Writing History With Lighting

[This post is dedicated to the memory of Heather Heyer, Trooper-Pilot Berke M. M. Bates and Pilot Lt. H. Jay Cullen.]

The controversy surrounding Donald Trump and his moral support for white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia has made me remember that there has often been controversy surrounding presidents and racism in our nation’s past

When Donald Trump made headlines by equivocating the neo-nazi and white supremacist protesters, he addeded to a long legacy of ridiculous and indefensible statements by occupants in the White House. His reaction to the terrible day was to question the removal of Confederate statues, arguing that it was revisionist history.
But, in a sense, Trump was right he asked, “
You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”
Now, hold on a second. Don’t stop reading just because I used the Trump and right in the same sentence.
In a very, very limited way he was right, but his conclusions about this were, like most other things, completely wrong.
What Trump got right was that there are many things to be critical of in our nation’s past, including the actions of our first president.
What he got wrong was that we should accept without criticism those obvious flaws and actions.
It is exactly the opposite. What we need to do is have a constant dialogue about these offences, keeping them firmly in mind from generation to generation.

Criticism is the highest form of Patriotism.

And of course, take down the statues. Enough already. They are symbols of white supremacy and need to go. They are not, as some would say, “history” that needs to be remembered.
We can easily document and remember the evils of our past without heroic displays of the actors, enshrined in bronze and centered in important public spaces. Save the parks for uplifting and inspirational role models for our future generations to emulate.
But what President Trump said goes on from there. And it only get more significant.
Donald Trump announced on Saturday, August 12, 2017 that in response to the violence and murder in the streets that day:
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.”

It was the use of the term “on many sides” that set off the controversy, of course.
In my classroom my students are universally turned off by this episode with our president. Nevertheless I have to talk to them about it. How to do that is an interesting challenge, because it is too important to merely turn away in disgust.
This level of open racism by our leader needs context and connection in order to properly understand it. Without a little history of presidential racism, this entire gross fest might be minimized to a Facebook rant by anyone, and not a revelatory moment in the history of this nation.
So I mention to my students that what Trump has said is not unsurprising or even as bad as they might think.
Once upon a time there was an American President who didn’t just support the Ku Klux Klan, but openly socialized with the Invisible Empire! Even more surprisingly is that this president even socialized with the hooded hoodlums inside the White House.
Can you imagine how things might be different today, or what the reaction might be, if Trump didn’t just publicly sympathize with the fascists in Charlottesville, but invited them to dine with him at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
Let me introduce you to President Woodrow Wilson.
Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912 and is most famous for plunging the country into World War One.
[That itself is an amazing story of lies and betrayal that will have to wait for another blog on another day.]
Wilson had been the former president of Princeton University, and the Governor of New Jersey, before becoming a surprise winner in the 1912 election. Wilson was, like Donald Trump, a shocking choice for the office and one that most Americans.
Wilson like Trump was uniquely bigoted and racist. In fact, while racism and violence towards anyone considered “un-American” was commonplace in the United States in the second decade of the Twentieth Century, Woodrow Wilson was uncommonly outspoken in his racial views for that time.
Ida B. Wells Barnett

So I introduce them to Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She was a journalist, and a good example of an American hero.  She wrote The Red Record, revealing in statistical detail the legacy of white mob violence against minorities in our nation’s history. 

This statistic is one I share every year.
Every year it is a show-stopper in the classroom.

Every year the students are astounded by the routine violence against blacks in our nation’s history. My students live in a fantasy of a post-racial America.

I go on to tell them that Woodrow Wilson’s support for the KKK has been debated by historians.
His invitation to show Birth of a Nation at the White House, however, is not debated. The film is infamous as a racial retelling of the history of the country, placing African Americans in the role of villain and the KKK in the role of heroic defenders of American virtue.

It was the first film ever shown in the White House.

Wilson is rumored to have described it as “history written with lightning.” This quotation is disputed, however, but is not negated by a comment stronger than one Trump gave in response to the violence in Charlottesville.
Wilson is reported to have actually said about Birth of a Nation that,
I have always felt that this was a very unfortunate production, and I wish most sincerely that its production might be avoided, particularly in communities where there are so many colored people.”
Wow, that is SO not strong enough!
Criticism is the highest form of Patriotism, I remind my students. For Wilson to call a rewriting of history with a white supremacist narrative unfortunate is akin to saying that the counter protesters in Charlottesville were just as bad as all the “very fine people” who beat them and drove over them in their cars. It is shocking in the understatement.
Patriots demand more of their country than the soft racism of low expectation. Wilson is definitely guilty of falling short on the rise of the Clan and the film, Birth of A Nation.
Patriots should demand more of the current president. Trump is falling short. Unfortunately many of his supporters have maintained a low level of expectation from him in terms of moral leadership. [1] In my classroom, I explain to my students that Wilson meekly rebuked the blockbuster success of of Birth of A Nation while blacks were being lynched in the streets.
I try to make this relevant to their own confusion about Charlottesville. Like Wilson, Donald Trump gave a meek rebuke of the chaos and tried to sincerely create a false equivalency between neo-nazis and their opposition. His moral leadership, like Wilson’s is falling short and creating a dangerous environment across the country.
Now recall what our current president has said about the recent racial violence:
Here again, the president is right. Here again his assessment is correct on the face but wildly and ignorantly wrong on the conclusion. Trump was right that racial violence in the name of white supremacy has been going on for a long time. He was right that those opposed to the violent extremist terrorism that neo-nazis and fascists brought to Charlottesville have been attacked for their opposition.
It is important and right that we teach others about this history.
It has been going on for a long, long time.


What Trump meant, however, is not that we should learn from the history, but that there is a moral equivalency between the alt-right and the alt-left.

Here he is not only wrong, but openly ignorant to the point of bigotry.

So let us remember that this type of thinking, the type of thinking that Donald Trump represents, has a long and ugly history in our nation.
As a result we should understand that when groups like Black Lives Matter protest against racial violence they are not protesting against police everywhere, but against the type of thinking that absolves racial violence by anyone, even law enforcement, because of incorrect thinking. Remember! Black lives have never mattered in this country.
After Charlottesville, maybe it is time to realize this and make Black Lives Matter for all Americans.
Patriots should demand nothing less.
Patriots know this country stands for equality and freedom. Fascists, neo-nazis and the Confederate flag stands against everything this country represents.
In fact, we know this to be true because we have fought wars against these groups. Patriots have died fighting these people, the same people that Trump calls “very fine people.”
So let’s start writing our history with lightning, but not as Woodrow Wilson would have wanted.
Let’s write history with the light and energy of justice, understanding and real patriotism for all.
As we do, let’s not forget about what happened in Virginia.

Let’s remember all those who were hurt, and especially the lives of  Heather Heyer, Trooper-Pilot Berke M. M. Bates and Pilot Lt. H. Jay Cullen.

This post appeared originally on 8/29/2017.

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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