I try as much as possible to refrain from using my site as a personal opinion forum preferring to utilize it to showcase my research and my work. However, in light of Nikki Haley’s recent comments about the United States never having been a racist country, I feel as though my duty as a historian and a human being is to speak of facts. In full disclosure, I am an unaffiliated voter. I feel no personal allegiance to either party. These opinions are my own and are free from the influence of any politician, religion, or organization.
America may be known as the “land of opportunity,” but the fact is that those opportunities have rarely been equal for all. I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina in an area where many homes are currently flying the Stars and Stripes alongside their Confederate battle flags, their “Impeach Biden” banners, and their MAGA, well, everything. It’s less isolated now than it was when I was growing up there, but those aforementioned symbols would lead me to believe that not much has changed. You see, the world I grew up in was incredibly racist. Hearing the “n” word was common; fearing the “other” was taught; and segregation wasn’t just preferred, it was law. Case in point: in the mid-1990s, the small Southern Baptist church I had attended since birth caused me to really question for the first time what the hell was going on in that community. A family who were long-time members of the church brought their new foster child to services one Sunday morning. Even at that young age (somewhere between 7 and 10), I could physically feel the tension weaving its way through the wooden pews that morning. I couldn’t understand where it was coming from, but I could sense the hostility, the disapproval, the repulsion. As I looked around, seated uncomfortably on the worn pea green cushion of the pew, I saw something that stood out. That family’s foster child was black. I didn’t know why, but I knew the disgust I was picking up on from the people around me was directed at that small boy. He was 5 or 6 years old, at most. So set off the Great Hate Debate in that church. My elementary age self sat in on an evening church business meeting shortly after where the subject was discussed. Should this boy be allowed to attend this church? I honestly don’t remember the outcome (those meetings bored me), but I don’t recall ever seeing that little boy again. I asked my parents what the deal was, and they only answered by saying that the church laws were so written that he was not allowed to be there. A child?! I couldn’t wrap my head around it, and to be honest, I still can’t.
Fast forward several years later… In the late 90s, early 2000s, it dawned on me for the first time to ask why we, at our private Christian school, did not have Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off but the area public schools did. In fact, at that point, I was middle school/high school age and didn’t know who MLK was or what he had done that was so important. The response went something like this:
Adult: We don’t celebrate that.
Me: Well, okay, but why?
Adult: It’s a black holiday, okay?!
Me: But what did he do that was so bad that we don’t celebrate him or acknowledge the day?!
Adult: We just don’t…now drop it!
Ever the researcher, I took to the internet to find my answers and was shocked. “Wait, this man was a minister?! No, hold on, a BAPTIST minister?!” It was college before I truly learned of his incredible impact on this nation. My first reading of “Letter From Birmingham Jail” nearly brought me to tears, and I thought of that little foster boy and how so much hatred could cause an entire church filled with “God-fearing servants” to shun a child. However, as I began my journey as an American historian, the more I learned, the less shocked I became. Racism is a very real part of our culture and our history. It’s not inherent; it’s taught. And no amount of whitewashing our collective history is going to change that. We must be willing to see it for what it is…and to call it so.
So, here’s a little history lesson for you… On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill known as the Indian Removal Act into law. Several months later, in his annual address to Congress, President Jackson spoke of the act: “It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation. . . . It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community. . . . Can it be cruel in this Government when, by events which it can not control, the Indian is made discontented in his ancient home to purchase his lands, to give him a new and extensive territory, to pay the expense of his removal, and support him a year in his new abode? How many thousands of our own people would gladly embrace the opportunity of removing to the West on such conditions!” And so began the forced removal of tens of thousands of natives from their ancestral lands to the unforgiving West. Simply put, the government relocated the Native Americans via the “trail of tears,” because the tribes (1) had land the government wanted; (2) were considered to be un-Christian and uncivilized; and (3) weren’t white.
Sadly, we, in this nation, like to repeat our mistakes on a grand scale instead of learning from them. Let’s travel to the 1950s. The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 1954, dismantled segregated public schools and sent the South into a frenzied conundrum. For years, following the abolishment of slavery, the region had employed a variety of tactics known as Jim Crow laws to keep black people in “their place.” For many, Brown threatened to upset the status quo, and that was simply unacceptable. We need look no further than the letters to the editors of various North Carolina newspapers in the days after the decision to understand the general sentiment among white citizens.
- “Segregation is not only not wrong, but is right, and the natural and essential and necessary grouping of man and all the creatures, in all the world, according to their best interests and pleasures and profits.” (H. F. Beaty, The Charlotte Observer; Thursday May 20, 1954)
- “Long live our magnificent republic! But raise that Confederate flag several notches, Stonewall! Methinks it’s flying too low in this hour ‘neath yon gorgeous southern sun!” (Bob Cherry Jr., The Charlotte News; Friday, May 21, 1954)
- “It is the White Man’s destiny that he shall live above and apart from inferior races. . . . Monday, May 17, 1954, will go down in history as a Black Day.” (Carson McCoy, The News and Observer; Saturday, May 22, 1954)
- “This decision of the Supreme Court is illegal, unscriptural, and unAmerican.” (Rev. N. N. Perkins, The Daily Times-News; Friday, May 28, 1954)
- “I am opposed to admitting Negroes into our public schools, and will never submit to it. I do not want a Negro son-in-law or daughter-in-law! I want and expect my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be clean-blooded whites.” (F. V. Hinson, The Charlotte News; Monday, May 31, 1954)
As much as I’d love to agree with Nikki Haley that we have never been a racist nation, the fact is that’s just not true. We have a deep-seated fear of the “other” in this country, not because we have a real reason to, but because we have been conditioned to feel scared of that which is different. I’d also like to believe that we are no longer a racist country, but although we have made many strides to overcome our past, we have a long way yet to go. How do I know this? An example from my own life: Just under ten years ago, I was at a family gathering when the topic of race emerged. I honestly don’t recall what was said to spark the outrageous comment I would overhear, but it sickened me nonetheless. In response to the mention of their black neighbors, a family friend stated that “we should bring back the KKK.” As a historian, I know all too well how easily that desire could manifest. That particular group rose to fame on a foundation of hate and violence. Its popularity waned over the years but would become reinvigorated at every gain made by the minority populations. If we cannot even acknowledge our racist past, then that group, and others like it, may very well rise from the ashes yet again. So, yes, Nikki Haley, we have been a racist country, but we don’t have to be…
Image courtesy of Dinuraj K via Flickr