On the Minimizing of African American Civil Rights History

Black History Month started last week. Given that fact, what better way have a post on Black History Month than talk about…Black history?

For some time now, there’s been this ongoing national dialogue in the United States about whether to keep the statues of Confederate generals, slave owners, and ruthless colonizers, to name a few. Those who argue against tearing down such statues often argue that by doing this, we are “erasing history.”

Speaking as someone who was a history major in college, I know for a fact that we are already erasing history. Concerningly, one of those types of history we have minimized so much is a lot of African American civil rights history.

You have certainly heard of Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. You have probably heard of John Lewis, too.

But, you may not know of Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, or Walter Fauntroy, to name a few. And the thing is that it’s not like I’m naming nobodies in this movement—I’m naming people who were prominent on a large-scale level:

  • Abernathy was a close partner and mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Not to discredit Dr. King here, but the support they gave to one another was key—it was not all on Dr. King. Oh, and by the way, he led King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference after King (their president) was assassinated in 1968.
  • Rustin was deeply involved in organizing efforts throughout the civil rights movement, including with the March on Washington. He often struggled to be appreciated even within the movement at the time because of his sexuality (an openly gay man in the 1960s…enough said[1]).
  • Wilkins was the Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from the mid-1950s to 1977. The NAACP played a key role in ensuring that major civil rights legislation passed.
  • Fauntroy was also very much involved in organizing the March on Washington. He was also involved with organizing, among other things, the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965 and the March Against Fear in 1966.

Few people seem to know, remember, and/or mention these four civil rights icons (and many others), and yet we’re worried about…forgetting the likes of Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus?

Considering all that’s going on right now in the United States, maybe some of our worries are misplaced. Our worries are about forgetting Lee and Columbus, but maybe our worries should really be about forgetting the likes of Abernathy, Rustin, Wilkins, and Fauntroy. Because by forgetting the African American civil rights icons of the past, we might not successfully learn from their successes and shortcomings, as well as how to build off of the work they all did in their lifetimes. And who knows—learning from these and many other civil rights icons may teach the current movement for racial justice something about how to move forward and how to navigate through some of the challenges the movement may face in the months and years ahead.

Please note that I will not be publishing a post next Monday.

[1] Rustin’s experience also shows the importance of intersectionality. If you’re not sure what intersectionality is, please read about it here: https://blindinjusticeblog.com/2020/08/24/what-isintersectionality/

Addressing Cancel Culture

As of late, the whole idea of “cancel culture” has received a lot of flack, particularly from some conservatives in the United States political discourse.

But why all the flack, and is it deserved?

As far as I can tell, cancel culture is a term used to describe how, in the eyes of some, too many things get “cancelled” (in other words, boycotted by some people). In a way, the term seems to come from a place of frustration.

And I can understand the frustration. If something I like is cancelled by a group of people, I might feel frustrated as well. I would feel especially frustrated if something I like is cancelled by a group of people, and the reason for cancelling it seems petty or pointless or something I disagree with.

At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that there have been times when cancelling something brought about some form of change. Here are three notable examples:

  • In the mid-1950s, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, there was a bus boycott in Montgomery. A young minister by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. led the boycott. This boycott led to an ordinance being passed that allowed people to sit virtually anywhere on the bus in Montgomery. It also put Dr. King on the path to becoming a prominent and successful voice for African American civil rights.
  • The National Farmworkers Association, led by Cesar Chavez, led a strike against grape growers in Delano, California, in protest of the exploitation of migrant workers. Not only did the boycott eventually lead to a settlement, but it also put into the national limelight the issue of the treatment of migrant farm workers.
  • In protest of South Africa’s system of apartheid, there was a movement toward divestment from South Africa until it ended said system. This movement started in the 1960s but gained momentum in the 1980s. Some credit this divestment movement as a crucial component of ending apartheid in South Africa.

There are other, smaller, examples, but I highlight these two because of how much of an impact these particular boycotts went on to have.

However, I also acknowledge that there are many boycotts that are not successful. For example, movements to divest from fossil fuels have yet to curb global warming, boycotts against Chick-Fil-A for certain anti-LGBTQ+ stances company leadership has taken in the past have not been successful in any way, and Jeff Bezos continues to get richer in spite of all the people (including yours truly) who try to boycott Amazon as much as possible. In fact, it is with great frequency that a boycott, a cancelling of something, gets publicity for maybe a day and then fades into the background.

When considering the fact that some boycotts work, but many don’t, perhaps one should find a medium between mocking any boycott as “cancel culture” and thinking that boycotts are always a recipe for success. Instead, I suggest that perhaps the detractors of cancel culture remind themselves of the times in history that cancelling something actually worked, and that its most ardent supporters get smarter about when and how they cancel something (so as to maybe make a lasting impact). Cancelling something does not guarantee change, but it can help create change, if done effectively.

Why We Should Avoid Revenge

There have been times in my life when I felt wronged by someone. In many, if not all, of these instances, I was tempted to seek revenge on the person who wronged me. Most of the time, I didn’t give in to this temptation. But on a couple of occasions, I did.

I know that I am far from the only person who considers revenge against the wrongdoer. In fact, a recent blog post had to do with the Trump administration seeking revenge against the United Nations, which voted against Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

However, I make a call for all of us, regardless of political affiliation, religious beliefs, or personal views on other matters, to avoid revenge.

One problem with revenge is that revenge is so focused on “getting even” with someone that we fail to consider how our “getting even” might hurt the supposed wrongdoer, or hurt others who have nothing to do with the situation in which we were wronged. The Trump administration’s decision to cut American funding to the UN is an example of this—the administration’s desire to get even with the UN after the vote on the Jerusalem issue will end up lessening the UN’s ability to deliver humanitarian services, and as a result will hurt people who have absolutely nothing to do with Trump’s decision or the UN vote. While I hope that our struggles with revenge will not have consequences as potentially catastrophic as the example from the Trump administration, revenge nevertheless has the potential to hurt others.

If we seek revenge, we could also hurt ourselves. For example, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sought revenge on the Mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey because he didn’t support Christie’s campaign for a second term as governor, and the result of that revenge (closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge) was a scandal that ended any hopes of Governor Christie becoming President Christie in 2016. Examples like Christie’s demonstrate that it really is in our own best interests to avoid revenge.

Critics of my anti-revenge message might say the following: “What about seeking revenge for unjust actions? Wouldn’t that be okay?” Actually, that is not okay. The most effective movements for human rights in recent decades, and the most effective human rights activists, urged people to avoid revenge. Mahatma Gandhi once said that, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Malala Yousafzai didn’t “want revenge on the Taliban, I want education for sons and daughters of the Taliban.” Martin Luther King Jr. said that, “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, rejection, and retaliation.”

I will, however, go one step further than simply urging us to avoid revenge. We should “bless those who persecute us” and “love our enemies,” as Jesus Christ (another proponent of peace) said. We should do what Gandhi, Malala, and Dr. King did, and respond to hatred and hurt with love and compassion instead of revenge.