Don’t take progress for granted: a brief history lesson

If there’s something we need to keep with us, it’s not to become complacent. There is a good chance our day to day lives, depending on the color of our skin and how much money we have, might stay relatively the same as they have been.

We need to be constantly reminded of what is at stake, for us and others, and we need to constantly question our preconceived notions and assumptions about the way of the world.

We kept saying things like, “be on the right side of history.” History is written by winners; that’s why history is always proving winners right. When we all were being torn into pieces, state-by-state, on election night, our friends of color were saying, “wait, you’re surprised?” They’re used to being disappointed on election night. We need to get our house in order. We need to come collect our people. We need to stop taking progress for granted, believing that the world will always move forward. Our history education sets a narrative of forward progression, but it has continuously gone back and forth. 10 steps forward, 9 steps back. Sometimes 11.

People lose rights in the world; take the Iranian women experiencing a rollback in civil rights 1979, for example. You think, “well that’s Iran.

Just because it’s done quietly, and through loopholes, doesn’t mean we are immune. It doesn’t mean minority voters aren’t at tremendous risk. The Democratic party has a history of taking minority voters for granted but not really helping them in the long run. We’re better than our counterpart, of course, but we’re not fully engaged in equality. The black vote did not turn out for Hillary like they did for Obama (possibly in part due to new voter restrictions targeted at them, but that explanation doesn’t apply in all states).

Here’s a clear and concise example of an American progress moving backwards.

History: Black Americans had more rights in 1875 than they did in most of the 20th Century.

Did you know that? I didn’t always know that. Generations of Black Americans lost rights, and did not live to see them return.

Years ago, I read two books by James W. Loewen (historian and sociologist): Lies My Teacher Told Me and Sundown Towns. I recently reread the former. The latter, Sundown Towns, is an incredibly detailed account of all the American towns (which were primarily NOT located in the Confederate states), who did not allow black people to live there, shaping our neighborhood dynamics throughout time and still today, which is cause for segregation and inequality from education to opportunity to income. The former is a good place to start in better educating yourself on American racial history.

Loewen frequently mentions the “nadir” of race relations in the US. Historians disagree on the exact dates, but it is roughly from the 1880s through WWI. Lynchings were at an all time high, and, in adapting to the relatively new fact that Black people were now American citizens, those in power set forth on establishing a legal structure to oppress Black Americans. This is when the recently freed slaves lost most of their rights.

Much of this culminated when outspoken White Supremacist Woodrow Wilson took office, and took direct racist action to get Black Americans away from opportunities to have any positions of power. Previous to his Presidency, Black people (men, primarily) held elected office, were appointed to jobs for the government, and were legally permitted to vote (before oppressive rules like the literacy test were established).

“Wilson used his power as chief executive to segregate the federal government. He appointed southern whites to offices traditionally reserved for blacks. Wilson personally vetoed a clause on racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The one occasion on which Wilson met with African American leaders in the White House ended in a fiasco as the president virtually threw the visitors out of his office. Wilson’s legacy was extensive: he effectively closed the Democratic Party to African Americans for another two decades, and parts of the federal government remained segregated into the 1950s and beyond.”

“Omitting or absolving Wilson’s racism goes beyond concealing a char- acter blemish. It is overtly racist. No black person could ever consider Woodrow Wilson a hero. Textbooks that present him as a hero are written from a white perspective.”

-James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me

Due to the narrative of American progress that we all have been taught and subscribe to, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea that a black man in 1875 could vote (in many states), work for the government, or hold elected office, and that the right was taken away and he never got it back for the rest of his life. This is a really clear and concise example of how progress and human rights must be consistently addressed.

 What to do?

There are many things we can do, but my point with this is for you to start questioning what you know, and try to break free of assumptions. Bring your white friends and family members with you in this.

Stay vigilant. I’ll say it again: we cannot become complacent. We might be mentally exhausted, we might be depressed, we might be disheartened, but we cannot let those emotions force us into complacency.

Educating ourselves doesn’t win elections; educating ourselves makes us better people, and helps us to build a stronger sense of empathy. Educating ourselves will help us to protect each other from movements that seek to take power away from us – whether that comes in the next four years via Trump, or 20 years from now in another form. We need each other, because we will not always win elections, but we have to protect our rights.

Action Items


Author: Melissa

Melissa is an artist and half-architect living in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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