History in the Now

Throughout this course, we're going to try to connect the past with the present -- and the present with the past. We'll need you to work with us to identify these connections. In that regard, we encourage you to call our attention to items from the news and other mass media sources that resonate with the themes and events discussed in this course.

Today, we thought we might discuss a few of the items that have caught our attention in recent weeks.

Item I: Forced Resignation of Trent Lott Described as a "Lynching"

Pat Buchanan, former Republican presidential candidate, speaking on MSNBC, Dec. 13, 2002: "Senator, let me say, you know, I read Trent Lott's remark. I think there was no malice in that remark. I think there's no malice in his heart. I think there's no malice against black folks in his voting record. I think you can disagree with it, and yet this fellow, this leader seems to me almost on the verge of being lynched in this city. And for the life of me, I don't understand what's going on, not only in terms of Democrats, who are dragging him to the lynching post, but Republicans who won't stand up, as you are, and defend him." Buchanan, speaking on The News With Brian Williams, Dec. 12: "They're beating this man to death in what I think is one of the ugliest mob lynchings I have seen in my life in Washington."

Item II: Georgia School Ban on Confederate-Themed Shirts Sparks Controversy

The Washington Post, Dec. 30, 2002 -- At the beginning of the school year, Dixie Outfitters T-shirts were all the rage at Cherokee High School. Girls seemed partial to one featuring the Confederate battle flag in the shape of a rose. Boys often wore styles that discreetly but unmistakably displayed Dixie Outfitters' rebel emblem logo. But now the most popular Dixie Outfitters shirt at the school doesn't feature a flag at all. It says: "Jesus and the Confederate Battle Flag: Banned From Our Schools But Forever in Our Hearts." It became an instant favorite after school officials prohibited shirts featuring the battle flag in response to complaints from two African American families who found them intimidating and offensive. The ban is stirring old passions about Confederate symbols and their place in Southern history in this increasingly suburban high school, 40 miles northwest of Atlanta. Similar disputes over the flag are being played out more frequently in school systems -- and courtrooms -- across the South and elsewhere, as a new generation's fashion choices raise questions about where historical pride ends and racial insult begins . . .

"This is our heritage. Nobody should be upset with these shirts," said Ree Simpson, a senior soccer player at Cherokee who says she owns eight Confederate-themed shirts. "During Hispanic Heritage Month, we had to go through having a kid on the intercom every day talking about their history. Do you think they allow that during Confederate History Month?" Simpson said no one complains when African American students wear clothes made by FUBU, a black-owned company whose acronym means "For Us By Us." Worse, she says, school officials have nothing to say when black students make the biting crack that the acronym also means "farmers used to beat us." Similarly, she says, people assume that members of the school's growing Latino population mean no harm when they wear T-shirts bearing the Mexican flag...

In an angry letter to Cherokee Principal Sebring posted on its Web site, Dixie Outfitters called the two families who complained about the shirts -- but asked not to be identified publicly -- "race baiters." "Are you going to ban the American flag, if one or two people out of 1,800 find it offensive, because it had more to do with the slave trade than any other flag, including the battle flag?" the letter asks.

Item III: Emmet Till's Mother Dies at Age 81.

Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jan. 12, 2001: Chicago --- Mamie Till Mobley was remembered in two days of funeral services that were solemn at times, energetically
uplifting at others. She was praised for being a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement, a loving teacher of African-American youth and a courageous mother who devoted more than half her life as a testament to her only son, Emmett Till, lynched in
Mississippi 47 years ago . . .

Mobley died Monday at 81 of heart failure, one day before she was to travel to Atlanta to speak about her son's murder as part of closing ceremonies for a popular exhibit, "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America." Mobley's 14-year-old son, Emmett, was abducted in the Mississippi Delta, ravaged, murdered and tossed in a river in late summer 1955 after he purportedly whistled at a white woman at a country store in Money, Miss. Two white men --- the woman's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, both now deceased --- were tried on murder charges and acquitted. They later admitted killing him in a magazine story that one of them subsequently disclaimed. The Till case became a major catalyst for the civil rights movement when, days after his body was pulled from Mississippi's Tallahatchie River, his mother decided on an open-casket funeral for him in Chicago as a testament to the brutality he suffered. The sight of Till's marred face outraged people across the nation.

Item IV: For Some African Americans, Kmart Ads Recall Degrading Imagery of the Past

The Washington Post, Jan. 15, 2003: With little more than a goofy smile and an even goofier dance, underwear model Vaughn Lowery has rocketed into the pantheon of ephemeral American advertising pitchmen. In a series of 30-second commercials for Kmart's Joe Boxer line of undies, sheets and whatnot, Lowery doesn't sing or have a catchphrase or even speak. Instead, stripped to his skivvies, his shaved head gleaming, he hangs a delighted, unself-conscious expression on his face and dances to some up-tempo, "Austin Powers"-ish lounge music. . .

To some, the image of an African American man dancing giddily in his underwear connects with some painful historic imagery. "It's a loaded image," says William Jelani Cobb, an assistant professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta. Cobb sees in Lowery's antics the long-discarded face of black subservience and smiling compliance -- the minstrel, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima. "To depict a black man this way," he says, "it's just coonery." Mark Anthony Neal, an author and critic of African American culture, invokes another onerous icon: "I suppose it was intended to be good-natured and good-hearted, but there are elements of Sambo-ism in it."

Lowery has heard the knocks on the commercials, but suggests such criticism comes from people who "are taking it all way too seriously. It was a job. I'm an actor who did his job." It's important, he says, to remember that Kmart's ad agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day, "never asked to see an African American guy dance; they asked for funky, cool, down-to-earth ethnic types to be in a commercial. . . . Some people don't see the individual. Isn't it kind of interesting that the individual in this case happens to be an Ivy League graduate?"

Yet some viewers say the race of the actor is part of the reason for the commercial's power. "On one level, I can't even imagine that this commercial would be made with a white guy dancing," wrote one anonymous critic at Negroplease.com, one of many Internet sites on which the ad has been debated. "And on another level, if it was made with a white guy dancing, I don't think anybody would even bat an eyelash. There is something about it being a black man doing the shucking and jiving that makes it click. And I think that's what's making [me] uncomfortable."

This is a point that resonates with Neal, an English professor at SUNY-Albany and the author of "Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic." "If we lived in a colorblind society, we wouldn't react the same way to it," he says. "Taken as what it is, it's humorous. He looks like he's happy that his underwear fits! But there's a visceral core to this that you can't escape."

Cobb, the Spelman professor, says the reaction to the ad may be stronger among older African Americans, who remember segregation and the images of black subjugation that accompanied and preceded it. Young people, he says, aren't necessarily aware of the past, or as emotionally connected to it.

Item V. Scorcese's "Gangs of New York" Brings 1863 Draft Riots to Big Screen

The Washington Post, Jan. 4, 1863: The draft riots of 1863 in New York have long seemed to fly beneath the radar of many historians. But they are now getting their first large-scale cinematic rendering -- albeit briefly -- at the end of Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York." The casualty figures vary. But in what remains one of the most lethal urban riots in U.S. history, more than 100 were killed and hundreds injured July 13-16 in a city that seemed to buckle beneath an overwhelming influx of immigrants, pain and poverty.

The rioting was sparked by President Lincoln's Conscription Act, a draft to bolster the Union forces during the Civil War. The law had a caveat: For $ 300 one could avoid the draft. That exception was akin to creating class distinctions with an ax, especially for Irish immigrants, newly arrived and on fragile economic footing: The swells of Manhattan, went the thinking, could avoid war. Democratic Party members were quick to link the draft orders with the abolitionist cause.

The riot erupted July 13 at Third Avenue and 46th Street, site of the New York City draft office and the lottery wheel from which names were being drawn. The office was torched. The throng of rioters swept down to Second Avenue, where they stole nearly a thousand rifles from an armory. After that, they swung back toward what is now Midtown, the area of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, joining a growing mob. The clash involved both looting and lynching -- the death toll included 15 blacks -- and was quelled only on its third day when crack federal troops -- some had fought at Gettysburg; many were Irish themselves -- arrived on orders from the War Department.

Item VI: Rep. Charles Rangel of New York Introduces Bill to Reinstitute the Draft

Knight-Ridder News Service, Jan. 8, 2003 -- Three decades after the military draft ended, a small group of Democratic lawmakers wants to bring it back. They seek to spread the risks and burdens of a possible war with Iraq to the white, middle- and upper-middle class men and women who seldom volunteer to serve in the armed forces. A bill introduced Tuesday by Rep. Charles Rangel of New York is unlikely to become law -- the Pentagon opposes it --but it throws a spotlight on issues of patriotism, sacrifice and fairness in an all-volunteer military that in its enlisted ranks is disproportionately poor and African-American or Hispanic. Rangel, a vocal opponent of war with Iraq, proposes drafting 18- to 26-year-old men and women for military duty or national service. He would eliminate the exemptions for college or graduate school students that allowed many white, middle- and upper-middle class men to avoid fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam a generation ago. If President Bush declares war, Rangel said, he should ensure that Americans from all walks of life fight in it. "I truly believe that those who make the decisions and those who support the United States going to war would feel more readily the pain that's involved, the sacrifice that's involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who have historically avoided this great responsibility," said Rangel, a decorated veteran of the Korean War.

Item VII: Confederate Heritage Groups Oppose National Park Service Plans to Erect Statue of Lincoln in Richmond

The Washington Post
, Jan. 9, 2003: Confederate heritage groups would like to do something Gen. Robert E. Lee's army couldn't accomplish 138 years ago: keep Abraham Lincoln out of Richmond. A statue of the 16th president will be dedicated in April at the Tredegar Iron Works. The site is next to a National Park Service visitors center that tells the history of Tredegar, a foundry above the James River that forged Confederate cannons.

But as with some other works of art -- including a statue of Richmond native and tennis great Arthur Ashe and a banner of Lee -- news of the Lincoln statue has touched a nerve in the former capital of the Confederacy. Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) said, "Putting a statue to [Lincoln] there is sort of like putting the Confederate flag at the Lincoln Memorial." Black was so perturbed by news of the statue that he agreed to a request from the Virginia chapt er of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to ask state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) whether any Virginia laws prohibit placing the statue at Tredegar. None do.

That means the statue is on track for its April 5 dedication, 138 years and a day after Lincoln and his 12-year-old son, Tad, alighted from a boat to tour a city still smoking from the fires a retreating Confederate Army had set the day before. "A lot of people think that Lincoln came to Richmond to do an end-zone dance, but it was just the opposite that he was doing," said Edward C. Smith, director of the American studies program at American University and co-director of the Civil War Institute, a week-long seminar devoted to studying the war. Others see Lincoln's whirlwind trip as a victory lap, a humiliation of the city. "He sat at Jefferson Davis's desk and propped his feet up on the desk," said Bragdon Bowling, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' Virginia division. Bowling said his group will continue to protest the statue's placement and is planning a conference to highlight Lincoln's less-admirable qualities.

ItemVIII: Virginia State Legislators Asked to Express Regret Over Closing of Public Schools

The Virginian-Pilot, Jan. 10, 2003 -- State legislators are being asked to formally express regret over the closing of public schools in Prince Edward County in 1959, an act of defiance against court-ordered desegregation that disrupted the education of 2,300 black children. Del. Viola O. Baskerville, D-Richmond, introduced a resolution this week at the request of several constituents who lived in Prince Edward in the 1950s and were affected by the school closings. ``At some point, Virginia must take a stand and express to the people of the commonwealth its regret,'' she said. Baskerville said she wanted to offer the resolution in acknowledgment of next year's 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. She is asking for an expression of regret rather than an apology from the General Assembly. That could ease possible concerns that the resolution, if approved, could leave Virginia legally liable to blacks who were closed out of schools.

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