Shall we overcome?

Lessons for Black History Month

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did more than anyone to fight racism in America, but were he alive today he’d be the first to say the virulent disease persists.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did more than anyone to fight racism in America, but were he alive today he’d be the first to say the virulent disease persists.

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

—Martin Luther King Jr., last line of his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963

I come from a long line of racists. My parents were both racists, as were their parents. My grandfather was born in the deep South, and he was infected with the bigoted racial attitudes of his time and place. It was an infection he spread to his children and his grandchildren, all of whom casually used what is now euphemistically known as the “N-word,” myself included. Chances are, most people reading this piece were infected with some variant of the same disease and are still harboring the virus, whether it is active or latent.

You need not have Southerners in your ancestry to have been tainted with this malady. The disease of racism was never localized, never confined to the states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And, though you may consider yourself free of it, you’re probably not, no matter your skin color or your political persuasion. Human beings seem to be taught to fear or dislike “the other” even when the distinctions between them are hard for outsiders to see.

In 1743, after the battle of Culloden, the British swept through Scotland, bashing the heads of babies against trees and bayoneting women. The commander of the invading force justified the brutality by emphasizing the notion that the Scots were “animals,” despite the fact that there are no visibly detectable racial differences between residents of England and residents of Scotland.

As recently as the early 1960s, Southern black Americans were forbidden to use the same services as whites, including water fountains.

It doesn’t take much difference for difference to make a difference. Witness the internecine warfare between the Semitic peoples of the Middle East, where Sunnis and Shi’ites will blow one another to kingdom come because of minor diversions from religious orthodoxy, but both will occasionally unite in murderous hatred of Jews. And no matter your own vaunted sense of your own liberalism, just let a person of another complexion flip you off in traffic, and your anger will, as often as not, focus on difference.

It’s difficult to assess just how much of this tendency is in our natures, triggered by our fears of “the other,” but it’s a dead certainty that much of the racism that infects us is spread by our culture, our peers and our parents.

“They fuck you up, your mom and dad,” wrote the poet Philip Larkin, who further explained: “They may not mean to, but they do,/They fill you up with faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.”

When I was a kid, I never found it objectionable or notable whenever my grandparents, my parents, or any of my all-white schoolmates used any of the words now considered deeply offensive but then commonly heard. Coon, jigaboo, nigger, spade and darky were part of my vocabulary by the time I went off to kindergarten. When I wanted to be polite or proper, I used the word “colored.”

My family lived in northern Illinois, a place where people prided themselves on being more evolved on matters of race than their fellow Americans south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But we weren’t. My hometown was starkly divided by the Pecatonica River; white folks lived on the west side, black folks lived on the east.

Those were the bad old days, of course, before Martin Luther King Jr.’s name was known throughout the land, before he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a soaring document once included in almost every college English anthology devoted to teaching students what good writing looked like, but now less frequently found in such tomes. It’s ancient history, requiring more knowledge of the past than most students can bring to it.

When the great Marian Anderson wasn’t allowed to sing in Constitution Hall because of her race, President and Mrs. Roosevelt arranged for her to sing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, later the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The muddy Pecatonica River still runs through my hometown, but it no longer provides such a stark racial dividing line. Racially offensive language has largely been driven underground, and only the most benighted skinhead or Aryan Brotherhood member can be found using the N-word, not counting characters in Quentin Tarantino movies or black comedians evoking nervous laughter from white audiences in comedy clubs.

So we’ve moved on, haven’t we? A few high-profile commentators even proclaimed that the United States had moved to a “post-racial” era when Barack Obama was elected in 2008.

But, alas, racism did not end the day we elected our first African-American president. Not even close. President Obama receives an average of 30 death threats each day, more than any other U.S. president on record. Most of those threats come with a reference to his race.

If this is truly a post-racial America we’re living in, then how is it that the disparity of income and opportunity continues to grow? The median household wealth of a white family in America is 22 times higher than the median household wealth of a black family. That gap between black and white wealth has doubled in the last seven years. The median black household lost 60 percent of its net worth over the five years since the Bush recession began.

This is Black History month. The history of Black History Month can be traced back to the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the federal government set aside a specific month to honor the contributions black people have made to this country, and to draw attention to the particular struggles endured on this continent by people brought here against their will from another continent across the wide ocean.

The idea of devoting a separate month to the history of African-Americans was controversial in 1976, and even now it remains controversial across the political spectrum. Lots of white people see it as little more than an opportunity to guilt-trip their own kind, and more than a few black people see it as yet another attempt to ghettoize them. Morgan Freeman, the black actor who has played God in the movies, is a high-profile opponent of Black History Month. “I don’t want a Black History Month,” Freeman has said. “Black History is American history.”

Three months after Anderson’s concert, Eleanor Roosevelt presented Anderson with the NAACP’s highest award, the Spingarn Medal, in Richmond, Va.

And that is a legitimate point, to be sure, but what lots of Americans of both races still don’t know and haven’t been taught is how a guy like Morgan Freeman wound up with a last name like his, a reclamation of personal identity for people who had, until they were emancipated, been denied names of their own, taking the names of their owners. Which is why, of course, there are so many black people with names like Jefferson.

Americans don’t know their history very well, no matter what color it comes in. A long time ago, I wrote a couple of books about how much Americans don’t know about their history or heritage. I’d learned from my students that there was a rather astonishing ignorance of history and geography, and that graduating from an American high school didn’t come with much understanding of the American past. There were kids in my college classes who thought that the U.S. had fought a “Silver War,” or who guessed that Chaucer wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

It’s a tired old axiom, the one that posits the notion that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it,” and it’s probably a fair bet that we’d repeat history even if we knew it well, especially where matters of race are involved. But optimism about our future can largely be built on learning from the mistakes of the past. In that light, it probably doesn’t help much for so many of us to be so clueless about what happened before we got here.

Have things changed since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill of 1964? (And, if you’re a college student reading this, do you even know about that historic legislation? Or about Lyndon Johnson, for that matter?) Are things different than they were when black people couldn’t drink from the same water fountains as white people, or when marriage between races was forbidden by law in many American states? Are we a different country now than we were when lynchings were fairly common occurrences?

The answer to those questions is unequivocally “yes,” though the progress we’ve made on the issue of race relations can hardly be said to have resolved the matter. Since this is Black History Month, it might be useful to revisit some of that history, and to take a measurement of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.

Here’s a story from the bad old days. Younger readers won’t remember her, but there was once a singer named Marian Anderson, a black woman of gargantuan talent, with a voice that was the rarest kind of human gift. Hers was the “voice of the century,” according to some opera aficionados. In a notable moment in the history of race in this country, she was to sing at Constitution Hall in the nation’s capital, but the Daughters of the American Revolution, to their eternal shame, refused to let her appear there because of her race.

Rosa Parks’ determination not to be forced to the back of the bus led to the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the event that galvanized the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of it.

To their eternal credit, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt cleared the way for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead, which she did, standing in the place where Martin Luther King would stand more than two decades later when he gave his soaring “I Have a Dream” speech, yet another milestone in the march toward equality in a nation based on that idea.

Eleanor Roosevelt, arguably the most courageous first lady the nation has ever had, dropped her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. For the rest of her life, she received daily hate mail. Long after her husband was dead, she was excoriated as a “nigger lover” and threatened with bodily harm or death from the nation’s legions of racist thugs.

As for Marian Anderson, her concert at the National Mall was a triumph. But she still couldn’t sleep in hotels reserved for whites, or eat in dining rooms or train stations where only white people were allowed. During World War II, when Americans were at war with Germany, Marian Anderson, “the voice of the century,” had to wait outside a train station in Birmingham, Ala., while her German-born pianist, Franz Rupp, went inside to get her a sandwich. Seated cozily inside that train station, where Marian Anderson could not go, were several German prisoners of war.

Think about that for a moment. An American woman of vast accomplishments, hailed by music lovers all over the world, is barred from entering a train station where the nation’s enemies are welcome, but she is not. All because of skin color—hers and theirs.

There was nothing unique in Marian Anderson’s experience of being shut out of public accommodations, nothing really notable about the gulf that separated blacks and whites with the force of custom and law. When Nat “King” Cole, one of the most popular singers of his time, bought a house in a white neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1948, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his lawn.

As recently as 1968, during the so-called “Age of Aquarius,” the racists had a hissy fit over the fact that Petula Clark (a white female pop singer, for those whose memories are short) touched Harry Belafonte’s arm (a black pop singer, for those who may not know) when they sang a duet together on her TV variety show.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 as Dr. King and others look on. It and the Voting Rights Act, passed the following year, were the two most significant civil-rights measures benefiting African Americans since passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in 1865.

The roots of that kind of infantile racism trace back to the antebellum South. In 1860, as the Civil War was looming, some 385,000 American families “owned” other human beings. One out of three residents in the Southern states was considered to be the personal property of those who owned them. In 1865, with the passage of the 13th amendment, nearly 4 million slaves were “freed.”

When Barack Obama was born in 1961, his parents’ marriage would not have been recognized in any of the former slave states of the deep South. Until 1967, all those states still had laws against marriage between blacks and whites, laws ruled unconstitutional that year by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Loving v. Virginia case, a landmark ruling that made it legal throughout the land for people of different races to marry one another. If you’re a college student learning this fact for the first time, you might do well to think of the country your parents or grandparents knew when they were young.

Before we get too complacent about how far we’ve come, or how evolved we now are on the subject of race, it might be useful to remind ourselves of the Trayvon Martin shooting death in Florida, the one in which an unarmed black boy was shot while on his way home from buying candy.

In case you’ve forgotten, that killing took place a year ago this month, Black History Month. The shooter, George Zimmerman, won support from lots of white people across the land, people eager to believe that Trayvon Martin had somehow menaced the man who stalked him and shot him to death.

Compare the Trayvon Martin killing with the Emmett Till case some 57 years earlier, and then ask yourself again just how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve yet to overcome. Emmett Till, a black boy from Chicago killed while visiting kin in Mississippi, was murdered by white men who thought he’d been flirting with the 21-year-old clerk in a grocery store. He was just 14 years old.

J. W. Milam, who admitted shooting the boy, gave an interview to Look magazine in 1955, and though what he said is more overtly racist than anything we’re likely to see in print media these days, the attitudes aren’t a whole lot different than those heard from people who rushed to justify the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Emmett Till, who grew up in Chicago, was visiting kin in Mississippi when he was accused of flirting with a white woman and beaten and shot by a group of white men. Their attitudes were not unlike those heard to justify the killing of Trayvon Martin last year in Florida.

“Well, what else could we do?” Emmett Till’s murderer said during the Look interview. “I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him.

“Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’”

Despite clear evidence, Milam and his accomplice were acquitted by an all-white Mississippi jury. It took them only 67 minutes to arrive at their verdict. One juror said, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

Anyone who thinks the spirit of J. W. Milam is dead and buried need not look far to hear its echo. It can be heard in all those whiny cries from people who say, “I want my country back.” It can be found by spending just a few moments surfing the Web, where it is surprisingly easy to find the ugliest kinds of racism alive and not so well, where the N-word is used by people who hide their identities by calling themselves “Lone Wolf” or “Real American.” Just Google “Obama hate” or any other combination of words that reference the animus directed at our duly elected leader, and you will easily find the craziest and most hateful racist stuff imaginable.

Nor is it a coincidence that several states started talking about seceding from the union after Obama won his second term. And on election eve, anti-Obama riots broke out on the Ole Miss campus, not far from where Emmett Till died less than six decades ago. Most chilling of all were voter suppression efforts reminiscent of years past when African-American voters were kept from casting ballots in several states.

The persistence of racism isn’t entirely lost on us, however. A Pew survey taken last year showed that 61 percent of Americans did not believe that “discrimination against blacks is rare today.” The first step toward fixing a problem is to acknowledge it exists, so that survey result is heartening.

Emmett Till, who grew up in Chicago, was visiting kin in Mississippi when he was accused of flirting with a white woman and beaten and shot by a group of white men. Their attitudes were not unlike those heard to justify the killing of Trayvon Martin last year in Florida.

Black History Month is, coincidentally, the month that saw the birth of Rosa Parks, born on Feb. 4 a hundred years ago. It was only a few months after the killing of Emmett Till when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. That act of courage led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, galvanized the Civil Rights Movement, and inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to the activism that would bring him to national attention.

It’s also heartening that the racism my parents picked up when they were children never found expression in overt acts of prejudice or unkindness toward people of color. And there were other things they taught me that offset the racism they passed along, that served to inoculate me against the bigotry they so thoughtlessly imparted.

We get mixed messages from our parents, and some of those messages tend to cancel out others. For instance, mom and dad taught me to respect other people, especially my elders. That didn’t exactly jibe with what I saw on the streets where my Southern relatives lived in Georgia back in the late-’50s, when grown black men would step off the street into the gutter in order to let me, a skinny white boy, pass by. Nor did it seem right to hear gray-haired black men referred to as “boy,” or to watch tired black women shuffle to the back of public buses.

Our parents may fuck us up, in the words of the poem, but we are not powerless over our upbringing. A knowledge of history can help us gain perspective, can broaden our minds, open our hearts, and teach us things we desperately need to know about our common humanity. As W.H. Auden, another poet, once wrote: “We must love one another or die.” Auden said he “loathed” that poem, and he later amended the line to read: “We must love one another and die.” He had it right both ways.


When we sing “We Shall Overcome,” it’s a good idea to keep in mind that among those things we must overcome is the ignorance we drag with us from the past.

My dad, a factory worker most of his life, died some 10 years after he retired from his job in Illinois and moved to Florida. After his death, his ashes were shipped back north for burial. A lone black man turned up at his funeral, telling my brother and sister that my dad had been his best friend at work.

My mother died less than a year after the first African-American was elected to be president of the United States. Mom’s last vote was for Barack Obama.