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Up By The Bootstraps From Slavery

June 2024
6min read

Some years ago I had the opportunity to look through a collection of photographs of New York in the 1920s with the amiable old man who had made them then for a news agency. There were hundreds of pictures of every section of the city, and I was struck with the total absence of black faces in any of the busy street scenes. “Why was that?” I asked.

The old photographer looked at me as if I had lost my mind. He’d worked hard to arrange things that way, he explained; his boss docked his pay five dollars for every image in which blacks appeared; their presence made the pictures unpublishable: “Nobody wanted them.”

Two recently published books and a remarkable new series of documentary films about to begin on the Public Broadcasting System this January show how persistent that sort of thinking has been, how distorted has been the kind of history it promoted. They demonstrate once more that in the two periods during which black Americans made the most progress toward full participation in American life—the Civil War and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s—it was blacks themselves who first moved history forward, while white politicians followed in their wake, urging “patience” and taking credit for their gains.

I’m now at work on a documentary series about the Civil War with the film maker Ken Burns, seeking authentic contemporary voices with which to help tell that greatest of all American stories. Reading through traditional histories, I have been struck again at how little attention even the most distinguished scholars once thought they needed to pay to the individual men and women whose status was, after all, at the nub of that conflict.

In most books about the war written before 1970, slaves were allowed to ghost anonymously into the Union lines, there to become what it amused Gen. Benjamin E Butler to call “contraband of war”; to serve selflessly (and silently) in the Union army; and to speak, when allowed to speak at all, in the unpersuasive minstrel patois in which even sympathetic nineteenth-century whites invariably rendered their words.

The Destruction of Slavery and The Black Military Experience , the first two volumes in a projected series called Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, should help correct the record. The editors, under the direction of Ira Berlin, have sifted through tens of thousands of official documents in the National Archives to present a careful, kaleidoscopic portrait of the final days of the Peculiar Institution. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from them is that slavery was doomed the second Fort Sumter was fired upon—not so much because Abraham Lincoln hated it as because the slaves did. Whites, North and South, may have puzzled over just what the war was about and whether slaves were to be treated as property or persons. The slaves had no doubts: “Let the white fight for what [they] want,” wrote an anonymous New Orleans black in 1861, “and we negroes fight for what we want. … Liberty must take the day, nothing shorter. We care nothing about the Union we heave been in it Slaves over two hundred fifty years.”

From the first, slaves did their best to tear slavery apart from the inside, running away, refusing to work, demanding —and sometimes getting—payment for work once done under the lash. Everywhere the Union army set foot, slavery dissolved, and it was largely the slaves’ own willingness to risk retribution from their masters and flood into the Union camps that moved Congress to require officers to stop returning them to their owners; to bar slavery in the District of Columbia; to declare “forever free” the fugitive slaves of “persons … in rebellion,” and more—all before Lincoln felt he could issue his cautious Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the autumn of 1862.

The complex but moving story these volumes tell must sometimes be read between the lines; although each document is ably annotated and every chapter begins with a clear and graceful introduction, this remains raw material, much of it couched in bureaucratic language that was only slightly less bloodless then than it is now. Still, the determination of individual men and women burns through many of these pages. Here, a fugitive from Maryland assures his wife that he is safe: “My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take this time to let you know Whare I am i am now in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day i can address you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away but as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare fredom will Rain in spite Of earth and hell. …”

Earth and hell triumphed, of course, with the betrayal of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow. It would take nearly a century before many of the simplest gains granted on paper after the war could be made flesh. And as “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965,” the compelling, new six-part television account of those years vividly demonstrates, it was ordinary black men and women—extraordinary only in their bravery and grit—who again made it politically impossible for government further to delay the rectification of old wrongs. “We thought we could shame America” into doing the right thing, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a leader of the Birmingham movement, recalls during the first hour of the series, “but … ball teams don’t strike themselves out. You gotta put ’em out.”

“Eyes on the Prize,” skillfully woven from vintage news footage and newly filmed interviews with survivors of the struggle, shows how he and thousands of others did just that. It does not sentimentalize its story; defeated white opponents are heard from along with the civil rights workers who overcame and outwitted them. Nor does it ignore the genuine contribution made by white participants, whose simple presence in a demonstration often drew special lightning from enraged mobs. It does not flinch, either, from the conflicts over tactics and clashes of generation and personality that inevitably made the Movement’s task more difficult; in one interview, Stokely Carmichael (now known as Kwame Turée) sounds very like any one of a dozen small-town sheriffs, remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a disruptive outside agitator.

The series resists the temptation to focus exclusively on King and the other, only slightly less charismatic leaders of the Movement, giving long overdue attention instead to the foot soldiers: Mose Wright, a venerable Mississippi black man who, in 1955, did not shrink from testifying against the men accused of murdering his fourteen-year-old nephew, Emmett Till, for daring to say “Bye, baby” to the white woman who waited on him in a general store; Edward Nixon, the grizzled president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, who laughs as he recalls the evening, early in the bus boycott, when he realized he no longer needed to work on behalf of civil rights for his children alone: “Hell,” he told a meeting, “I’m going to enjoy some of this stuff for myself”; Ernest Green and Melba Pattilo Beals, two of the nine students chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, who remember with obvious joy the spring day in the school cafeteria when, after nearly a year of daily harassment from white schoolmates, one of their colleagues emptied a bowl of chili over the head of an especially noisy tormentor, to the silent astonishment of the white students and the wild applause of the all-black kitchen staff.

In most Civil War books written before 1970, slaves spoke, when allowed to speak at all, in minstrel patois.

Despite the beatings, and jailings and killings, a vein of grim, candid battlefield humor runs through the veterans’ reminiscences. The late James Hicks, a black journalist from New York, grins recalling the disbelief with which a Mississippi sheriff greeted the news that a black congressman, Charles Diggs of Michigan, was waiting to enter the courtroom in the Till case: “ This nigger here,” he told a deputy, “said there’s a nigger outside who says that he’s a congressman!” Andrew Young, remembering the Selmato-Montgomery march with which the series ends, explains why so many darksuited ministers walked in the vanguard alongside Dr. King: there had been death threats, and “Martin always wore the good preacher’s blue suit. And … I figured since we couldn’t stop him from marching, we just had to kind of believe that it was true when white folks said we all look alike. So everybody that was about Martin’s size and had on a blue suit I put in the front of the line with him.”

Lincoln could not control the pace of emancipation, once it began; “events,” he said, “have controlled me,” and preeminent among those events were the actions of the slaves themselves. Nor could Dwight Elsenhower slow school integration, though he issued familiar warnings about “going too far too fast” before mob violence at Little Rock finally forced him to send in the 101st Airborne to enforce the law. John and Robert Kennedy were equally powerless to halt the lunchroom sit-ins or freedom rides once they had begun—their periodic calls for cooling-off periods were politely but firmly ignored by a Movement with its own fixed agenda—and they were at last compelled to come to the demonstrators’ aid.

Much of the television footage included in the series is harrowing—bombed churches, bleeding freedom riders, dogs and fire hoses, and what one Movement survivor remembers as “too many funerals.” There can be few pieces of film more chilling than those that show Sheriff Jim Clark’s mounted posse clattering across the Edmund Pettis Bridge at Selma, there to tarnish what was left of the Lost Cause by riding down twelveyear-old schoolgirls while giving the Rebel yell. And as this moving final program implicitly reminds us, it was public reaction to the sight of that televised brutality which the demonstrators were willing to endure for their cause—not simple common sense or respect for existing law—that persuaded Lyndon Johnson to place all his formidable power behind the Civil Rights Act.

A portrait of Lincoln the Emancipator traditionally hung on the wall of the homes of former slaves; after Dallas and Memphis and Los Angeles, pictures of the Kennedys became nearly as ubiquitous in lower- and middle-class black living rooms as those of Dr. King. Black loyalty to those who eventually came to their aid is gracious and understandable, but on the evidence, mirrors might seem more appropriate.

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