Elmer Smith: Black History and the revisionists

Posted: February 15, 2011

I NEVER WRITE Black History Month columns.

I think it's because I remember Negro History Week, which had the same demeaning effect on me as the 51 other weeks of American history.

The way history was taught in public schools when I was a student made it seem that our greatest accomplishment as a people was to shuffle out of bondage into second-class citizenship.

Our history from 1619 to 1870 was that we were brought here as slaves and worked without pay until some good white folks saw fit to set us free.

The end.

The period from 1870 to 1960 hardly mentioned us at all. We could read more about blacks in that era on the backs of baseball cards than in the history books we were taught from.

Today, the text they use in the school district's mandatory African-American history course offers a much more balanced view for all students.

I just hope they're learning enough to avoid falling victim to revisionist histories in this year's season of historical commemorations.

Between the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday and our obligatory commemoration of Black History Month, we're being buffeted by a perfect storm of redacted history.

Revisionists are having a ball with the Civil War. To hear them tell it, slavery was a mere footnote. All over the South this year, sons of the Confederacy are holding secession balls to celebrate the "brave" stand their ancestors took to defend the holy principle of states' rights.

In Virginia and South Carolina, local historical societies have donned their hooped skirts and period suits to re-enact this mythical period when Southern gentility took a stand to protest the tyranny of the federal government.

They never mention that their esteemed forefathers didn't invoke states' rights while insisting that the federal government impose the Fugitive Slave Act on Northern states.

They never read the words of Alexander Stephens, first vice president of the Confederacy, who declared that "proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization" was "the immediate cause" of the war.

American government, Stephens wrote, is based upon the "great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man: that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."

Confederate President Jefferson Davis cast it in economic terms. Excluding slavery from U.S. territories, as Lincoln had proposed in his campaign, would reduce the value of slaves, "thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars." (My italics.)

States' rights was also the code word that the great communicator Ronald Reagan used in 1980 when he opened his first presidential bid in Philadelphia, Miss., scene of one of the most notorious, racist assassinations in civil-rights history.

Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were kidnapped and brutally murdered by Klansmen in July 1964. A few weeks earlier, a black church was firebombed and worshippers beaten by Klan members in Neshoba County, just outside Philadelphia.

Reagan chose to open his campaign in that white-supremacist stronghold without so much as a mention of the fact that they died because they were working to register black voters in Neshoba County.

The great communicator of American values couldn't bring himself to mention Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Instead, he pledged his fealty to states' rights, which he knew to be code for the new Southern strategy.

It worked. Reagan is hailed as the father of the conservative movement, who expanded upon the GOP's Southern strategy and was most responsible for the ascendency of the Republican Party.

But his decision to ignore that history of racism was entirely consistent with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his attempts as president to water down the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and his opposition to sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime.

America has a lot to thank Ronald Reagan for. But we should never forget the cynical ploy of his campaign strategy any more than we should forget why we sacrificed 620,000 American lives in the Civil War.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ElmerSmith

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