I recall conversations in my home state and in my house about whether or not MLK Day should be an official holiday.
There would be argument over whether or not celebrating anything dealing with race made race issues worse (because acknowledging the existence of race is obviously bad), does our economy need another day off, and should we celebrate a philanderer. Discussions would waffle back and forth with no clear winner till someone would bring up communism. At the mention of that C-word a hush would fall. Everyone would stare out to nowhere, not having any available retort. Communism was the civil rights trump card. There was no available defense of being a communist.
In the mind of people engaging in this discussion, communism was real. These were Vietnam or cold war veterans. These were bootstrap capitalist republicans. These were people who fought against the red scare, not for fear of losing some personal economic empire, I never met an industrial titan, but they were people afraid of losing the personal liberty they treasured. These men wore Army green to defend rights of religion, rights of personal property, and the right to be left alone. These were people who remember that fight.
These were not the ones who fought against black people. These were people who watched the civil rights movement on TV. These are the ones who watched the fire hoses, did nothing, but still felt fulfilled by watching the Cosby Show around the same television set. These were of course, most white people.
Not the take a stand George Wallace type of white people, but the “isn’t that crazy stuff happening way over there?” type of white people. In the lives of these white folks, black people were on TV, communists were lurking around every corner. These paranoid white people live in places like: Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas; maybe Vermont and Maine. There are more of them than most people think.
These are people who have maybe met one black person, that one time, and know nothing of black history or culture. In fact they don’t even think those things do or should exist. “We are all Americans,” they say, adding that all this hyphenating business is causing divisions.
You see the funny thing about a hypocrite is that most don’t realize when they are one.
Just last week I sat in a class of graduate students in history at an elite university and listened as the students expressed shock and wonder at how violent Jim Crow life was for black people. These are the people who intend to write history books. These are the educated. These are people who don’t really appreciate how bad it was. These budding historians aren’t the one’s I’m accusing of being hypocritical, but just like the armchair philosophers of my memory, they didn’t, and still don’t really appreciate how bad it was. Many don’t appreciate or even know how bad it still is.
This is where it could make a difference.
If an American of any color can realize how violent and oppressive life was under Jim Crow, they would realize that a black communist wasn’t plotting the destruction of American freedoms, they were struggling to gain freedom of their own, and not some philosophical ideological freedom, but the simple, tangible, day-to-day right to decide one’s own destiny; or at least the right to try.
What those of the fading generation never fully appreciated was the extent to which the freedoms they loved were denied to black Americans. Kelley and McDuffie do a good job in their books laying out the systems of oppression that spurred some black individuals’ embrace of Marxist communism. There were people like Queen Mother Moore who in the communist movement found the educational opportunities America had denied her, Maude White who found philosophical support as well as career fulfillment, and many others from city domestics to field laborers. There were millions of people who for hundreds of years had been systematically and violently denied the rights that men in the previous generation donned a uniform to defend.
But these men rarely saw this. They had selective vision. They often changed the channel.
If these individuals can realize this about themselves, how much more understanding would they be of people like Maude White, Langston Hughes, or MLK when those people “changed the channel” when it came to Soviet atrocities? How much more understanding would the religiously conservative people of my youth be, of black communism if they knew they held meetings in churches and saw no contradiction in it? Queen Mother Moore was not the same as Mao Tse Tung.
In recent years I have watched protesters gather in American cities to take a stand against the growth of government and it’s potential to trample their liberties. I have heard loud leaders warn of the potential citizen’s disenfranchisement that will follow the cloaked “socialism” of Obama. I have heard this and I have watched people believe it. They seem to miss the irony that they have mobilized over e felt disenfranchisement, while they refuse to appreciate that someone else would have a desire to mobilize over enforced disenfranchisement.
Would some of these modern conservative activists be less fearful of Eric Holder’s youthful flirtation with communism if they knew more about the communist party’s work on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys? Would they be more open to black activists with a socialist past if they appreciated that the communist party had schools for Alabama laborers while the local police burned Black schools down?
There is in the conservative white popular culture, the idea that communism, in either its current form or in American history, takes hold mostly in the mind of spoiled college kids who are immature and have little to no appreciation for the freedoms they enjoy. It is assumed that these anti establishment youth are ignorant of the evil deeds carried out by Pol Pot, and ignorant of the real life suffering thousands of citizens faced under such regimes. It is assumed that these tender footed youth don’t know what it is like to carry a rifle in defense of free speech; which brings me back to hypocrisy.
Perhaps information and perspective have little to no effect on politics. Perhaps empathy and understanding don’t naturally spring from new knowledge. But if those calling others ignorant can realize the history they themselves are ignoring, they will at least have the opportunity to be ignorant intentionally. Maybe some individuals would adjust their views, or change what it is they advocate for, or maybe not. Either way an individual would be exposed for what or who they are. Erik McDuffie explains that the feminist communist leaders in America’s past saw themselves apart from others who fought for civil rights in that the others were treating the symptoms of poverty and racism, while they themselves were combating the cause of those things. That is what educating the people from my MLK Day memory would do; attack the cause not the symptom.
It is more than arguable that a mass understanding of Black communism in American history wouldn’t make a consequential difference in today’s political condition. I argue that if the masses were better informed, in a deep and substantial way, then those who wish to move those masses will be better equipped to do so. At least it would be an informed discussion. The majority of American’s sat on sofas not Greyhounds. It may be argued inaction equals endorsement, but from those sofas they watched Martin Luther King’s plea to judge an individual by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. The people I knew, despite their distance in both geography and ideology, took this to heart. There exist good people who get “it” wrong, because they think communism is a way to judge someone by their character. Civil rights leaders did not choose to be Black, many whites know that they know nothing of what it means to be Black, but they think they know what it means to be a communist.
For them, this makes a difference.