Over several centuries, immigrants with few assets were driven by the vertigo of speculation in building a new American society. In the process they stripped Native Americans of their wealth and eagerly and savagely diminished that population.
Last July, Humanity in Action in partnership with Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights started the John Lewis Fellowship program. The 29 Fellows in this Humanity in Action inaugural program in the South came from the United States, Bosnia, France, Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, Poland and Greece. The objective was to explore America’s racial and ethnic issues, past and present, and to provide international perspectives as well. Given the participation of Fellows from several former colonial countries, it was important to state that the histories of racism in the United States and Europe have been entwined for hundreds of years. From the 17th Century on, European explorers and settlers were desperate to turn this continent into wealth. Over several centuries, immigrants with few assets were driven by the vertigo of speculation in building a new American society. In the process they stripped Native Americans of their wealth and eagerly and savagely diminished that population. With blacks, slavery and Jim Crow had the opposite goal: increase their numbers to exploit their labor; enrich European investors and manufacturers in the slave and cotton trades; make blacks impotent by breaking down their families, spirit, and histories.
On the first day of the John Lewis program, I started with a confession to the Fellows about the origins of Humanity in Action. It was a strange way to begin – but so be it. The idea emerged in a nanosecond over 20 years ago when someone from Europe asked the following question: how do we get young people to resist totalitarian regimes? I came back fast with an idea although to this day I don’t know where the idea came from. Let’s put together, I shot back, super smart university students from Denmark and the United States for a month in Denmark to figure out why Danes, who collaborated with the Germans during the Second World War, protected Jews from deportation and death during the Holocaust. So my immediate response was to think of Europe, resistance to European racism and especially European anti-Semitism. And now for the confession: I should have thought right at that moment about black resistance to Jim Crow and discrimination in the United States as equally important for students to explore and grapple with.
Germany planned and executed the genocide of Jews—the Holocaust or Shoah. The South instituted the systematic denial of rights to blacks.
The dual recognition has developed slowly over the years. As an historian, I wrote essays and gave talks to the Humanity in Action Fellows connecting and comparing the American South and Germany from 1933 to 1945. These were the two most significant and pernicious racist states in the 20th Century.
It is illegal to deny the Holocaust – someone who violates that law is subject to fines and possibly imprisonment – in Germany today.
Germany planned and executed the genocide of Jews—the Holocaust or Shoah. The South instituted the systematic denial of rights to blacks. (The North, Mid-West and West practiced fierce discrimination but none of these regions proclaimed and defended rigid segregation and white racial superiority) The South and the Nazi state used violence to enforce their racist ideologies. Of course, there were many differences in the concepts and applications of their ideologies but they diverged significantly in the postwar period. The victorious American and Allied powers demanded that Germany build a new political democratic culture that acknowledges its Nazi past and murderous regime. The government made recognition of that history essential to its understanding of citizenship and national values. In fact, it is illegal to deny the Holocaust – someone who violates that law is subject to fines and possibly imprisonment – in Germany today.
America forced Germany to face its history but America simultaneously refused and continues to refuse to face its despicable history of persecuting and violating the rights and wellbeing of its black and Native American populations. In fact, in the post-war period the United States dug more deeply into punishing race-based discrimination. The American white middle class flourished, in part, through new infrastructures of racisms: government sponsored educational opportunities at universities, suburban expansion and home building, the construction of expressways that destroyed black neighborhoods—all to build assets purposely denied to blacks. In regard to this comparison, there are at least two other significant aspects to keep in mind. Germany came to terms with its past as a homogeneous country: genocide and ethnic cleansing worked; there were practically no Jews left to integrate. In America, renunciation of a racist society would have to take place within a diverse society and through the work of blacks and whites together. There is one other significant difference: Germany and other European countries signed on to international human rights doctrines that were part of the moral transition from a fascist and colonial dominated world. The United States agreed to many of the human rights formulations but did not really adopt them conceptually as measures of decency and equity.
Atlanta is an enigma to me. It is such a confusing, competitive city that strives to cover its racial and cultural contradictions through selective memory.
I came to Atlanta with these perspectives in mind. Let me now share some observations about what I learned here. The first is that Atlanta is an enigma to me. It is such a confusing, competitive city that strives to cover its racial and cultural contradictions through selective memory: a modern city seemingly racially at peace with itself and therefore attractive to business and its aspiring workforce of the young and ambitious; a Southern city with a yearning for the Confederacy and white Southern pride but home to a thriving black culture that emphatically rejects a sanctified history of white domination; a city that flows easily into its suburbs and rich verdant landscape but erects large and imperious buildings that hide people from street life below, especially away from the underclass; a city that is choking on traffic that spills highways and cars into its urban thoroughfares and traps pedestrians in the onslaught.
On the surface, Atlanta is an integrated city with a thriving black middle class in all sectors. Clearly, below the surface of a dynamic urban life, Atlanta also has a large sector of unemployed and homeless blacks as well.
On Atlanta ground, I confronted the terribly narrow boundaries of my knowledge and understanding, especially about black life and history. So much is hidden in pockets of memory or located in institutional outposts that form the heart of black life but are ignored by the broader white society within the city and beyond. How many whites in Atlanta have visited the stunning Herndon Mansion? How many have visited the superb art museum at Clark Atlanta University? On the surface, Atlanta is an integrated city with a thriving black middle class in all sectors. Clearly, below the surface of a dynamic urban life, Atlanta also has a large sector of unemployed and homeless blacks as well. In this it is not much different from so many other American cities.
But there are particular Atlanta revelations about the continuum of pernicious Southern race relations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Revelations about black resistance to outright segregation and systemic discrimination. Revelations about overt and covert black accommodations to the vagaries of integration since the 1960s. Revelations that pertain to the broader scope of European and American racism and anti-Semitism.
We took a tour one Sunday morning of downtown — the old downtown of Five Points — and saw the bones of commercial buildings at the center of the 1906 riot. I had not known that violent mobs of white people had ever taken over the city to wreck black stores and lives. We walked urban blocks of vanishing black histories of mobility, accomplishment, injustice and survival. The place marks are buried or now, as we speak, being buried under Atlanta’s unrelenting renewal and modernization and patina of future commercial and residential prosperity. We viewed horrific images of lynchings from a collection, now in the possession of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. We visited the beautiful Alonzo and Adrienne Herndon House and the Clark Atlanta Museum of Art with their rich cultural collections and histories that are too little recognized as essential legacies of Atlanta life.
Dr. Pope’s “Appeal for Human Rights” belongs to the treasures of human rights documents that have set the course for more equitable societies since the end of the Second World War.
On several occasions, we heard Dr. Roslyn Pope talk about the leaders of the Atlanta student movement in the early 1960s that challenged segregation in the city of her birth. As one of those leaders, she authored “An Appeal for Human Rights,” sent to Atlanta’s papers on March 9, 1960, and published in The New York Times as well. Her defiant attack on Jim Crow spoke for Julian Bond, Lonnie King, Herschelle Challenor and others in the wake of the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit in.
I assume that what we discovered is familiar to you. But coming from outside this city, state and region I could only absorb the historical and contemporary information—the complex mixed landscape of attitudes, facts, events and the physical city itself within a set of perspectives that differ from those of you who live here.
So from outside let me state the belief that Dr. Pope’s “Appeal for Human Rights” belongs to the treasures of human rights documents that have set the course for more equitable societies since the end of the Second World War. Human Rights, someone commented, are an upgrade in our being more sane. When the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it became one of the landmark departures from the moral disasters of colonialism and the Second World War. Dr. Pope did not know of its existence when she wrote her “Appeal” but her ideas and aspirations were totally consistent with that universal document. They provide an essential connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Rights movement. Dr. Pope’s statement should be recognized as an essential bridge in the connections that the National Center for Civil and Human Rights is seeking to build.
When we retraced the course of the 1906 Atlanta riot, I suddenly thought about the orgy of authorized violence against Jews and vast destruction of Jewish properties — Kristallnacht — throughout German cities in November 1937.
From my Northern perspective, when we retraced the course of the 1906 Atlanta riot, I suddenly thought about the orgy of authorized violence against Jews and vast destruction of Jewish properties — Kristallnacht — throughout German cities in November 1937. The techniques of racial hysteria and intimidation were similar in Atlanta and numerous German cities and towns: use the mob to reinforce and advance systems of racial hierarchies; engender fear and violence; employ the mob to retaliate for some spurious event; use the mob to push down and destroy the property of an upwardly mobile minority; use the mob to inflame sexual myths and putative sexual aggressors. In the realm of similarities, both Germany and the South were traumatized by humiliation and defeat in monumental wars: the First World War and the Civil War. But the differences were equally important. With Hitler’s assumption of power in 1932, the Germans rushed to construct a racist Aryan state and regain ascendency in Europe. The white South, clearly defeated in 1865, could not mobilize again for war or geographically expand its post-slavery societies. It could, however, through violence, both illegal and legally sanctioned, prevent the real liberation and empowerment of the black population. The white South took its time, decade after decade through the slow, deliberate consolidation of segregation from Reconstruction until the Civil Rights Movement. Whites controlled every realm of government and the economy as well as the historical narrative that covered the South with symbols, large and small, of the Confederacy. There were exceptions through black mobility and accumulation of some equity, as Alonzo Herndon proved, but blacks were ever subject to the limitations dictated by white society. Educational advancement was possible as proved by the expansion of invaluable HBCUs and the careers of W.E.B. DuBois, John Hope Franklin and David Levering Lewis. But these were exceptions as well.
The white South, clearly defeated in 1865, could not mobilize again for war or geographically expand its post-slavery societies. It could, however, through violence, both illegal and legally sanctioned, prevent the real liberation and empowerment of the black population.
American racial violence took many forms from riots — Atlanta in 1906, Tulsa in 1921, Detroit in 1943 — to lynchings. Riots involved large-scale spasms of urban destruction. As awful as they were, they did not serve the same purposes nor have the same hideous impact as lynching— America’s special homegrown variety of violence. According to the historian Amy Louise Wood, lynchings were dramas and spectacles that not only spread terror among blacks but also reinforced white solidarity. “It was the spectacle of lynching,” Wood writes, “rather than the violence itself, that wrought psychological damage, that enforced black acquiescence to white domination.” She continues: “Even more, mobs performed lynchings as spectacles for other whites….These spectacles produced and disseminated images of white power and black degradation, of white unity and black criminality, that served to instill and perpetuate a sense of racial supremacy in their white spectators. Lynching thus succeeded in enacting and maintaining white domination not only because African Americans were its targets but also because white southerners were its spectators.”
Wood goes on to observe that whites were not passive as they watched and spread the images and news of lynchings. “…In all instances, the feel and push of the crowd created the sense of belonging and commonality that sustained the violence….spectators did not watch or consume a lynching as much as they witnessed it — that is, they beheld or experienced it with active engagement.”
News of the killing and subsequent trial set off a fuselage of anti-Semitic media campaigns (amid national coverage) attacking Jews for defiling and exploiting white women.
It was in Atlanta in 1915 where the practiced arts of racial violence against blacks combined with racial violence against American Jews. In 1915, Leo Frank, the Northern born manager of an Atlanta based factory, was convicted of killing a young white woman who worked at his factory. News of the killing and subsequent trial set off a fuselage of anti-Semitic media campaigns (amid national coverage) attacking Jews for defiling and exploiting white women. Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death. Georgia’s Governor, however, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Incensed by the Governor’s intervention, a mob lynched Frank after storming the jail in Marietta where he was imprisoned.
In Atlanta, Jews were caught in the cauldron of racial hatred against blacks, Jim Crow laws and publicly countenanced violence amid industrialization and urbanization.
The fate of Leo Frank in 1915 was a stunning revelation for American Jews who had emigrated from Europe, mainly over the previous 100 years. Their trip across the Atlantic, as philosopher Michael Walzer has written, was experienced as a journey of liberation. Unlike black Americans from Africa who came in bondage, Jews came freely to America to escape European anti-Semitism. It was the “promised land” for them although they found deep pockets of anti-Semitism, especially in the early 1900s when over a million Jews poured into America’s cities and countryside. Deep and widespread pockets of anti-Semitism separated Jews from Christians in education, housing, professional opportunities and social engagement for over 50 years until the late 1950s and 1960s. In Atlanta, Jews were caught in the cauldron of racial hatred against blacks, Jim Crow laws and publicly countenanced violence amid industrialization and urbanization. Wood writes about fears in places that were on the “cusp of urbanization” and deep social dislocation. “Lynching spectacles…inverted and thereby defused these fears. If urban life had threatened white authority by bringing whites and blacks together on streetcars, sidewalks and markets, lynchings performed on city streets and courthouse squares reclaimed urban, public spaces as decidedly white spaces. What is more, lynching spectacles reimagined the urban mob as an idealized community, a unified body of righteous and triumphant whites; they, in turn, isolated the figure of the black criminal, making him appear powerless and defenseless.” (PP.13-14) A society, at that time, of white Christians set most flagrantly and continuously against the blacks and less so against Jews. A society that gave rebirth to the KKK on Atlanta’s Stone Mountain in 1915 rode the crest of racial hatred against blacks and Jews — brought to macabre life through the Frank lynching.
We are more civilized today than we were in 1915 but we have not undergone the painful process of restorative justice that we forced on Germany or that South Africa took on itself.
We are more civilized today than we were in 1915 but we have not undergone the painful process of restorative justice that we forced on Germany or that South Africa took on itself. No country has had or has the power to impose restorative justice on the United States. And the country does not want to do it on its own. You know better than I that in America, blacks face killings, discriminatory drug laws, arrests and imprisonment practices aimed at them; excessive force and violence aimed at them; excessive tickets and court costs aimed at them to raise money for white police departments; exploitive mortgage rates, voting restrictions and impediments to employment and quality education and medical care; residential segregation aimed at them; and unmet promises of meaningful inclusion on college campuses. Nicolas Lemann recently wrote an article titled “The Price of Union: The Undefeatable South” in The New Yorker. He claimed that the blatant racism of the South — its resistance to real integration — has inevitably set the course of race relations in the United States. It has culminated after the Civil Rights movement in the conversion of the Republican Party into the white man’s political voice against integration. Gains in civil rights he wrote, have “been matched by the Southernization of American politics.”
In February 2015 two articles about memory and virulent racial injustices appeared almost simultaneously. The one in The New York Times reported on the work of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The Stevenson initiative tracked 3,959 lynchings from 1887 to 1959 in 12 states in the South. At every one of these infamous places, Stevenson intends to place a mark of remembrance.
There are over 50,000 of these markers that blend art and reportage.
The second article by Elizabeth Kolbert, which appeared in The New Yorker, described her special trip to Berlin. She went to place a marker, a Stolperstein (the word for something one trips over) on the street where her great grandmother lived before her deportation in an extermination camp. There are over 50,000 of these markers that blend art and reportage. Kolbert also remarked on the episodic course of punishment for perpetrators of German crimes during the Holocaust. Following the Nuremberg trials, which began in 1945, there were spasms of forgetting and remembering from generation to generation. For perpetrators there were long safe periods of escape from trails and punishment. For the survivors there were long periods of simply repressing the traumatizing past.
“In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.”
In preparing to place her grandmother’s name on a small bronze block and insert it into the sidewalk or street, Kolbert invoked the moral voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He cautioned as well, as she quoted further: “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.” How significant that Kolbert in Berlin directly invoked King’s moral authority. On the other side of the Atlantic, it would not be surprising if Stevenson in Mobile looked to the commemorative stones in Germany and other European countries as a powerful tool of remembrance of racial crimes.
We must recognize that the challenges of pluralism, the tensions with and among minorities, are “alive and well,” in fact they are increasing in both America and Europe. There is no question that as Europe becomes more diverse, due to migrations from former colonies and the present economic and political crises in Middle East and Africa, racism has once again become an ugly force on that Continent. (It is important to recognize that Germany, under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel, is providing the leadership of responsibility and decency in this migration crisis. A crisis which, according to the Polish journalist Konstanty Gebert, is not a crisis as such but the new norm. Germany’s current policy to receive refugees, according to post-war doctrines founded in human rights, is the deliberate and avowed reversal of the expulsions practiced in the 1930s and 1940.) There are deep tensions towards blacks from the former colonies, towards Muslims and Arabs from the Middle East and North Africa and towards Jews. The tensions not only pit the so-called host or native white populations against the minorities but pit minorities against each other—particularly Muslims and Arabs and Jews. Anti-Semitism is “alive and well” on both the right and left of European political life as hidden and recognized hatreds and fantasies center on Israel.
Humanity in Action seeks to explore and confront challenges of diversity and inclusion in Europe and the United States.
Humanity in Action seeks to explore and confront challenges of diversity and inclusion in Europe and the United States. Through a particular pedagogy, it seeks to empower college and university students and young professionals to meet the challenge of making more equitable pluralistic societies and understanding the past. We do this through programs in seven specific countries. We engage the issues of racial injustices in their multiple and unrelenting ways by addressing white power and exploitation based on race, the aftershock of colonialism, and, in the United States, the movement of black resistance.
We do this with diverse groups, diverse in terms of national, international, racial, religious and gender identities, which is the only constructive way to proceed. It has taken many years of outreach to gain diversity in our programs and to help Fellows build foundations of mutual respect and trust. Each program is an intense experiment in social interactions and learning. But let me be honest. The programs are a hot house of mixed expectations, thoughts and emotions: of understanding and misunderstanding; of hopes and resentments; of openness to new ideas and dogmatic thinking; of competing feelings and experiences of victimization; of unrealistic expectations. Among some Fellows there is a yearning for total inclusiveness and safe spaces both of which are nearly impossible to find. Exclusion based on race, religion and gender is totally unacceptable but inclusion is an ever changing and subtle dynamic process which requires constant adjustment. As for safe space, it can become a prison of stunted growth and festering hurts, especially when it separates people from the insights of great thinkers and artists of the past. The push for safe space seeks too frequently to deplete the traditional body of thought and history instead of revealing their limitations. Studying significant works of minority scholars, writers and artists, formally ignored and denigrated, must not be at the expense of other great works imbued with racial and cultural assumptions that we find repugnant today.
None of this is easy. To the extent that so much of the current pressure for change takes place in the city and on the college campus–and often in the college campus in the city–we have so much to learn from being in Atlanta, especially from the historically black colleges and universities. It is an honor for Humanity in Action to work in the name and sprit of the great man John Lewis in his home district. It is extraordinary for Humanity in Action to meet so many people who formed the Atlanta civil rights movement and those who take inspiration from them in these times of new activism. We have much to learn from you who are witnesses to Atlanta’s mix of moments of greatness, rich culture, violence, hatreds, systems of injustice, fears and aspirations.
What better place than Atlanta to try to understand the complexities and connections in democracies among diverse societies on this and the European continent. In a conversation with President Obama, the novelist Marilyn Robinson recently spoke about the importance of democracy as people understood it in the past. “It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it….the president himself was this sort of symbolic achievement of democracy. And there was the human respect that…compounds itself in the respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture.” In essence, Humanity in Action is about valuing and achieving democracy. John Lewis says that we must “get in the way” and fight injustice. King spoke of the arc of justice but implored people to respond before it is too late. Their fight for civil rights was grounded first in the South and particularly in Atlanta but their meanings extend far beyond this city, region or the North American continent.
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Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth home by Eli Pousson.
Photo of stolperstein in Berlin by Bob the Lomond.