“The Great Renaming Craze of 2015” – POLITICO Magazine

While the frenzy to rename building and tear town statues is understandable and sometimes justified (such as the leaders of the Confederacy, whose legacies were solely based on their willingness to use violence to defend the institution of slavery), the students who are now targeting Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, and other national icons have probably gone too far. The historian David Greenberg explains “[w]hy we shouldn’t let a worthy examination of our country’s troubled past become a wholesale condemnation of our troubled forebears.”

“In ruling out of order any consideration of these men’s other historic contributions, a race-only approach more or less guarantees negative verdicts; given the racism that permeates the American past, virtually all of our leaders will necessarily come up short. And ironically, a race-only approach to judging figures from the past also reinforces a “great man” view of history that lays the blame for our failures at the feet of a few individuals while minimizing the role of society as a whole in perpetuating racist practices and institutions.”

One thing the students have done is to force us to confront the past. We can’t continue to ignore or whitewash our checkered past.

“Thomas Jefferson is next target of students who question honors for figures who were racists” | Inside Higher Ed

“At University of Missouri and William & Mary, some place notes on statues honoring the author of Declaration of Independence, calling him a rapist and a racist.”

This is unfortunate. There is no comparison between Jefferson and the leaders of the Confederacy, who fought to preserve the institution of slavery.

To some, the fact that Jefferson was a slave holder is enough to condemn him. But we must look at the broader context of the world in which Jefferson lived. Yes, Jefferson was born into a world of privilege, largely built on the backs of slaves. But in this he had no choice. The institution of slavery was rarely questioned at this time. Jefferson will be part of a generation that will begin to challenge the assumptions and traditions of his native Virginia.

As a product of the Enlightenment, Jefferson embraced values that were antithetical to slavery (equality and freedom). It is clear from his writings that he was aware of the contradictions between his values and his ownership of slaves. It is a blot on his character, but we must remember that Jefferson’s social standing and income rested on this wretched institution. While not completely exculpatory, we must give Jefferson credit for being one of the first among his peers to question the practice. In his day, Jefferson was a radical, even if he was not as radical as we would have liked him to be. In the 18th century it was radical to question the institution of slavery.

In Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he included a clause that accused King George III of “wag[ing] a cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation thither….he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce…”  [full draft] Obviously, this did not sit well with his fellow Southerners (as well as some Northerners) and it was therefore deleted from the final draft.

Jefferson also wrote against the institution of slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782): “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”

Was Jefferson a racist? Yes, guilty as charged, but so was everyone else at the time. And even here, Jefferson was ahead of his time. While he saw them as inferior, he wondered if this was due to “the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move.” (Notes on the State of Virginia) This is in sharp contrast to many of his fellow Americans who saw their inferiority as an intrinsic feature of their race.

There is another important difference between Jefferson and the Confederates. Jefferson articulated the very values that ultimately undermined the slavery. The language of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) provided the language and values to with which to attack slavery, and later all other forms of injustice.

The pursuit of liberty and equality was Jefferson’s raison d’ etre, even if he was unable to fully live up to those values. We should honor Jefferson for his noble contributions, as embodied most poignantly in the Declaration of Independence and the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom. It is these values that we should think of when we see a statue of Jefferson.

“I trust that the whole course of my life has proved me a sincere friend to religious as well as civil liberty” (Jefferson, Letter to the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1809)

Source: Thomas Jefferson is next target of students who question honors for figures who were racists | Inside Higher Ed

“What Does Marriage Equality Have to Do with Dred Scott?” – The New Yorker

Many of those who object to the Obergerfell ruling have compared it to the disgraceful Dred Scott (1857) decision that declared that even free blacks could not be citizens and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional thus effectively nullifying the idea of slave free states. Amy Davidson debunks this flawed analogy in a discerning article at The New Yorker.  The analogy basically fails because “Dred Scott constrains liberty and Obergefell expands it,” but Davidson further breaks down the failures of this analogy by diving deeper into the Scott case. Thus Davidson’s exposé is also a reminder of the shameful racism that is part of our historical legacy.

Why are some using this analogy? Davidson concludes, “In part, Dred Scott is simply being used to give Obergefell a bad name—as pure invective, another way to call the decision rotten and the Supreme Court deluded. This is low enough; Dred Scott is a truly degraded decision, in a way that no other of the Court, conservative or liberal, has since matched. And, in part, the analogy reflects the notion, held by some contemporary conservatives, that they are now the ‘real’ victims of bigotry.”

Read the entire article here: What Does Marriage Equality Have to Do with Dred Scott? – The New Yorker.

 Eliza and Lizzie Scott, children of Dred Scott. Credit Image by Getty/MPI

Eliza and Lizzie Scott, children of Dred Scott.
Credit Image by Getty/MPI

“The Persistence of Myth in Southern Politics and Life”|History News Network

Ron Briley explores the reasons and consequences of the mythic narratives that perpetuate the sense of southern victim hood. “The notion that the Civil War and Reconstruction were foisted upon a defenseless South by a tyrannical central government retains considerable influence in a Southern ideology of persecution…Whether it is lowering the Confederate battle flag, mandating individuals to purchase health insurance, acceptance of gay marriage, or discussions of gun control legislation, there is a siege mentality for many in the South that their way of way in endangered. The region continues to rank at the bottom of most economic indicators dealing with health care, education, and levels of poverty, yet the Confederate flag promotes a legacy of racism that prevents impoverished blacks and whites from establishing common ground.”
Read Briley’s insightful essay on southern politics:

History News Network | The Persistence of Myth in Southern Politics and Life.


“The 100th Anniversary Funeral for ‘The Birth of a Nation'” | History News Network

Have you ever heard of the movie The Birth of a Nation? Me either! After reading Bruce Chadwick’s summary of the movie and watching snip-its from the 1915 film I now know why. It’s a blatantly racist film filled with stereotypes and outright falsehoods. (spoiler alert: the heroes of the movie are the KKK!!) But it was a hit at the time, becoming “one of the most financially successful films of all time.” The success of the movie says a lot about the mind-set of Americans in the early twentieth century. It’s also a testament of how far we have come even as we still have a long ways to go.

Chadwick thinks we should “bury” the movie, relegating it to the dust bin of history. While I think it is a vile movie, I think we can learn from it. It should cause us to reflect on our own willingness to accept stereotypes and myths that, while comforting to some, may be completely false. We are just as vulnerable to mythic narratives that cast ourselves as heroic and others as depraved as were our ancestors.

Today’s racism may not be as overt as it was in the twentieth century, but it is still there. Most of us aren’t racist (or don’t want to be racist), but we are vulnerable to the stereotypes that we are bombarded with in the media. The stereotypes are often subtle but nevertheless very real. Because it is so subtle we are often unaware it. These prejudices play out most visibly in our criminal justice system, where blacks are disproportionately arrested and convicted for crimes that are just as prevalent in white populations. Many of the cops, but not all, are probably being honest when they claim that they aren’t racist. Even well-meaning individuals act in ways that reflect the subtle prejudices that are the result of years of exposure to portrayal of blacks as criminals in the media and movies. A lot of research in psychology backs up this claim.

So, let’s celebrate our progress, but let’s also not forget that we have more work to do.

Read Bruce Chadwick’s history of this movie here:

History News Network | The 100th Anniversary Funeral for “The Birth of a Nation”.


“Dylann Roof Was No Lone Madman” | History News Network

The historian Randall Law explains why Dylann Roof’s crime was an act of terror: “Terrorism is an infection whose best disinfectant is bright sunlight. We – all Americans, left, right, white, black – need to face the painful truth of what happened in Charleston: Dylan Roof is the product of a long-established, widely-held American tradition of racial hatred. In other words, Roof is not alone. History shows us this quite clearly.”

Dylan Roof

“What We’ve Overlooked in the Debate About Charleston: The Connection between Guns and Racism” | History News Network

It is common knowledge that American’s have a short historical memory, but some of that forgetting is politically expedient as well. This is certainly the case when it comes the history of guns in the South. Therefore, it is significant that Robert McWhirter reminds us of this important history: “We associate the American south with guns and consider it the most anti-gun control part of the nation. In reality it was always the most gun controlled. From before the American Revolution until the well after the Civil War slaves couldn’t touch a gun without the master’s permission.  Laws prohibited even free blacks from having a gun, a situation that persisted throughout the Jim Crow south well into the twentieth century.  This was strict gun control.”

Read the entire piece here:

History News Network | What We’ve Overlooked in the Debate About Charleston: The Connection between Guns and Racism.


“The Long Campaign by White Supremacists to ‘Take Our Country Back’” |History News Network

Roy E. Finkenbine gives a brief, but worthwhile, overview of the white supremacists’ efforts to “take our country back” (i.e. restore white supremacy). He writes, “The Civil War decided the questions of slavery and Confederate independence, but it didn’t quash hopes for a continuation of white nationalism.”
Read his summary of this history here:

History News Network | The Long Campaign by White Supremacists to “Take Our Country Back”.

KKK 1950s

“The Long and Proud History of Charleston’s AME Church” |History News Network

“When twenty-one year old Dylann Roof opened fire at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night killing nine worshippers, including its pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, he struck at the very heart of black America.” Manisha Sinha is right, but if it is blow at the “heart of black America,” it is also a blow to the entire nation. It is a reminder of a shameful past, a past that some don’t want to face. But we must if we are to ever to heal as a nation. It is a reminder that we all have a responsibility to call out the lies and prejudices that fuel all kinds of hatred.

And as Rev. Dr. Carolyn McKinstry, a survivor of the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, implores: “Each of us is accountable for ourselves. Each of us must examine our lives and our treatment of others if we are going to have even a remote chance of living with the tremendous diversity that exists in our country. We still have not learned the simple principle of living next door to someone who may be different from us. We have not learned to treat others in the same manner that we ourselves want to be treated. We can begin changing America now, and continue one day at a time, if we have the will.” (Time magazine)

History News Network | The Long and Proud History of Charleston’s AME Church.

AME church S. Carolina