Our History Books are Woefully Pathetic
Pandemic Diary Entry # 51
July 13, 2020
Strange Fruit written by Abel Meeropol in 1937 and recorded by Billy Holiday
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 a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The other evening I watched the movie Trumbo. I know my history, and intellectually I know how the Red Scare created black lists, threw people in jail and essentially ruined the lives of many.
What I wasn’t prepared for was my deep rebarbative reaction. It started to feel a little too close to home. People’s lives and families were destroyed due to the audacity of our US government’s stance that it was okay to persecute people for having, what was perceived as, radical ideals.
The blind drive to rid the country of people that did not tow the line, while indicative of so many historic times in our history, none-the-less was unjustifiable and cruel.
Let’s start with a definition of Red Scare: Fearmongering about a rise of communism to threaten Western nations, especially from Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in the past, China, Cuba, North Korea, etc. but also from any leftist movements.
The First Red Scare (1917–1920) revolved around fear of a possible attempt to overthrow the US government and to create a new regime modeled on Bolshevism.
The Second Red Scare (1947–1954), was preoccupied with the perception that national or foreign communists were infiltrating or subverting the American society and therefore, the federal government.
But why would the US fear the new Bolshevik (Russian communism) doctrine? The answer is based in capitalism. The American leaders of that time were upholding, with force and over reach (primarily the Sedition Act of 1918 ), the “American Dream”. Our capitalistic system is in complete opposition to Bolshevism. Another important part of this was fear. Fear from something American’s didn’t know, didn’t understand and had never seen in practice. This fear is a large part of why we are where we are today. It takes education to percipitate change. Education seems to have become an anathema to much of American society, and that lack of education often appears to be a badge many wear proudly. Change also threatens people, much fear is rooted in “how will my life change?”
Historically, the “American Dream” did not include people of color. For that matter it didn’t even include women. The overtaking of Native American lands by force, slavery and limiting the vote to white male landowners is hardly an inclusive “American Dream”. And yet, it was these white male landowners, that were so threatened by the possible changes in their way of life, that they fought to save their perceived dreams through the subjugation of everyone else.
During the first Red Scare the US government began to fear the rise of African-Americans advocating for racial equality, labor rights and the rights of victims of mobs to protect themselves.
In March 1919, President Woodrow Wilson said, in response to men returning from the war, “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.”
This Red Summer covered the period from late winter through early autumn of 1919. It was a result of the pernicious movement towards White Supremacy in the US at the time.
Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, describes the Red Summer as “all the blood spilled in the deadliest series of white invasions of Black neighborhoods since Reconstruction.”
To understand current racial unrest, people must understand the Red Summer. “You have whites organized with a specific purpose. They want to keep blacks in subordinate positions so they do not dare assert their equality or autonomy,”— David F. Krugler, author of 1919, The Year of Racial Violence and professor of history at University of Wisconsin.
The Red Summer began with the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan reviving its violent activities in the South. This included 64 lynchings in 1918 and 83 in 1919.
The first act of violence took place in the month of May in Charleston, South Carolina. For the next six months, riots occurred in Southern towns such as Okmulgee, Georgia and Hattiesburg, Mississippi as well as northern cities such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New London, Connecticut. The largest riots, however, took place in Washington D.C., Chicago, and Elaine, Arkansas
While not part of the “Red Summer”, but part of this era was the Tulsa Massacres. It is my hope that this years Juneteenth celebrations helped to educate American’s on the Massacres. For those not listening, the Tulsa Massacres took place between May 31 and June 1, 1921. Mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time is was the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. The attack, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district — at that time the wealthiest black community in the United States, named “Black Wall Street”. The count of the dead has never been determined. There were 36 confirmed deaths, but estimates put the number as high as 300. It is impossible for me to recount the horror of this event, if you would like to learn more I would suggest you start with the History Channel’s The Night Tulsa Burned.
During the Red Summer, on July 27, Eugene Williams, a young Black man was visiting one of the Lake Michigan beaches in Douglas Chicago. Williams accidentally swam on the South Side, which was frequented by whites but not designated as such. He was stoned and then drowned for his mistake.
The rioting in Chicago lasted until August 3, 1919, during which time thirty-eight people died (23 black and 15 white), and approximately 1,000 to 2,000 homes in primarily Black neighborhoods, were destroyed. It is considered the worst of the nearly 25 riots and civil disturbances in the United States during the “Red Summer”.
The horrors of Elaine, Arkansas are less known, and yet they were amongst the top 3 race riots of that year. This began with Black farmers and sharecroppers wanting to improve their lives by unionizing.
Black farmers of the time lived under a system called “debt peonage” also called debt slavery. Under this system, farmers were loaned money or rented land owned by plantation owners; they were then forced to sell their crops to the owners at below-market rates and to purchase their food and other supplies from over-priced plantation stores. Workers were often unable to re-pay the debt, and found themselves in a continuous work-without-pay cycle.
“There was very little recourse for African-American tenant farmers against this exploitation; instead there was an unwritten law that no African-American could leave until his or her debt was paid off,” Megan Ming Francis in Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State
Many in this group were veterans who had served in World War I and they decided to challenge this oppressive system and form the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA). This was not only a challenge to the white supremacy of the area, but to the dearly held system of capitalism, a union would shake the foundation of how plantations made their money.
Like all confrontations there was a long period of dry tinder that blew up into a conflagration.
Between six hundred to one thousand white men, some from outside states were formed to crush a supposed insurrection. They “began to hunt Negroes,” according to a signed affidavit by a white railroad detective named Henry F. Smiddy.
White mobs “slaughtered African Americans in and around Elaine,” according to an account in the Arkansas Gazette.
The newspaper later explained that soldiers in Elaine “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.”
According to reports, 285 Black people were arrested after the massacre in Elaine. A grand jury in Phillips County charged 122 Black men with crimes related to the massacre. “No white attackers were prosecuted, but twelve black union members convicted of riot-related charges were sentenced to death,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based non-profit focusing on criminal justice reform and racial inequality.
“The 12 men accused of leading the ‘conspiracy’ were tortured,” “They had formaldehyde stuffed up their noses. They used electrical shocks on their genitals. They were brought to court in chains and not allowed to see an attorney. They were quickly convicted and sentenced to death within minutes.” — David F. Krugler
The second Red Scare occurred between 1947 and 1954. It is often referred to as McCarthyism.
The second round was still about communism, but this time it was a threat perceived during the Cold War. The Sword of Damocles in this period was the fear of unemployment a powerful tool for stifling criticism of the status quo, whether about economic policy or social ills. Ironically these protectors of democracy actually undermined democracy by suppressing people’s right to expression. These debates are not only ongoing, but are so relevant today. The second Red Scare had essentially two sides, one afraid of the threat posed to national security by the Communist Party and the other emphasizing the threat to democracy posed by political repression.
The number of people on the so called “black list” during this period of time is staggering, they are also almost to a one, representatives of the cultural world.
There was a twist when it came to the African American community during the second red square. Many were fighting for civil rights and liberties, but also for jobs.
Mary Helen Washington wrote in The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s “…it is clear why the CP (Communist Party) attracted blacks, especially during the depression.” For, it was the Party’s leadership in the Unemployed Councils, the National Negro Congress, the Sharecroppers’ Union, the Civil Rights Congress and the Council on African Affairs, among other formations fighting for equality, that lead thousands of African Americans to join the Communist Party, and form a Red-Black alliance — even during the 1950’s McCarthy period.
A more insidious problem was that racists, both in and out of the labor movement, accused anyone opposed to Jim Crow segregation of being a “red.” By the mid-1950s, Black workers were given very little choice. They could either support the Communist Party, whose commitment to Black struggle had never been consistent, nor very strong, or join with Black middle-class leaders who had hopes for the racist Democratic Party.
This is not the first time I have said that one of the many strong roots that holds up our problems in this country is lack of education.
I never learned about the “Red Summer” or how both “Red Scares” impacted Black people. Like the movie which focuses on Hollywood, I only knew it affected actors and writers.
Watching the murders of Black people on national TV in 2020, is probably bringing history to more people than our skewed text books ever did or will.
The difficulty with this is that it brings information but not a balanced, thoughtful conversation to the table.
I have spoken before on my dismay of watching America’s history be taught through bumper stickers. The challenges and changes that we are facing in this momentous period in history deserve more.
The last several years we have seen more and more people stand up for their rights and the rights of others, even if people label their actions un-American. As in 1919 Americans have a tendency to fear what they do not know, do not understand, or have never seen in practice.
To quote Rebecca Solnit: “…the white people who saw this as their country — and only theirs — to run, are right in one key way: their time is running out. They are not literally threatened by violence, much, but they are threatened by something much more powerful, a revision of who matters and who will run things in the future, which is why BLACK LIVES MATTER is the central affirmation. Even to admit that this change is underway is dangerous, because then you might have to admit that it’s just and fair that others share power and opportunity and privilege.”
Confederate flag waving white men wearing flack jackets over Hawaiian shirts, lovingly cradling automatic weapons at BLM marches, tells me that we have a long, long way to go in educating America and finding its compassion.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail
Just a few hours after I posted this The Washington Post put out an article about the Tulsa riots. The first paragraph reads: “Nearly a century after a brutal race massacre left as many as 300 black people dead, this city plans to dig Monday for suspected mass graves from the violence.” This is a very good first step towards healing.
If you liked this please clap and let me know. Thank you
My Horoscope for today: The thing about a fait accompli is that it always takes the other party a little time to catch on. Go about the business of your day. You’ll hear the penny when it drops.
San Francisco weather: 61 degrees and partly cloudy
NYSE DOW opened at: 26225
NYSE DOW one year ago: 27364
Foreign word of the day: sand castle
Spanish: castillo de arena
Italian: castello di sabbia
OED word of the day: pacation (The action of pacifying or calming a person or thing; pacification, appeasement; the condition of being peaceful.’)
Days since Shelter In Place was initiated: 124
Reading: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace / Hagard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons by Paul Anthony Jones / Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Studying: History and Context of Russian Literature
My Black and White Picture of the Day
Something Silly from the Internet: