A Short History of Race in the Americas: Part two
A Short History of Race In America: Part Two
(This is the second part of a long essay I wrote after the death of George Floyd. It is available as a booklet from Amazon.com for $4.95)
The history of race in America is both part of a great story and an ugly story. It is full of hope and promise, death and despair.
The first Asians from China began to arrive in the 1840’s attracted by the California Gold Rush and jobs on the Transcontinental Railroad. The men came without their wives, sending money home and planning to return home. But the economic hardships and political unrest in China made starting a new life in America very appealing. By the 1880’s, there were a 100,000 Chinese living and working in the USA. We have already seen how the clash of peoples of a different appearance and a different culture can result in racial tension. There were serious massacres of Chinese miners along the Snake River in Oregon and in 1871 an anti-Chinese riot in Los Angeles. Some of the perpetrators were convicted but released by the courts on technicalities. Violence against the Chinese, like violence against Blacks, was acceptable to many White people and those to whom the violence was not acceptable mostly kept quiet.
Immigration in the 1800’s was bringing many new people to the Americas, many were Roman Catholic, not Protestant English. They were Irish, Italian, Polish, and Jewish. The native-born Protestant English-Americans of Philadelphia feared and despised the Irish Catholics. This conflict goes back for generations in the British Isles. The Bible Riots of the 1840’s (Philadelphia) went on for days, resulted in 30 deaths with two Roman Catholic churches and convents burned to the ground along with dozens of Irish homes. It was over the Irish Catholic Bishop asking that Irish children in the public schools be able to read from a Catholic Bible rather than the King James Bible. The Anglo-Saxon Protestants accused the Catholics of throwing out the Bible.
Jews, Italians, and Poles all faced similar opposition in New York, Chicago and St. Louis. But the new Europeans were white and looked the other way when it came to the forced labor of African slaves in the Southern states.
The New York Anti-Draft of 1863 started out as a protest by low income Euro-Americans including the Irish against the fact that the rich could pay a fee of $300 and be exempt from the draft. It turned into a race riot that lasted three days, resulted in 105 dead, including 12 lynchings, the burning of several blocks including homes of the rich elites as well as those of African Americans. The working class Whites accused freed Negroes of taking their jobs and that it was a rich man’s war. The New York Militia had been called to assist at Battle of Gettysburg which is why the New York police were overwhelmed. As soon as the New York State Militia got back to the city, things settled down.
The Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the war. After Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg events started to go well for the Union. If General Meade had pursued the Army of Northern Virginia Lee might have surrendered much sooner.
War is the ultimate “us vs. them” human behavior. No one really wins. The stage is just set for the next battle. The Civil War ended legal slavery in United States but set the stage for the “Jim Crow” laws. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln silenced the one voice that spoke clearly for reconciliation and the only one with a clear plan for healing the wounds of war. With his death, the plans for reconstruction disintegrated into chaos. You had nearly 3,000,000 suddenly freed people with no clear plan for absorbing these workers into a paid workforce or a farming economy. Chaos and corruption became the norm. After the failure of Reconstruction, the Jim Crow Laws separated the races in most aspects of life from stores, drinking fountains, restrooms, hotels, schools and even churches. Convict leasing replaced slavery in several southern states. A young man, almost always Black but could be poor White or Native American, anyone considered an undesirable, could be stopped, arrested and convicted on charges ranging from vagrancy, drunk and disorderly to trespassing and sentenced for several months of hard labor. These “chain gangs” were leased out to plantations, railroads, construction crews, coal mines. The lessees were not supervised by the state and conditions were minimal. Sometimes less then minimal. There was no compensation but it wasn’t forever.
Mob lynchings were the real terror used by White communities against freed Blacks. Starting in the 1880’s and continuing well into the 20th Century, a mere rumor of a black man making an unwanted advance on a White woman could trigger a mob enforced lynching. The NAACP estimates there were 3440 racially motivated lynchings in the Southern states between 1882 and 1968. Some were convicted criminals who were turned over to mobs rather than go through the courts. But most of the victims never had a chance to prove their innocence. In 1955 14 year old Emmett Till, visiting from Chicago, was lynched in Mississippi for “offending a white woman” in a grocery store. His murderers were found not guilty
by an all White jury. Since double jeopardy applied to the case and they could not be tried again for the same crime, they confessed to the killing in an article in Look Magazine in 1956. The outrage over this incident fueled the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the emerging Civil Rights Movement.
The end of slavery did not end the racial oppression of African Americans. It just changed the way it worked. Conditions for enslaved American’s in the 1800’s up until the end of the Civil War were challenging and difficult but simple. The African people were property with no rights what so ever except for what their owners might give them. There were two kinds of owners with lots of variations in between: cruel and soft. The cruel would use flogging, frequent sellings and even hunger for control. “Soft” masters had a humane streak, would respect families and avoid flogging. They would view slavery as a way of bringing civilization and Christianity to the “rescued savages.” The quality of life of an enslaved person would depend on their owner and also their skills. Field hands and cotton pickers were the worse off. Someone who had obtained skills as a carpenter, blacksmith, cook, house servant, seamstress, cobbler, or horse trainer could fare bit better but it was a hard life lacking in justice throughout the Southern states.
On the great plains, the new horse culture matured and Native tribes were powerful and aggressive in defending their buffalo hunting grounds against the Euro-Americans coming in wagon trains to fence, graze and farm. There were attacks, violence and death. In 1876, the Northern Cheyenne and the Arapaho defeated the US 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn in the Montana Territory. Native Americans called this the Battle of The Greasy Grass. It was the last major victory of Native Americans against the US Cavalry. Three hundred and twenty three US soldiers were killed or severely wounded. As the Euro-Americans moved west the plains people were pushed back
and moved to reservations. They were coerced into treaties granting them land on the reservations to sustain their way of life. These treaties were never honored and the amount of land was frequently reduced as more Euro-Americans moved into the area. By the 1880’s hunger and despair were the norm in native communities. By 1890 the situation was desperate. In South Dakota nearly 300 Lakota people, mostly woman and children died in The Battle of Wounded Knee in the starving winter from a hail of gunfire from US troops who thought they were under attack. Eye witness accounts are conflicting. There is no way to know how the first shot was fired but the US Officers lost control of their men who went on a rampage and killed any Lakota they could find including woman and children. The Lakota people had been traveling under a white flag of truce. This was the last major military action against Native American people by the US Army. After this. life on the reservation became even more difficult. Children were forced into reservation schools where they could only speak English, had to dress like Euro-Americans and not study their own culture but learn the new ways.
In the cities of the East, New York, Boston, Pittsburg, Detroit, Chicago industry was flourishing. There were jobs; steel mills, factories, meat packers, and rail roads. They paid better than share-cropping in the South. Starting about 1916 onward, thousands of rural workers, White and Black but mostly Black moved North. Called the Great Migration an estimated 2 million African Americans moved to the cities of the North and the West seeking new opportunities. Soon large comfortable African American neighborhoods appeared in all these cities. There was White resistance, racial tension and violence. In 1921, the prosperous African community of Tulsa was burned to the ground with over 30 dead and 800 injured
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in 1909 by both White and Black people to work for justice without discrimination. African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, the first African American PhD from Harvard, worked hard to move the United States away from its racist past. Despite the violence and the tension there was some hope during the Roaring 20’s with the Harlem Renaissance, the poetry of Langston Hughes, the novels of Zora Neale Hurston, the Jazz of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and so many others. Then the Great Depression hit all Americans hard followed by World War II. At the end of the great Depression and just before the War, African American vocalist Marian Anderson, a very accomplished classical singer, was to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington DC. The Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow a Black singer to perform on that stage to an integrated audience. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt intervened and arranged for her to sing an Easter concert on the steps of the Lincoln memorial to an audience of 75,000 and a radio audience of millions.
The segregation of American life spilled into the war. African American troops were assigned to segregated units and Japanese- American citizens who were born in the USA were sent to detention camps. Still, the all Black Tuskegee Airman of the 15th Air Force flew thousands of air attacks in the liberation of Europe and the Navajo Code Talkers kept the Japanese military from cracking the Allied codes in the Pacific. The war laid the groundwork for the post war civil rights movement. It didn’t happen overnight but it got a good but reluctant boost from the military. The army had been segregated since the Civil War. President Roosevelt signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on race or national origin in federal agencies but African American troops still remained in separate
units. In 1948 President Truman issued an order which required equal treatment for all African Americans in the military. Many commanding officers ignored the order at first. It took well over a year to be fully implemented but by 1950, it was in effect. By 1953, the success of fully integrated fighting units of Marines in the Korean War with lack of visible racial tension between the soldiers finally convinced the Pentagon that a fully integrated military not only would work but was desirable.
The rest of society wasn’t so smooth. By 1895, it was clear that Reconstruction had failed. A group of African American and Euro-American leaders in the South agreed to the Atlanta Compromise. African Americans led by Booker T. Washington of The Tuskegee Institute agreed that Blacks would not press their demands in return for consideration for education, jobs, and fair treatment under the law. This was “Separate But Equal” that became the foundation of segregation in the South for the next 60 years. It soon became clear that facilities would be separate but not equal. This is the way it was till the Supreme Court by a unanimous decision in 1954, struck down “Separate but Equal” in schools as unconstitutional. This was the modern civil rights movement which began with African Americans questioning the wisdom of the Atlanta Compromise. Under the leadership of W. E. B DuBois, the National Association of Colored People was created in 1909. It’s mission "to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination".
The anti-Negro Klu Klux Klan had disbanded after the end of reconstruction but was revived in 1915 and had grown to considerable influence in the 1920’s. The revived Klansmen were strict religious fundamentalists, anti-Roman Catholic, anti-Jewish and fanatic White Supremacists. They were probably responsible for many of the lynchings of the 1920’s to the 1950’s.
In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Thus began the Montgomery bus boycott which lasted over a year and successfully challenged the old Jim Crow laws. In 1960, four African American college students sat at a Woolworth lunch counter in North Carolina and ordered coffee. They were ignored till closing. They came back two days later and thus began sit-ins that challenged segregation throughout the South. There was hostility. There was violence but Dr. Martin Luther King called for non-violence in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. Stokely Carmichael called for Black Power. These were turbulent times. There was great effort put into getting Black people registered to vote. In 1963, the Civil Rights March on Washington brought 250,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial to end segregation, end job discrimination and insure voting rights. Racial segregation which allowed job discrimination was the law in most Southern States and the norm in many areas of the North and West. The boycotts, sit-ins and freedom rides on interstate busses were effective and attracted violent resistance. The televised attacks by police dogs and firehoses on peaceful demonstrations in Birmingham Alabama and the murder of three civil rights workers (2 White, 1 Black) who were working to register voters in Mississippi, turned public opinion against those who resisted civil rights. In June, 1963 President Kennedy had announced in a televised address to the American People that he was sending a comprehensive Civil Rights Bill to Congress. After President Kennedy’s tragic death, President Johnson promised to see the Bill through congress. After much resistance, the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was signed into law on July 2, 1964.
The prosperity of the 40’s and 50’s brought better jobs and wages for some African, Asian, and Hispanic families while Native families were often left trapped on the reservations.
Many still remained stuck in neighborhoods with rundown housing, poor schools, drugs, alcoholism, and street gangs. There was often violence and abuse. This was an explosive situation. A pattern was emerging of run down inner cities surrounded by Euro-American suburbs. A new form of separate but not equal. Serious riots in Watts (LA 1965,) Detroit (1965,) and following the shooting death of Rev. Martin Luther King (1968) brought home the violent racial tension in the American people. President Lyndon Johnson had created a commission to investigate the causes of the urban riots and to make recommendations for the future. Under the direction of Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, the report sited lack of economic opportunity, failed social services especially the police, and institutionalized, systemic racism as the cause of the violence and riots.
How do we change history? If we let it run its course, we will repeat the same cycles of compassion and violence. The tragic story will continue.
First…we must own history. It is who we are. We can’t deny it. European people have created both a great civilization and committed great sins against humanity. African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans have survived and triumphed against overwhelming odds. Something of which we can all be proud. Euro-Americans must own the great accomplishments of Western Civilization but stop thinking it as a norm for all of humanity. It is just one part of the great human story.
Euro-Americans should stop equating civilization with the color of skin. (Often sub-conscious, Euro-Centrism is thinking White, Western Civilization is the crown of human history.) We must realize that we are all part of the great story of emerging humanity and that we must change how we think if that story is to make it to the next level. There is only one human race. The DNA that makes us human is 99% the same the world over: the same heart, the same brain, the same lungs, the same skeleton, the same blood, the same emotions, the same gift for language and spirituality, the same ability to love and fear. We can love someone very different from us and have very human babies. The diversity is enormous but only on the surface. Skin color, hair texture, facial features, stature are minor variations of our Great Race. The closest species to us are chimpanzees whose DNA is 96% the same as ours. The last human species other than us, the Neanderthals, died out 27,000 years ago. There is only one human race on earth. But the variations are enormous. We can see that just by looking around. The chromosomes of breeding produce people of differing gifts, gender, color, abilities, and personalities. The accident of birth, history, environment, and culture can be both a plus and a minus. We all have to deal with that. Being human isn’t easy. It’s a challenge.
Second. We should stop thinking of race as skin color and start thinking of race as geography. We are African, European, Native, and Asian with many combinations of all the above. Each with our own story. When a White cop shoots a Black teenager in the back for shoplifting a box of cigars, it’s not just racist but the subconscious sin of Euro-Centrism which is stuck to the bones of any one born White in America. That’s why anyone born in America is a bit racist to one degree or another. Euro-Americans must realize that and deal with it. The Euro Cop, whether he is aware of it or not, is acting from a subconscious script of defending society from someone who is seen as inferior. White bad guys are roughed up and arrested. Black bad guys are shot. This is the message of “Black Lives Matter.” This is not easy. Think about it. White mass murders are often cornered by the cops and arrested to stand trial. African American petty criminals are often shot dead. This is Euro-Centrism at its worse. It’s the same script that justified slavery to many Southerners, that massacred Native and Asian peoples, and justified the lynchings, and creates an awkward, pervasive racial tension in our modern world. We can move beyond this.
All lives are precious—
To ease the pain,
We must not see people as color
But see people in their “story.”
It’s all our story.
We are all part of the Great Story—
In both its shame and the glory.