The accurate truth about American history has the power to enlighten, educate and transform minds and hearts. But without accurate truth, no amount of agitation, protest or organized efforts to change the status quo of an inherited 20th century segregationist society will result in systemic change.
At the core of the debate today over what has become known as “critical race theory” a.k.a. CRT, is a battle over maintaining the status quo of an idealized American society derived from myths and propaganda or disrupting this cycle of conditioning with accurate truth that has power to transform the hearts and minds of future generations of Americans of all races. Let’s explore examples of what I mean by “accurate truth.”
In 1963, King gave a brief oratory in Washington D.C. that has become known as the “I have a Dream” speech. It is recited annually on each MLK Day out of context. In fact, the “dream” refrain at the end was not part of King’s original speech to be delivered that day. King’s “dream” refrain, which was adopted as a national narrative AFTER his death, were actually impromptu remarks by the Black Christian preacher inspired by the Black gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was standing behind King on the podium imploring him to “tell them about your dream, Martin!” And so that’s primarily what America knows about Dr. King. His dream.
But King didn’t start his speech with a dream, he began with what he believed were the most important issues of his time. In the first refrain, King described his reality: the horrid conditions of Black America 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s historic decree.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free.
One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.
One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.
So, we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
King’s reality is what we inherited. It is our reality today. King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” exhorted White Christian leaders, both conservative and moderate, about his reality. They didn’t believe in his dream of an interracially integrated democracy. Today, we find ourselves in precisely the same predicament we inherited from previous generations.
COMPARING CHRONIC CONDITIONS
What are the systemic conditions today for Black America compared to 1963? Dr. King was not asking White Americans to simply be nicer to Black people as individuals or merely change personal attitudes. He implored White educators, clergy, policymakers and business leaders to change laws, systems and public policies. He pointed directly to the systemic societal conditions White Americans had collectively established, enjoyed, politically supported and sustained for 100 years while Black Americans suffered in the same society. These systemic segregationist conditions remain intact today as the status quo, which a majority of White Americans continue to benefit from while collectively owning the power to change society for future generations through public policy and private sector practices.
BAD KING, GOOD KING
The great American mystery is how have White Americans evolved in a single generation from hating the living King to loving a dead one? A vast majority of White Americans despised King while he was alive. They ignored his numerous exhortations, which exposed national hypocrisy. Some critics may point to the presence of White supporters on the Washington Mall at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his iconic speech. That is a legitimate argument, considering many White supporters donated to many organizations and showed up at many protests, rallies and meetings organized by Black leaders. White supporters also were among the 250,000 who attended that day-long rally on a hot day in August 1963. Clarence Jones, the author of “Behind the Dream,” who helped King edit his speech, described the turnout of White supporters that day as “disappointing.”
“We knew well how much support we had within the white community and had anticipated greater white participation. Our hopes were that non-Negro turnout would tip the scales at 30 percent or perhaps even higher. Granted our methods of calculation were crude at best, but the general consensus among The March organizers was that actual non-Negro turnout was no more than 20 percent. This was a disappointment, especially to Martin.
Three years after King introduced his “dream” to the nation, White America’s opinion of him had plummeted and was trending the wrong way. In 1966, national polls showed that 72% of White Americans held a negative view of King, the worst of all prominent Americans listed. But less than 20 years after King’s assassination the same polls showed that 76% of White Americans admired him. Is there any doubt that White America’s attitude toward King just a generation later was based on myths and propaganda? King’s voice was terminated and the “Revolution” he led was presumably dead, which left White Americans in seats of power and influence to shape, mold and control the national narratives about him. And the truth has been intentionally hidden.
It’s understandable, then, why there’s a massive effort underway today to hide the truth from generations of White Americans. Would the descendants of White supporters of a 20th century segregationist society be willing to redesign, reform and reconstruct their inheritance to be a more equitable and Inclusive America for future generations in a 21st century multicultural society? Perhaps most would, if they knew the truth about their inheritance.
Would most of today’s White American population support Dr. King if they knew the truth about his efforts to disrupt segregationist policies and practices that protect white supremacy? Today’s generations are conditioned to believe the issues that Black Americans continue to complain about were sufficiently dealt with in previous White generations. This is a big lie. But there’s no national counter-narrative to the big lie because students are not taught accurate truth in U.S. history, civics, social studies and economics.
WHAT’S BLACK FREEDOM?
Every year the nation proclaims its love for Dr. King yet, ironically, there’s no national memory today of White America gearing up for a grand centennial celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, just as there’s little knowledge of France gifting the U.S. a Statue of Liberty to commemorate the freedom of Black people in a White nation and an end to America’s “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery. But Black freedom is at the central core of Dr. King’s efforts. And his national voice was elevated during the 100th anniversary celebration of Black freedom in America.
In 1963, while White Americans were preparing for a meaningless symbolic celebratory gesture that mocked the “shameful conditions” King described in his most iconic speech, Black Americans, including King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were organizing a series of nonviolent direct-action protests in nearly 1,000 cities across the nation that would give rise to the most important movement in US history: the Negro Revolution.
WHAT’S A NEGRO REVOLUTION?
The truthful history of America remains hidden in plain sight today. If students were guided through a critical analysis of the laws, systems, public policies and private sector practices in America from 1863 to 1963, they would have clarity on the systemic issues to which King referred. If students were taught accurate truth in course of history, civics, economics and social studies they would have knowledge of the most important movement in U.S. history, which continues to this day, beyond King’s assassination in 1968.
The “Negro Revolution” as King named it, is an organized strategic non-violent direct-action national effort that demands three specific measurable systemic changes across American society:
- End segregation in schools
- End discrimination in housing
- End discrimination in banking and access to capital
Objective measures of these three systemic conditions today reveal the sad reality that all three conditions remain, and have worsened. But there is a national blind spot in white America around these conditions and the comparative data from 1960 to the present day that reveals the unvarnished truth. Those opposed to study of these data don’t want to know the truth. They prefer willful ignorance. But the truth hides in plain sight.
Quintessentially, there are two core questions at the heart of political machinations taking place today in more than 20 states where politicians push to regulate educational curriculum and ban any lessons deemed to be CRT, which may be ill-defined or not at all. These two simple questions can be answered with either YES or NO.
Was the issue of racial hierarchy (valuing/devaluing humans by race) ingrained in the laws, economic systems, statutes and public policies that were determinative factors in the formation and development of American society from its inception?
Should each generation of American youth be taught a holistic and accurate historical account of how societal laws, systems, public policies and private sector practices impacted different groups of people according to their human value based on the societal construct of race?
If your answer to both questions above is YES, then you are in agreement with Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and, of course, professor Derrick Bell, who presented the definitive thesis (racism is woven into the fabric of American laws, systems and policies) that became a foundation upon which critical race theory was established as a formal study at Harvard Law School and other universities long before politicians leveraged it as a political football.
Unfortunately, there have been a variety of splintered versions that have branched off the trunk of CRT academic scholarship, which is rooted in the original studies developed at Harvard Law School and refined for public consumption in the book, “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” by authors Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.
The splinter versions have offered political propagandists much firewood for fueling false debates and catalyzing caustic chaos while cultivating “fear of the other” among White Americans. The fear stoked among White Americans seems not to cause much concern among any non-white populations. The dichotomy of that dynamic should raise obvious questions.
To filter out the noise and get right to the heart of the matter, we must ask and answer the two principal questions above. Then we can each determine whether we are willing to begin a journey of discovery through the lens of historical context and also empower our children with such knowledge, or simply ignore the systemic issues we inherited and keep our kids in the dark. That’s the personal choice introduced to us all through the debate over CRT. What’s your decision?
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