Seeking to dilute images of its racist past, officials in Montgomery, Ala., voted Tuesday to add the motto “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement” to the city seal.
Los Angeles Times/July 3, 2002
If you want to understand the spin machine that colors our understanding of the American experience, spend a couple of days in Montgomery, Alabama, as I just did. The most direct route from our home in Northeast Florida is navigated along “The Jefferson Davis Highway.” The historic marker on the property now occupied by the DoubleTree Hotel where I stayed commemorates the shooting of an innocent black man by city police. The state capitol dome is surrounded by eight murals which highlight events ranging from the original founding of the region as a “white settlement” by the French to the post-Civil War era depicted by black laborers constructing modern day buildings which, of course, they were then prohibited from entering.
Almost everything in the capitol building is a shrine to the confederacy and segregation. The old state court chamber is identified as the place when Jefferson Davis lay in state. And the only statue in the building is of Lurleen Wallace, the 46th governor and first woman to hold that office, although her 1966 campaign was as surrogate for out-going governor and husband segregationist-supreme George who was term limited. What was known only to her doctor and George Wallace (even she was not told), Lurleen Wallace had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Despite her condition, she continued to campaign and was elected to the state’s highest office but served only 14 months before succumbing to the disease on May 7, 1968.
So let’s give credit where credit is due. Montgomery, Alabama was “the cradle of the confederacy,” having served as the first capital of the secessionist alliance. But what about the added phrase, “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” It is not like a group of white men and women suddenly had a moment of moral consciousness. Or that George Wallace, upon the death of his beloved Lurleen, gave a speech as he left the capitol claiming, “The time has come to atone for the way we have viewed and treated the black citizens of our state.”
Let’s be honest, Montgomery became the locus of the civil rights movement because it was the perfect venue for leaders of the movement to demonstrate both the de jure and de facto legal, social and economic injustice which were ingrained in the state’s history, laws and culture. A more appropriate moniker would be to call Montgomery the epicenter of America’s acknowledgement the aspirational goal of “all men (and women) created equal” was, as Shakespeare wrote, often “more honored in the breach than the observance.”
I found my journey to Montgomery more meaningful in the shadow of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, an event that was not merely spun, but buried with the victims. Which brings me the ultimate purpose of this post, to try and decipher the debate over the “1619 Project,” an on-going examination, according to the New York Times which published the original series, “that aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States narrative.”
As with any historical narrative, the principal author Nikole Hannah-Jones brought her own perspective and life experiences to the work, in some cases overstating the relationship of certain facts to her thesis. To her credit, when legitimate critiques were made, she revised the text in subsequent versions. The best example is her adding the word “some” to her contention colonists fought the Revolutionary War to preserve slavery which was increasingly being questioned by colonial governors appointed by King George III.
The debate has now shifted to the use of Hannah-Jones’ essays as teaching materials in public schools. As reported by Education Week, three state legislatures –Arkansas, Iowa and Mississippi–have introduced bills to ban its use. And U.S. senator Tom Cotton (Insurrectionist-Arkansas) has called for a national prohibition. The Mississippi bill calls the 1619 Project “a racially divisive and revisionist account,” while the Iowa bill claims it “attempts to deny or obfuscate the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded.” My question, “Exactly which fundamentals are they referring to?” Let me guess.
- Puritans came to America to promote religious freedom? According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), “While Puritans sought refuge from the Church of England’s oppression, they in turn oppressed all non-Protestants in the New World, including Puritans advocating separation of church and state, such as Rhode Island founder Roger Willams.” So much for religious freedom.
- America has always been “exceptional?” Again, according to ACTA, “Ironically, the term was coined by Joseph Stalin in reference to America’s proletariat being largely unwilling to join the communist movement sweeping Europe at the time.” Sometimes, exceptionalism is a term on which we can all agree, when applied to the United States.
- Paul Revere was responsible for alerting colonists to the arrival of British troops in Boston harbor? In fact there were five riders that night. And the longest ride, twice the distance of Revere’s, was completed by one Israel Bissell. One might argue Revere’s fame is due to the fact poet William Wadsworth Longfellow found more words that rhyme with Revere than with Bissell.
- And of course the Euro-centric whopper, Columbus discovered America? Despite the fact Norse explorer Leif Erikson outpaced Columbus for this honor by more than 500 years. (Maybe the MAGA shaman thought the crowd was celebrating Viking-awareness day.)
In economics, there is room for Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. In psychology, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. So why not make space in history classes for Hannah-Jones alongside the likes of Donald Ritchie and Albert S. Broussard, authors of the popular high school text American History: The Early Years. Maybe, just maybe, it will avoid another generation of Americans learning, 100 years after the fact, that 300 plus Black Americans were massacred in Tulsa, Oklahoma or other examples of racial injustices which, as so perfectly articulated by comedian David Steinberg, “expose the tattered underwear beneath America’s tuxedo.”
What are those who want to ban the 1619 Project from classrooms afraid of? That students will desert the foundations of the American experience. Or will they, as President Joe Biden suggested in his speech in Tulsa on the 100th anniversary of the death and destruction on May 31 and June 1, 1921, recognize the greatness of America is enhanced every time its citizens’ “come to terms with its dark side.”
POSTCRIPT: There was one upside to my drive from Amelia Island to Montgomery. A sign that life in America is returning to some semblance of normalcy as evidenced by the fact, in rural Georgia and Alabama, “Jesus Saves” billboards and yard signs again outnumber Trump 2020 and MAGA posters.
For what it’s worth.