I did not know what to expect when I walked in to the Alumni House to hear the talk with Riva Schuster Hirsch and Josephine Bolling McCall for class, but what I received from hearing the two was much more than I had hoped for. The rarity of still being able to hear a Holocaust survivor speak is unfortunate, so my class and I were very lucky to have the opportunity to hear Riva speak on the horrors of what she went through. It is also upsetting to know that there are people still living today who were greatly affected by such explicit racial injustices as Josephine Bolling had endured as a child. The only positive thing I can think about it is that today, we can listen to their stories and work on preventing future incidents like those from happening.
Things that stood out to me from what the women said were: There was still slavery in Lowndes County, Alabama in 1947, Riva and her family had to hide in fields and forests, Josephine and her family were “afraid to talk” or speak up about the injustice to her father, and that Riva had gotten so sick while in hiding that she could not walk or talk, only play dead.
Despite all the sufferings these women have gone through, it is thrilling to know that they both turned their unfortunate pasts into present successes. Josephine had a book published in honor of her father titled The Penalty of Success and it is now required reading for certain Law School classes, and although Riva never went to school, she was able to teach herself seven different languages. She also has famous YouTube videos and created a beautiful family for herself in Birmingham, Alabama.
The most important part of their talk was listening to them each give advice on how we can make a difference today.
Riva says: Go around and speak to youngsters—the future of our world—to educate them on the hatred that occurred in the past, to ensure it never EVER happens again.
Josephine says: It is important to continue the message, to acknowledge the Golden Rule, and to spread brotherly love to all.
These are things I will never forget.
Layla is currently a graduate student at UAB studying to obtain her Master’s degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing.
I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. twice. The first time was just over a year after it opened. I was newly out and went with a new gay friend and a straight ally. We picked up random ID cards to “own” during the tour, but also asked for information about the gays who died in the Holocaust. Those pamphlets were kept behind the counter, like the dirty magazines at 7 Eleven.
It was a somber visit. Seeing the shoes was the hardest. The owners were dead. Only their shoes left to give witness. Hundreds—thousands?—of shoes. I whispered the refrain of the tour, “never again.”
My last visit to the museum was a few months ago. Donald Trump had been in the White House for several months. I still had not called him the P word. I can’t do it here. I didn’t remember the tour being so crowded. It felt right, though. Again, I clutched my identification papers. Last time I cheated and looked to see my assumed persona lived or died right away. This time I wanted to find out in real time. The crowd added to the experience, especially when I saw the train car.
Last time when I said Never Again it was defiant, a promise. Now it was a question. The tour starts at the upper floor with the lead up to the Holocaust. It didn’t happen overnight. Old newsreels and headlines show Hitler’s rise to power. Shave his mustache and tint his skin orange and it could have been the buildup to the 2016 elections. It scared me, the Othering part of the German people. Change Jew to Mexican or Muslim and it wasn’t dusty history at all. Never again?
Something else was wrong. The mood wasn’t as somber this time, not for everyone. A group of people in front of me laughed at some of the videos and exhibits. Not nervous titters. I do that sometimes. I smiled nervously when I told my mom that Mr. Lamar, my seventh-grade gym teacher died. I wasn’t happy. I was nervous. These people now, though, were enjoying themselves. This wasn’t a shameful part of humanity’s past but a primer.
I had to sit down, but there was no place to sit.
Last night when I heard Riva and Josephine speak, I thought the Holocaust museum, and the Civil Rights Institute, and the news coverage of the Valentine Shooting at Parkland, and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the Sandy Hook, were too sanitized. When I worked in the ICU and ER in the Navy I treated gunshot victims. I keep hearing people speaking abstractly about 2nd Amendment this Crisis actor that. It’s easy to be a talking head when all you see are helicopter shots of students walking single file across a school parking lot with their hands up. Or the flashing lights of emergency vehicles and worried parents behind barricades.
I don’t know what the dead and wounded looked like at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School or Sandy Hook, or the Pulse, or the field where Josephine’s father was lynched. But the shooting victims I saw had half their heads missing, their entrails hanging out, entrance wounds the size of a quarter and exit wounds the size of an orange. More blood than you’d think a human body could hold saturated their clothes. I don’t believe anyone could see that and NOT say never again!
And yet those laughing people at the Holocaust Museum took pictures with their smart phones of the photos and videos of the atrocities of Joseph Mengele to show off to their friends back home.
One of them had a red MAGA baseball cap on.
Riva and Josephine must keep telling their story, but that’s not enough. Everyone who heard it must also tell it. And they must insist, Never again. And when the assholes with the MAGA caps laugh we have to shout it, Never Again! Never!
And for the love of God, never here.
For Bob Byrd, it was a race to see which he would earn first: an undergrad degree or AARP card. He is a senior at UAB, majoring in Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. He just celebrated his 55th birthday–looks like AARP won, but it was close. He is an award winning storyteller and a frequent contributor to the NPR radio program Says You!. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale but has called Birmingham home for the last twenty years.
A creative writing class from the UAB English department attended the Nazi Germany and Jim Crow South symposium in February. Six students, including Taylor, submitted their reflections on the interview with Riva Hirsh, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, daughter of lynching victim, Elmore Bolling. Their honest and emotionally raw selections will post over the course of this week. — AR
Riva Hirsch scans the room with wide eyes and white hair. Her shoulders are draped in purple and gold, her veiny hands clutched around her microphone. When the interviewer asks her to tell the room about her childhood and family, she stands up and brings the microphone to her lips.
“I had everything I needed until the murderer came.”
Her voice comes out grainy and loud, her lips probably kissing the microphone. She shakes with emotion I’m sure she’s felt for a lifetime.
The interviewer turns to Josephine Bolling McCall, who sits in her chair with her ankles crossed, robed in shades of emerald. Her hair is as red as fall leaves before the separate from branches and litter sidewalks. Like Riva, she wears glasses. The interviewer asks her the same question and she stands. Her voice is softer, as steady as a librarian talking while leading you through the stacks and pulling the book you need from the shelf.
“I lived in Lowndes Country, Alabama. It was known as ‘Blood Lowndes’,” she reveals. I look around the room and watch a few audience members shift in their seats. One squints his eyes, as if trying to imagine just how bloody it had been. “I was only 5 when my father was killed.” Even I shift in my seat.
Riva begins the heartbreaking tale of bring separated from her family by the Nazis. She was seven when war came to her town. A family friend named Joshua warned her family to leave. The second time he came, Riva tells us “I could smell human flesh.” Riva and her family were forced to leave their home, taking only the packages her mother and grandmother made. Joshua hid them until he could hide them no more. One day Joshua came running.
“The SS are coming!” Riva and her family were forced into the forest, where they lived in sickness, became covered in lice. Eventually they were caught and separated by the SS. Riva tells the room of alert eyes and open mouths that her mother was beat in front of her when she refused to let go of her children. They were forced to wear the yellow star and told they would be taken to a better place. She tells us of the trains they were forced on and leaves us with an image that chills to the bone and boils blood all at once.
“There were piles of dead bodies on the train. We were all moving from life to death, death to life.”
Josephine tells us about her father, Elmo, before he was killed. “He had airhorns on his truck,” she reminisces. Her father would blow his horns as he passed the family in the shop or the house. But in December of 1947, gunshots could be heard some time after the airhorns. No one thought anything of it until they were told her father was dead. “He was laying there in the ditch and his eyes were still open,” she says, looking down into the microphone. I know we all imagined a 5-year-old mind replaying that image, understanding more of its horror as time passes.
When asked about the community’s reaction to her father’s murder, Josephine admits that everyone was afraid to talk. “Keep your mouth shut, stay inside, and don’t say anything,” she recites. This was the law of their land. Josephine’s brother saw the murder of their father and saw the car that appeared to be following their father before the murder. Her brother wrote the tag number in the dirt in front of a sheriff, trying to give him the information. The sheriff had no interest. “My father’s murder had been planned,” Josephine says. And the room understands that the sheriff already knew.
Riva is asked to talk about her savior, a man who spoke German. “A man put his hand on my mouth,” she says. “I was so sick with malaria and typhoid. He told me to play dead. He put me on his shoulder and started to run with me.” The German man hid Riva in a carriage to smuggle her out of the camp. The carriage was stopped, but Riva went undiscovered until she was brought to a convent. “He handed me off to a nun and then she started to run with me,” and I imagine a nun’s black clothing flailing in the still of night, a sick child limp in her arms. She was brought to a place where more children were hidden and told the nuns would bring them food as often as they could, but not too often as to draw attention. “They were my guardian angels,” Riva confesses.
After Josephine’s family fled Lowndes County to Montgomery, she found information that would launch her into an investigation about her father’s murder. In the Montgomery Advertiser had an article about her father’s murder. “He had been shot 6 times with a pistol, once in the back with a shot gun. What does that tell you? That there was more than one person there,” Josephine urges into the microphone. After retrieving the article from historical archives and interviewing others, Josephine discovers that many people had known her father’s murder was planned. She also discovered that by definition, her father’s murder had been a lynching. In a Chicago newspaper headline about her father’s murder, the word “lynch” appeared.
The interviewer asks, “Why was it important for your father’s murderers to not make it look like a lynching?”
“Counties were being held responsible and fined,” Josephine responds. “The Association of Southern Women to Protect Lynching (ASWPL) came to Lowndes County to stop the lynching from happening.” The murderers were trying to protect themselves.
Riva tells us about her life after the way. She never went to school, but taught herself 7 languages. She married another Holocaust survivor, who lost his whole family to the gas chambers. He was the only survivor. 28 years ago, Riva came to Birmingham. Her daughter and step-daughter and still with her. She lost her husband 4 years ago, her son 9 years ago. She still claims with excitement, “America is the best place in the world.”
Josephine started a foundation in memory of her father. She wrote a book, The Penalty of Success: My Father was Lynched in Lowndes County, Alabama, and had two book signings a day for a week in Boston. She continues to share her story.
Both women leave us with their own words of advice. Riva cautions, “Make sure you speak to educate our students because the future is in their hands.” She pins us all with a determined stare before finishing, “Never ever let it happen again.” Josephine follows Riva, urging that “we have to acknowledge what has gone on before we can reconcile and come together.” Finally, she points us to Bible, Hebrews 13:1, “Let brotherly love continue.”
Taylor Byas is a graduate student at UAB pursuing her Master’s Degree in English, Creative Writing. She aspires to teach Creative Writing at the collegiate level.
My research seeks to answer a complicated question: Why did everyday people participate in the systems of racial oppression known historically as the Third Reich and the Jim Crow South? Historians have focused on these two national cultures and the wide variety of ways in which they excluded racialized others while elevating their own preferred racial makeups. Much of my graduate career has been spent studying the prejudice that emanated from Nazi Party leadership down to the German citizenry. However, when I took a graduate seminar on Southern History with a preeminent scholar, I was struck by the fact that, at the structural level, histories of the South resembled many of the German histories I had already consumed.
Both fields attempt to sort through complex pasts by debating continuity over time. In Germany’s case, scholars asked if there was something essentially German that caused the rise of the Third Reich by the early twentieth century? Was there a direct path from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler, or was the development of German history more complex? Similarly, U.S. Southern academics often argued over whether the antebellum South had ever truly given way to a New South built on technology and industry. Both arguments created a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts that has consequentially damaged historical interpretation in both fields. By setting up a world where the U.S. South was always at its heart magnolias and bigotry and Germany was always a peculiar nation susceptible to authoritarianism, no one needs to take ownership of their horrendous racial legacies. Exceptionalist narratives paint a deterministic picture where the racial castes that evolved into brutality and violence were inevitable outgrowths of inherent flaws. Nobody could help themselves; it was simply meant to be.
Such determinism has long had its opponents and supporters amongst historians, but both fields tackled this problem in remarkably similar ways: memory history. Southern and German historians embraced a historical methodology that called scholars to probe historical actors’ memories. How did exceptionalist myths like the “Lost Causes” and “Special Paths” (Sonderweg) get formed? Scholars of both cultures claimed that historical actors chose to selectively remember and internalize false memories which were then purposely perpetuated to future generations. One of the most blatant of these efforts was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization defined by a desire amongst white Southern women to give permanence to the “Lost Cause” illusions of the Confederacy. Through textbooks, statues, speeches, public events, and other cultural activities the UDC ensured that a Neo-Confederate lifestyle would exist well beyond the South’s military defeat. Germany similarly internalized powerful false memories regarding militarism. Many young German men willingly went to war in the Spring of 1914 hopped up on tales of glory from Germany’s imperial wars; the fact that these conflicts were inherently one-sided and genocidal did not make it into travel accounts and youth magazines. These same myths would influence another generation; instead of seeing the First World War as brutal meat-grinder of humanity, many Germans sought glorification in the Nazi cause. False memories had indeed defined both regions and by extension their historical studies.
The more I read Southern history and reread German history I noticed more similarities. Neither regions’ academics seemed to address one another in any significant way. There were Cursory mentions here and there, footnotes in an epilogue, an occasional article. German historians and Southern historians seemed unaware of how significantly their methods of analysis overlapped. It was maddening! How could either of these places consider themselves exceptional when their histories were so painfully similar?! How had no one else really dug into this subject? The possibilities were staggering! I wrote a paper for my Southern History course on this overlap, and the whole exercise was produced more in the name of catharsis than course completion. However, the paper would not be enough, I did not find myself satisfied.
I read more and more and continued to find considerable overlap, but meaningful comparisons were few and far between. So, my new obsession slowly shifted into my dissertation proposal. I refined my original project, stripped it down to its bolts, and completely rewrote it. I added a research prospectus where I outlined my major argument, my answer to the question I asked above: Why did everyday people participate in the systems of racial oppression known historically as the Third Reich and the Jim Crow South? People were subjugated, excluded, and made the easy victims of violence and deprivation. The answer would not be found in studying politicians, demagogues, and the elites that had often defined my research. No, the similarity between these two regions, the element that formed the foundation of a transnational system of racial intolerance and exclusion was everyday people. The racial castes of Jim Crow and National Socialism may have had the force of law, but everyday people were the ones who enforced and followed the boundaries of racial propriety. Those boundaries were often set and adjusted at very local levels in countless interactions far away from any state supervision.
Many historians have argued that events and circumstances dictated complicity- in other words a historical actor’s present world left them little choice. Other scholars assert that historical actor’s memories of the past informed their complicity. I depart from these arguments; I insist that the answer to everyday complicity in the Third Reich and Jim Crow South lies not in past or present but in the future. I study the various expected futures that these historical actors internalized, which I call “Expectation” for shorthand. Expectation is a fact of human existence; we all walk around with some form of expectation of the future, be it a political identity, a five-year plan, or even what to eat for dinner. Historical actors similarly had expectations. In my research I have unearthed those hopes and fears of countless possible futures that provided considerable motivation for a wide variety of actions that lent credence to Jim Crow and Nazism.
Identifying and explaining expectation has been a fascinating endeavor that has taken me across six Southern states and all across the Southern German state of Bavaria. This particular German state and its people have long considered their culture to be highly distinct from the rest of Germany, harking back to an aristocratic tradition that thrived long before Prussian led unification “reconstructed” their region into a united Germany. As such, it offers a very proximate point of comparison with a Southern culture that deals with its own hatred of reconstructions. I have assembled pamphlets, newspapers, sheet music, broadsides, tourism brochures, flyers, letters, diaries, and a wide variety of everyday kitsch to assemble a clear picture of white supremacist hopes for the future. These items help illustrate a wide variety of wants, needs, and fears that informed everyday expectations for the future and by extension the justifications people internalized to vindicate their position in racialized states.
My research has shown five key components of expectation, each one of vital importance to understanding everyday complicity. First, tradition: the idea that people expect some form a remembered past will carry over into the future. Second, continuity: the hope that the institution, customs, and society of the present will continue to exist. Third, potential: the desire to maximize the potential of humanity and society to thrive in the future. These three ideas embody expectation generally and can be found outside of Jim Crow South and the Third Reich. However, the next two components help bridge the gap between expectation and complicity. Fourth, urgency: the pressing fear generated by either stressful times, political demagogy, or the perception of changes to the status quo that motivate historical actors to become more ardent in realizing their expectations. Finally, entitlement: the idea that historical actors considered themselves entitled to their expectations of the future at the direct expense of other people.
To fully explain how tradition, continuity, potential, urgency, and entitlement form expectations for the future and motivate everyday people to participate in racial states I use a series of vignettes to tackle each topic and illustrate a component of expectation as it existed in both the U.S. South and Bavarian Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. For example, to study the idea of tradition, I look at the Lost Cause and postwar Confederate worship to demonstrate that Southerners generally expected their futures to contain some vestiges of moonlight and magnolias. In Bavaria, an emphasis on agricultural roots and Bavaria’s separate monarchy demonstrate that Bavarians hoped to honor their separatism of yesteryear. In assembling this argument, I have called on debates over Women’s Suffrage, Bavarian Catholicism, white supporters of Marcus Garvey, sterilization and eugenics, the Scopes Trial, Bamberg tourism, Prohibition, and so much else to unearth everyday expectation in a clear and compelling fashion.
When we consider the factors that contributed to everyday complicity, we must not only look at the usual suspects hierarchy, heritage, racism but also reflect on the role of people’s entitlement to expected futures and the fear of losing those futures. The world of the 1920s and 1930s was truly tumultuous with the rise of communism, a global war and an epidemic that combined wiped out much of a generation, a global depression, and many other destabilizing events. People needed and craved stability; in the case of the Jim Crow South and the Third Reich, that stability was offered by politicians and demagogues in exchange for participation in a strict and violent racial system. This stability afforded everyday whites in both the U.S. South and Bavaria Germany the opportunity to achieve their desired futures and to avoid imagined apocalypses. The opportunity to realize their expectations convinced far too many people to enforce, support, or at least look the other way as African Americans and Jews were stripped of their human rights, their dignity, and sometimes their very lives.
Derrick J. Angermeier is presently a PhD candidate in the History Department of the University of Georgia. His dissertation, titled Both Hitler and Jim Crow: Lost Causes and Imagined Futures in Nazi Bavaria and the New South, 1919-1939, explores the expectations, hopes, and fears for the future held by everyday people in the U.S. South and Bavaria, Germany during the 1920s and 1930s as vehicles to understanding complicity in racialized states. Derrick has been awarded multiple research grants and fellowships which have taken him across the U.S. South and to the southern German state of Bavaria. This May he will be a Graduate Fellow of the Berlin Seminar in Transnational European Studies. Derrick prides himself on sharing his expertise and research with the public. He has spoken at multiple events sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; most recently in February 2018 when he discussed the role “Expectation” played in everyday complicity in the Third Reich and Jim Crow South at a symposium co-sponsored by the UAB Institute for Human Rights.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1991).
Kenneth Barkin, “A Case Study in Comparative History: Populism in Germany and America,” in The State of American History, Herbert J. Bass (Quadrangle Books, 1970).
Peter Bergmann, “American Exceptionalism and German Sonderweg in Tandem,“ The International History Review, vol. 23, no. 3 (2001): 505-534.
Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005)
James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford University Press, 2005).
David C. Engerman, “Introduction: Histories of the Future and Futures of History,” The American Historical Review, vol 117, no. 5 (2012): 1402-1410.
Paul Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1970).
Johnpeter H. Grill and Robert L. Jenkins, “The Nazis and the American South in the 1930s: A Mirror Image? The Journal of Southern History, vol 58, no. 4 (November 1992): 667-694.
John Haag, “Gone with the Wind in Nazi Germany,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 73, no. 2 (Summer 1989): 378-304
Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983)
Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1790: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Ian Kershaw, “Hitler and the Uniqueness of Nazism,” Journal of Contemporary History, 2, (2004): 239-254.
Jürgen Kocka, “German History Before Hitler: The Debate about the German Sonderweg,” Journal of Contemporary History 23, no. 1 (1988): 3–16.
George L Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (Howard Fertig: 1964).
Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning and Recovery, Jefferson Chase (Metropolitan Books, 2001).
Nina Silber, The Romans of Reunion: Northers and the South 1865-1900 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993)
Martina Steber and Bernhard Gotto, eds., Visions of Community in Nazi Germany: Social Engineering and Private (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: The Rise of Germanic Ideology. (University of California Press, 1974).
Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 1980).
Andrew Zimmermann, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South, (Princeton University Press, 2012).
Black History Month’s conclusion seems to me an opportune time for reflecting on America’s age-old tension between supporting civil rights versus human rights. As an African American woman educator, I have observed this tension among students, colleagues, community members, and the national media. The paraphrased statements below capture the essence of some of my personal encounters.
“I must admit I was initially resistant to your requirement to attend [the Holocaust-themed film] Paper Clipsin a course focused on the Civil Rights Movement.”- A former African American woman graduate student
“I cannot justify investing in international human rights when Black folks in America have so many unresolved problems.” – An African American woman colleague
“I have never heard an African American speak about antisemitism.” – A Jewish woman civic leader’s public comment after an African American woman scholar’s human rights symposium keynote
“Why it Hurts When the World Loves Everyone But Us” – A Black Internet media headline highlighting the outpouring of support for emerging student gun control activists in the aftermath of the February 14, 2018 Parkland, Florida school shooting
These encounters, particularly my own disquiet with the optics of the media’s portrayal of (welcomed) nationwide empathy for school shooting victims and survivors contrasted with (ill-informed) public antipathy of The Movement for Black Lives, prompt me to pose a few questions, and retrace, in hopes of helping African Americans (and others) reclaim, our longstanding tradition of advancing human rights.
A Problem of Scope?
Why so much dissonance about what I consider symbiotic rights? Is a hierarchy of scope culpable? Civil rights – generally defined as an individual’s rights to be treated equally under typically federal law in public arenas such as housing, education, employment, public accommodations, and many more – are quite often viewed as too narrow, too mid-20th century, too Black. In contrast, human rights are defined more expansively as rights “inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status”. Human rights are generally viewed as being international in scope – that is, focused on human beings beyond, but tacitly excluding human beings within, the continental United States.
Yet, there are key historical moments when Black leaders in the United States strategically elevated America’s civil rights violations to international human rights violations. W. E. B. Du Bois espoused an unwavering belief in the indivisibility of national and international human rights for people of African descent. Likewise, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used his platform as a civil rights leader to speak out against apartheid in South Africa, global poverty, and the Vietnam War. Four other notables, Malcolm X, Ralph Bunche, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, also used their platforms as Black leaders to address international human rights. These leaders embodied polarities of diverse Black intellectual thought yet shared the view that advancing Black civil rights constituted a legitimate and worthy human rights agenda, particularly when linked to the destinies of Africans in the Diaspora.
Malcolm X (1925-1965)
After his exile from the Nation of Islam, and on the heels of his transformative pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964, Malcolm X launched a campaign to persuade African states represented in the United Nations to bring charges against the United States’ oppression of what he then termed Afro-Americans. Malcolm X told friends in New York that he aimed to “internationalize” the Afro-American question at the United Nations in a manner similar to how South African apartheid was elevated as an international problem. The contents of an eight-page memorandum Malcolm X drafted and delivered to African heads of state at a conference in Cairo, Egypt convinced U. S. government officials of his potential for influential global leadership. They surmised that if “Malcolm X succeeded in convincing just one African Government to bring up the charge at the United Nations, the United States Government would be faced with a touchy problem”. Malcolm X suspected that the FBI and CIA demonstrated a particular clandestine interest in his aims for Afro-American advancement once he focused on internationalizing his agenda.
Ralph Bunche (1904-1971)
Ironically, Malcolm X publicly criticized another Black leader, who shared similar human rights aims albeit not means, as a “Black man who didn’t know his history”. Ralph Bunche, whose role as a civil and human rights leader remains woefully overshadowed in American history, was the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for brokering the 1949 Armistice Agreements in the Middle East. Known as a consummate diplomat, Bunche helped found the United Nations, soliciting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s support in establishing its treaties. Bunche also supported civil rights causes and was among a group of African American intellectuals W. E. B. Du Bois coined the “Young Turks.” He influenced Dr. King and other civil rights leaders and participated in the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. He also served on the board for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)
Mary McLeod Bethune leveraged her accomplishments as the founder of Bethune-Cookman College, a national Colored Women’s Club leader, and a civil rights leader, to become a stateswoman for international human rights. As historian Paula Giddings noted, “Bethune knew how to cajole, praise, apply the right pressure here and there, to move toward a group consensus”. Joining ranks with Bunche and Du Bois as NAACP leaders, Bethune represented the organization at the 1945 founding of the United Nations. In the early 1950s President Harry Truman appointed her to a national defense committee and to serve as an official delegate to a presidential inauguration in Liberia. Bethune and Bunche were among a few Black Americans who had the ear of U. S. Presidents and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, enabling them to elevate their causes for African Americans to an international platform.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)
Bethune once vied successfully against Ida B. Wells-Barnett in 1924 to become president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Both well respected in the Black community, quite similar to Malcolm X and Bunche, they subscribed to different schools of Black political thought. Wells-Barnett was a fiery activist who openly criticized Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist stance on advancing Black progress. Her public attacks were taken none too lightly by NACW leader Mary Church Terrell whom Wells-Barnett once accused of excluding her from the 1899 convention of the NACW. Terrell’s enthusiasm and support for Bethune’s NACW candidacy over Wells-Barnett’s was ill-concealed. Despite these differences, Wells-Barnett joined ranks with Black women and men to expose the atrocities of American lynching to an international audience, drawing national attention and scrutiny. As Giddings noted, “A local antilynching campaign was one thing; an international one was quite another”.
Forging New Human Rights Alliances in the 21st Century
One historical lesson from the experiences of Black human rights leaders is that they forged successful alliances both within and outside of their race to advance civil and human rights. I see hopeful signs of this legacy among younger generations. Notably, twice during this academic year, I have been fortunate to participate in human rights symposia co-sponsored by the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Campus Outreach Program, Birmingham higher education institutions, and local Holocaust and civil rights education organizations. These two symposia, hosted at the historically Black Miles College last fall and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) last week, juxtaposed holocaust experiences in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South with meticulous and empathic attention to balancing the unique perspectives and representing the diverse identities of survivors and descendants of these atrocities. The Miles College symposium, according to its organizers the first ever hosted by a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), expectedly drew a predominantly African American audience with a notable number of Whites and other racial/ethnic groups whereas the UAB symposium was fairly racially/ethnically diverse. The symposium brought together a total of 413 attendees, 37 presenters, and moderators from 18 different universities and institutions in 7 states (plus DC), representing 17 different academic disciplines and programs.
I applaud these efforts because they are reminiscent of Black-Jewish alliances in the 19th and 20th centuries that helped advance Black and Jewish representation in American education. For example, the alliance between Birmingham’s Black community and Jewish school leader Samuel Ullman to establish Black schools in slavery’s aftermath. There is also the more familiar alliance between Booker T. Washington and Sears and Roebuck magnate Julius Rosenwald to build thousands of schools for Black children all across the South and extending to the Southwest and Mid-Atlantic states. Rosenwald once proclaimed in a speech: “We like to look down on the Russians because of the way they treat the Jews, and yet we turn around and the way we treat our African-Americans is not much better”. Together, Washington and Rosenwald, with the inestimable support of local Black communities, built nearly 5,000 schools with an estimated $4 million investment from the Rosenwald Project. Finally, there is the alliance between Jewish professors and HBCUs in the 1930s and 1940s highlighted in From Swastikas to Jim Crow. The U.S. South was once a safe haven for a number of Jewish intellectuals who fled Nazi oppression. Many Jewish professors found it difficult to find university jobs in the United States, especially at elite institutions; and even when they did, some were denied tenure for their socialist and religious orientations. Black colleagues at HBCUs were generally sympathetic to their new Jewish colleagues and helped socialize them to the Jim Crow South. The Jewish academics were often astounded by race relations in the South. One professor recounted that when a kind Black colleague gave him a ride home, the apartment manager called him into the office to complain that he had “Negro visitors who were not cleaning ladies or something like that.” A neighbor later warned him that if he did not cease bringing Negroes to the neighborhood that the neighbor would shoot – not at him but at his Black colleague.
History has taught us that forging alliances to address civil and human rights is never easy. These alliances have always been fraught with ideological, racial, cultural, socioeconomic, gender, and countless other differences. There have always been tensions between the aims of mobilizing intra-racial alliances (Malcolm X’s post-Mecca concession that “Whites can help us but they can’t join us.”) versus interracial alliances. Yet no real social movement has occurred without them. Dr. King’s prophetic treatise on human rights penned as a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” resonates today:
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
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