(AV17367) The Lost History of the Civil Rights Movement
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(AV17367) The Lost History of the Civil Rights Movement

October 25, 2019


hi everyone just like to welcome you to
the lecture tonight I’m Derek Rollins I’m the chair of the
MLK committee this is one of our one of our events and I just want to say that I
admire you for coming for coming out tonight but be careful because you know
last week I didn’t have this didn’t have this didn’t I fell and it wasn’t it
wasn’t nice I was on my bike and you know the pavement you don’t want to you
walk on the pavement don’t use your head to walk on the pavement yeah I tried
that it doesn’t work but be careful we were glad to see so many of you out
tonight and I’m going to introduce the person who will introduce the speaker
her name is Rachel and hey nacho and she is a senior in chemical engineering and
she will come she’s uh she’s the president of BSA Black Student Alliance
and she will come and introduce our speaker for tonight Madhu paid glory Allah Bodie is
assistant professor of history and museum studies public scholar of African
American History Museum’s an adjunct professor of African American
and African Diaspora studies at the Indiana University Purdue University in
the Appel ESCAP campus born and raised in Muscatine she graduated from Iowa
State in 1988 with the BS in history she was named a Rhodes Scholar in 1988 the
Ford student and first woman from Iowa State University to receive the honor
she then received her PhD from Oxford University returned to teach in the
history department at Iowa State before moving on to become the chief historian
of the Colorado Historical Society please join me in welcoming this year’s
Martin Luther King jr. celebration keynote speaker who is also part of the
Iowa State 150th anniversaries distinguished alumni
two series would you Bailey Bodhi how good evening thank you for coming out
here today in this kind of drizzly miserable weather I was telling people
that this is probably the only thing I really really loved about the Midwest is
freezing rain and I think we all know that but I admire your courage for
coming out today Thank You Rachael for that generous in
kind introduction and I realized how many of these titles are so absurdly
long you know and the place that I’m teaching now I think people call it
disrespectfully Yui pooi even though it’s supposed to be Indianapolis
University in Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis so I would
like to also thank in particular the sponsors of tonight’s lecture the Martin
Luther King committee Derek Rollins who’s here under injury
and the especially the Committee on lectures and Pat Miller I am humbled and
honored to be here tonight as he occurred I was a student at Iowa State
University and although my participation in the Committee on lectures was one of
my really key foundational experiences of being a student and in some ways was
life-altering I never pictured myself as participating in this role as a speaker
in the sunroom before starting my comments tonight I would like to invoke
the great Iowa State alumnus George Washington Carver as Iowa State
University is marking its sesquicentennial I think that is
appropriate to remind ourselves of the real experiences of Carver to
encountered some of the best and the best aspects of what this university has
to offer as well as its less honorable aspects I am a big fan of literature and
I really believe poetry and prose give us some insight into historical
experiences so I’m going to mix a little poetry
reading in here I’d like to read a poem by Marilyn Nelson a poet who teaches at
the University of Connecticut stores and she has a poem poem cycle called Carver
and I would like to read the poem cafeteria food and its subtitle is Iowa
State College of Agriculture and Mechanics art 1891 even when you’ve been
living on wild mushrooms hickory nuts occasional banquet leftovers sneaked out
of the hotel kitchen by a colored cook and weeds even when you know it feeds
you mind and body keeps you going through the gauntlet of whispered
assault as you wait in line even when it’s free except for the pride you have
to pay by eating alone in the basement even when there’s a lot of it hot meat
or chicken and potatoes and fresh-baked bread and buttery vegetables even when
there’s dessert even when you can count on a day after day even when it’s good
it’s bad I’m here tonight to share some thoughts about the so called hidden
civil rights movement professional historians can and should write we
grumble that there is no such thing as a hidden african-american civil rights
movement it’s true that many people have written about african-american life in
Iowa and other places in which black people constitute a small proportion of
the population African Americans singly and in groups have fought for and
asserted their rights from the time they arrived in the Americas such struggle
against a hostile environment for a right to be as some have called it is a
defining aspect of the African Diaspora there really have not been times
acquiescence or complete surrender to racism even during some of the most
hostile and homicidal periods of US history
however as you well known in the popular
imagination and in the way many of us including myself have absorbed history
in fits and starts from grade school and middle school projects assorted
documentaries in the History Channel and PBS documentaries or blogs and sound
bites the african-american civil rights project appears in the national
consciousness as a jittery ill almost illogical youtube video and one that I
have to say often does not be true Iowa this african-american civil rights movie
is comprised of images and precedes something like this from enslavement to
the civil war with a possible side trip to reconstruction to Jim Crow
indignities to lynching scenes to segregated World War two units to brown
be bored to Rosa Parks looking out of the window of the bus and Montgomery to
Martin Luther King’s Speech on the mall in 1963 fast forward a few decades to
images of middle-class or upper-class and/or politically influential African
Americans an assortment that it may include Colin Powell Oprah Winfrey
Condoleezza Rice Sean Combs two African Americans in a beauty shop getting ready
to participate in the 2008 elections as they were shown in the New York Times to
a slow fade I don’t mean to make light of this the real changes that have
occurred over the past 400 years in the United States but it’s scared small
wonder that this narrative is scarcely coherent to many people leaving out the
brave and incremental changes and reversals that people throughout the
country struggled for and worked for as a historian I think I can contribute in
a very small way towards making the Civil Rights history of the United
States a little bit more coherent by filling in just a few of the blanks
including places where people often thinks civil rights struggles did not
occur and this folk and part of this is focusing on the local which maintain and
this focus on a focus on the local what happened in small
pounds in places that people think unlikely local history that is rigorous
and teases out differences can explain can reveal unexpected aspects such as
the agency the activity of women and children or political actors who often
don’t work in the Pope and the public sphere who don’t run for a political
office for example recent studies of african-american women in Louisiana’s
n-double-a-cp and in the other aspects of the 1960s
civil then 70s civil rights movements have also revealed the tensions within
communities communities of native-born whites african-americans immigrants
suffragists revealing political change to be more complicated than that
sweeping overview initially it indicates I also contend that it is important to
understand the lives of people who live in places where they are extreme
minorities part of this comes from my own experience growing up in Muscatine
Iowa living in various parts of the Midwest and West and I’m concerned with
the the choices that people make and how their presence changes their communities
people living in this as extreme minorities whether african-american
Asian sexual minorities often didn’t have the respite or sang of or sanctuary
of relative anonymity and their choices and their interactions with the majority
communities reveal the complex nature of history in the United States and show
how change occurs in spaces such as small towns and provides valuable
counter examples to the justly familiar narratives of black people’s lives in
other parts whether it’s New York Alabama California and so on the
interactions among black and white people in these cases also reveal to us
how important it was for whites to fight for white identity in areas where they
formed the vast majority my interest is also driven by my belief in public
history that is in practicing history beyond the academic
apparatus that of britain rigorous and complex views to popular audiences
whether through articles through exhibits very sometimes through blogs I
think that this is the way in which history has to be brought to a larger
group of people I have realized the importance of understanding that the
past did not necessarily resemble the present and trying to share that those
perspectives with people who are interested in the life of their
communities individuals in the past made choices that that and were they were
shaped by large social economic and geographic forces but sometimes they’re
alien to us seemingly fragmented but yet deeply familiar we don’t necessarily
have to learn from them I’m not going to say that you’re doomed to repeat the
past but neither should we assume that our society is always better always
progressing from some retrograde distant past with these thoughts in mind I would
like to tell two stories of hidden civil rights movements one the quest for equal
education in the 19th century and second the protest by African Americans and
their allies against DW Griffith Griffith popular and influential film
the birth of the name of a nation my examples come from my research in
Colorado when I was the historian at the Colorado Historical Society and an
overview of experiences in Iowa drawing on the historians have worked in this
area my information and knowledge about Iowa is not as textured as that as
Colorado and I welcome any comments or Corrections so first about education
Susan Clark of Muscatine Iowa is a story that might be familiar to some people
does anyone has anyone heard of Susan Clark okay I guess it is not familiar to
some people from the beginning of the Iowa Terrace it but I should say Susan
Clark is a 12 year old little girl so there this is one way which a children
can have some agency in history from the beginning of the Iowa territory white
Iowans justly excluded african-americans from
the school system despite challenges from whites and african-americans who
contended that public 8 public education should be open and free for all the law
grudgingly allowed the possibility of integrated education if all the whites
in a community without one dissent voted to allow blacks into the school such
instances were probably not common in areas of the state was sufficient black
population such as Keokuk Keosauqua and Muscatine there were separate schools
established for African American children and just incidentally
african-american men in Iowa weren’t allowed to vote until 1868 so this is in
the context of a lot of restrictions of race-based restrictions in the state at
one point in the 1840s Muscatine boasted of having the largest black population
in the state although the maxime seemed in Congress
the territory was on the Mississippi River
and many people came to the it came to the area seeking work among its
residents in 1867 was a man named Alexander Clark senior a journalist
politician and land owner he had come to Muscatine in 1842 as a 16 year old from
Pennsylvania and he established himself in the sometimes lucrative profession as
a barber he was a committed activist on behalf of civil rights and served as a
conductor on the Underground Railroad he continued consistently called
attention to the blatant inequalities in Muscatine schools for blacks and whites
many African American children could not attend the remote school for that was
set aside for black students and those who could have fewer supplies than their
white peers so for example the white teachers in Muscatine received at the
base level of 700 dollars per year in the 1850s and 1860s while the salary for
african-american teachers rent ranged from 150 to $200 in September of
60 in 1867 twelve-year-old Susan one of the clark families three children
attempted to enter grammar school number two but she was turned away because it
was a white only school this refusal gave her father the opportunity to – to
sue the school board the case Clark V the Board of Ed director’s city of
Muscatine went to the Iowa Supreme Court Muscatine school board argued that
because it maintains several schools it could decide which school a student
attended including requiring blacks to attend a specific school the court was
not convinced justice Chester Kohl ruled that due to the principle of equal
rights for all – all African Americans could not be excluded from public
education Cole was concerned that if the Board of Directors had the authority to
establish white-only schools then they could also establish schools or exclude
schools for immigrants limiting the rights and privileges of person by
reason of their nationality which would be to sanction a plain violation of the
spirit of the of our laws he wrote so from 1868 onwards there was no legal
authority to insist that black people attended separate schools however
lawsuits that were waged as late as 1875 for example against the Keokuk school
system indicated that segregated schools persisted and flourished in Iowa Keokuk
lost the lawsuit in which they argued that separate schools were legal by the
way but not incidentally Susan’s father Alexander was a leader in the fight for
black male suffrage and in 1868 he was able to vote for the
first time when the state legislature removed the word white from the state’s
constitution Alexander Clark we don’t know that much actually what happened to
Susan this child after she kind of disappears from the record which isn’t
uncommon for children or girls time but the cook we know a little bit
about Alexander Clark senior and Alexander Clark junior they both
enrolled in law school at the University of Iowa after the state made it illegal
for black men to enroll in law school because that was illegal and they then
practiced the practice law and Alexander Clark senior became the the one of the
u.s. envoys to Liberia so if you’re ever in Muscatine you can stop by the
Alexander Clark senior house I think it’s still standing there
Colorado followed a similar trajectory in cotton the in this western state
establishing schools was an important priority educating youth said that they
proved that the state was more than a mob of rough miners but was creating
some responsible citizens in prosperous towns the first private school opened in
1859 in Denver and was surprisingly diverse on the opening day the class was
comprised of 13 children nine were white two were American Indian probably
Arapaho and two were Hispanic the state did not get the territory did not get
around to establish ins for public education until two years later in 1861
in its first session the Legislative Assembly authorized taxing property for
funding schools but included racial restrictions school districts were
required to keep up all a list of all the children so that students who were
eligible to attend school from age 5 to 21 but the law created a situation in
similar to Iowa in which black people came school taxes but black children
could not attend public schools numbers alone probably did not drive the
interest in racial separation in 1860 there were 46 people described as free
colored in the living in cut what would become Colorado ten years later there
were 456 blacks in a population of 40,000 but settlers pouring into the
West one during the Civil War and reconstruction claimed that they had
found a place in which white men could be free but freedom was
not the same as equality and legislators and settlers were not prepared to
establish the society without racial gender and cultural distinctions
throughout the West legislatures legislators passed measures banning
interracial marriage segregating transportation and placing restrictions
on suffrage and access to public schools in 1862 Denver finally opened its first
public school prominent black citizens including a hotel owner named Barney
Ford Lewis and Frederick Douglass the sons of the very famous abolitionist
Frederick Douglass and three barbers Edward Sanderlin and Henry a Waggoner
and William Jefferson Hardin organized to protest the racially exclusive
schools Barney Ford for example paid taxes on
property that was worth $30,000 but he could not send his children to school
and we’re in his homes home air town so he sent them back east for education in
Central City which is now a gambling town in Colorado there were other there
were also african-americans and the public schools prohibited blacks
from attending and just to give you a tenor of the kind of discussion that I
haven’t been able to find about Iowa but gives you an idea of how people were
talking about segregation an 1864 letter to the daily miners registered signed by
quote a colored man noted that blacks were put in the situation where they
were taxed and couldn’t send their children to school but they were and yet
that black people were subject to abuse because as he said it we do not come up
to their whites standard of enlightenment the next year a man who
signed himself as prospector wrote a letter to the editor in which he mocked
integrated schools as the essence of absurdity and suggested that taxes from
blacks should be used to establish separate equal schools prospectors
letter in fewer infuriated another person who only signed himself JW and
identified himself as african-american who observed that in Central City blacks
and whites attended the same church school attendance should be
different the territorial governor Alexander companies called the school
situation a humiliating spectacle and urged the legislature to make provisions
for african-american pupils in 1866 the legislature required the school
districts to create another list of black school age children but it’s not
clear what they wanted to do with them the following year several
african-american parents in Denver took the matter to the school board
the trustees acknowledged that blacks had the right to attend public school
but not that exercising that right would be a quote unquote
in politic and advised the student the parents just to wait until the city got
around to building a separate school the parents called a community meeting and
decided to exercise the right to attend the city’s public schools and by the way
because of people who are politically connected like Frederick Douglass’s sons
what was going on in this remote town this gold mining town in Denver was also
being reported in the New York newspapers as well so it was considered
to be national news the struggle over school segregation the daily Colorado
Tribune supported the parents actions and editorial criticized whites who
grumbled that african-americans were quote getting too smart and too fast and
noted that American people admire independence unless exhibited by a negro
further those parents who wanted to keep their children away from black students
were happy to use the taxes that African Americans paid the school principal
resigned when he learned that African American children would be attending
public schools in his letter of resignation he complained that racially
integrated causes only generated bickerings and quarreling ‘he’s and he
would have none of it because it made him impossible to teach he also noted
incidentally that they weren’t paying him enough for this and he later opened
his own all-white school that attracted student parents who were opposed to
racial integration perhaps due to situations like these in 1868 the
legislature authorized the creation of racially segregated schools if there
were more than 15 black children in Denver the school district scramble
to provide a facility for african-american pupils the children
first attended school in the rented building then in a Baptist Church and
finally in an AME African Methodist Episcopal Church in Central City the
number of school-aged shiplap children quickly fell below the required 15 and
the separate school closed the children’s parents tired of proving the
the difficulty of providing separate schools finally hired a lawyer always
wonder why it took them so long to hire a lawyer but they did the attorneys
argued that as citizens african-americans had the right to
public education after all this is what the civil rights
they this the amendments to the Constitution that were being discussed
at this time we were bound moreover just as the stagecoaches between Central City
and Denver had conveniently integrated it made it a little bit difficulty and
make that trip when you had to wait for an all-black
stagecoach therefore the schools should also integrate the school board gave in
and finally Central City Schools desegregated Denver by a contrast
maintained racially separate schools in 1872 when the city opened a new school
that operated without a color line and so Denver’s schools quietly integrated
or so it seemed the assiduous interest of Iowans and
Coloradans in establishing racial barriers in education when there were
only when they were actually very very few black people to worry about if you
want to put it that way indicate its indicates how deep the interest in the
politics and in the local amongst the local settlers was in creating
exclusively white areas and I should note that as Nolan not if the author of
the book of the influential book how the Irish became white and others have
indicated being white wasn’t a solid category for example at the time that
I’m speaking of native-born Americans from your of European descent Northern
Europeans descent did not consider other people such as immigrants from Ireland
southern Europe or Middle East as white sometimes groups
such as the Irish or Italians could become white
while other people ranging from Sikh immigrants to people from Lebanon or
Jewish immigrants found themselves in categories that could sometimes be
considered white and sometimes they’ve just weren’t black race or color based
segregation was not logical consistent or exclusively southern the West as
historian Peggy Pascoe has demonstrated in her work on anti-miscegenation laws
was dogged Lee if inconsistently interested in
constructing legal barriers separating White’s American Indians Asians Latinos
African Americans all sorts of different people that you didn’t even know existed
people in the West were very interested in separating them and and this but this
separation wasn’t always consistent so in some parts of lives such as education
they were supposed to be separate well in other aspects of public and private
life the races and ethnicities mixed vigorously if not always happily and
visitors would talking about Western hypocrisy would often note that the
red-light districts were often happily integrated you have Cowboys who were
coming from all different colors and from all different parts of the world
yet at the other times the state also made it wanted to make it very difficult
for blacks and whites and Asians to actually interact in the public sphere
over the century the 20th century both Iowa and Colorado grappled with
difficult questions about education race and ethnicity the brown v board ruling
set in motion challenges to a de facto system of segregation throughout the
north and in West the West in 1973 the US Supreme Court ruled in Keyes vs.
Denver School District number one that the school board intentionally had
segregated african-american and Latino children from white children initiating
another complex phase of the history of education in Colorado but this was the
first school dist segregation case in the country that
took on the segregation of Latino children Iowa too has been grappling
with issues of busing and desegregation I think that was just in the today’s Des
Moines Register on the cover and as a public historian as kind of an aside
it’s fascinating to me that in the 1960s through the present students teachers
parents and politicians throughout what has been considered to be the North the
East the West the Midwest have embarked on this massive social experiment that
of compulsory and sometimes voluntary racial desegregation of school in the
school but it’s interesting how rare how often how few times we actually speak
about this and what we’re the shared experiences of people say my age in
their 40s we have kind of this agreement that it was a it wasn’t a success than
it was regrettable I think that’s kind of the film that runs in people’s minds
but the complexities the disappointments the angers the joy the isolation of this
time period have not often been discussed in a public format and view
museums or historical sites have tried to interpret the meaning of this time
period for the u.s. so leaving education for a moment I’d like to go jump into
the early 20th century I should say that my favorite time period is the 19th
century so it’s always hard for me to to go into the last century let alone the
21st century and I’d like to just mention a little bit about a second
story about an extremely polarizing movie The Birth of a Nation have any
people here seen that movie okay okay I’ve got a few people have seen the
birth the birth of a nation DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation give
this nation screens in 1915 the movie a dramatization of Thomas Dixon’s racist
novel the Klansmen has received praise for its innovative use of film
techniques it also received criticism for its use of racist tropes in which
African men were portrayed as beasts or rapists and the Reconstruction period
the time of negro miss rule in which burly boorish poorly educated blacks
lord of their authority over white Southerners in collaboration with evil
calculating northerners that carpetbaggers who saw their south as a
tough place to make a profit and again I’m not trying to mock this
but it’s it’s kind of difficult to speak of it sometimes these none of these
tropes were innovative fiction and histories had made similar arguments
with various degrees of subtlety and usually not much subtlety but the film
combined these ideas with exciting imagery with the music that would be
playing in the theater in which you saw it and also carried with it the
imprimatur of historical accuracy audiences were not merely being
entertained or manipulated but they were encouraged to go to this movie to learn
something important about their country so in many parts of the country
schoolchildren were given special cheaper admission to the birth of a
nation and classes were encouraged to see it to learn about to learn about the
accuracy of what happened during in during the Civil War and reconstruction
and of course President Woodrow Wilson who had been a classmate of DW
Griffith’s in Princeton saw the movie in the White House and declared it is like
writing history with lightning and my only regret is that it is also terribly
true so this is something that also appeared in a lot of the ads so if you
have the president telling you you should see it some quite a quite an ad
the relatively young organization the National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People or the n-double a-c-p organized protests against the movie
several scenes in the movies such as those depicting a black man whose sculpt
after a white woman who threw herself off of a cliff rather than face a
potential rape we’re considered protect particularly insulting or even dangerous
the in double-a-c-p secretary may child’s Nerney spearheaded an ambitious
national campaign in which African Americans organize themselves to protest
the and called for the editing out of the
most objectionable scenes and even filed a case against DW Griffith for many
african-americans however their experience of this movie was on the
level of the local protest blacks in many communities used existing
censorship laws to try to persuade their local communities to shut down the
production based on this concern that it would incite racial hatred or even riots
the attempt to have this movie censored would require African Americans and
their allies to convince this sent to convince censors to ban the movie on the
basis of racial history issues and to kind of illustrate how difficult this
was what an enormous task the only movie that the censors had banned a national
on the nationwide on the basis of racial issues was a movie that depicted the
deep that Jack Johnson a boxer his defeat of a white boxer Jim Jeffries so
that was the only one that was completely racially and Cindy Airy
african-americans and cities from Boston to New York rallied to close down the
movie they raised the issue but ultimately the movie showed in most
places without obstruction or edits yet in smaller cities and towns throughout
the country african-americans mobilized using existing networks to ensure that
their communities would acknowledge that they did not agree with the way in which
Griffith portrayed them as the crisis the Journal of the in double-a-c-p
explained the movie portrayed blacks in three ways the the Negro as the crisis
said was either quote an ignorant fool a vicious rapist or a I’m sorry a Fourways
an ignorant fool a vicious rapist a venal and unscrupulous politician or a
faithful but doddering idiot and for those of you that spread a lot of w eb
Du Bois you can just kind of hear him saying that in Iowa these protests
occurred in various levels George Woodson an african-american
attorney based in Bucks in Iowa the coal mining town traveled to
Davenport Iowa to help that local community try to defeat the movie
through legal ordinances Woodson’s legal partner s Joe Brown was a force in Des
Moines and the one of the leaders of the Des Moines branch of the n-double a-c-p
which has formed just before the movie had been released according to the
crisis Joe Brown succeeded in having the movie banned because it incited racial
hatred interestingly enough Brown was the architect of Des Moines ordinance
prohibiting quote entertainments that stimulated racial prejudice unquote
which has been passed in 1907 made child’s Nerney correspond with brown and
encouraged other cities to use the moines ordinance as a model the
n-double-a-cp played a leading role in the protest involving people of all ages
this was an interracial organization but it was not the only organ the only
player in Waterloo leaders of the egg of the African Methodist Episcopal Church
delivered a petition to the mayor asking that the permit asking for a permit that
the movie be withdrawn the signers of the petition argued that African
Americans White’s had finally tempered the hostility against Blacks that had
been simmering for years so for example in 1940 the Waterloo City Council had
attempted to ban to prohibit blacks from syndics from swimming in the Cedar River
and they they initiated a campaign to confront the quote unquote bad Negro
problem the mayor ignored the petition and had a and the film had a five-day
run in Waterloo in Denver looking West the argue be anger about the movie was
furthered by the humiliations of various forms of de facto segregation and the
local political situation in which African Americans had lost their jobs
under a reformed mayor patronage was really common that a lot of times that
the mayor’s would deal with the local political actor and try to distribute
jobs to wax and way the reformed mayor of also was
opposed to censorship so they argued that there should be no way that the
birth of the nation however objectionable should be censored
Denver’s black community however found some support amongst whites it was they
battled in a municipal courts to ban the movie under insisting censorship
regulations and one thing I should mention is that censorship was really
common under this time especially dealing with issues of issues of sex a
lot of anything that was considered titillating oftentimes would go and
there would be a censorship battle usually they would lose the films and
screen and so on and people got very excited about it so using race was one
of the ways and when it was considered to be innovative kind of unusual as a
way to ban movies the figurehead of the protest of the protests the pickets and
the legal struggle in Colorado was the a male editor JJ river of the Des Moines
Colorado stateman Statesman but in practice it was often women who
organized the protest often these women were organized in church groups by
denomination so the bazan Baptist Church the AME Church even the ank the black
Anglican Church or Episcopalian Church and often in women out working in clubs
so club women today often can are considered often kind of dismissed as a
people I mean they not often acknowledged as the political actors
that they were in Denver as in most other places the movie was suspended for
a brief time before being allowed to show in the city’s fanciest theater and
if any african-american want was curious enough to want to see this movie that
person would have to pay his or her admission as was very common in Colorado
in many places at the front then go out and go up the balcony to outside to
watch the movie in the high balconies as people told me in Denver and most as in
other places it was called nigger heaven so the few people who wanted to see
those movies would go there so although the movie was shown Denver’s black
community felt that they had scored some political points because the whites who
had allied with they had because the black
community through their votes behind the whites who had allied with them to
protest against the movie and the black community became a deciding factor in
the upcoming local election and many people were able to get their jobs back
their jobs as street sweepers their jobs as messengers for the for the city city
administration jobs that were for many people the there the the way in which
they made their livelihood I think that it’s no accident that as the focus in
Denver and in Des Moines and Waterloo shifts to the local women often come
more into the focus because it’s in their their level that they that many
times women just as Susan Clark as a child were the ones who were able to act
to know people and to use their preexisting networks whether it was
networks as domestic servants which was often the case in with in Denver in
clubs and in other organizations to actually mobilize people to get them to
spend their Sunday afternoon protesting when it was a time when it was the only
time that they had outside of work this uh by most accounts the protest against
the birth of a nation required a great deal of energy and organized and
organization but yielded precious few results if you assume the goal was to
ban the movie at the time the critics of the n-double a-c-p s campaign charged
that the protests only served to publicize the film amongst those people
who were curious but I think it also some of the critics raised an issue that
I certainly have and I think some of you may have thought about but this was a
protest that was organized around censorship the indignation the movie
aroused even by those who hadn’t seen it was based on the assumption that speech
and artistic productions can create harm if not direct physical violence than
psychic violence by reinforcing damaging stereotypes stereotypes and that harm
should be prevented that it was in the interest of the
to prevent that harm some allies of the in double-a-c-p were queasy about the
move about the move who are queasy about the movie were also queasy about
censorship which they found actually repellent even if it was censorship for
what could be considered a good cause and as the n-double-a-cp assess its
struggle over the years against the movie it turned toward the practice of
rewarding honorable portrayals of race relations you can see the remnants of
that in the n-double-a-cp warrants they have every year rather than two
attempting to suppress vile images so from today’s perspective the zeal with
which blacks lobbied for censorship can cause pause since many people consider
themselves First Amendment purist and the First Amendment in general is
considered so vital and to society but the I think that’s useful to think about
the assumption that art can cause harm and what you do with that harm today
that argument is often associated with cultural conservatives our late
presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani was one of those people who argued that
art creates harm in and tried to ban art in his own City but it’s it’s very
interesting to me to who has been often opposed I am opposed to censorship to
see the ways in which this protest mobilized people and that it’s a way in
which the language and the anger connect it has connected to me and made me real
realize yet again that free speech is not without creating harms the question
is for us today is what we do with those harms despite the lack of success in
most of the cases and local civil rights movements these protests and struggles
were enormous ly popular and influential at the local level they revealed that
African Americans were committed to defending their name and using the tools
at their disposal and it means that they were also able to use small victories
you know that that was vulture bolstering their
communities at least to tort stories I’ve tried to impose a narrative on very
complicated messy issues and I have no doubt but I’ve allowed a lost a lot of
the the deep texture they’re complicated issues and I certainly welcome a
conversation and discussion about them but I’d like to conclude my discussion
tonight with the way I began with another poem about George Washington
Carver and this is about another incident that occurred when he was at y
at Iowa State College so George Washington Carver is someone who I
personally had heard about a lot a little bit about when was in grade
school then kind of when I was in high school in college thought well he
probably you know he was important but probably not as a little maybe his
reputation was a little overblown that kind of goes to the arrogance especially
being a sophomore and so on but I think as a as the more the older I get and the
more I really have empathized with his situation and the struggles that he had
I’ve become more and more curious about this this really elusive figure we know
so little about him so I’d like to read this poem again from Marilyn Nelson
who’s trying to envision what Carver’s like life was like it’s called um sir
service fora and it’s a subtitle Iowa State College
1895 he smoothes a square of butcher paper licks his pencil stub looks up and
loses himself in the cool of deep woods mossy water song over stones this
species with the conditio scars on the condition tennis sells
puffballs cabeza gigantea curd white melons among the leaves bullet oh so
jealous scattered like gumdrops under the trees sliced and sauteed and sweet
butter with a little bit of chopped onion the door opens white hands a
blindfold but he knows that laughs and that that
they are white men’s voices white men’s laughters laughter but they are his
classmates his friends but they are white men white pushed and dragged down
the street into a doorway hearing the door closed behind him in whom does he
place his trust standing alone in a hush of whispers rustling paper in whom can
he trust he does eyes unbound see then do not see the new suit shirt hat and
tie thrust into his trembling hands thank you and I will accept any
questions when you think about controversy in
sells tickets mm-hmm and in historical context it can you know tell people at
the time is there a distinction between sort of free speech and the current I think you’re that’s a really important
point I think I think free speech was not considered absolute at the beginning
of the 20th century that censorship was considered to be really important for
the public good and so in this case what you have is African Americans saying
they’re recognizing that but trying to insert racial prejudice as one criterion
by which for the public good and usually they weren’t very successful but it
would it really generated a lot of protest so when I was looking at the
Denver papers there were a lot of people saying well how dare these blacks think
that you know that that racial prejudice is at the same level as what was called
a white slave trade which was bringing children and white women into
prostitution so so yes the what we what we now I mean this whole idea of being a
pre sweeps absolutist that was something that I don’t think anyone would have
understood in 1913 1914 stunned by history stun it yes oh my
goodness what is the important thing that I would like you to leave with I
would like you to just consider that the past has some relevance I mean I’ve been
thinking these are stories that come from a long time ago and for many people
part of the the thing the difficulties they never heard about this before so
that that the past has some relevance and you also might think about why you
haven’t heard not necessarily these stories but
stories like them and I think that there’s a complex reason there’s a lot
of reasons why that’s the case but I think sometimes I think sometimes our
past has been stolen from us I think not from sometimes in very kind of conscious
malicious ways but oftentimes in ways that kind of say well we meet I’ve been
there I become I’ve taught I need to cover a certain amount of period of time
I’ve got to cover a certain amount of history in this class period and so you
lose a lot of the texture the other thing that I was that I’d like you to
think about is that there have always been people in opposition
whatever that it’s sometimes it’s honorable opposition sometimes it’s
really to sound or blob opposition but one of the things that kind of that I’ve
always been annoyed when I hear people say well said it was that way it was
always that way people always thought that back then actually they probably
did not everyone know what that way yes oh that’s fine go ahead and I think it’s
very interesting with your passing that John Wayne Thompson who was the editor
at the time of posting and I think you’re absolutely right about the more
libertarian absolutist interpretation of Amendment which we sort of that doesn’t
really come until after World War one but I think what’s very interesting is
the irony that first of all thompson imposed Wilson because Wilson was a
Democrat and pro southerner and soon as he took power he but also that Wilson
during World War one had the most repressive censorious right okay I think
one of the things is you know it is I’m coming from where we stand right now in
2008 I think it is worthy to be suspicious of when someone is saying is
speaking purely in the public good and try and restrict language for the public
good I think it’s interesting as far as I admired a lot of these people that
were that were protesting so much in defense of their name and what I think
what you know I couldn’t as as an historian I can really admire that as as
a model it is not really it’s not a model that we can pursue in any way but
I think that that aspect of making art problematic and I love art that’s why I
had the poems there is something that that needs to be kept needs to kept in
the in the in the public dialogue so you know not a big comic look but thank you
for bringing it out wondering if you believe that since the
birth of a nation brought so many people together if it speaks as a part of me as
a that that’s very interesting you mean because it kept because the movie kept
showing the First Amendment I think DW Griffith’s intention was not to help
black people get together and to prote and and so I think that it I think there
were some people who try to like see the silver lining of it and saying look at
least we got to get and I think that might be where you’re getting from they
said at least we got together at least we’re able to defend our name which was
a big trope in the 19th cent in the late 19th early 20th century black women were
organizing in defense of their name black men were organizing and defense in
their name so I don’t think I’ve nothing I didn’t really touch on that there were
other we’re gonna say other protests like this I think what is interesting is
for me is that this film was considered so revolutionary right from the
beginning revolutionary for bringing for its artistic elements but also in how it
was inciting I mean really trying to get under to get under people’s skin to get
them very excited in this case for this interpretation of the Civil War I think
that as the actors at that time and I think it’s interesting WB Dubois and
others they would have been really happy if that movie had just closed if they
had been able to ban it so they weren’t looking necessarily for the First
Amendment to protect to be the protector they were looking they what they wanted
was to shut it down and in many ways I think a lot of historians have
interpreted that protest failure to look at it and see a little
bit more that’s a group and the young man got up
and he said I’m sorry the discussion was cancelled tonight I saw the movie the
birth of the nation April 4th 1968 great thank you for sharing that that’s really
powerful yes Thank You Kerry I think one of the things that I’m going
to kind of like eBay that question a little bit but one of the things that I
find interesting is that a lot of times I’ve had experience people wanting to to
say and I also should say thank you that’s very this very generous to talk
about successes and I’m really like I said I’m very humbled and it’s something
that it’s been I have a lot of people to thank for anything that I’ve done
positively but one of the things that I think has been that I’ve often tried to
resist is when people have said you did this you made this happen this is
something that you have done yourself I do see myself as very much a historical
product and so and to me that that there’s various choices that I’ve made
but the reason why you know say my parents got together in University of
Kansas was because Kennedy made the very very very first steps that allowed
Africans to immigrate to the United States that was that was something that
was fully realized under Lyndon Johnson with the reform of the Immigration Act
but Africans and most Asians couldn’t come to the United States before 1965 my
parents bonded I mean I had their romance was over
issues of civil rights in Lawrence Kansas and also about issues affecting
Africa about you know decolonization in Africa a civil war in Africa is the
reason why my father stayed in the in my Y was reared in Muscatine as opposed to
Lagos I have freely I am I am a beneficiary of
a lot of affirmative action work I’m a beneficiary of people like dr. Jackson
was creating trying to recruit more students to Iowa State more
african-american students and I think there’s often a an idea in the u.s. that
you do it all on your own merit and I I feel like it’s something that I have I
can’t imagine I have not had to endure what people what my mother or father did
and I’m not saying that it is that makes things all sweetness and light there
have been definitely difficult issues and I’d say the biggest the many of the
difficult issues with race and gender have shifted to more of an institutional
manifestation than kind of being you know a direct insult as my parents have
endured but I and but I wouldn’t say that the direct and this all has been
absent but I you know I do encourage people to see themselves as part of
history to not just like say yeah you know I’m I think in the u.s. you want to
see like you are you are untethered from the past that you made it on your own
and I really reject that I feel very connected in a very personal way to a
lot of the struggles that people made beforehand I also I think growing up and
where I did I also you I also had to think about what it you know the aspects
of growing up as an extreme racial minority but also that it meant that
there were people who made it possible for my parents to rent in Muscatine Iowa
and if they hadn’t done that out of a sense of what whatever you know
a sense of right that it would have been in pom it would have been impossible to
live there and so it reminds me on one level that racial housing segregation
was alive and well in places where there weren’t a lot of blacks but it also
meant that on the other hand there were some people who felt that they didn’t
want to stay with that status quo so I’m starting to get a little emotional about
that I’m kind of surprised you bought that out of it in Iowa that city faces there were poor
african-americans than anywhere in the country and Maine may be I think Maine is very thorough maja yeah where Mart where
Malcolm X’s father grew I could theorize about it I don’t think I couldn’t really
answer that directly I mean one thing to keep in mind is that the percentage of
blacks probably has dropped over time there were times for example like that
when there were lots and lots of independent packing houses when there
was a lot of lead mining and coal mining in Colorado when there were more
african-americans in this state african-americans were often brought in
to come to Iowa to be strike breakers so I think as Iowa has de-industrialized in
many significant ways as those jobs have left as if blacks were brought in to be
strike breakers and then many of them stayed as those jobs have left not in
this and this isn’t part of like the most recent de globalization but you
know as the packing industry changed and for example then the those jobs left
same with coal coal mining and lead mining Muscatine part of the reason it
had so many blacks in him was because it was a river town and it was one of the
major major places for steamship steamship steamboats and so there were
many african-americans who worked on the boats themselves they also were wood
contractors they did a lot of other things associated with an industry that
is you know extinct now Iowa isn’t a major railroad terminus
unlike Omaha so I think that they were probably less African America mean
that’s one of the reasons why you get like groups of african-americans in
Omaha Denver places like that Kansas City I think there has but I think you
can’t also ignore kind of like this ask that the structure of the agricultural
nature of the state how there were black farmers but I think with getting capital
being able to buy land and to maintain their to maintain farms has been very
difficult in the in the u.s. generally and very very difficult in Iowa so the
number of black farmers has also consistently declined so I think it’s
gone up and down up and down up and down but it’s I mean to me it’s always
disconcerting looking at as statistics for Muscatine County and seeing that
there were more blacks and Muscatine County at earlier periods in the 20th
century than say when I was born and I think that’s part of the changes as far
as the as far as the demographics so it’s a really intricate adass pecked but
I think it’s also a really good question about four places that are right now
have a you know see themselves as largely white to say like maybe it
wasn’t always quite this way yes this is a I cannot the questions were what are
my views about how race is being portrayed in this election and how do I
think race should be portrayed in this election I can’t answer really the
second part be and and this is because I can’t make a prescriptive aspect because
it’s very emotional I have been and I’ll just say personally I’ve been really
I’ve been confused by one aspect when people say you’re playing the race card
as if people were transparent or colorless and then suddenly the minute
you say oh my goodness Barack Obama’s black and Hillary Clinton is white like
suddenly they become raced and as it seeing as if saying it makes something
it’s almost like The Wizard of Oz as if saying something makes it sell and I
think that’s I think that kind of that kind of discourse is really damaging
because it makes it seem that we’re all living in a colorblind society and I
think that’s actually that’s not a goal that I would like personally and it
seems that one it also kind of has that idea that the minute you talk about race
you’re always making things negative and terrible where I should that be the case
either I think one of the things that I found distressing is the the woman black
distinction as a black woman so there was a book that was published in the 70s
called all the men are black all of the women are white but some of us are brave
I think that’s I think that’s and I think it’s so interesting that and they
were talking about black women but I think what’s so interesting is that the
assumption is that they talk about Hillary Clinton as a woman she’s also a
white woman she’s also a woman from Chicago there’s lots of identities that
she has Barack Obama has lots of identities but it’s you know the
shorthand has been getting the woman vote and are getting the the black vote
and you know they it ignores a lot of the complicating factors like why are
there so few black men able to vote in certain parts of the country you know is
if black men have been disenfranchised because of the way in which states take
if you’re convicted of a felony you might lose the right to vote forever
then it’s just talking about the black vote kind of ignores some ways in which
the black vote has been made less representative of the black community so
I think there has been not a whole lot of nuance and that really distress is me
so I hope you know I but I’m not sure if we are learning from that because I
think what comes from it is like saying ooh someone’s those playing the race
card you know that’s gonna begin and you know it’s not a poker game it’s so does
that help does that get us something yes well I hope you get your question back
later but I think what I’d like to invite people to do is this has been a
you know I really appreciate your coming here today and I really appreciate the
conversation that we’ve had please join us for a reception over there and thank
you so much for this opportunity

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