This week the Civil War was raging in my classroom.
In many ways I think that this statement could refer to the United States on any regular day, of any regular year. The Civil War never stopped raging for many Americans. It’s a famous cliche that the South will rise again, implying that the Civil War continues to rage, but at a low ebb.
The recent events in Charlottesville stand as evidence that, for many, the meaning of the Civil War is still alive and up for debate and passionate, even murderous defense. It is fair to say that the teaching of the Civil War in my classroom has taken on a deeper and more urgent significance as a result.
Introducing the Civil War was the subject of this blog last week, when I used Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address to explain the importance of patriotism and the need for understanding those whom we deeply oppose.
This week the Civil War is in full swing, as the student and I discussed the Fugitive Slave Act, the Compromise of 1850, the Anaconda Plan and the early battles of Bull Run and Antietam.
The students are more interested in this subject I find; more interested than they were in the American Revolution, and definitely more interested than the War of 1812. As a rule, the Civil War ranks higher in excitement and drama in the minds of teenagers than other wars, with the great exception being the sacred Second World War. I promise to post a comment of that war in the future, but this week the Civil War begs for understanding.
Rather than dive into the battles, which are endlessly entertaining and awesome, I spent time this week talking about one of my greatest heroes, Harriet Tubman.
The story of Harriet Tubman is one of the greatest movies that Hollywood has never dared to make. In fact I am continually baffled that Hollywood has not made a Tubman bio-pic. Hers is a story full of drama and action, heroism and inspiration.
Why Hollywood would not want to capitalize on the true story of a great American is a mystery, especially when someone in Tinseltown keeps approving another terrible Transformers sequel.
Perhaps it is because she reminds us of how wrong this country has been in the past. Like 12 Years A Slave, movie studios are reluctant to make movies that turn off Southern moviegoers with unpleasant reminders of an unfinished chapter in our history. It is white privilege to ignore this unpleasant but amazing part of our national story.
Harriet Tubman really needs no introduction, but in case you are anything like my students she just might need some explanation.
Tubman was a runaway slave, having been born into slavery in Maryland. She escaped to Philadelphia, and became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.
She is a real hero, I explain, because she went back to Maryland to free her entire family from slavery, slowly, in small groups, over many missions.
Each time she went back into slave country, Tubman risked a terrible justice at the hands of her former masters, who would have been legally empowered to rape, torture, mutilate and lynch Tubman if they caught her.
In fact, there are even conflicting histories of Tubman that offer disputed accounts of bounties offered for her capture. Her return to slave states to steal slaves from their master was common knowledge, and historians debate if the price on her head was $12,000 or $40,000. Either sum would have been a huge amount in today’s money. Either way, Tubman still went back, facing possible murder and death at the hands of a motivated and enraged white population.
This description of the dangers she faced often shocks my students, as I am sure they do not think about what terrors were commonplace under chattel slavery. In fact I have yet to have any class that understood the reality of lynching in this country. This absence in their comprehension is a shocking shame, in my opinion.
Tubman planned her mission with skill and ingenuity. She disguised herself, even carrying a pair of chicken she could shake as a distraction in case she was recognized and needed to flee.
She use lines from the Gospel Spirituals as a coded language about her intentions when communicating with potential escapees. She once even threatened to shoot a runaway of her dared to run back to his captor, afraid of going through with escape and endangering Tubman and others in his uncertainty.
I offer Tubman to my students as an example of a great American. She risked her life to do what was right, and to oppose injustice and evil. She put her life on the line, again and again, to help others without any concern for herself. She served others while serving a mission she felt came directly from God.
She was a true patriot, I argue to my students.
And she was also a career criminal.
Under the Fugitive Slave Law, as upheld by the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v Sanford, slaves were defined as the property of white men, and could therefore never be considered people, nor citizens.
This infamous decision, by far the worst ever in the history of the Supreme Court, legalized slavery everywhere in the United States. As a result of this decision, African Americans everywhere could be kidnapped and thrown into slavery, even if they had been free men. According to the Supreme Court, African Americans everywhere could be considered the property of whites, without recourse to the justice system for protection.
Tubman, therefore, was breaking the law of the United States by leading slaves out of bondage to freedom in Canada. Every time she led slaves to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad she could have been convicted of violating the law for each human she saved.
In eleven years, Tubman is credited with saving over seventy people from slavery during thirteen different missions into the South.
Harriet Tubman, I emphasize to my students, was a professional career criminal. Harriet Tubman, I explain, was a great patriot. Tubman teaches us that patriots risk their lives for what is morally right, even if it is legally criminal.
Patriots break the law when the law is immoral.
This is a shocking conclusion to some, I realize. It is shocking because today when we seem protesters breaking the law to oppose evil or injustice, some call for law and order. Some call for all lives to matter.
When someone is unaware of the history of Harriet Tubman and others who fought to make this country great, these criminal acts might seem beyond the pale. This, I argue to my class, is why history is important.
If you are unaware of the real greatness of American Patriots like Harriet Tubman, you might find yourself supporting immoral laws that deny the moral dignity and civil rights that are so clearly enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.
You might even find yourself holding a tiki torch and marching in Charlottesville, because the neo-nazi’s we all saw there definitely never learned their history.
Still unconvinced, I explain that Tubman is not the only example of greatness that dared to break the law in support of a higher moral law.
Maybe you have heard of Martin Luther King, Jr., I argue to my students. MLK was also a career criminal, like Harriet Tubman. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested thirty times before he was thirty years old. He deliberately broke the laws of white supremacy, known as Jim Crow, throughout the South. He went to jail, again and again, to show us all that there is a higher moral law that all patriots are called to follow.
In King’s immortal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he wrote the iconic lines, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
King teaches us, I explain to my class, that we cannot sit comfortably here in our class, in our school or in our town when others in our nation are suffering injustice. It is our responsibility to act for justice because it is the moral obligation of patriots to history.
Tubman felt the same way, nearly a hundred years before King wrote those words, I tell my students. Tubman felt that she could not sit idly by in Philadelphia and not be concerned about what was happening in Maryland. She could have lived a quiet, free life, but instead she decided that injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere. She felt that she could not accept personal safety.
But, some may wonder that if both Tubman and King were breaking the law then how can they be positive lessons for my students. In fact my students sometimes ask me if it is right to break the law.
Luckily, Dr. King answers this question for us.
He wrote, “One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
An unjust law is no law at all. Patriots are called to challenge unjust laws.
Thomas Jefferson even wrote this in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson explained that our own revolt in 1776 was just and proper because, “…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is [our] right, it is [our] duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for [our] future security.”
Jefferson explains that when the law, the king, or the government becomes unjust the people have the duty to break the law and cast off the injustice. Jefferson doesn’t just give patriots permission to break the law. Jefferson gives patriots the duty and responsibility to break the law.
Patriotism has a long tradition of criminality. Tubman, King, Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debbs and many, many others have carried forth this duty as lessons to us all. My students need to see that example or they may obediently sit back and watch injustice somewhere grow to become a threat to their own safety and freedom; indeed, a threat to justice everywhere.
So, this is dramatic and inspiring to some of my students. To others, however, it seems as if their history teacher is going off on another tirade again. “There he goes again…” (eyes rolling)
I often have to remind myself that I work with children. It helps to keep me grounded and humble.
What might seem obvious and important frequently misses the mark in the eyes of an adolescent. Why else would a movie like “The Emoji Movie” be more popular at the box office than the wonderful film “Detroit”, about the Detroit Race Riots?
So a connection to today is essential in this lesson. I need to show my class why Tubman is a hero today. They need to see how her example should guide us now.
This week, Donald Trump announced that he was ending the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, allowing Congress six months to pass immigration legislation to prevent the deportation of nearly 800,000 law abiding, tax paying Americans who have never known any other nation but whom also lack proper government documentation.
This is truly the absence of leadership. Instead of ending the program and suffering the blame of dealing an unsympathetic blow to a group Trump promised he would protect, he has chosen to pass that buck to Congress.
(Remember when Truman had a sign on his desk that read,”The Buck Stops Here”? #MAGA)
Congress has been unable to pass any significant immigration reform in the last eighteen years. If DACA expires, as it definitely will, then we will be facing a time of great injustice to a vast number of people in this country. They may not be citizens, but they embody all that makes this nation great. They work hard, pay their taxes and obey the law. They are in DACA because they stepped forward to identify themselves to the government, and now may be repaid for that honest courage with a rude deportation.
Like Tubman, they could have remained silent and played the odds that they could continue to live in the darkness. Instead, like Tubman, they stood up and did the right thing. Like Tubman, the DACA Americans are people considered un-people under the law. They are powerless to seek legal justice, like Tubman was powerless when slavery was the law of the land. While the DACA Americans do not face the same evils and dangers that slavery represented to Tubman, these brave DACA Americans represent the same patriotic morality that Tubman represented in the 19th Century.
So, I ask my students, what they will do if these 800,000 DACA Americans are rounded up by the government for deportation. I ask them to think about what each of the would do if someone they know needed to hide from the law?
I ask, “Would you turn in a fugitive DACA?”
I ask them, “Would you break the law if a DACA American wanted to live one more day here in this town?’
I ask them, “Would you go to jail, like Martin Luther King, Jr. went to jail, so many times, to prevent an unjust law from being enforced?”
What would you do, I ask them, to prevent an injustice anywhere from becoming a threat to justice everywhere?
We may all need to ask ourselves these questions in the days to come. Knowing the answer from great Americans like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. may help to guide us in finding our own answers.
In finding our own answers, history has relevance. The past is prologue once again.