I grew up believing that all of us who are sound of mind have a sense of humanity in common. We’re more alike than different, my mother insisted, regardless of religion, race and politics. It’s about our shared membership in the human race. God didn’t create a species of saints and sinners who didn’t have the capacity to get along with one another despite the gift of being able to think and act independently. Even though we were granted the privilege of free thought, including skepticism and intellectual curiosity, opening the door to sin, we get into real trouble when we start seeing others as less human than ourselves.
That’s why the lessons of two horrible periods of history still fascinate and perplex me. I’m talking about, first of all, slavery and virulent racism in the aftermath of emancipation. Then there was the mass extermination of Jews exposed at the end of World War II. The fascist policies of Adolf Hitler and propagandized belief in a superior Germanic race were embraced by a population that had been a democracy just a few years before. In the meantime, lynching of black men and women continued in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.
I try to put myself in the place of the victims and victimized. Would I have been indoctrinated into believing or would I have stood up in protest, which would have assuredly resulted in temporary residence in one of the Nazi death camps? As for how I would have responded to slavery had I been a loyal American southerner in the 1850’s, I fear the cultural and religious forces would have influenced me toward being part of the crowd.
History is the recorded story of humanity and is often more intriguing and inscrutable than the wildest works of fiction.
Religion, of course, has always been a tool of warmongers and advocates of wholesale hostility wielded against others who are not like us. It often justifies an indifference to their feelings and physical well-being. The Union and Confederacy, after all, had one thing in common. Both believed God was on their side and could quote text in the Bible they believed supported their willingness to die for their cause.
For more than 200 years in this country, especially in the Southern states, they were able to regard people with darker skin as ignorant, even bestial, and they kept the concept alive throughout a protracted slave culture that denied the enslaved access to education and governmental representation. It was worse than dehumanization. They were never regarded as human in the first place, which started with the arrival of the first shipload of African slaves on our shores in 1619. They came to us as beasts of burden and, for multiple generations, remained that way. They were even denied the solace and comfort of staying together as families, with wives, husbands, brothers and sisters scattered among the plantations never to see each other again. It is a strategy to punish and avert potential resistance that despots like Vladimir Putin are still utilizing today.
Although American slaves led miserable lives, they were too valuable as the labor force in the cotton culture to be seen as disposable— as long as they did their jobs and behaved. Behaving included not acting too uppity and knowing their place. We know that nonwhite criminal offenders were often denied the privilege of trial by a jury of their peers who, by definition, are others of equal standing. Blacks were not allowed to sit on juries for the decades from 1896 when the Supreme Court overturned the short-lived Civil Rights Act of 1875 and continuing several years beyond World War II. Even then black veterans who fought for their country were attacked, for of all things, wearing their uniforms home from the war. A source of pride became a red flag for hateful racists.
Sadly, even after the abolishment of slavery in the Jim Crow South, blacks were lynched by the thousands in hundreds of incidents, often by lynch mobs outside of the law who were legally (and apparently biblically) bequeathed with the right to murder. Lynching was usually hanging, but it also applied to other means of death and torture. I’ve written about the 1955 murder and torture of 14-year-old Emmett Till in rural Mississippi, with the redneck duo tried for the crime acquitted by a jury of their peers, only to boast about doing it later in a Look magazine article entitled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi”.
The lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, in May 1916, was one of several captured in black-and-white photos with white faces among an audience of several thousand in the background sporting wide grins as if they were partaking of some festive entertainment. Washington, a farmhand just 17 years of age, was more than hanged. He was hastily tried for the alleged rape of a white woman and immediately dragged out of the courtroom after a guilty verdict, beaten and castrated before his hanging by a mob. He was suspended by rope and noose over a bonfire and lowered and raised in and out of the flames for about two hours culminating with a photo showing his charred, lifeless body, noose still around its neck, suspended next to the hanging tree.
It was deeper than prejudice. It was marked by a searing hatred fueled by a resentment toward former slaves and their progeny seeking equality with whites and competing with them for jobs, citizenship and the rights to vote and sit on a jury. Despite the horrors of a half-century of lynching in the American South and beyond, it never got so bad that they were exterminated by the hundreds and thousands at a time as was the case in Hitler’s death camps.
Bad Things Happen When Others Are as Adjudged Inferior
The latter were state-authorized killings justified by antisemitism while what happened in the United States, mostly between the 1880’s and 1950’s, was more like mob violence with law enforcement looking the other way. The citizens of Germany became complicit in mass murder by sustaining a belief in the inferiority of others to justify their inhumanity.
Meanwhile American citizens showed their appreciation to black veterans returning to the United States after World War II by assaulting them and, in one case, burning down one’s newly constructed house in Palo Alto, CA, and leaving a written a message that read, in part:
We burned your house to let you know that your presence is not wanted among white people. You should know by now we mean business. Niggers who are veterans are making a mistake thinking they can live in white residential districts…
Then there was an incident the same year, 1946—one of hundreds of assaults against black veterans— in which a South Carolina police chief admitted to the merciless assault of U.S. Army Veteran Isaac Woodard. Woodard was pulled off a Greyhound bus by Batesville, SC, police and beaten and blinded. Despite the evidence and his admission of brutally disabling the decorated veteran, Chief Lynwood Shull was acquitted by an all-white jury after deliberating 28 minutes. Woodard’s offense was wearing his uniform on his ride home after returning from exemplary service in the Pacific Theater.
Learning some of the darker lessons of history is not about turning our children against their country or encouraging them into treasonous behavior. The best among us are flawed, and even our Founding Fathers espoused beliefs and lifestyles that seem to contradict the proclamation that all of us are created equal.
History reminds us that we’re human just like slaveowners and slaves, German Jews and the Nazis who sent them to their deaths. There are seeds sown in each of us that may be cultivated by the forces of both good and evil. History forewarns us of the best and worst within us. As for the latter, it is regrettably true that it does repeat itself all too often. When will we ever learn?