The past isn't dead: Teaching the truth about America's racial history is critical

Most Americans believe we're a long way from Birmingham in 1963. But that history still fuels today's conflicts

Published August 6, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Schoolchildren and students demonstrated in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, on May, 02, 1963, during a civil disobedience campaign to protest against racial segregation. (AFP via Getty Images)
Schoolchildren and students demonstrated in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, on May, 02, 1963, during a civil disobedience campaign to protest against racial segregation. (AFP via Getty Images)

Communities across the country are debating how, or even whether, to teach about race in American history in our public schools. Opposition to age-appropriate education focusing on the role of race in American life often emphasizes the "divisiveness" of such subjects. Advocates of such a view are right — but not for the reasons they might think.

Teaching critical perspectives on the role of race in American life is divisive because it shines light on "habits of history" that white Americans have developed over time to avoid discomfort, or to maintain what James Baldwin called white innocence. These habits show themselves in many ways, including contemporary legal and legislative activity that have made it more difficult — again — for Black Americans to exercise their right to vote.

Eyeing electoral success, conservative political leaders criticize an elite minority for pushing their "woke" agenda on the rest of the country to maintain power. I recently heard a statement from an elected official that sums up this perspective.

He said, "The so-called woke movement is a part of an attempted takeover of our country by the lazy, the indolent … the ignorant, and by some misguided religionists and bleeding hearts, and all being led by the politicians who stay in office by appealing … not to reason, but to the most votes."

The statement touches on three familiar, longstanding themes in conservative American politics. The first theme is that there is an attempted takeover of the country by people who are seeking to destroy it from within. Next is that progressive candidates pander to Black and other communities of color against the best interests of the country. Finally, conservative opposition to progressive agendas is commonsensical, pushing back against efforts to buy votes of the those who depend on government handouts.

Curious who the elected official is?

It was Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor, commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, for more than 25 years, a period coinciding with the height of civil rights organizing and direct action in the 1950s and 1960s. He died in 1973.

Connor is most famous for enforcing Jim Crow segregation and overseeing the brutal and violent Birmingham city response to civil rights organizing in the early 1960s. He ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against peaceful protesters. He stood by as members of white supremacist organizations brutalized people engaged in nonviolent direct action.

Connor also advocated for continued use of the poll tax and other tools that purposefully suppressed the ability of Black citizens to vote.

I will admit that I changed one word in Connor's statement, substituting "woke movement" for what he actually said, which was "the so-called Negro Movement." I also omitted "beatniks" from his list of groups he believed were seeking to destroy the country. 

It only takes changing one word and omitting one cultural reference to bring Bull Connor's words on the "Negro Movement" into our current debate about "woke."

But it only took changing one word and omitting one outdated cultural reference to bring Connor's words into our current moment. Ishena Robinson's treatment of the history of the term "woke" shows just how easily it can stand in for "Negro" in Connor's statement. The term began in the early 20th century as shorthand for the need for Black people to remain vigilant against the dangers posed by policies and practices that enforced white supremacy.

Right-wing appropriation and use of the term targets those who seek to address the deep and abiding effects of racism, whether they are Black, white or otherwise.   

We are not as far away from Bull Connor as many Americans would like to believe. 

It's hard to fathom that there are many Americans, and especially white Americans, who would want to be associated with one of the most notoriously racist public officials of recent history. Yet opposing age-appropriate education about race in American history and contemporary society will keep that association alive.

Avoiding these difficult realities will make it harder for people to see disturbing continuity across time in the way that many of our leaders talk about, and legislate on, matters related to race and American life — which is to say, most matters in American life.

It is tempting to see decisive discontinuity with the past, a past in which many white Americans sat on the sidelines in the face of racialized violence, voter suppression and brutal police responses to nonviolent protest. Many such white people, to be sure, supported gradual change, but only if it was not too divisive for society.

In August of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. famously referred to the "tranquilizing drug of gradualism" to highlight the urgency of seeing continuity between histories of racial injustice and contemporary inequalities. He was pushing white America to make good on the promise of the "magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. famously referred to the "tranquilizing drug of gradualism" to highlight the urgency of seeing continuity between histories of racial injustice and contemporary inequalities.

As a country, we have some strong habits in relation to history that make it hard to meet King's challenge. In her award-winning book "South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to the Soul of a Nation," Imani Perry argues that Americans have a habit of ignoring the many parts of the country's history that don't fit a redemptive story. We may have a racist past, such a perspective suggests, but we are a different country now, a better country.

Many Americans, especially white Americans, have a habit of seeing discontinuity over continuity when it comes to race and racism. We tend to think that history is just in the past, rather than seeing how history continues to live in the present, especially for Black communities.

This particular "habit of history" has profound implications for people's lives. 

When he was decrying the "so-called Negro Movement," Bull Connor zeroed in on the implications of equal access to the vote as an existential threat to the country. He knew that truly equal access to the political process would undermine systems of power built for white Americans.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not disagree, but for vastly different reasons.

In 1957, King denounced the "Southern Manifesto" signed by more than 100 Southern members of Congress in protest of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education that ended racial segregation in public schools. He said, "Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a 'Southern Manifesto' because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice."

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting practices. The law required jurisdictions with large disparities in black and white voter registration and participation to get approval from the Department of Justice for any voting procedure changes, or "preclearance."

And it worked. Racial disparities in many preclearance jurisdictions improved dramatically over time. Still, even after four decades of progress, Congress and President George W. Bush agreed in 2006 that the Voting Rights Act continued to have a vital role to play in protecting democratic life in the U.S., reauthorizing it through 2031.

In 2012, however, officials in Shelby County, Alabama, sued Attorney General Eric Holder, arguing that the preclearance system was no longer appropriate given the narrowing of racial disparities in voting. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority in Shelby v. Holder, concurred: "Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically."

"[H]istory did not end in 1965," Roberts wrote. "By the time the Act was reauthorized in 2006, there had been 40 more years of it." That history, the majority found, obviated the need for the preclearance system.

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And just like that, the Supreme Court ruled the bases of the preclearance system unconstitutional. As far as voting is concerned, the majority found, the racist past was largely behind us.

One day later, the North Carolina legislature showed that such a claim was premature, announcing an omnibus voting bill that would not have made it through the preclearance system. Newly freed from the Voting Rights Act preclearance mandates, the legislature quickly passed a restrictive law that, according to the federal appellate court that eventually struck it down, targeted Black voters "with almost surgical precision."

The Voting Rights Act continues to protect access to democratic processes through its ban on voting practices and procedures that discriminate on the basis of race and color. Advocacy organizations and voters can still seek redress through the courts when they believe that states enact discriminatory voting legislation, as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP did in North Carolina.

The Shelby v. Holder decision viewed the Voting Rights Act preclearance system as initially necessary to address efforts to suppress Black votes. Having achieved the goal of reaching parity or near parity in voting access in covered jurisdictions, however, the court decided that the system was no longer necessary. The Shelby decision acknowledged that voting discrimination persists, just not enough to justify the preclearance system. 

What the Supreme Court's Shelby decision does not acknowledge is the degree to which the racial motivations behind restrictive voting practices remain a feature of American life.

In a recent decision upholding revised application of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the court reinforced its view, articulated in Shelby, that the legal system is the most appropriate venue for addressing claims of discriminatory practices in voting. Such lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming, however, and shift a substantial burden to the affected communities themselves.

Moreover, while lawsuits wind their way through court systems, elections happen, often with outcomes that deepen impediments to voting for Black communities. Recent efforts targeting Black voters in Florida exemplify these dangers. 

What the Shelby decision does not acknowledge is the degree to which the motivations behind restrictive voting practices remain a feature of American life. This failure has become evident, considering robust post-Shelby efforts to enact restrictive voting measures.

Seeing history as just the past, as something that progress disconnects us from, is a habit. We learn it from a variety of sources. Perhaps most significant among them is that structures of American life make it possible for many white Americans to shield themselves from the ways in which history is present in Black lives, whether in the form of wealth inequality, de facto housing segregation, police violence, mass incarceration or vastly unequal access to quality health care.

The Shelby decision is a remarkable example of this habit at work. Efforts to restrict Black votes have a long history.

Like all habits, seeing history as just the past is often unconscious. But once we see that a particular habit gets in the way of living our deepest values, as King challenged us to do in 1963, we have the power to change that habit if we desire.

Denying historical continuity in matters of race does not make "divisive matters" go away. It creates conditions in which they fester and cause divisions to deepen over time, leading to unnecessary suffering.

Without teaching critical perspectives about history in the U.S., it will be too easy for well-meaning future white voters to believe that restrictive voting measures are, in fact, about "election integrity." Such a perspective is impossible to maintain with a historically informed understanding of contemporary debates about voting. We need to change our "habits of history" to move as far from Bull Connor as many of us would like to believe we already are.

By Caleb Elfenbein

Caleb Elfenbein is a professor of history and religious studies and associate dean for faculty development and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Grinnell College in Iowa. He is the editor of Mapping Islamophobia and author of "Fear in Our Hearts: What Islamophobia Tells Us about America."

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Civil Rights Commentary Education History Jr. Martin Luther King Racism White Supremacy