Archive for resistance
Assaults on democracy are proliferating across the country in a variety of measures designed to reduce the electorate and defund public education. Political leaders who favor stricter voter ID laws that make it harder for poorer Americans and immigrants to vote, and who advocate drastic cuts to public education and to government-supported student loans, do so out of desire to keep the poorer classes alienated from the political system. This is nothing new in American history.
When the electorate was first expanded beyond the upper classes in the 19th century, elites openly disparaged the participation of poor and uneducated voters. First, working class white men—especially European immigrants—were enfranchised despite the outrage and disgust of many white Americans who feared the “corruption” of the ballot box by “ignorant” voters during the Jacksonian era. Then, after the momentous events of the Civil War, African Americans were enfranchised through state laws and Federal Constitutional Amendments during Reconstruction. Opposition to blacks voting echoed earlier concerns about the white workers’ “unfitness” for the ballot box due to their lack of education, economic dependence, and supposed susceptibility to corruption and demagoguery.But the greatest fear of all was usually unspoken: that politicians might cater to their interests and popularly elected government might actually enact policies that favor someone other than the wealthiest elites.
I wrote a biography of Albion W. Tourgée, a forgotten civil rights champion who fought relentlessly in 19th century America to protect the right to vote for poor white and black Americans, and who advocated robust state and Federal funding to public education.
He believed these two issues were inseparable. Without serious public investment in the education of the electorate, the great democratic experiment of the United States would fail. How can the people rule without the literacy skills required to stay informed, and the civic knowledge of the law, the government and the economy needed to understand their situation? Tourgée wrote:
“if our Government is founded upon the true principles of democracy, if self-government is a possibility to any great nation, then it is of the utmost importance that every individual constituting the governing power in such nation should be not only honest and patriotic and courageous, but that he should have the knowledge to inform his honesty, knowledge to sustain his patriotism, knowledge to direct his courage. The ignorant man is as the breath of life to the nostrils of the demagogue. He is the material which the ambitious and unscrupulous leader uses to promote his own unrighteous ends.”
For decades, Tourgée fought to expand public education—especially among former slaves in the South. In 1868, he was one of the authors of the North Carolina State Constitution that requires that the state provide free public education from grammar school through university, open to all citizens of the state. Education fostered a common culture, as well as a more intelligent citizenry, and encouraged citizens to be active participants in civic life. Education was also to be an antidote to the feelings of alienation and resentment that came from exclusion and enforced ignorance.
Those in favor of placing restrictions on the ballot in Tourgée’s time argued for such devices as literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent the ignorant and the poor from exercising the right to vote. By the 1890s, these restrictions became commonplace, especially but not exclusively in the Jim Crow South, and they were used to purge the particularly undesirable voters from the rolls—including most non-whites and known radicals. Supporters of these ostensibly “color-blind” voting restrictions claimed that they would protect the integrity of the ballot box while providing incentive for the “deserving” to get educated so they could attain voting rights. But, Tourgée knew better. The purpose was not to create an incentive to get educated, but rather to exclude, disempower and demoralize:
“The whole theory of republican government is based on the idea that the distribution of sovereign power enables every man to do something toward securing his own rights and remedying his own wrongs, or what he conceives to be his rights or believes to be his wrongs. It is a piece of protective armor, intended to equalize the weak with the strong. It is always the poor, the weak, and the ignorant who are the victims of oppression. To such the ballot is at once a sword and shield. The untrained soldier may injure his friend as often as his foe, or even hurt himself oftener still, with his weapon of celestial temper, but he will at least be able to defend himself . . . and the ballot is the only weapon with which poverty and ignorance may even blindly defend themselves. It is their only hope. Unfortunately, intelligence does not always imply righteousness or justice; and even against the best, the lowest and meanest of every land need always stand upon their guard.”
Once again, using transparently facetious arguments, the wealthy and powerful are trying to curb the voting rights and the educational opportunities of the poor. The struggles of a century ago continue today.
~ Mark Elliott is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Color Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (Oxford 2006) and co-editor with John David Smith of Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée (LSU 2010).
Here’s a good article on the march in Atlanta by thousands against the new nativistic Georgia law on immigration. Parts of the law have already been voided by a judge, as has been the case in Arizona and Utah:
Men, women and children of all ages converged on downtown Atlanta for the march and rally, cheering speakers while shading themselves with umbrellas and posters. Capitol police and organizers estimated the crowd at between 8,000 and 14,000. They filled the blocks around the Capitol, holding signs decrying House Bill 87 and reading “Immigration Reform Now!”
These nativistic laws, which mostly arch-conservative white legislators are passing in a number of states, always remind me that all of us, except for the indigenous folks, are indeed immigrants or the descendants of fairly recent immigrants to this continent. And they need, I think, to ponder carefully the 1880s poem of immigrant Emma Lazarus on our Statue of Liberty:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Somehow the mostly white nativists forget we are an immigrant nation, and that these Latino, Asian, and other recent immigrants and their children have constantly saved this country from economic decline by providing a regular infusion of new and usually youthful workers who are willing to work, often in the worst jobs in the country, to build new lives and families–and thus to build up the US as it like many countries would otherwise have an aging population and too few younger workers (as in much of Europe)……. They also constantly bring in new cultures, new ideas, new currents of all kinds. I suggest we remember Emma Lazarus’s fine words on the Statue of Liberty, this July 4th.
[This is a repeat of a May 9, 2010 posting on this, the birthday of John Brown--an important US revolutionary who died, with his black and white colleagues, fighting for the freedom of enslaved African Americans. Brown has gotten more attention from historians in recent years, yet is still little known outside advanced history books. It is time to recover this history for all Americans.]
David Reynolds, the author of an important biography of the white antislavery activist and abolitionist John Brown, did a NYT op-ed piece last year noting that this December 2009 marked the 150 anniversary of his hanging for organizing an insurrection against slavery. He gives historical background and calls for an official pardon for Brown. In October 1859,
With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured.
Brown’s group of antislavery band of attackers included whites, including relatives and three Jewish immigrants, and a number of blacks. (Photo: Wikipedia) Radical abolitionists constituted one of the first multiracial groups to struggle aggressively against systemic racism in US history.
A state court in Virginia convicted him of treason and insurrection, and the state hanged him on December 2, 1859. Reynolds argues we should revere Brown’s raid and this date as a key milestone in the history of anti-oppression movements. Brown was not the “wild and crazy” man of much historical and textbook writing:
Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.
We forget today just how extensively revered John Brown was in his day:
Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” . . . . By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor.
And then there were the Union troops singing his praises for years in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown’s comments to reporters at his trial and hanging suggest how sharp his antiracist commitment was. For example, Brown’s lucid comment on his sentence of death indicates his commitment to racial justice: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments,—I submit, so let it be done!”
Reynolds notes that Brown was not a perfect hero, but one with “blotches on his record,” yet none of the heroes of this era is without major blotches. Indeed,
Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide.
Given his brave strike against slavery, Reynolds argues, he should be officially pardoned, first of course by the current governor of Virginia (Kaine). But
A presidential pardon, however, would be more meaningful. Posthumous pardons are by definition symbolic. They’re intended to remove stigma or correct injustice. While the president cannot grant pardons for state crimes, a strong argument can be made for a symbolic exception in Brown’s case. . . . Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery.
Brown did more than lead a raid against slavery. We should remember too that in May 1858, Brown and the great black abolitionist and intellectual Martin Delaney had already gathered together a group of black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary anti-slavery meeting just outside the United States, in the safer area of Chatham, Canada. Nearly four dozen black and white Americans met and formulated a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution (the first truly freedom-oriented one in North America) to govern what they hoped would be a growing band of armed revolutionaries drawn from the enslaved population; these revolutionaries would fight aggressively as guerillas for an end to the U.S. slavery system and to create a new constitutional system where justice and freedom were truly central. (For more, see here)
Today, one needed step in the antiracist educational cause is for all levels of U.S. education to offer courses that discuss the brave actions of antiracist activists like John Brown and Martin Delaney, and those many other, now nameless heroes who marched with them. And how about a major monument in Washington, DC to celebrate them and all the other abolitionist heroes? We have major monuments there to slaveholders, why not to these abolitionist heroes?
Over at Dr. Boyce’s fine blog, Dr. Julianne Malveaux (President – Bennett College and economist and founder of Last Word Productions, Inc.) has some interesting comments on positive aspects of Black Americans surviving and thriving drawing on her latest book, Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.
(Photo: from her website here)
A prolific book and article writer on racial issues (USA Today, Black Issues in Higher Education, Ms. Magazine, Essence Magazine, the Progressive), in this commentary Malveaux makes some key points about progress under great oppression for African Americans. First she notes the data on the dismal conditions that systemic racism has brought:
When I look at the data that define the reality for African Americans in the economy, I am often alarmed and discouraged. One in four African American lives in poverty. Nearly one in three is out of work. . . . This is hardly the first time African Americans have experienced disproportionate pain.
But in spite of these and many other disturbing statistical data, she reminds us all that
even in harsh times African Americans have been more than survivors, we have been thrivers. We have made it despite horrible conditions, despite unfairness, despite racism. The playing field has never been level, and yet we have played on the slanted field, returning, returning, and sometimes winning.
She discusses numerous cases of those who have survived and thrived against high odds. Here are just a few:
Madame C.J. Walker is on the book’s cover, and everyone knows about this first self-made woman millionaire in the United States, but few know of Maggie Lena Walker, the woman who started the Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia. . . . The most powerful acts of economic history, acts at our foundation, were those African Americans who bought their own freedom. . . . I wrote my book because everyone needs to know about self-emancipation, about the will and the tenacity of people of African descent.
After noting too how enslaved African Americans not only bought their own freedom but that of relatives, Malveaux ends her commentary with a timely call for yet more collective efforts:
And so we need Kwanzaa now more than ever. We need the principle of Ujamaa – cooperative economics. The statistics tell a grim story about our status, but our history is a compelling reminder that in good times and in bad, African Americans have survived and thrived.
I have recently heard Malveaux speak at the U. Pittsburgh conference on racism issues last summer. If you get the chance to hear her, I encourage you to do so. She is one of the powerful thinkers and speakers on race and racism issues in the US today.
Thinking about her book and comments, I would suggest this: They say that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but it seems that eternal organization may be even more important.
The BBC has a news reports on organized French human rights protests against French government expulsions and other negative treatment of French Roma people (so-called “gypsies’):
Thousands of people have been attending rallies in Paris and 130 other French towns to protest at the government’s policy of deporting Roma people.
A majority of French respondents in polls support the government expulsions and other apparent “cleansing” of these mostly working class residents of France:
About 1,000 Roma (Gypsies) returned to Romania and Bulgaria from France last month, while official figures record that 11,000 Roma were expelled from France last year. The League of Human Rights, which called for the demonstrations, said it wanted to counteract government “xenophobia” and what it described as the systematic abuse of Roma in France.
French President Sarkozy has apparently expanded these high-profile campaigns for political reasons, even against opposition in his presidential cabinet:
Prime Minister Francois Fillon hinted that he disliked the crude links being made between foreigners and crime, while Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he considered resigning over the issue.
There have been violent encounters between the Roma and non-Roma police in some cities:
In mid-July, riots erupted in Grenoble after police shot an alleged armed robber during a shootout. The next day, dozens of French Roma attacked a police station in the small Loire Valley town of Saint Aignan, after police shot dead a French Roma man who had allegedly not stopped at a police checkpoint.
French politicians’ expulsion and other policing actions have seen dissent and criticism from international sources like the Vatican and the United Nations, even the European Commission.
The article largely ignores the large scale racialized discrimination that targets the Roma, something Jessie detailed here. I am not very familiar with these recent French events, or the background. Perhaps some of our viewers can add some savvy comments on the situation in France.
Here is a very good 2009 video lecture (at Emory U.) by a leading scholar of slavery and its economic impact, as well as the resistance to it–Dr. David Brion Davis, of Yale University.
This one is called “American and British Slave Trade Abolition in Perspective.” This would be very good for use in a course on U.S. history, and/or racism/slavery. It is in six parts, and here are the summaries:
The historical contexts of African slavery in the Americas and the relationship with free market forces and the “New World” global economy.
The connections between enslaved African labor, trans-Atlantic trade, and the increasing availability of luxury goods for mass market consumption. How did anti-slavery movements arise in this growing market context?
Three major factors led to the U.S. and British decisions to abolish the trade of enslaved Africans: revolutionary changes in moral perceptions of slavery, Anglo American antipathy towards a growing African American population, and the population growth rate of enslaved African Americans in North America.
The North American “moral luxury” of condemning the trade of enslaved Africans while supporting domestic slavery; the increasing political enthusiasm for white immigration over black enslaved labor; the impacts of the French and Haitian Revolutions on trade abolition developments.
The political and moral debates between delegates from northern states and southern slaveholding states after the Revolutionary War that led to U.S. abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808.
A comparison of the impacts of the U.S. and British decisions to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the debates over what to do with the “contraband” of enslaved Africans intercepted in the newly illegal trade.
At OpEdNews, Bill Hare scooped the mainstream media with a story I still have not seen anywhere else, the reality of numerous antiracism protests by World Cup athletes in South Africa recently. Not only were there pictures of former Black president Nelson Mandela everywhere at the various playing arenas, but there were regular demonstrations of a
fervent commitment to stamp out international racism. . . . Before the games begin player representatives of the competing national teams deliver statements condemning racism.
After that, in a show of unity, pictures are taken of both teams as the players that will shortly be locked in determined competition are shown posing together. The focus is on understanding and camaraderie as opposed to hate, bigotry and ignorance.
The diversity on some of these football teams was also impressive.
I wonder why in our mainstream media we have had several stories of racist actions across the country by our lunatic fringe–such as at some Tea Party events and by far-right talk show hosts–and yet no stories of these demonstrations against such racism by many of the world’s leading athletes.
It is good to see some modest, if too quickly and weakly analyzed, reporting on U.S. racism, but we should pay more attention to the actions and words of such antiracist activism, especially in the international context.
There is a certain public and media provincialism and parochialism that seems to go with our conventional America-first nationalism.
What do most Americans know about the Mexican Revolution? It disrupted everything in Mexico 100 years ago this November, prompting several waves of Mexican immigrants to enter the United States five generations ago.
Most of us may have heard of President Porfirio Diaz, Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, the soldaderas, Venustiano Carranza, Pascual Orozco, Victoriano Huerta, Álvaro Obregón, and others. In different contexts, we also know about William Randolph Hearst, President Woodrow Wilson, General John J. Pershing, George Patton. But do we know the latter were also participants in Mexico’s civil war upheaval?
Do we know who did what to whom when during an 18-year uprising by Mexicans that changed Mexico and the United States, a history that has continued to shape both nations? The Mexican Revolution is part of our unrecognized U.S. border history, and knowing the events of 100 years ago helps us to understand current immigration issues.
Here, for example, are the opening words of “Chapter 7: Rebel Armies Advance on Mexico City”:
Despite the unexpected developments that the revolution unleashed throughout Mexico, a feeling of expectancy, of widespread hopefulness prevailed. Even then, people had no idea what to expect, given the changes and uncertainties. What would happen when the revolutionary armies from the north and the south met in Mexico City?
People kept hearing they would be “liberated,” that the revolution would free them from Porfirio Diaz’s tyranny, but how that would happen remained unclear.
The Porfiriato had both shaped and created the Mexico that everybody knew for more than 30 years. After a generation and a half under Porfirio Diaz, and now in the grip of the revolution, most Mexicans were destitute. The country was in shambles, and Mexicans and the foreign investors wanted stability.
The advancing rebel generals–Villa, Obregon, and Zapata–were daily moving toward Mexico City with their armies. All three had supported Francisco Madero, but Madero was now gone. Obregon was beginning to fight for Carranza, and Zapata and Villa simultaneously inspired and scared the people because no one actually could say what they were going to do once they were in the Palacio Nacional, the National Palace.
The uncertain developments caused some Mexicans to be cautiously optimistic while others were depressed, and the rest didn’t know what or how to feel.
The great majority of the citizens were anxious and bewildered, for no one could control events that clearly were unpredictable. Even then, reports of battles, skirmishes, and disastrous encounters between the armies in different cities and regions of the country constantly surfaced. No one could say with certainty what would happen if and when soldiers from the different revolutionary factions met in the capital, Mexico City.
Would the losing soldiers be killed, imprisoned, or what? Would the victorious leaders meet and celebrate despite the unrest? What would they say? What would the people hear? What would they decide for Mexico? No one could say anything for sure. Clearly, it was not a good time to be in Mexico City or anywhere else in that vast country with so much unrest and unclear future. Most Mexicans didn’t know how other people they daily met on the streets felt about the revolution. It was awful because everything was in turmoil. No one knew what the following day would bring, or the next hour, or the next few minutes.
My 132-page photo history narrative contains 80 carefully selected photographs from the more than 483,000 pictures taken by Mexican, American, and foreign photographers who rushed to Mexico in 1910 to capture the revolution’s developments.
Note: Copies of Why Pancho Villa & Emiliano Zapata Wore Cananas: A 100th Year Photo History of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1928 are available from Marco Portales at 3800 Chaucer Court, Bryan, Texas 77802.