of African Americans eventually would migrate North in 1915 and thereafter. It’s a fascinating and simultaneously discouraging example of the depravity of the human mind as we again chased the interests of self by dominating our neighbor.

Today I want to focus some energy on the voting registration and rolls of the late 1800’s in the Post-Emancipation South.

Related to controlling the voting rolls, one stark example (of many) is pretty profound. In Louisiana in 1896, over 130,000 African-Americans were now registered to vote. The black vote, which clearly would have gone to the Republican ticket, was a majority in 26 parishes in Louisiana.

Sadly, that quickly changed.

Just four years later, in 1900, the voting rolls plummeted down to just 5,300 African-Americans in Louisiana. That’s a 96% drop in just 4 years! Put that number in context with the other practices that were commonplace in the South during this time, and it’s quite easy for us to determine the causality for this decrease in black representation.

I think it’s worth educating ourselves on some of these commonplace practices.

According to a report put out by a National Historic Landmarks Program, “Violence played a large part in Republican defeats. The Ku Klux Klan, born in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865, along with other white vigilante groups such as the Knights of the White Camellia, unleashed a reign of terror throughout the South to intimidate African Americans and their white allies from voting. Klansmen inflicted beatings, committed rape and murder, and drove families from their homes. […] Throughout their ordeal, African Americans braved great risks to go to the polls, but each year their numbers dwindled. Furthermore, once Democrats returned to power, they enacted measures to restrict black suffrage, such as poll tax requirements, which fell hardest on the poor.”

In addition to the extra poll taxes and the threat of violence, other measures were used to manipulate voting results.

Under the guise of voter privacy and prevention of intimidation at the polls, the concept of the secret ballot began. Prior to the secret ballot, voters went to the polls with printed ballots distributed by political parties with their candidates’ names on them. The secret ballot system prohibited the use of this material and required voters to make their choices from the numerous names and offices printed on official ballots, a task that many of them could not perform. The concept makes sense to us today, but at this time, when the literacy rate among the majority of the black population was nearly still as low as it had ever been, it diminished the black vote.

Along a very similar vein, (much less subtle) literacy tests were used.

The report from the NHLP that I mentioned earlier went on to say the following:
“Literacy tests, if administered fairly, would have disenfranchised a considerable number of poorly educated blacks and whites. Instead, white registrars decided who passed the exam, and they used their discretion mainly against African Americans. In 1890, the Mississippi constitutional convention adopted a literacy qualification that would become the model for the region. It provided an illiterate suffrage applicant the option of enrolling if he could “understand any section of the state constitution read to him . . . or give a reasonable interpretation thereof.” In this way, voting officials denied registration to blacks but not whites, however unable to read and write the whites might have been.”

Lousiana took it even further. Upon seeing the uneducated white population affected by the literacy tests, a new idea of “Grandfather Clauses” emerged. In it’s most basic form, it created the exception to those who failed the literacy test IF they’re grandfather had previously voted in the past. Since virtually no blacks had grandfathers that were given the right to vote during this time, this presented no advantage to the African-American, but it certainly did for the white man.

I know this is a long post, but all of this continued to show me how systemic and structural the discrimination against African-Americans has been in our history. When we today see riots erupt and communities of people shouting to the rooftops to be heard, it’s easy (and comfortable) for us as white people to find a way to blame it on an individual within the “movement”. Or if there’s an altercation between a white person and a black person it’s easy to ascribe it to something interpersonal between the parties involved. While that can be part of the story, there’s a deeper history that these examples hopefully begin to help us see. These tensions emerge at a far deeper level- a structural, systemic, and subconscious level. Over the years these have become cultural norms that (people that look like me) are in danger of not even recognizing.

#OurHistory

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Recreated & Relabeled

When did slavery in America end?

Just months ago I would’ve given a quick answer to that question. In my ignorance I certainly wouldn’t have known the date off the top of my head, and if I were able to do a quick Google search under the table without you knowing, I’d eventually come back with 1865.

“Yes, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was put into play.”

But today if we were having that conversation, I would hesitate a lot more, and I’d probably respond with some kind of hat-tip to the loaded nature of your question. After some conversation and back and forth, eventually, I’d just flat out tell you IT NEVER ENDED; that through the years slavery has just been recreated and relabeled in different forms.

Hopefully we’d still be talking.

Quite frankly, I’m hoping you’re still reading.

For me, I’ve grown up and lived with a lot of assumptions. But those assumptions have proven to be misrepresentations, and they have now in turn transformed into convictions deep in my soul. You know as well as I do- when a conviction is embedded deep enough inside you, you just have to share it. Even if nobody will listen.

Some have asked why I’m writing these posts. They think I’m trying to convince them of something. I’m really not.

In fact I think the following quote is most accurate to my heart in these posts:

“Sometimes I speak up because I think it might actually change the world. Other times, I speak up simply to keep the world from changing me.”

I know we’re only a couple days into this month, but I appreciate you taking this journey with me. Please keep reading. The posts coming up are about to get even darker, but we must remember the wrongs of our past lest we repeat them in our future.

#OurHistory

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Abraham Lincoln & Emancipation

One of the things I appreciate most about history is the complex nature of the characters involved. When we study history in school, we often only retain the “highlight reel moments” that still today ripple from a person’s legacy, while missing some of the important backstory that made those moments happen.

Abraham Lincoln is a great example of this.

To most people, Lincoln is known as the Great Emancipator because of the Emancipation Proclamation that went into effect on January 1, 1863. Of course, this was a pivotal moment in his leadership and in the African-American experience. However, even though he always hated slavery, his views on African-Americans and their role in society certainly evolved over the course of his political career.

Similar to the hot-button political issues of our day today, the solutions are easy and simple from our couch as private citizens, but considerably more complex as an elected official. Once emancipated, the questions of what to do with former slaves were not simple, and some of Lincoln’s early answers to these questions were frankly shameful from our perspective today.

– Throughout his career, he was often at odds with abolitionists, moving too slow in producing change. They called for an immediate end to slavery and for freed slaves to be incorporated as equal members of society. Instead, Lincoln advocated for a more gradual phasing-out process.

– For well over a decade, Lincoln felt that the best way to confront the problem of slavery was colonization: the idea that a majority of the African-American population should be asked or required to leave the United States and settle in Africa or Central America. The thought process here came from seeing no way that blacks and whites could live together peaceably.

– In 1861-1862, Lincoln pushed a variety of plans to compensate slave owners in return for their slaves’ emancipation. Aside from the District of Columbia, it got shot down at the State level and was never enacted.

As I looked into all this further, I gained a ton of admiration for Lincoln in this: he listened and changed!

As he edited the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in August of 1862, Lincoln opened the White House to a delegation of freed slaves in the hopes of getting their buy-in on a plan for colonization. However, this sparked a new level of frustration among black leaders and abolitionists, who argued that African-Americans were as much natives of the country as whites, and thus deserved equal rights. Slaves and slave-owners alike resisted the idea of colonization (for different reasons, as you can imagine). Furthermore, a shift in Lincoln’s thinking occurred when he saw the high numbers of freed slaves leaving plantations and crossing Union lines to suit up in military uniforms and fight against the South. He figured since they put their lives on the line, they had placed a significant and personal stake in our nation.

The preliminary version of the Proclamation was published a month later on September 22, 1862, and it looked very different from his other public policies up to this point. Eric Foner, history professor at Columbia University and author of The Fiery Trial, explains Lincoln’s change of heart: “The Emancipation Proclamation completely repudiates all of those previous ideas for Lincoln. [The abolishment of slavery is] immediate, not gradual. There is no mention of compensation and there is nothing in it about colonization. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln says nothing publicly about colonization.”

What could this mean for us today?

I see at least two things…

1. It’s easy to view those in authority over us from a negative and fatalistic perspective. Ie. “That’s the way they’ve been, that’s the way they are, and that’s the way they’ll always be.” This narrative reminds me that the thought processes of ANY person in any position can change with time.

2. As people of faith, we should be voices of reason and compassion among the chaos of well-meaning but sometimes misguided leaders. When we see injustice do we speak up? Do we put pressure on our elected officials when we see our fellow man hurting as a result of public policy? There’s a way to do this that is both aggresssive and respectful, and people who want to influence change need to figure that tension out. Again, we have a responsibility to find a way to do it respectfully, but remaining silent about issues that matter is not an option. Can you imagine all that our nation would have lost if the colonization plan went forward?

#OurHistory 

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Poem: Bury Me In A Free Land

This poem was written in 1854 by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a journalist, activist, underground railroad host, and anti-lynching crusader.

#OurHistory

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One of History’s Darkest Moments

We all know that one of the darkest moments in our history as a nation was our participation in the transatlantic slave trade. In looking at it all a little deeper, it was shocking for me to understand the SHEER NUMBER of people we took from Africa in order to secure our desired future. Not thousands, but millions. Depending on the historian, it is estimated that 12.5 MILLION Africans were forcefully brought from their homeland to the New World over the span of 340 years. Nearly 2 MILLION didn’t even survive the trip to the Americas.

It can certainly seem barbaric and unthinkable to us today (as it should!) and as I looked at this more, I began to see the deep cultural norms that were supporting this ideology for centuries leading up to this time. Different forms of slavery and race domination were common practice. Many colonial settlers made passage to the New World with indentured servants, some of their own will, but many forced. When we look at slavery, we have to also look at and understand that our treatment of the First Americans was an outgrowth of these same ideologies. The idea of seeing another race of people as inferior to the White man runs deep, and the all-consuming quest for a better life, even at the expense of another race, was a trade our ancestors were willing to make.

One of the questions I had when looking at all this was related to the influence of Christians in these conversations and ideologies of the time. What were they saying, and how did they engage in this cultural moment? What I found was disheartening.

They justified it.

In his book, Divided By Faith, Michael Emerson paints a clear picture of the dominant religious thought in the early 1700’s: “According to one clergyman: ‘To live in Virginia without slaves is morally impossible.’ This perceived necessity for slaves influenced Christian doctrine on the issue. For white ministers and commoners alike, at least in the South and border states, ‘a deep feeling of the misery of life without enslaved blacks often provided the hidden premise of theological and ethical statements about slavery.'”

By the 1830’s up until Emancipation, in response to a new wave of abolitionists, Southern whites began USING THE BIBLE and Christian ideals in a systematic defense of slavery.

We in the Church often like to blame “the world” for our cultural woes. But history is clear on this one: the Church has to own and recognize that we slept in a moment when we should have stood.

Like the potential for us today, we can become so used to the giant systems of corruption and oppression around us that we don’t even see the poison for what it is. We can take the Bible and read the same passages with an angle of justification, even though we know deep down inside, at the core of our being, it just isn’t right.

All of this has led me to see 3 sobering implications for us today:

1) Let’s take real caution in saying that our nation was founded on Christian principles. For sure, there were some values of the Judeo-Christian ethic that influenced our founding fathers, but this narrative tells a more complete picture. To say America began as a Christian nation is dangerous, and frankly, untrue. In light of our history, how would this be received today by a person of African descent? Our words carry weight, and we must be careful how we speak.

2) Let’s listen more intentionally to the contrarian voices in our culture. Let’s be discerning and keep ourselves grounded Biblically, but let’s not shy away from the voices of those outside our circles. Do we read books by authors of different theological backgrounds than us? Do we listen to podcasts and follow people that are often “hated” or “shamed” by our version of Christianity? We are in danger of so controlling the voices we allow in that we miss Truth that could set people free.

3) At the core of the Gospel and Jesus’ teachings is an intentional move AWAY FROM domination and control of our fellow man. Instead, a true understanding of the Gospel moves us TOWARDS selflessness, humility, and equality as it relates to all interactions with our neighbor. If I’m dominating another person I’m not living out the Gospel. And if I’m not speaking up for the vulnerable because of self-preservation or self-advancement, I’m not following the path of Jesus.

#OurHistory

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