Месечни архиви: November 2015

Happy Birthday, Radu Lupu!

Radu Lupu rehearses with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

For the past two decades, the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu has chosen not to record any music. He does not allow radio broadcasts of his playing, he does not give press interviews, and he has almost no social media presence. This had made his performances all the more prized. Lupu, who turns seventy on November 30, is far more than a great pianist; listening to him, my attention slips away from the beauty and mastery of his piano playing, deeply impressive though it is, with a rich palette of sound and resonance, control over chordal voicing fueled by an exceptionally refined harmonic sense, and a muscular apparatus that accurately plots into reality his imagination of the shape and timing of musical events. Soon, I find I am taken deep below and far above the surface. I think of the intimate occasion when Lupu played Schubert’s Second Moment Musicaux as encore for about forty of us who wouldn’t leave or stop applauding after his recital in Madrid’s Auditorio Nacional. Because of the silences in the pauses, and the spaces between the decaying notes of the piano, the ears felt like they could taste the air.

As he plays, Lupu projects a state of deepest contemplation and responsiveness to the inner life of a musical composition. Motivic repetitions become perceptible as rhymes, the structurally important is differentiated from the ornamental, the stretching and contracting of musical time acquires an internal logic and a living, breathing musical structure emerges. The force of volume has little effect on these musical processes. Instead they become audible through Lupu’s intense attentiveness to the piece. It appears to us organically rich in content, without any need of extraneous effects.

Ferruccio Busoni once wrote about the musical art: “It is practically incorporeal. Its material is transparent. It is sonorous air. It is almost Nature itself.” Hearing Lupu conjure air into music in this way feels magical, and to be in the presence of an artist so engrossed is a most intimate, almost voyeuristic experience. Paradoxically, this sense of intimacy isn’t diminished by the presence of many others in the concert hall, but made even greater through communal listening. Lupu’s performance of the first nine measures of Schubert’s final piano sonata is enough to give a sense of the way in which his playing embraces and envelops the entire concert hall in mystery and warmth.

Lupu’s playing, especially when experienced live, resists my professional habit of analyzing the elements of interpretation and performance —exactly how he achieves the results that he does. Trying to understand his phrasing, timing, or the effect his bear-like posture at the keyboard has on the sound yields only partial results. The whole is greater than the sum of its ingredients. The instrument, the craftsmanship, even the compositions themselves recede into the background, and there remains a lone figure communicating not just music, but something deeply humane. As Lupu plays, the experience of the composers, earlier encoded into sounds and preserved on paper, seems to be revived from the deep freeze of notation.

It is not often that an artist can accurately describe his musical ideals, and even less often that he lives up to them. In a rare interview from 1992, Lupu describes his expectations of musical performance: “It is richness of experience and fantasy, and the ability to transport. The artist should have his own voice. Everyone tells a story differently, and that story should be told compellingly and spontaneously. If it is not compelling and convincing, it is without value…”

This was the impression I got from hearing Lupu play Brahms’ First Piano Concerto in 2002. I won’t forget that performance in Carnegie Hall, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim conducting. It wasn’t just another excellent traversal of a well-known piece, a revisiting of familiar and beloved corners. Rather it gave the illusion of being composed there on the stage – once again fresh, newly original, daring, but never eccentric or seeming as though Lupu had imposed himself on it. Here Lupu performs the same piece with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

While we await his future concerts, we can nourish our ears with the new Radu Lupu Complete Recordings, a compilation of his official studio recordings that Decca Classics released in November. Busoni called the recording process “a devilish invention which lacks the demonic nuance.” Many have understood this to mean simply that the quality of sound captured by recordings lacked sufficient gradation. Yet I believe he also meant something more metaphysical, that while recordings capture instrumental sound, there is much else that doesn’t get captured. Our senses create a multilayered impression of experiences. Could Lupu’s absence from the recording studio be explained by an unwillingness to submit himself and his listeners to the reduction of experience necessitated by the smaller dimension of the recorded medium?

Yet even if Lupu’s recordings can’t replicate the experience of hearing him play live, they are still a treasure trove. With only a few exceptions, his studio discography, recorded between 1970 and 1996, is concentrated on central European repertoire of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. These recordings are considered to be an essential addition to the interpretive canon by pianists and listeners alike. He has played a wider range of repertoire in concert, including music by Bartok, Debussy and Janacek, as well as Liszt and Franck. Listeners wishing for more can scour YouTube and pianophile websites for numerous bootleg recordings from Lupu’s concerts.

I find it uplifting simply to contemplate that, in an age when so many musicians feel compelled to spend much of their time engaged in social media and self-promotion, there exist such islands as Radu Lupu, who focuses entirely on his music, and is recognized for it.


Radu Lupu performs Schubert’s third Moment Musicaux as an encore at La Scala, captured by a member of the audience, October 18, 2015.


Radu Lupu: Complete Recordings is available from Decca.


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Challenging the Oligarchy


Robert B. Reich; drawing by James Ferguson

Back in 1991, in what now seems like a far more innocent time, Robert Reich published an influential book titled The Work of Nations, which among other things helped land him a cabinet post in the Clinton administration. It was a good book for its time—but time has moved on. And the gap between that relatively sunny take and Reich’s latest, Saving Capitalism, is itself an indicator of the unpleasant ways America has changed.

The Work of Nations was in some ways a groundbreaking work, because it focused squarely on the issue of rising inequality—an issue some economists, myself included, were already taking seriously, but that was not yet central to political discourse. Reich’s book saw inequality largely as a technical problem, with a technocratic, win-win solution. That was then. These days, Reich offers a much darker vision, and what is in effect a call for class war—or if you like, for an uprising of workers against the quiet class war that America’s oligarchy has been waging for decades.

1.

To understand the difference between The Work of Nations and Saving Capitalism, you need to know about two things. One, which is familiar to most of us, is the increasingly ugly turn taken by American politics, which I’ll be discussing later. The other is more of an insider debate, but one with huge implications for policy and politics alike: the rise and fall of the theory of skill-biased technological change, which was once so widely accepted among economists that it was frequently referred to simply as SBTC.

The starting point for SBTC was the observation that, around 1980, wages of college graduates began rising much more rapidly than wages of Americans with only a high school degree or less. Why?

One possibility was the growth of international trade, with rising imports of labor-intensive manufactured goods from low-wage countries. Such imports could, in principle, cause not just rising inequality but an actual decline in the wages of less-educated workers; the standard theory of international trade that supports such a principle is actually a lot less benign in its implications than many noneconomists imagine. But the numbers didn’t seem to work. Around 1990, trade with developing countries was still too small to explain the big movements in relative wages of college and high school graduates that had already happened. Furthermore, trade should have produced a shift in employment toward more skill-intensive industries; it couldn’t explain what we actually saw, which was a rise in the level of skills within industries, extending across pretty much the entire economy.

Many economists therefore turned to a different explanation: it was all about technology, and in particular the information technology revolution. Modern technology, or so it was claimed, reduced the need for routine manual labor while increasing the demand for conceptual work. And while the average education level was rising, it wasn’t rising fast enough to keep up with this technological shift. Hence the rise of the earnings of the college-educated and the relative, and perhaps absolute, decline in earnings for those without the right skills.

This view was never grounded in direct evidence that technology was the driving force behind wage changes; the technology factor was only inferred from its assumed effects. But it was expressed in a number of technical papers brandishing equations and data, and was codified in particular in a widely cited 1992 paper by Lawrence F. Katz of Harvard and Kevin M. Murphy of the University of Chicago.1 Reich’s The Work of Nations was, in part, a popularization of SBTC, using vivid language to connect abstract economic formalism to commonplace observation. In Reich’s vision, technology was eliminating routine work, and even replacing some jobs that historically required face-to-face interaction. But it was opening new opportunities for “symbolic analysts”—people with the talent and, crucially, the training to work with ideas. Reich’s solution to growing inequality was to equip more people with that necessary training, both through an expansion of conventional education and through retraining later in life.

It was an attractive, optimistic vision; you can see why it received such a favorable reception. But while one still encounters people invoking skill-biased technological change as an explanation of rising inequality and lagging wages—it’s especially popular among moderate Republicans in denial about what’s happened to their party and among “third way” types lamenting the rise of Democratic populism—the truth is that SBTC has fared very badly over the past quarter-century, to the point where it no longer deserves to be taken seriously as an account of what ails us.

The story fell apart in stages.2 First, over the course of the 1990s the skill gap stopped growing at the bottom of the scale: real wages of workers near the middle stopped outpacing those near the bottom, and even began to fall a bit behind. Some economists responded by revising the theory, claiming that technology was hollowing out the middle rather than displacing the bottom. But this had the feel of an epicycle added to a troubled theory—and after about 2000 the real wages of college graduates stopped rising as well. Meanwhile, incomes at the very top—the one percent, and even more so a very tiny group within the one percent—continued to soar. And this divergence evidently had little to do with education, since hedge fund managers and high school teachers have similar levels of formal training.

Something else began happening after 2000: labor in general began losing ground relative to capital. After decades of stability, the share of national income going to employee compensation began dropping fairly fast. One could try to explain this, too, with technology—maybe robots were displacing all workers, not just the less educated. But this story ran into multiple problems. For one thing, if we were experiencing a robot-driven technological revolution, why did productivity growth seem to be slowing, not accelerating? For another, if it was getting easier to replace workers with machines, we should have seen a rise in business investment as corporations raced to take advantage of the new opportunities; we didn’t, and in fact corporations have increasingly been parking their profits in banks or using them to buy back stocks.

In short, a technological account of rising inequality is looking ever less plausible, and the notion that increasing workers’ skills can reverse the trend is looking less plausible still. But in that case, what is going on?

2.

Economists struggling to make sense of economic polarization are, increasingly, talking not about technology but about power. This may sound like straying off the reservation—aren’t economists supposed to focus only on the invisible hand of the market?—but there is actually a long tradition of economic concern about “market power,” aka the effect of monopoly. True, such concerns were deemphasized for several generations, but they’re making a comeback—and one way to read Robert Reich’s new book is in part as a popularization of the new view, just as The Work of Nations was in part a popularization of SBTC. There’s more to Reich’s thesis, as I’ll explain shortly. But let’s start with the material that economists will find easiest to agree with.

Market power has a precise definition: it’s what happens whenever individual economic actors are able to affect the prices they receive or pay, as opposed to facing prices determined anonymously by the invisible hand. Monopolists get to set the price of their product; monopsonists—sole purchasers in a market—get to set the price of things they buy. Oligopoly, where there are a few sellers, is more complicated than monopoly, but also involves substantial market power. And here’s the thing: it’s obvious to the naked eye that our economy consists much more of monopolies and oligopolists than it does of the atomistic, price-taking competitors economists often envision.

But how much does that matter? Milton Friedman, in a deeply influential 1953 essay, argued that monopoly mattered only to the extent that actual market behavior differed from the predictions of simple supply-and-demand analysis—and that in fact there was little evidence that monopoly had important effects.3 Friedman’s view largely prevailed within the economics profession, and de facto in the wider political discussion. While monopoly never vanished from the textbooks, and antitrust laws remained part of the policy arsenal, both have faded in influence since the 1950s.

It’s increasingly clear, however, that this was both an intellectual and a policy error. There’s growing evidence that market power does indeed have large implications for economic behavior—and that the failure to pursue antitrust regulation vigorously has been a major reason for the disturbing trends in the economy.

Reich illustrates the role of monopoly with well-chosen examples, starting with the case of broadband. As he notes, most Americans seeking Internet access are more or less at the mercy of their local cable company; the result is that broadband is both slower and far more expensive in the US than in other countries. Another striking example involves agriculture, usually considered the very model of a perfectly competitive sector. As he notes, a single company, Monsanto, now dominates much of the sector as the sole supplier of genetically modified soybeans and corn. A recent article in The American Prospect points out that other examples of such dominance are easy to find, ranging from sunglasses to syringes to cat food.4

There’s also statistical evidence for a rising role of monopoly power. Recent work by Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Peter Orszag, former head of the Office of Management and Budget, shows a rising number of firms earning “super-normal” returns—that is, they have persistently high profit rates that don’t seem to be diminished by competition.5

Other evidence points indirectly to a strong role of market power. At this point, for example, there is an extensive empirical literature on the effects of changes in the minimum wage. Conventional supply-and-demand analysis says that raising the minimum wage should reduce employment, but as Reich notes, we now have a number of what amount to controlled experiments, in which employment in counties whose states have hiked the minimum wage can be compared with employment in neighboring counties across the state line. And there is no hint in the data of the supposed negative employment effect.

Why not? One leading hypothesis is that firms employing low-wage workers—such as fast-food chains—have significant monopsony power in the labor market; that is, they are the principal purchasers of low-wage labor in a particular job market. And a monopsonist facing a price floor doesn’t necessarily buy less, just as a monopolist facing a price ceiling doesn’t necessarily sell less and may sell more.

Suppose that we hypothesize that rising market power, rather than the ineluctable logic of modern technology, is driving the rise in inequality. How does this help make sense of what we see?

Part of the answer is that it resolves some of the puzzles posed by other accounts. Notably, it explains why high profits aren’t spurring high investment. Consider those monopolies controlling local Internet service: their high profits don’t act as an incentive to invest in faster connections—on the contrary, they have less incentive to improve service than they would if they faced more competition and earned lower profits. Extend this logic to the economy as a whole, and the combination of a rising profit share and weak investment starts to make sense.

krugman_2-121715.jpg

Jim Young/Reuters

Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz at the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, November 2015

Furthermore, focusing on market power helps explain why the big turn toward income inequality seems to coincide with political shifts, in particular the sharp right turn in American politics. For the extent to which corporations are able to exercise market power is, in large part, determined by political decisions. And this ties the issue of market power to that of political power.

3.

Robert Reich has never shied away from big ambitions. The title of The Work of Nations deliberately alluded to Adam Smith; Reich clearly hoped that readers would see his work not simply as a useful guide but as a foundational text. Saving Capitalism is, if anything, even more ambitious despite its compact length. Reich attempts to cast his new discussion of inequality as a fundamental rethinking of market economics. He is not, he insists, calling for policies that will limit and soften the functioning of markets; rather, he says that the very definition of free markets is a political decision, and that we could run things very differently. “Government doesn’t ‘intrude’ on the ‘free market.’ It creates the market.”

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this sales pitch. In some ways it seems to concede too much, accepting the orthodoxy that free markets are good even while calling for major changes in policy. And I also worry that the attempt to squeeze everything into a grand intellectual scheme may distract from the prosaic but important policy actions that Reich (and I) support.

Whatever one thinks of the packaging, however, Reich makes a very good case that widening inequality largely reflects political decisions that could have gone in very different directions. The rise in market power reflects a turn away from antitrust laws that looks less and less justified by outcomes, and in some cases the rise in market power is the result of the raw exercise of political clout to prevent policies that would limit monopolies—for example, the sustained and successful campaign to prevent public provision of Internet access.

Similarly, when we look at the extraordinary incomes accruing to a few people in the financial sector, we need to realize that there are real questions about whether those incomes are “earned.” As Reich argues, there’s good reason to believe that high profits at some financial firms largely reflect insider trading that we’ve made a political decision not to regulate effectively. And we also need to realize that the growth of finance reflected political decisions that deregulated banking and failed to regulate newer financial activities.

Meanwhile, forms of market power that benefit large numbers of workers as opposed to small numbers of plutocrats have declined, again thanks in large part to political decisions. We tend to think of the drastic decline in unions as an inevitable consequence of technological change and globalization, but one need look no further than Canada to see that this isn’t true. Once upon a time, around a third of workers in both the US and Canada were union members; today, US unionization is down to 11 percent, while it’s still 27 percent north of the border. The difference was politics: US policy turned hostile toward unions in the 1980s, while Canadian policy didn’t follow suit. And the decline in unions seems to have major impacts beyond the direct effect on members’ wages: researchers at the International Monetary Fund have found a close association between falling unionization and a rising share of income going to the top one percent, suggesting that a strong union movement helps limit the forces causing high concentration of income at the top.6

Following his schema, Reich argues that unions aren’t so much a source of market power as an example of “countervailing power” (a term he borrows from John Kenneth Galbraith) that limits the depredations of monopolists and others. If unions are not subject to restrictions, they may do so by collective bargaining not only for wages but for working conditions. In any case, the causes and consequences of union decline, like the causes and consequences of rising monopoly power, are a very good illustration of the role of politics in increasing inequality.

But why has politics gone in this direction? Like a number of other commentators, Reich argues that there’s a feedback loop between political and market power. Rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence, via campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door. Political influence in turn is used to rewrite the rules of the game—antitrust laws, deregulation, changes in contract law, union-busting—in a way that reinforces income concentration. The result is a sort of spiral, a vicious circle of oligarchy. That, Reich suggests, is the story of America over the past generation. And I’m afraid that he’s right. So what can turn it around?

4.

Anyone hoping for a reversal of the spiral of inequality has to answer two questions. First, what policies do you think would do the trick? Second, how would you get the political power to make those policies happen? I don’t think it’s unfair to Robert Reich to say that Saving Capitalism offers only a sketch of an answer to either question.

In his proposals for new policies, Reich calls for a sort of broad portfolio, or maybe a market basket, of changes aimed mainly at “predistribution”—changing the allocation of market income—rather than redistribution. (In Reich’s view, this is seen as altering the predistribution that takes place under current rules.) These changes would include fairly standard liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, reversing the anti-union bias of labor law and its enforcement, and changing contract law to empower workers to take action against employers and debtors to assert their interests against creditors. Reich would also, in a less orthodox move, seek legislative and other changes that might move corporations back toward what they were a half-century ago: organizations that saw themselves as answering not just to stockholders but to a broader set of “stakeholders,” including workers and customers.

Would such measures be enough? Individually, none of them sounds up to the task. But the experience of the New Deal, which was remarkably successful at creating a middle-class nation—and for that matter the success of the de facto anti–New Deal that has prevailed since the 1970s at creating an oligarchy—suggest that there might be synergistic effects from a program containing all these elements. It’s certainly worth trying.

But how is this supposed to happen politically? Reich professes optimism, citing the growing tendency of politicians in both parties to adopt populist rhetoric. For example, Ted Cruz has criticized the “rich and powerful, those who walk the corridors of power.” But Reich concedes that “the sincerity behind these statements might be questioned.” Indeed. Cruz has proposed large tax cuts that would force large cuts in social spending—and those tax cuts would deliver around 60 percent of their gains to the top one percent of the income distribution. He is definitely not putting his money—or, rather, your money—where his mouth is.

Still, Reich argues that the insincerity doesn’t matter, because the very fact that people like Cruz feel the need to say such things indicates a sea change in public opinion. And this change in public opinion, he suggests, will eventually lead to the kind of political change that he, justifiably, seeks. We can only hope he’s right. In the meantime, Saving Capitalism is a very good guide to the state we’re in.

1
“Changes in Relative Wages, 1963–1987: Supply and Demand Factors,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 107, No. 1 (February 1992). 

2
A good overview of the decline of SBTC is Lawrence Mishel, Heidi Shierholz, and John Schmitt, “Don’t Blame the Robots: Assessing the Job Polarization Explanation of Growing Wage Inequality,” EPICEPR working paper, November 2013. 

3
“The Methodology of Positive Economics,” in Essays in Positive Economics (University of Chicago Press, 1953). 

4
David Dayen, “Bring Back Antitrust,” Fall 2015. 

5
Jason Furman and Peter Orszag, “A Firm-Level Perspective on the Role of Rents in the Rise of Inequality,” October 2015, available at www.white house.gov. 

6
Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron, “Union Power and Inequality,” www.voxeu.org, October 22, 2015. 

  1. 1

    “Changes in Relative Wages, 1963–1987: Supply and Demand Factors,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 107, No. 1 (February 1992). 

  2. 2

    A good overview of the decline of SBTC is Lawrence Mishel, Heidi Shierholz, and John Schmitt, “Don’t Blame the Robots: Assessing the Job Polarization Explanation of Growing Wage Inequality,” EPICEPR working paper, November 2013. 

  3. 3

    “The Methodology of Positive Economics,” in Essays in Positive Economics (University of Chicago Press, 1953). 

  4. 4

    David Dayen, “Bring Back Antitrust,” Fall 2015. 

  5. 5

    Jason Furman and Peter Orszag, “A Firm-Level Perspective on the Role of Rents in the Rise of Inequality,” October 2015, available at www.white house.gov. 

  6. 6

    Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron, “Union Power and Inequality,” www.voxeu.org, October 22, 2015. 

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The Sultan of Turkey

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Tolga Bozoglu/Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Yıldız Palace, Istanbul, October 2015

Ever since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Turkish citizens have been living with the bitter consequences of their government’s involvement in the conflict. Along with the US, Turkey’s policy has been to get rid of the Assad regime, but this has not worked. Bashar al-Assad has been strongly defended by his Iranian and Russian backers, and he has cannily given up territory abutting Turkey to Syrian Kurds from the Democratic Union Party, called the PYD. As described by Jonathan Steele in a recent article in these pages, the Syrian Kurds have successfully resisted ISIS in the area on the Turkish border known as Rojava and inspired fellow Kurds on the other side of the border to assert their claims to self-determination.* Kurds are estimated to make up between 15 and 20 percent of Turkey’s population of 78 million, and anti-Kurdish sentiment is running very high.

Turkey has received, housed, and passed on many millions of Syrian refugees at great cost to itself, and its provisions for refugees have been more humane than those of other governments. But many in Turkey see the success of the Kurds in Rojava as a threat.

The policies of Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are the cause of many of his country’s failures in Syria. (Having first become prime minister in 2003, he was elected president in August 2014.) Still, when Turks went to the polls to elect a new government on November 1 of this year, they did not turn against Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Instead their vote suggested that they blamed themselves for having denied the AKP an overall parliamentary majority in an earlier election held on June 7.

That June election established a minority government, led by the AKP, which presided over a period of great violence and instability beginning on July 20 when a Kurdish suicide bomber killed thirty-three people, most of them Kurds, in the border town of Suruç. The violence reached a climax on October 10, when two other bombers (one of them the brother of the Suruç bomber) blew themselves up in the middle of a peace march in Ankara, killing 102 people. In both cases the carnage, generally believed to have been plotted by ISIS, was facilitated by official negligence in providing security. That did not stop the AKP from presenting the blasts as yet more evidence that the party should be given a mandate to rule on its own. On November 1 voters returned the AKP to power with a strong working majority. (Following the ISIS attacks against France on November 13, Erdoğan called for a “consensus of the international community against terrorism.”)

Rarely can an electorate have changed its mind so decisively over such a short period. On June 7 the AKP won 41 percent of the vote, giving it 258 deputies in Ankara’s 550-seat parliament, with the remainder going to three opposition parties that managed to clear the 10 percent threshold necessary for parliamentary representation. They were the center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP (which won 25 percent of the vote), the far-right Nationalist Action Party, or MHP (16 percent), and the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, which became the first Kurdish nationalist party to clear the threshold, with 13 percent.

Five months later, in the November 1 election, the AKP increased its share of the vote by 8.5 percent, or more than 4.5 million votes, capturing 317 seats. It had notable success in cutting down the MHP vote to only 11.9 percent. The Kurdish nationalist HDP cleared the 10 percent threshold by a mere 0.8 percent; had it failed to do so, most of the party’s fifty-nine seats would have gone to the AKP. As it is, the AKP’s strong comeback has virtually guaranteed that the party will stay in power until 2019. Erdoğan has pulled off the classic politician’s trick of successfully selling the panacea for an ailment largely of his own making.

One lesson of the election seems clear. Given the chance, people who live in a region that has been torn apart by political instability will often prefer continuity to a potentially dangerous leap into the unknown. In the Middle East, the citizens of Iran have never seriously tried to bring down the Islamic Republic, notwithstanding the resentment they feel. In 2011 Saudi citizens did not take part in the Arab Spring, despite confident predictions that they would be “next.” In both countries, the spectacle of neighboring countries in flames reinforced a fear of upheaval. Then there is the economic prosperity that a long period of AKP power has brought to Turkey, creating the new middle class that strongly supports Erdoğan. For these reasons, on November 1, Turkey became a third example of such expedient caution.

Erdoğan’s dominance of Turkish politics is both a consequence and a cause of the weakness of the country’s institutions. As an ambitious prime minister in the 2000s, he cut back the power of the country’s secular military and civilian bureaucracies, which had used strong-arm tactics with many human rights abuses including torture, aimed at preventing Islamists such as Erdoğan from assuming power in the past. This campaign culminated in August 2013 with the jailing of dozens of high army officers, including a former chief of the general staff, for plotting against the government. Senior officers nowadays shy away from making any decision of consequence. As a European diplomat in Turkey put it, “You won’t find four Turkish generals in a room these days, for fear of being accused of plotting.” Every army promotion above the rank of major has to be approved by the president.

Also in 2013 Erdoğan was challenged by a powerful religious movement inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish preacher living in eastern Pennsylvania who enjoys strong support from Turkey’s judiciary and police. The movement has been called a “moderate blend of Islam”; although its workings are often obscure, its publications emphasize science, technology, and multiparty democracy. Erdoğan had previously been able to intimidate military officers, but judges and prosecutors, some connected with Gülen, have been able to preserve independent power. In December 2013 more than fifty prominent pro-government figures were questioned about corruption by prosecutors, some of them thought to be sympathetic to Gülen. Later the same investigation was said to raise questions about the corrupt behavior of Erdoğan’s son Bilal. Since then Erdoğan has said he is trying to eradicate the “parallel structure” within the bureaucracy that allegedly has ties to Gülen. Thousands of prosecutors and police officers have been sacked or transferred. Several judicial officials have been jailed (including a judge who had awarded bail to arrested followers of Gülen).

Just after the recent election, in the early hours of November 2, forty-four officials in the İzmir region, including senior bureaucrats and policemen, were arrested by police officers loyal to Erdoğan. An Istanbul court has banned travel by a further fifty-four prosecutors and judges on suspicion of terrorism or attempting to overthrow the government. Rightly or wrongly, some have been said to have connections with Gülen.

Erdoğan is also crushing his enemies in the press. Several journalists are in jail, most of them on national security charges such as abetting terrorism; others have been silenced through intimidation or defamation suits brought by the president or his supporters. In February the long-established commentator Kadri Gürsel used his column in the newspaper Milliyet to denounce the “murder” of Turkish journalism at the hands of the government’s “totalitarian worldview.” Milliyet fired him five months later, after he tweeted about the irony of world leaders sending their condolences to Erdoğan—whom Gürsel called “the number one reason for terrorism”—following the Suruç bomb blast.

A few days before November’s general election, the police raided and shut down two pro-Gülen TV stations that had been critical of the government. On November 2 the editor of the current affairs magazine Nokta and a colleague were arrested on suspicion of “fomenting armed rebellion” when they published a cartoon of Erdoğan dressed as a commando with the caption, “The Beginning of Turkey’s Civil War.”

Shortly before the election, I visited Can Dündar, the editor of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet—and the defendant in a lawsuit charging him with espionage that could put him in prison. Earlier in Erdoğan’s period of political dominance, Dündar told me, Turkish politics at least had “braking” mechanisms—the “army, the press,…Gülen, the prosecutors. But Erdoğan has eliminated all of these. There is no brake and we are heading for the wall.”

On the day after the election, Dündar began his published analysis of the results with a description of the view from his window:

I write these columns in a building that has been completely surrounded by police. An armored car waits in front of the building. The entrances to the streets have been barricaded shut. A few streets away are the offices of two newspapers and two TV stations that last week underwent a change in management and editorial line as a result of government pressure…. Fear took the electorate prisoner.

Such fear affected voters, and persuaded them to reverse the verdict they had delivered in June. The pious Sunni Turks who are Erdoğan’s main constituency became more drawn to him than ever. The fear Dündar describes reveals much about the Kurds and other minorities that have emerged as Erdoğan’s most significant adversaries.

What now seems central is Erdoğan’s move from prime minister to president in August 2014, when he won 52 percent of the vote in the first direct presidential election in Turkey. He made no secret of his desire to change the constitution to create what is being called an “executive presidential system,” under which it is expected that the president would appoint the cabinet and have the power to dissolve parliament, as well as control defense and foreign policy. While he continues to exercise his considerable existing powers over the army, Erdoğan claims that a new simplified system would free Turkey to develop faster economically. “We have to move fast without getting bogged down,” he said.

At the time it seemed that Erdoğan would need the support of a number of Kurdish nationalist deputies in order to make the constitutional changes he seeks. Ever since 1984 the PKK has been fighting the central government in the southeast where the Kurds are a majority, a war that has cost some 45,000 lives and devastated much of the region. Since 1999 the former PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has been a prisoner of the Turkish state, but he is permitted to make public statements that have had a generally restraining influence over the rest of the Kurdish movement. In March 2013 he announced a cease-fire and the withdrawal of PKK units from Turkey to bases in northern Iraq, which is controlled by Iraqi Kurds.

Beginning before the withdrawal, negotiations were going on as part of a peace process between the government, Öcalan, and Kurdish nationalist politicians in Turkey. Then last summer the Syrian Kurds started to consolidate their power in Rojava; their success was seen as threatening by Erdoğan. The Turkish government and its Kurdish interlocutors had been discussing a deal by which the Kurds would support Erdoğan’s presidency in return for constitutional changes, among them a widened definition of citizenship that would officially include the ethnic Kurds within Turkey. The deal would also involve compulsory education in Kurdish in Kurd-majority areas and administrative decentralization. But any such understanding between the president and the Kurds became moot after the Syrian Kurds began to consolidate their power in Rojava in the summer of 2014.

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Mike King

In September 2014 ISIS made a determined effort to take over the PYD-controlled border town of Kobanî in Syria. As the fighting intensified and the number of Kurdish casualties grew, Erdoğan resisted pressure to allow Kurdish fighters from Turkey to go into Syria. It’s widely accepted in Turkey that the president was hoping ISIS would crush Kobanî and the other self-governing Kurdish cantons; but this would have brought him into disagreement with the US, which saw the Syrian PYD—despite its links to the Turkish PKK—as a potentially useful ally against the jihadis.

In late October 2014, under intense US and domestic pressure (there was much rioting by Kurds inside Turkey), Erdoğan allowed arms and men into Kobanî, and this, along with American air strikes, helped to turn the battle in the defenders’ favor. The entire canton of Kobanî has since been liberated from ISIS by the Syrian Kurdish forces, and the alliance between the US and the Syrian Kurds has blossomed—to Turkey’s irritation.

Erdoğan’s reluctance to come to the defense of Kobanî cost him his image as a trustworthy interlocutor with Kurds and, in the short term at least, his dream of an all-powerful “executive presidency” that could dominate the government. In March 2015 Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the Kurdish nationalist Peoples’ Democratic Party, declared that he would engage in no “dirty bargaining” with the AKP: “We will not allow you to become executive president.”

At that time Demirtaş enjoyed much prestige as the civilian representative of a movement that seemed on the verge of committing itself to achieving its goals by constitutional means, and that also seemed to be gaining ascendency over the PKK commanders who had taken refuge in their mountain bases in northern Iraq. Öcalan, from his prison island, has not come down decisively on either side; he tries to balance hawks and doves in the movement.

Apart from defending the Kurds and their rights, Demirtaş also promises dignity and equal rights for other minorities in Turkey, such as the Alevis, a quasi-Shia group estimated to have a population of 13 million, and the country’s small Christian communities, which Erdoğan has insulted and neglected. The 13 percent of the vote that the HDP won in June was by far the best result by any Kurdish nationalist party in Turkish history—and it was achieved partly by the estimated 1.7 million non-Kurdish votes. With his eighty MPs Demirtaş represented a big threat to Erdoğan’s ambitions.

Whoever was responsible for the dreadful events of this summer, Erdoğan has taken advantage of them. As the violence has polarized Turkish society, the government calculated that it could win back its majority and push the Kurdish vote below the 10 percent threshold. The Suruç and Ankara bombings marked the low point in relations between the state and the Kurds. Although the suicide bombers were Kurds, Demirtaş, without specific evidence, accused Erdoğan of direct involvement in the bombings. For the most part, foreign security experts do not support such conspiracy theories; but one I spoke to said that the Turkish government had been guilty of “appeasing” ISIS, some of whose members have old links to members of the AKP.

There have been many reports in the Turkish media suggesting that the authorities loyal to Erdoğan have failed to break up ISIS cells even after tip-offs from the families of recruits, and there were noticeably few security measures on the day of the Ankara blasts. The two bombers who were suspected of terrorism and were on wanted lists were able to make their way into a large crowd after traveling hundreds of miles from the Syrian border.

The bombing of Kurds in the border town of Suruç in July provoked PKK militants who had in any case been stockpiling arms in anticipation of fresh hostilities. On July 22 two Turkish policemen were shot dead—the PKK claimed responsibility for the killings—and since then the country has been consumed by violence that recalls the peak of the civil war in the 1990s. Hundreds of people have been killed by the police and army and thousands arrested. The PKK has accused the Turkish air force of destroying the graves of militants during its frequent bombing raids on PKK camps in northern Iraq. According to Human Rights Watch, Erdoğan’s security forces have “engaged in severe ill-treatment and abuse of detainees,” beating them and threatening them with execution.

In August the PKK declared that a string of towns across the southeast would henceforth be “autonomous regions,” which lightly armed Kurdish militias would be prepared to defend. The army reacted with large-scale operations. In Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan, the Kurds’ rudimentary defenses were quickly overwhelmed, leading to several deaths, damage to buildings and infrastructure, and the imprisonment of scores of young men.

When I visited Diyarbakır in October, the streets of the old city bore the scars of fighting and were virtually deserted except for Turkish army units conducting house-to-house searches. My Kurdish guide grimly predicted more violence. It is hard to see what the PKK’s declaration of autonomous zones has achieved aside from more bitterness and the curtailment of any kind of economic activity.

Turkey’s use of military force and the vigor of the PKK’s response have left advocates of peace without any plausible position—surely part of Erdoğan’s design. When Demirtaş criticized the PKK’s armed defense of the autonomous regions, he was accused of naiveté by Mustafa Karasu, one of the PKK’s top commanders in the field.

The PKK’s return to fighting clearly lost Demirtaş votes among both moderate Kurdish nationalists and non-Kurds who could not bring themselves to vote for a party associated with attacks on soldiers and policemen. (Their funerals are shown nightly on the evening news, stoking further anger.) But Karasu and other PKK leaders had long expressed doubts over Demirtaş’s pursuit of non-Kurdish votes and his relations with the Turkish authorities.

After the vicious bombing in Ankara, Demirtaş called off all election rallies and spent much time attending the funerals of the thirty-four party colleagues who were among the dead. HDP offices around the country were attacked by Turkish nationalists, and the pro-government media imposed a de facto ban on news about the party. Demirtaş went briefly to London, reportedly after receiving death threats. All the while, Erdoğan campaigned hard for the AKP, although according to the constitution, he should, as president, be impartial.

On October 20 the AKP prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, told a crowd in the largely Kurdish town of Van that if his party was not elected it would spell the return of the “white Toros”—the Turkish name for the Renault 12, a car associated with the gendarmerie’s fearsome intelligence agents, who carried out thousands of extrajudicial executions of Kurdish nationalists during the 1990s. This was a remarkably overt threat for a head of government to make to his own people, and a sign of the perversion of democratic norms that has become common in Turkey.

In October, Angela Merkel came to Istanbul to ask Erdoğan to ease Europe’s refugee crisis by looking after more Syrians, Turkey having already devoted more shelter and services to refugees than any other country. She held out the promise of aid, the lifting of visa requirements for Turks wishing to enter the EU, and German support for advancing Turkey’s long-standing (and long-dormant) application to join the EU.

Merkel’s visit came at a time when Turkey was subsiding into chaos as a result of a deliberate government strategy, although she made no public mention of this. In Turkey the pro-government media showed pictures of the two leaders on thrones in an Ottoman palace dating from the empire’s late, degenerate phase. All the while, a short distance away, along the shores of the Bosporus, businessmen continued to do a brisk trade in dinghies and outboard motors intended to convey Syrian refugees to Greece, while many would try to reach Germany.

In the aftermath of Erdoğan’s election triumph, with the EU in need of his help and US criticism muted because American warplanes are using Turkey’s Incirlik air base to bomb ISIS, Erdoğan may well feel his moment of vulnerability has passed. On November 4 he urged parliament to change the constitution to provide for an “executive president” with increased powers. This would require thirteen opposition MPs to vote with the AKP to hold a referendum approving the introduction of a regime conferring greater authority on Erdoğan. Why does he insist on having his dominance of Turkish politics confirmed in a new constitution? When the details of the constitutional changes he proposes are revealed it will not be a surprise if he demands more involvement in appointments to senior judicial positions, which would, if events turn against him, protect him and his family from prosecution.

Also on November 4 Erdoğan promised to continue the fight against the PKK “until all its members surrender or are eliminated…. The period ahead of us is not one of talks and discussions.” His words came amid reports of clashes between the Turkish military and PKK forces that had taken refuge in Iraq. The PKK has long demonstrated its ability to evade defeat on the battlefield. I was told in Diyarbakır that there is a steady stream of recruits to the PKK’s fighting forces. Turkey’s Kurdish politicians who are committed to an electoral process stand to lose most from the resumption of fighting, particularly Demirtaş, whose HDP is barely hanging on to its status as a parliamentary party.

Threats from the Kurds, an economy that is now faltering, and the wider repercussions of events in Syria will soon challenge Erdoğan’s apparent confidence. In the long term, ISIS may be another threat. The jihadis dislike his regime, which is not nearly pious enough for their taste. Although ISIS is believed to have been behind the Suruç and Ankara blasts, so far it has refrained from directly attacking the Turkish state itself, whether its army or its civil administration. But should Turkey and ISIS engage in combat, the movement’s cells within the country may prove too widespread, and too well-entrenched, to be quickly defeated.

Erdoğan’s reading of the electorate has been masterful, but he lacks the magnanimity that is essential for effective leadership. His pugnacity and lack of judgment suggest a paranoid character who is all too willing to behave like the wrathful “sultan” depicted by his critics. The president’s version of democracy is a numbers game, in which the majority wins the right to crush the minority. Turkey seems bound to suffer for it.

—November 18, 2015

*
See “The Syrian Kurds Are Winning!,” The New York Review, December 3, 2015. 

  1. *

    See “The Syrian Kurds Are Winning!,” The New York Review, December 3, 2015. 

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John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America

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Peter Foley/epa/Corbis

Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005

The historian John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009, would have turned one hundred this year. I have thought of him often in recent months as we have seen a conservative Republican governor call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, as the Democratic Party has renamed the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in order to distance itself from two slave-owning forebears, as Yale University debates removing the name Calhoun from one of its undergraduate colleges.

Many Americans in 2015 seem to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that has made us anything but a colorblind society. There could be no more fitting tribute to Franklin’s one hundredth birthday than this collective stock-taking, for no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future. And in that effort he has also done something more for history itself: insisting not just upon its relevance, but indeed its preeminence as the indispensable instrument of change and even salvation from legacies that left unexamined will destroy us. “Good history,” he remarked in 1989, “is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

Franklin’s childhood in segregated Oklahoma introduced him to racism’s cruelties at an early age. He was just six when he and his mother were ejected from a train for sitting in a white-only car. His father was so embittered by his treatment as a black lawyer that he moved his family to an all-black town after resolving to “resign from the world dominated by white people.” Yet Franklin’s parents insisted that he was the equal of any other human being, and his mother repeatedly urged him to tell anyone who asked him about his aspirations that he planned to be “the first Negro president of the United States.” If you believe in yourself, his mother urged, “you won’t be crying; you’ll be defying.”

Defying, not crying. That captures John Hope Franklin’s life, and it captures the history he wrote, a history that would, in his words, “attempt to rehabilitate a whole people” and serve them as a weapon of collective defiance. Inspired by a brilliant teacher at Fisk University, Franklin came to see how “historical traditions have controlled…attitudes and conduct,” and how changing history, challenging the truth of the “hallowed past,” was the necessary condition for changing the present and future. In important ways, the study of history was for Franklin not a choice; it was an imperative. “The true scholar,” he wrote in 1963, “must pursue truth in his field; he must, as it were, ply his trade…. If one tried to escape,…he would be haunted;…he would be satisfied in no other pursuit.” History, in the many meanings of the term, chose him.

But the “Negro scholar,” Franklin wrote, should not imagine he could disappear into an ivory tower. The choice to “turn his back on the world” was not available. From Jonathan Edwards, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Kenneth Galbraith, Franklin observed, the American scholar had been drawn into policy and the practical. The black scholar must fully embrace this tradition of American intellectual life. “I now assert,” Franklin proclaimed,

that the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his history and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.

Fundamental to the task at hand would be rewriting the history of history, revising the “hallowed” falsehoods, illustrating how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well. Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given “the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.” Post–Civil War southerners had endeavored to “win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.”

Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II.

But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.

Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began “stalking” him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.

The kind of exhaustive research Franklin undertook and described for this biography underpinned all his efforts to expand the scope of American history. He discovered the ironies and contradictions of American unfreedom in the lives of free blacks in antebellum North Carolina; he demonstrated how the pervasive presence of violence shaped and controlled every aspect of white—as well as black—lives in southern slave society; he illustrated the hunger for liberation in the records of runaways determined to free themselves. And in From Slavery to Freedom (1958) he sought to create an overarching American and global narrative to explain it all. The book has sold more than three million copies.

Even Franklin, who had personally felt the brunt of segregation, who had understood the terrors of racial violence and oppression, was sobered by what he found. Writing From Slavery to Freedom, piecing together a comprehensive account of five hundred years of black history, brought tales of horror before his eyes:

I had seen one slave ship after another…pile black human cargo into its bowels…. I had seen them dump my ancestors at New World ports as they would a load of cattle and wait smugly for their pay…. I had seen them beat black men…and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, “Give us liberty or give us death,” and not mean one word of it…. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs…. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”

Franklin reserved a particularly vehement resentment for any effort to co-opt or distort his own historical work—to undermine its truths in support of a particular agenda. What he came to regard as one of the worst of such incidents occurred in the early 1960s when the US Commission on Civil Rights invited him to write a history of civil rights since the nation’s founding, to be completed in time for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963. When Franklin delivered the manuscript, however, it was greeted with disappointment by commission members who had anticipated “a note of greater tolerance and moderation.” Franklin reminded the commission that the history of blacks in the United States was “not a pretty picture,” and continued, “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.” Forty years later, Franklin still deplored the commission’s “blatant and crude use of me in its effort to present a false picture of ‘Negro progress.’” Just as bad, it was also a blatant and crude use of history.

The truth that was at once scholarship’s product and purpose must not be undermined. The black scholar, he wrote, “must understand the difference between hard-hitting advocacy on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other.” This commitment embraced both idealism and instrumentalism. I am struck as I reread John Hope Franklin’s meditations on history by his sense of vocation, by the awe with which he regarded the role of scholar, by the almost sacred language with which he spoke of what I fear is today now more often regarded as just another job or profession. For Franklin, it was a transcendent calling, one that in the logic of his era and origins should have been unattainable for him.

Franklin recognized an irony in this. The black scholar must “pursue truth while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.” The revisionist history Franklin sought would, he believed, be unassailable, would overtake past interpretations and exert its force in changing the world because it would, within the clearly articulated standards of the prevailing historical enterprise, be more exhaustively researched, more powerfully argued. It would be a quintessential use of the master’s tools to take down the master’s house. Franklin had a deep and inextinguishable faith in the power of an accurate and just history to change the world. It was, as he put it, “armed with the tools of scholarship” that he did battle against laws, superstitions, prejudices designed to destroy “humane dignity” and even “his capacities for survival.”

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Harvard University Archives

A photograph of John Hope Franklin from his Harvard University admissions file, circa 1935

Yet the historian did not need to be entirely confined to the realm of pure scholarship. The tools of history could also—though separately—be deployed in policy work where past realities could illuminate pressing contemporary dilemmas. Perhaps the most meaningful of such engagements for Franklin was his work with Thurgood Marshall and the team of lawyers and advisers building the case against school segregation for Brown v. Board of Education. The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment would be a crucial element in the case. This was an instance, Franklin proclaimed with some pride, of “historians to the rescue!” In this circumstance, he deemed it appropriate to present his findings “like a lawyer’s brief,” rather than aspiring to the more “objective” and dispassionate stance of the disinterested scholar.

Ultimately, Franklin concluded as he looked back, “I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to,” but the tensions between this activism and his scholarly ideals compelled him throughout his long life to self-consciously negotiate the treacherous shoals between advocacy and objectivity. “While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship,” he observed in his autobiography, “I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tightrope walking.”

In 1980, in an address that marked his departure from the University of Chicago, where he had taught for sixteen years—what proved to be only his first retirement—Franklin announced an explicit shift in perspective in relation to the past. With now unimpeachable credentials as a highly distinguished historian, with a large and influential oeuvre of historical writing, and as the recipient of almost every imaginable honor, he perhaps felt the burden of establishing legitimacy partially lifted. He had earned the right and freedom to speak his mind. Up to this point in his career, he said, he had regarded himself as among “the faithful disciples of Clio, concerned exclusively, or at least primarily, with the past.” He had for four decades, he said, left it to “sociologists, political scientists, and soothsayers” to chart a course for the future. But now, as he was leaving formal teaching responsibilities, “I propose to shift my focus and to dare to think of Clio’s having a vision of the future.”

In actuality, Franklin can hardly be said to have abandoned his accustomed rigorous historical research during the twenty-nine remaining years of his life. Nor had he been entirely silent about the future in his first sixty-five years. His evolution would perhaps better be described as an expansion of focus rather than a shift. But as the twentieth century approached its end, Franklin began to envision the century to come and to anticipate the persistence of race and its legacy into a new time.

In April 1992, while Franklin was in the air en route to the University of Missouri to deliver a series of endowed lectures, a Simi Valley, California, jury announced the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Rodney King. By the time he reached the St. Louis airport, Los Angeles had erupted in riots that ultimately killed fifty-three people before the California National Guard was summoned to quell the violence. For Franklin, these events seemed a tragic affirmation of the argument at the core of his already-prepared Missouri lectures: racism, “the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history,” had not been eliminated—even with the notable progress of the civil rights movement. As W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed the problem of the twentieth century to be “the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” so now Franklin cast his eyes forward to declare it the fundamental challenge for the twenty-first. “I venture to state categorically,” he proclaimed, “that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line.”

And again (or still) he worried about willful distortions of history—this time including more recent emerging histories—that threatened to undermine the nation’s capacity to confront and eliminate racial injustice. The myth of a colorblind society, often erected upon a cynical celebration of the achievements of civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, was being developed in the 1980s and 1990s, Franklin believed, to end the struggle for racial equality by proclaiming it already achieved. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States,” Franklin stated emphatically to his Missouri audience, “and never has existed.” But to advance the myth, Franklin asserted, was not simply a delusion; it was a far more pernicious act of bad faith. “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Brown had, in Franklin’s words, been “no magic wand.” “Litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, degradation, segregation, and discrimination.” Color remained “a major consideration in virtually everything Americans thought, said, or did.” Rodney King’s beating was clear testimony to the persisting force of race. Today, more than twenty years later, Franklin could deliver the same message. We are neither colorblind nor post-racial. Franklin would have been deeply saddened, but I doubt he would have been surprised, by the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore. He would have been equally saddened and, one guesses, angered by the recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and by the threat to student body diversity in higher education implied by the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Fisher v. University of Texas.

In the last months of his life, Franklin was buoyed by the rise of Barack Obama, which he declared “amazing.” “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.” He dared hope that the nation had “turn[ed] a significant corner.” But he knew that erasing the color line required far more than electing a black president. Until we had a new history, we could not build a different and better future. The fundamental requirement, what we

need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past that is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around.

In other words, it is history that has the capacity to save us. “Historians to the rescue!” Dare we think that the recent rejections of Confederate symbols and of the reputations and legacies of slaveowners might be the opening for such a revisionist and clarifying effort? How can we lodge the truth of history in national discourse and public policy?

In an editorial on September 4, 2015, The New York Times underscored how a full understanding of history must be at the heart of any resolution of America’s racial dilemma. In words that come close to echoing Franklin’s, the Times wrote of what it called the “Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’”—a truth rooted in the legacies of the past. “Demonstrators who chant the phrase,” the Times noted,

are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact—that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.

Only if we understand and acknowledge this past can we grapple with the conflicts of the present and the promise of the future.

“To confront our past and see it for what it is.” Franklin’s words. The past “is.” Not the past was. The past lives on. What would it mean to confront it, to see it clearly? Recent history can offer us some examples of nations that have taken on the burden of their history. Germany and its Nazi past. South Africa and apartheid. The principle, and in South Africa an explicit policy and practice, was that of “truth and reconciliation,” a recognition that only a collective investigation and acknowledgment of past wrongs can exorcise them and liberate a nation and a people for a better future. History must move beyond the academy, must become a recognized part of everyday life and understanding for all those who would themselves be free from its weight.

Recently, two powerful new advocates have taken up Franklin’s call for history to come to America’s rescue, echoing many of his observations and insights for a new time and across new and different media. These two twenty-first-century black intellectuals are outside the formal precincts of the academy, yet speak explicitly about why historical scholarship and understanding must play a central part in addressing the tragedies of race in American life. They offer us new, yet in many senses familiar, ways of approaching a moment when it seems possible that both history and policy might change.

Nearly a half-century younger than Franklin, Bryan Stevenson, who grew up in segregated southern Delaware, remembers saving his money for a first youthful book purchase: From Slavery to Freedom. Stevenson’s life and work reflect the historical sensibility that characterized Franklin’s understanding of the American present. In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue.

Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration. “Burdened” by a past of racism and cruelty, “we don’t like to talk about our history,” he observes. We have been “unwilling to commit ourselves” to a necessary “process of truth and reconciliation,” so we have not succeeded in transcending our past, in confronting and abandoning its assumptions and inequities. We have been too “celebratory” about the civil rights movement; we “congratulated ourselves too quickly” that the ugliness of racism was eliminated when it continued to infuse our institutions and our attitudes.

Aside from his teaching at NYU, Stevenson’s day job is directing the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—suing to stay executions of innocent prisoners, persuading the Supreme Court that children should not be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But he has made himself a historian as well. The EJI recently issued a detailed report on the slave trade in nineteenth-century Montgomery—part of a project its website describes as

focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history.

EJI joined with the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery memorializing the domestic slave trade in which the city played such a prominent part. Now Stevenson has embarked on a new project to erect markers at the sites of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, nearly sixteen years younger than Bryan Stevenson, was born six decades after John Hope Franklin. Martin Luther King was seven years dead; much of the hope of the civil rights movement had evaporated; racism, bitterness, and a combination of militancy and despair prevailed. Coates’s father, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an initially self-taught intellectual who became an archivist of black history and created a press to share the record of those of African descent from ancient Egypt to Marcus Garvey to Attica. Paul Coates grounded his son “in history and struggle,” lessons that would make Franklin’s work seem a bit old-fashioned, conciliatory, perhaps even compromising.

It was Malcolm X who became Ta-Nehisi’s hero. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied…. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” Coates resisted white tools or rules. And he would flee the academy—dropping out of Howard without completing a degree. But he too embraced history. “My reclamation,” he wrote, “would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Perhaps, he mused, “I might write something of consequence someday.”

It would seem he has done just that. On the second page of his recent meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Coates proclaims, “The answer is American history.” His own deep immersion in the past—“I have now morphed into a Civil War buff,” he confesses—served as epiphany and impetus: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.” Searching for a deeper understanding of the forces underlying the realities of black oppression that he already knew so acutely, Coates turned to scholarship and the traditions of African-American history that John Hope Franklin had done so much to build. Coates has mastered the academic literature and from it he has come to understand that slavery was not “ancillary to American history” but “foundational.” It remains as a “ghost” all over American policy today, as Coates has demonstrated in his call for reparations to counter the enormous inequities of race reinforced by modern federal housing and zoning legislation.

In Coates’s view, whites have been urged away from their real history by myths that have hidden the violence and injustice at its core. America must reject Civil War narratives that have obscured the war’s origins in slavery, that have permitted unexamined celebration of Confederate gallantry, and that have turned the “mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and élan.” The “lie of the Civil War,” he explains, “is the lie of innocence.” It is a dream, a myth that has lulled and blinded white America as it denied and evaded so much of its past. White Americans “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.” It is the denial of this history that sustains an emollient innocence and makes the injustices of the present possible.

As John Hope Franklin learned when he undertook the research that he fashioned into From Slavery to Freedom, an understanding of history destroys innocence. And the brutal and undeniable truths of murders captured and shared on social media challenge our national presumptions of innocence as well. Can this unavoidable confrontation with the realities of our present open us in new ways to the meaning of our troubling past? Can history help relieve us once and for all of the burden of that ignorance and the evil it can produce? Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this responsibility to extend history beyond the academy? Are we as a nation at last ready to welcome the truth that can yield reconciliation?

If so, it is in no small part because of the kind of history John Hope Franklin dared to write and the ideals he represented as he walked the “tightrope” between engagement and objectivity, as he struggled to unite history with policy and meaningful change, as he sought truths to save us all. Black Lives Matter. History Matters. John Hope Franklin showed us how much they matter to each other.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/XN6hfC-HFgc/

John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America

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Peter Foley/epa/Corbis

Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005

The historian John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009, would have turned one hundred this year. I have thought of him often in recent months as we have seen a conservative Republican governor call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, as the Democratic Party has renamed the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in order to distance itself from two slave-owning forebears, as Yale University debates removing the name Calhoun from one of its undergraduate colleges.

Many Americans in 2015 seem to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that has made us anything but a colorblind society. There could be no more fitting tribute to Franklin’s one hundredth birthday than this collective stock-taking, for no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future. And in that effort he has also done something more for history itself: insisting not just upon its relevance, but indeed its preeminence as the indispensable instrument of change and even salvation from legacies that left unexamined will destroy us. “Good history,” he remarked in 1989, “is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

Franklin’s childhood in segregated Oklahoma introduced him to racism’s cruelties at an early age. He was just six when he and his mother were ejected from a train for sitting in a white-only car. His father was so embittered by his treatment as a black lawyer that he moved his family to an all-black town after resolving to “resign from the world dominated by white people.” Yet Franklin’s parents insisted that he was the equal of any other human being, and his mother repeatedly urged him to tell anyone who asked him about his aspirations that he planned to be “the first Negro president of the United States.” If you believe in yourself, his mother urged, “you won’t be crying; you’ll be defying.”

Defying, not crying. That captures John Hope Franklin’s life, and it captures the history he wrote, a history that would, in his words, “attempt to rehabilitate a whole people” and serve them as a weapon of collective defiance. Inspired by a brilliant teacher at Fisk University, Franklin came to see how “historical traditions have controlled…attitudes and conduct,” and how changing history, challenging the truth of the “hallowed past,” was the necessary condition for changing the present and future. In important ways, the study of history was for Franklin not a choice; it was an imperative. “The true scholar,” he wrote in 1963, “must pursue truth in his field; he must, as it were, ply his trade…. If one tried to escape,…he would be haunted;…he would be satisfied in no other pursuit.” History, in the many meanings of the term, chose him.

But the “Negro scholar,” Franklin wrote, should not imagine he could disappear into an ivory tower. The choice to “turn his back on the world” was not available. From Jonathan Edwards, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Kenneth Galbraith, Franklin observed, the American scholar had been drawn into policy and the practical. The black scholar must fully embrace this tradition of American intellectual life. “I now assert,” Franklin proclaimed,

that the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his history and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.

Fundamental to the task at hand would be rewriting the history of history, revising the “hallowed” falsehoods, illustrating how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well. Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given “the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.” Post–Civil War southerners had endeavored to “win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.”

Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II.

But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.

Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began “stalking” him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.

The kind of exhaustive research Franklin undertook and described for this biography underpinned all his efforts to expand the scope of American history. He discovered the ironies and contradictions of American unfreedom in the lives of free blacks in antebellum North Carolina; he demonstrated how the pervasive presence of violence shaped and controlled every aspect of white—as well as black—lives in southern slave society; he illustrated the hunger for liberation in the records of runaways determined to free themselves. And in From Slavery to Freedom (1958) he sought to create an overarching American and global narrative to explain it all. The book has sold more than three million copies.

Even Franklin, who had personally felt the brunt of segregation, who had understood the terrors of racial violence and oppression, was sobered by what he found. Writing From Slavery to Freedom, piecing together a comprehensive account of five hundred years of black history, brought tales of horror before his eyes:

I had seen one slave ship after another…pile black human cargo into its bowels…. I had seen them dump my ancestors at New World ports as they would a load of cattle and wait smugly for their pay…. I had seen them beat black men…and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, “Give us liberty or give us death,” and not mean one word of it…. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs…. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”

Franklin reserved a particularly vehement resentment for any effort to co-opt or distort his own historical work—to undermine its truths in support of a particular agenda. What he came to regard as one of the worst of such incidents occurred in the early 1960s when the US Commission on Civil Rights invited him to write a history of civil rights since the nation’s founding, to be completed in time for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963. When Franklin delivered the manuscript, however, it was greeted with disappointment by commission members who had anticipated “a note of greater tolerance and moderation.” Franklin reminded the commission that the history of blacks in the United States was “not a pretty picture,” and continued, “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.” Forty years later, Franklin still deplored the commission’s “blatant and crude use of me in its effort to present a false picture of ‘Negro progress.’” Just as bad, it was also a blatant and crude use of history.

The truth that was at once scholarship’s product and purpose must not be undermined. The black scholar, he wrote, “must understand the difference between hard-hitting advocacy on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other.” This commitment embraced both idealism and instrumentalism. I am struck as I reread John Hope Franklin’s meditations on history by his sense of vocation, by the awe with which he regarded the role of scholar, by the almost sacred language with which he spoke of what I fear is today now more often regarded as just another job or profession. For Franklin, it was a transcendent calling, one that in the logic of his era and origins should have been unattainable for him.

Franklin recognized an irony in this. The black scholar must “pursue truth while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.” The revisionist history Franklin sought would, he believed, be unassailable, would overtake past interpretations and exert its force in changing the world because it would, within the clearly articulated standards of the prevailing historical enterprise, be more exhaustively researched, more powerfully argued. It would be a quintessential use of the master’s tools to take down the master’s house. Franklin had a deep and inextinguishable faith in the power of an accurate and just history to change the world. It was, as he put it, “armed with the tools of scholarship” that he did battle against laws, superstitions, prejudices designed to destroy “humane dignity” and even “his capacities for survival.”

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Harvard University Archives

A photograph of John Hope Franklin from his Harvard University admissions file, circa 1935

Yet the historian did not need to be entirely confined to the realm of pure scholarship. The tools of history could also—though separately—be deployed in policy work where past realities could illuminate pressing contemporary dilemmas. Perhaps the most meaningful of such engagements for Franklin was his work with Thurgood Marshall and the team of lawyers and advisers building the case against school segregation for Brown v. Board of Education. The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment would be a crucial element in the case. This was an instance, Franklin proclaimed with some pride, of “historians to the rescue!” In this circumstance, he deemed it appropriate to present his findings “like a lawyer’s brief,” rather than aspiring to the more “objective” and dispassionate stance of the disinterested scholar.

Ultimately, Franklin concluded as he looked back, “I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to,” but the tensions between this activism and his scholarly ideals compelled him throughout his long life to self-consciously negotiate the treacherous shoals between advocacy and objectivity. “While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship,” he observed in his autobiography, “I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tightrope walking.”

In 1980, in an address that marked his departure from the University of Chicago, where he had taught for sixteen years—what proved to be only his first retirement—Franklin announced an explicit shift in perspective in relation to the past. With now unimpeachable credentials as a highly distinguished historian, with a large and influential oeuvre of historical writing, and as the recipient of almost every imaginable honor, he perhaps felt the burden of establishing legitimacy partially lifted. He had earned the right and freedom to speak his mind. Up to this point in his career, he said, he had regarded himself as among “the faithful disciples of Clio, concerned exclusively, or at least primarily, with the past.” He had for four decades, he said, left it to “sociologists, political scientists, and soothsayers” to chart a course for the future. But now, as he was leaving formal teaching responsibilities, “I propose to shift my focus and to dare to think of Clio’s having a vision of the future.”

In actuality, Franklin can hardly be said to have abandoned his accustomed rigorous historical research during the twenty-nine remaining years of his life. Nor had he been entirely silent about the future in his first sixty-five years. His evolution would perhaps better be described as an expansion of focus rather than a shift. But as the twentieth century approached its end, Franklin began to envision the century to come and to anticipate the persistence of race and its legacy into a new time.

In April 1992, while Franklin was in the air en route to the University of Missouri to deliver a series of endowed lectures, a Simi Valley, California, jury announced the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Rodney King. By the time he reached the St. Louis airport, Los Angeles had erupted in riots that ultimately killed fifty-three people before the California National Guard was summoned to quell the violence. For Franklin, these events seemed a tragic affirmation of the argument at the core of his already-prepared Missouri lectures: racism, “the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history,” had not been eliminated—even with the notable progress of the civil rights movement. As W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed the problem of the twentieth century to be “the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” so now Franklin cast his eyes forward to declare it the fundamental challenge for the twenty-first. “I venture to state categorically,” he proclaimed, “that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line.”

And again (or still) he worried about willful distortions of history—this time including more recent emerging histories—that threatened to undermine the nation’s capacity to confront and eliminate racial injustice. The myth of a colorblind society, often erected upon a cynical celebration of the achievements of civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, was being developed in the 1980s and 1990s, Franklin believed, to end the struggle for racial equality by proclaiming it already achieved. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States,” Franklin stated emphatically to his Missouri audience, “and never has existed.” But to advance the myth, Franklin asserted, was not simply a delusion; it was a far more pernicious act of bad faith. “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Brown had, in Franklin’s words, been “no magic wand.” “Litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, degradation, segregation, and discrimination.” Color remained “a major consideration in virtually everything Americans thought, said, or did.” Rodney King’s beating was clear testimony to the persisting force of race. Today, more than twenty years later, Franklin could deliver the same message. We are neither colorblind nor post-racial. Franklin would have been deeply saddened, but I doubt he would have been surprised, by the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore. He would have been equally saddened and, one guesses, angered by the recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and by the threat to student body diversity in higher education implied by the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Fisher v. University of Texas.

In the last months of his life, Franklin was buoyed by the rise of Barack Obama, which he declared “amazing.” “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.” He dared hope that the nation had “turn[ed] a significant corner.” But he knew that erasing the color line required far more than electing a black president. Until we had a new history, we could not build a different and better future. The fundamental requirement, what we

need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past that is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around.

In other words, it is history that has the capacity to save us. “Historians to the rescue!” Dare we think that the recent rejections of Confederate symbols and of the reputations and legacies of slaveowners might be the opening for such a revisionist and clarifying effort? How can we lodge the truth of history in national discourse and public policy?

In an editorial on September 4, 2015, The New York Times underscored how a full understanding of history must be at the heart of any resolution of America’s racial dilemma. In words that come close to echoing Franklin’s, the Times wrote of what it called the “Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’”—a truth rooted in the legacies of the past. “Demonstrators who chant the phrase,” the Times noted,

are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact—that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.

Only if we understand and acknowledge this past can we grapple with the conflicts of the present and the promise of the future.

“To confront our past and see it for what it is.” Franklin’s words. The past “is.” Not the past was. The past lives on. What would it mean to confront it, to see it clearly? Recent history can offer us some examples of nations that have taken on the burden of their history. Germany and its Nazi past. South Africa and apartheid. The principle, and in South Africa an explicit policy and practice, was that of “truth and reconciliation,” a recognition that only a collective investigation and acknowledgment of past wrongs can exorcise them and liberate a nation and a people for a better future. History must move beyond the academy, must become a recognized part of everyday life and understanding for all those who would themselves be free from its weight.

Recently, two powerful new advocates have taken up Franklin’s call for history to come to America’s rescue, echoing many of his observations and insights for a new time and across new and different media. These two twenty-first-century black intellectuals are outside the formal precincts of the academy, yet speak explicitly about why historical scholarship and understanding must play a central part in addressing the tragedies of race in American life. They offer us new, yet in many senses familiar, ways of approaching a moment when it seems possible that both history and policy might change.

Nearly a half-century younger than Franklin, Bryan Stevenson, who grew up in segregated southern Delaware, remembers saving his money for a first youthful book purchase: From Slavery to Freedom. Stevenson’s life and work reflect the historical sensibility that characterized Franklin’s understanding of the American present. In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue.

Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration. “Burdened” by a past of racism and cruelty, “we don’t like to talk about our history,” he observes. We have been “unwilling to commit ourselves” to a necessary “process of truth and reconciliation,” so we have not succeeded in transcending our past, in confronting and abandoning its assumptions and inequities. We have been too “celebratory” about the civil rights movement; we “congratulated ourselves too quickly” that the ugliness of racism was eliminated when it continued to infuse our institutions and our attitudes.

Aside from his teaching at NYU, Stevenson’s day job is directing the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—suing to stay executions of innocent prisoners, persuading the Supreme Court that children should not be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But he has made himself a historian as well. The EJI recently issued a detailed report on the slave trade in nineteenth-century Montgomery—part of a project its website describes as

focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history.

EJI joined with the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery memorializing the domestic slave trade in which the city played such a prominent part. Now Stevenson has embarked on a new project to erect markers at the sites of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, nearly sixteen years younger than Bryan Stevenson, was born six decades after John Hope Franklin. Martin Luther King was seven years dead; much of the hope of the civil rights movement had evaporated; racism, bitterness, and a combination of militancy and despair prevailed. Coates’s father, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an initially self-taught intellectual who became an archivist of black history and created a press to share the record of those of African descent from ancient Egypt to Marcus Garvey to Attica. Paul Coates grounded his son “in history and struggle,” lessons that would make Franklin’s work seem a bit old-fashioned, conciliatory, perhaps even compromising.

It was Malcolm X who became Ta-Nehisi’s hero. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied…. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” Coates resisted white tools or rules. And he would flee the academy—dropping out of Howard without completing a degree. But he too embraced history. “My reclamation,” he wrote, “would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Perhaps, he mused, “I might write something of consequence someday.”

It would seem he has done just that. On the second page of his recent meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Coates proclaims, “The answer is American history.” His own deep immersion in the past—“I have now morphed into a Civil War buff,” he confesses—served as epiphany and impetus: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.” Searching for a deeper understanding of the forces underlying the realities of black oppression that he already knew so acutely, Coates turned to scholarship and the traditions of African-American history that John Hope Franklin had done so much to build. Coates has mastered the academic literature and from it he has come to understand that slavery was not “ancillary to American history” but “foundational.” It remains as a “ghost” all over American policy today, as Coates has demonstrated in his call for reparations to counter the enormous inequities of race reinforced by modern federal housing and zoning legislation.

In Coates’s view, whites have been urged away from their real history by myths that have hidden the violence and injustice at its core. America must reject Civil War narratives that have obscured the war’s origins in slavery, that have permitted unexamined celebration of Confederate gallantry, and that have turned the “mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and élan.” The “lie of the Civil War,” he explains, “is the lie of innocence.” It is a dream, a myth that has lulled and blinded white America as it denied and evaded so much of its past. White Americans “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.” It is the denial of this history that sustains an emollient innocence and makes the injustices of the present possible.

As John Hope Franklin learned when he undertook the research that he fashioned into From Slavery to Freedom, an understanding of history destroys innocence. And the brutal and undeniable truths of murders captured and shared on social media challenge our national presumptions of innocence as well. Can this unavoidable confrontation with the realities of our present open us in new ways to the meaning of our troubling past? Can history help relieve us once and for all of the burden of that ignorance and the evil it can produce? Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this responsibility to extend history beyond the academy? Are we as a nation at last ready to welcome the truth that can yield reconciliation?

If so, it is in no small part because of the kind of history John Hope Franklin dared to write and the ideals he represented as he walked the “tightrope” between engagement and objectivity, as he struggled to unite history with policy and meaningful change, as he sought truths to save us all. Black Lives Matter. History Matters. John Hope Franklin showed us how much they matter to each other.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/XN6hfC-HFgc/

John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America

faust_1-121715.jpg

Peter Foley/epa/Corbis

Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005

The historian John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009, would have turned one hundred this year. I have thought of him often in recent months as we have seen a conservative Republican governor call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, as the Democratic Party has renamed the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in order to distance itself from two slave-owning forebears, as Yale University debates removing the name Calhoun from one of its undergraduate colleges.

Many Americans in 2015 seem to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that has made us anything but a colorblind society. There could be no more fitting tribute to Franklin’s one hundredth birthday than this collective stock-taking, for no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future. And in that effort he has also done something more for history itself: insisting not just upon its relevance, but indeed its preeminence as the indispensable instrument of change and even salvation from legacies that left unexamined will destroy us. “Good history,” he remarked in 1989, “is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

Franklin’s childhood in segregated Oklahoma introduced him to racism’s cruelties at an early age. He was just six when he and his mother were ejected from a train for sitting in a white-only car. His father was so embittered by his treatment as a black lawyer that he moved his family to an all-black town after resolving to “resign from the world dominated by white people.” Yet Franklin’s parents insisted that he was the equal of any other human being, and his mother repeatedly urged him to tell anyone who asked him about his aspirations that he planned to be “the first Negro president of the United States.” If you believe in yourself, his mother urged, “you won’t be crying; you’ll be defying.”

Defying, not crying. That captures John Hope Franklin’s life, and it captures the history he wrote, a history that would, in his words, “attempt to rehabilitate a whole people” and serve them as a weapon of collective defiance. Inspired by a brilliant teacher at Fisk University, Franklin came to see how “historical traditions have controlled…attitudes and conduct,” and how changing history, challenging the truth of the “hallowed past,” was the necessary condition for changing the present and future. In important ways, the study of history was for Franklin not a choice; it was an imperative. “The true scholar,” he wrote in 1963, “must pursue truth in his field; he must, as it were, ply his trade…. If one tried to escape,…he would be haunted;…he would be satisfied in no other pursuit.” History, in the many meanings of the term, chose him.

But the “Negro scholar,” Franklin wrote, should not imagine he could disappear into an ivory tower. The choice to “turn his back on the world” was not available. From Jonathan Edwards, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Kenneth Galbraith, Franklin observed, the American scholar had been drawn into policy and the practical. The black scholar must fully embrace this tradition of American intellectual life. “I now assert,” Franklin proclaimed,

that the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his history and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.

Fundamental to the task at hand would be rewriting the history of history, revising the “hallowed” falsehoods, illustrating how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well. Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given “the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.” Post–Civil War southerners had endeavored to “win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.”

Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II.

But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.

Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began “stalking” him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.

The kind of exhaustive research Franklin undertook and described for this biography underpinned all his efforts to expand the scope of American history. He discovered the ironies and contradictions of American unfreedom in the lives of free blacks in antebellum North Carolina; he demonstrated how the pervasive presence of violence shaped and controlled every aspect of white—as well as black—lives in southern slave society; he illustrated the hunger for liberation in the records of runaways determined to free themselves. And in From Slavery to Freedom (1958) he sought to create an overarching American and global narrative to explain it all. The book has sold more than three million copies.

Even Franklin, who had personally felt the brunt of segregation, who had understood the terrors of racial violence and oppression, was sobered by what he found. Writing From Slavery to Freedom, piecing together a comprehensive account of five hundred years of black history, brought tales of horror before his eyes:

I had seen one slave ship after another…pile black human cargo into its bowels…. I had seen them dump my ancestors at New World ports as they would a load of cattle and wait smugly for their pay…. I had seen them beat black men…and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, “Give us liberty or give us death,” and not mean one word of it…. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs…. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”

Franklin reserved a particularly vehement resentment for any effort to co-opt or distort his own historical work—to undermine its truths in support of a particular agenda. What he came to regard as one of the worst of such incidents occurred in the early 1960s when the US Commission on Civil Rights invited him to write a history of civil rights since the nation’s founding, to be completed in time for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963. When Franklin delivered the manuscript, however, it was greeted with disappointment by commission members who had anticipated “a note of greater tolerance and moderation.” Franklin reminded the commission that the history of blacks in the United States was “not a pretty picture,” and continued, “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.” Forty years later, Franklin still deplored the commission’s “blatant and crude use of me in its effort to present a false picture of ‘Negro progress.’” Just as bad, it was also a blatant and crude use of history.

The truth that was at once scholarship’s product and purpose must not be undermined. The black scholar, he wrote, “must understand the difference between hard-hitting advocacy on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other.” This commitment embraced both idealism and instrumentalism. I am struck as I reread John Hope Franklin’s meditations on history by his sense of vocation, by the awe with which he regarded the role of scholar, by the almost sacred language with which he spoke of what I fear is today now more often regarded as just another job or profession. For Franklin, it was a transcendent calling, one that in the logic of his era and origins should have been unattainable for him.

Franklin recognized an irony in this. The black scholar must “pursue truth while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.” The revisionist history Franklin sought would, he believed, be unassailable, would overtake past interpretations and exert its force in changing the world because it would, within the clearly articulated standards of the prevailing historical enterprise, be more exhaustively researched, more powerfully argued. It would be a quintessential use of the master’s tools to take down the master’s house. Franklin had a deep and inextinguishable faith in the power of an accurate and just history to change the world. It was, as he put it, “armed with the tools of scholarship” that he did battle against laws, superstitions, prejudices designed to destroy “humane dignity” and even “his capacities for survival.”

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Harvard University Archives

A photograph of John Hope Franklin from his Harvard University admissions file, circa 1935

Yet the historian did not need to be entirely confined to the realm of pure scholarship. The tools of history could also—though separately—be deployed in policy work where past realities could illuminate pressing contemporary dilemmas. Perhaps the most meaningful of such engagements for Franklin was his work with Thurgood Marshall and the team of lawyers and advisers building the case against school segregation for Brown v. Board of Education. The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment would be a crucial element in the case. This was an instance, Franklin proclaimed with some pride, of “historians to the rescue!” In this circumstance, he deemed it appropriate to present his findings “like a lawyer’s brief,” rather than aspiring to the more “objective” and dispassionate stance of the disinterested scholar.

Ultimately, Franklin concluded as he looked back, “I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to,” but the tensions between this activism and his scholarly ideals compelled him throughout his long life to self-consciously negotiate the treacherous shoals between advocacy and objectivity. “While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship,” he observed in his autobiography, “I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tightrope walking.”

In 1980, in an address that marked his departure from the University of Chicago, where he had taught for sixteen years—what proved to be only his first retirement—Franklin announced an explicit shift in perspective in relation to the past. With now unimpeachable credentials as a highly distinguished historian, with a large and influential oeuvre of historical writing, and as the recipient of almost every imaginable honor, he perhaps felt the burden of establishing legitimacy partially lifted. He had earned the right and freedom to speak his mind. Up to this point in his career, he said, he had regarded himself as among “the faithful disciples of Clio, concerned exclusively, or at least primarily, with the past.” He had for four decades, he said, left it to “sociologists, political scientists, and soothsayers” to chart a course for the future. But now, as he was leaving formal teaching responsibilities, “I propose to shift my focus and to dare to think of Clio’s having a vision of the future.”

In actuality, Franklin can hardly be said to have abandoned his accustomed rigorous historical research during the twenty-nine remaining years of his life. Nor had he been entirely silent about the future in his first sixty-five years. His evolution would perhaps better be described as an expansion of focus rather than a shift. But as the twentieth century approached its end, Franklin began to envision the century to come and to anticipate the persistence of race and its legacy into a new time.

In April 1992, while Franklin was in the air en route to the University of Missouri to deliver a series of endowed lectures, a Simi Valley, California, jury announced the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Rodney King. By the time he reached the St. Louis airport, Los Angeles had erupted in riots that ultimately killed fifty-three people before the California National Guard was summoned to quell the violence. For Franklin, these events seemed a tragic affirmation of the argument at the core of his already-prepared Missouri lectures: racism, “the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history,” had not been eliminated—even with the notable progress of the civil rights movement. As W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed the problem of the twentieth century to be “the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” so now Franklin cast his eyes forward to declare it the fundamental challenge for the twenty-first. “I venture to state categorically,” he proclaimed, “that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line.”

And again (or still) he worried about willful distortions of history—this time including more recent emerging histories—that threatened to undermine the nation’s capacity to confront and eliminate racial injustice. The myth of a colorblind society, often erected upon a cynical celebration of the achievements of civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, was being developed in the 1980s and 1990s, Franklin believed, to end the struggle for racial equality by proclaiming it already achieved. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States,” Franklin stated emphatically to his Missouri audience, “and never has existed.” But to advance the myth, Franklin asserted, was not simply a delusion; it was a far more pernicious act of bad faith. “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Brown had, in Franklin’s words, been “no magic wand.” “Litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, degradation, segregation, and discrimination.” Color remained “a major consideration in virtually everything Americans thought, said, or did.” Rodney King’s beating was clear testimony to the persisting force of race. Today, more than twenty years later, Franklin could deliver the same message. We are neither colorblind nor post-racial. Franklin would have been deeply saddened, but I doubt he would have been surprised, by the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore. He would have been equally saddened and, one guesses, angered by the recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and by the threat to student body diversity in higher education implied by the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Fisher v. University of Texas.

In the last months of his life, Franklin was buoyed by the rise of Barack Obama, which he declared “amazing.” “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.” He dared hope that the nation had “turn[ed] a significant corner.” But he knew that erasing the color line required far more than electing a black president. Until we had a new history, we could not build a different and better future. The fundamental requirement, what we

need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past that is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around.

In other words, it is history that has the capacity to save us. “Historians to the rescue!” Dare we think that the recent rejections of Confederate symbols and of the reputations and legacies of slaveowners might be the opening for such a revisionist and clarifying effort? How can we lodge the truth of history in national discourse and public policy?

In an editorial on September 4, 2015, The New York Times underscored how a full understanding of history must be at the heart of any resolution of America’s racial dilemma. In words that come close to echoing Franklin’s, the Times wrote of what it called the “Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’”—a truth rooted in the legacies of the past. “Demonstrators who chant the phrase,” the Times noted,

are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact—that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.

Only if we understand and acknowledge this past can we grapple with the conflicts of the present and the promise of the future.

“To confront our past and see it for what it is.” Franklin’s words. The past “is.” Not the past was. The past lives on. What would it mean to confront it, to see it clearly? Recent history can offer us some examples of nations that have taken on the burden of their history. Germany and its Nazi past. South Africa and apartheid. The principle, and in South Africa an explicit policy and practice, was that of “truth and reconciliation,” a recognition that only a collective investigation and acknowledgment of past wrongs can exorcise them and liberate a nation and a people for a better future. History must move beyond the academy, must become a recognized part of everyday life and understanding for all those who would themselves be free from its weight.

Recently, two powerful new advocates have taken up Franklin’s call for history to come to America’s rescue, echoing many of his observations and insights for a new time and across new and different media. These two twenty-first-century black intellectuals are outside the formal precincts of the academy, yet speak explicitly about why historical scholarship and understanding must play a central part in addressing the tragedies of race in American life. They offer us new, yet in many senses familiar, ways of approaching a moment when it seems possible that both history and policy might change.

Nearly a half-century younger than Franklin, Bryan Stevenson, who grew up in segregated southern Delaware, remembers saving his money for a first youthful book purchase: From Slavery to Freedom. Stevenson’s life and work reflect the historical sensibility that characterized Franklin’s understanding of the American present. In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue.

Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration. “Burdened” by a past of racism and cruelty, “we don’t like to talk about our history,” he observes. We have been “unwilling to commit ourselves” to a necessary “process of truth and reconciliation,” so we have not succeeded in transcending our past, in confronting and abandoning its assumptions and inequities. We have been too “celebratory” about the civil rights movement; we “congratulated ourselves too quickly” that the ugliness of racism was eliminated when it continued to infuse our institutions and our attitudes.

Aside from his teaching at NYU, Stevenson’s day job is directing the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—suing to stay executions of innocent prisoners, persuading the Supreme Court that children should not be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But he has made himself a historian as well. The EJI recently issued a detailed report on the slave trade in nineteenth-century Montgomery—part of a project its website describes as

focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history.

EJI joined with the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery memorializing the domestic slave trade in which the city played such a prominent part. Now Stevenson has embarked on a new project to erect markers at the sites of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, nearly sixteen years younger than Bryan Stevenson, was born six decades after John Hope Franklin. Martin Luther King was seven years dead; much of the hope of the civil rights movement had evaporated; racism, bitterness, and a combination of militancy and despair prevailed. Coates’s father, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an initially self-taught intellectual who became an archivist of black history and created a press to share the record of those of African descent from ancient Egypt to Marcus Garvey to Attica. Paul Coates grounded his son “in history and struggle,” lessons that would make Franklin’s work seem a bit old-fashioned, conciliatory, perhaps even compromising.

It was Malcolm X who became Ta-Nehisi’s hero. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied…. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” Coates resisted white tools or rules. And he would flee the academy—dropping out of Howard without completing a degree. But he too embraced history. “My reclamation,” he wrote, “would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Perhaps, he mused, “I might write something of consequence someday.”

It would seem he has done just that. On the second page of his recent meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Coates proclaims, “The answer is American history.” His own deep immersion in the past—“I have now morphed into a Civil War buff,” he confesses—served as epiphany and impetus: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.” Searching for a deeper understanding of the forces underlying the realities of black oppression that he already knew so acutely, Coates turned to scholarship and the traditions of African-American history that John Hope Franklin had done so much to build. Coates has mastered the academic literature and from it he has come to understand that slavery was not “ancillary to American history” but “foundational.” It remains as a “ghost” all over American policy today, as Coates has demonstrated in his call for reparations to counter the enormous inequities of race reinforced by modern federal housing and zoning legislation.

In Coates’s view, whites have been urged away from their real history by myths that have hidden the violence and injustice at its core. America must reject Civil War narratives that have obscured the war’s origins in slavery, that have permitted unexamined celebration of Confederate gallantry, and that have turned the “mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and élan.” The “lie of the Civil War,” he explains, “is the lie of innocence.” It is a dream, a myth that has lulled and blinded white America as it denied and evaded so much of its past. White Americans “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.” It is the denial of this history that sustains an emollient innocence and makes the injustices of the present possible.

As John Hope Franklin learned when he undertook the research that he fashioned into From Slavery to Freedom, an understanding of history destroys innocence. And the brutal and undeniable truths of murders captured and shared on social media challenge our national presumptions of innocence as well. Can this unavoidable confrontation with the realities of our present open us in new ways to the meaning of our troubling past? Can history help relieve us once and for all of the burden of that ignorance and the evil it can produce? Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this responsibility to extend history beyond the academy? Are we as a nation at last ready to welcome the truth that can yield reconciliation?

If so, it is in no small part because of the kind of history John Hope Franklin dared to write and the ideals he represented as he walked the “tightrope” between engagement and objectivity, as he struggled to unite history with policy and meaningful change, as he sought truths to save us all. Black Lives Matter. History Matters. John Hope Franklin showed us how much they matter to each other.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/XN6hfC-HFgc/

John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America

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Peter Foley/epa/Corbis

Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005

The historian John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009, would have turned one hundred this year. I have thought of him often in recent months as we have seen a conservative Republican governor call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, as the Democratic Party has renamed the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in order to distance itself from two slave-owning forebears, as Yale University debates removing the name Calhoun from one of its undergraduate colleges.

Many Americans in 2015 seem to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that has made us anything but a colorblind society. There could be no more fitting tribute to Franklin’s one hundredth birthday than this collective stock-taking, for no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future. And in that effort he has also done something more for history itself: insisting not just upon its relevance, but indeed its preeminence as the indispensable instrument of change and even salvation from legacies that left unexamined will destroy us. “Good history,” he remarked in 1989, “is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

Franklin’s childhood in segregated Oklahoma introduced him to racism’s cruelties at an early age. He was just six when he and his mother were ejected from a train for sitting in a white-only car. His father was so embittered by his treatment as a black lawyer that he moved his family to an all-black town after resolving to “resign from the world dominated by white people.” Yet Franklin’s parents insisted that he was the equal of any other human being, and his mother repeatedly urged him to tell anyone who asked him about his aspirations that he planned to be “the first Negro president of the United States.” If you believe in yourself, his mother urged, “you won’t be crying; you’ll be defying.”

Defying, not crying. That captures John Hope Franklin’s life, and it captures the history he wrote, a history that would, in his words, “attempt to rehabilitate a whole people” and serve them as a weapon of collective defiance. Inspired by a brilliant teacher at Fisk University, Franklin came to see how “historical traditions have controlled…attitudes and conduct,” and how changing history, challenging the truth of the “hallowed past,” was the necessary condition for changing the present and future. In important ways, the study of history was for Franklin not a choice; it was an imperative. “The true scholar,” he wrote in 1963, “must pursue truth in his field; he must, as it were, ply his trade…. If one tried to escape,…he would be haunted;…he would be satisfied in no other pursuit.” History, in the many meanings of the term, chose him.

But the “Negro scholar,” Franklin wrote, should not imagine he could disappear into an ivory tower. The choice to “turn his back on the world” was not available. From Jonathan Edwards, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Kenneth Galbraith, Franklin observed, the American scholar had been drawn into policy and the practical. The black scholar must fully embrace this tradition of American intellectual life. “I now assert,” Franklin proclaimed,

that the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his history and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.

Fundamental to the task at hand would be rewriting the history of history, revising the “hallowed” falsehoods, illustrating how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well. Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given “the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.” Post–Civil War southerners had endeavored to “win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.”

Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II.

But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.

Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began “stalking” him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.

The kind of exhaustive research Franklin undertook and described for this biography underpinned all his efforts to expand the scope of American history. He discovered the ironies and contradictions of American unfreedom in the lives of free blacks in antebellum North Carolina; he demonstrated how the pervasive presence of violence shaped and controlled every aspect of white—as well as black—lives in southern slave society; he illustrated the hunger for liberation in the records of runaways determined to free themselves. And in From Slavery to Freedom (1958) he sought to create an overarching American and global narrative to explain it all. The book has sold more than three million copies.

Even Franklin, who had personally felt the brunt of segregation, who had understood the terrors of racial violence and oppression, was sobered by what he found. Writing From Slavery to Freedom, piecing together a comprehensive account of five hundred years of black history, brought tales of horror before his eyes:

I had seen one slave ship after another…pile black human cargo into its bowels…. I had seen them dump my ancestors at New World ports as they would a load of cattle and wait smugly for their pay…. I had seen them beat black men…and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, “Give us liberty or give us death,” and not mean one word of it…. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs…. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”

Franklin reserved a particularly vehement resentment for any effort to co-opt or distort his own historical work—to undermine its truths in support of a particular agenda. What he came to regard as one of the worst of such incidents occurred in the early 1960s when the US Commission on Civil Rights invited him to write a history of civil rights since the nation’s founding, to be completed in time for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963. When Franklin delivered the manuscript, however, it was greeted with disappointment by commission members who had anticipated “a note of greater tolerance and moderation.” Franklin reminded the commission that the history of blacks in the United States was “not a pretty picture,” and continued, “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.” Forty years later, Franklin still deplored the commission’s “blatant and crude use of me in its effort to present a false picture of ‘Negro progress.’” Just as bad, it was also a blatant and crude use of history.

The truth that was at once scholarship’s product and purpose must not be undermined. The black scholar, he wrote, “must understand the difference between hard-hitting advocacy on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other.” This commitment embraced both idealism and instrumentalism. I am struck as I reread John Hope Franklin’s meditations on history by his sense of vocation, by the awe with which he regarded the role of scholar, by the almost sacred language with which he spoke of what I fear is today now more often regarded as just another job or profession. For Franklin, it was a transcendent calling, one that in the logic of his era and origins should have been unattainable for him.

Franklin recognized an irony in this. The black scholar must “pursue truth while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.” The revisionist history Franklin sought would, he believed, be unassailable, would overtake past interpretations and exert its force in changing the world because it would, within the clearly articulated standards of the prevailing historical enterprise, be more exhaustively researched, more powerfully argued. It would be a quintessential use of the master’s tools to take down the master’s house. Franklin had a deep and inextinguishable faith in the power of an accurate and just history to change the world. It was, as he put it, “armed with the tools of scholarship” that he did battle against laws, superstitions, prejudices designed to destroy “humane dignity” and even “his capacities for survival.”

faust_2-121715.jpg

Harvard University Archives

A photograph of John Hope Franklin from his Harvard University admissions file, circa 1935

Yet the historian did not need to be entirely confined to the realm of pure scholarship. The tools of history could also—though separately—be deployed in policy work where past realities could illuminate pressing contemporary dilemmas. Perhaps the most meaningful of such engagements for Franklin was his work with Thurgood Marshall and the team of lawyers and advisers building the case against school segregation for Brown v. Board of Education. The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment would be a crucial element in the case. This was an instance, Franklin proclaimed with some pride, of “historians to the rescue!” In this circumstance, he deemed it appropriate to present his findings “like a lawyer’s brief,” rather than aspiring to the more “objective” and dispassionate stance of the disinterested scholar.

Ultimately, Franklin concluded as he looked back, “I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to,” but the tensions between this activism and his scholarly ideals compelled him throughout his long life to self-consciously negotiate the treacherous shoals between advocacy and objectivity. “While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship,” he observed in his autobiography, “I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tightrope walking.”

In 1980, in an address that marked his departure from the University of Chicago, where he had taught for sixteen years—what proved to be only his first retirement—Franklin announced an explicit shift in perspective in relation to the past. With now unimpeachable credentials as a highly distinguished historian, with a large and influential oeuvre of historical writing, and as the recipient of almost every imaginable honor, he perhaps felt the burden of establishing legitimacy partially lifted. He had earned the right and freedom to speak his mind. Up to this point in his career, he said, he had regarded himself as among “the faithful disciples of Clio, concerned exclusively, or at least primarily, with the past.” He had for four decades, he said, left it to “sociologists, political scientists, and soothsayers” to chart a course for the future. But now, as he was leaving formal teaching responsibilities, “I propose to shift my focus and to dare to think of Clio’s having a vision of the future.”

In actuality, Franklin can hardly be said to have abandoned his accustomed rigorous historical research during the twenty-nine remaining years of his life. Nor had he been entirely silent about the future in his first sixty-five years. His evolution would perhaps better be described as an expansion of focus rather than a shift. But as the twentieth century approached its end, Franklin began to envision the century to come and to anticipate the persistence of race and its legacy into a new time.

In April 1992, while Franklin was in the air en route to the University of Missouri to deliver a series of endowed lectures, a Simi Valley, California, jury announced the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Rodney King. By the time he reached the St. Louis airport, Los Angeles had erupted in riots that ultimately killed fifty-three people before the California National Guard was summoned to quell the violence. For Franklin, these events seemed a tragic affirmation of the argument at the core of his already-prepared Missouri lectures: racism, “the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history,” had not been eliminated—even with the notable progress of the civil rights movement. As W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed the problem of the twentieth century to be “the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” so now Franklin cast his eyes forward to declare it the fundamental challenge for the twenty-first. “I venture to state categorically,” he proclaimed, “that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line.”

And again (or still) he worried about willful distortions of history—this time including more recent emerging histories—that threatened to undermine the nation’s capacity to confront and eliminate racial injustice. The myth of a colorblind society, often erected upon a cynical celebration of the achievements of civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, was being developed in the 1980s and 1990s, Franklin believed, to end the struggle for racial equality by proclaiming it already achieved. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States,” Franklin stated emphatically to his Missouri audience, “and never has existed.” But to advance the myth, Franklin asserted, was not simply a delusion; it was a far more pernicious act of bad faith. “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Brown had, in Franklin’s words, been “no magic wand.” “Litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, degradation, segregation, and discrimination.” Color remained “a major consideration in virtually everything Americans thought, said, or did.” Rodney King’s beating was clear testimony to the persisting force of race. Today, more than twenty years later, Franklin could deliver the same message. We are neither colorblind nor post-racial. Franklin would have been deeply saddened, but I doubt he would have been surprised, by the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore. He would have been equally saddened and, one guesses, angered by the recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and by the threat to student body diversity in higher education implied by the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Fisher v. University of Texas.

In the last months of his life, Franklin was buoyed by the rise of Barack Obama, which he declared “amazing.” “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.” He dared hope that the nation had “turn[ed] a significant corner.” But he knew that erasing the color line required far more than electing a black president. Until we had a new history, we could not build a different and better future. The fundamental requirement, what we

need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past that is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around.

In other words, it is history that has the capacity to save us. “Historians to the rescue!” Dare we think that the recent rejections of Confederate symbols and of the reputations and legacies of slaveowners might be the opening for such a revisionist and clarifying effort? How can we lodge the truth of history in national discourse and public policy?

In an editorial on September 4, 2015, The New York Times underscored how a full understanding of history must be at the heart of any resolution of America’s racial dilemma. In words that come close to echoing Franklin’s, the Times wrote of what it called the “Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’”—a truth rooted in the legacies of the past. “Demonstrators who chant the phrase,” the Times noted,

are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact—that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.

Only if we understand and acknowledge this past can we grapple with the conflicts of the present and the promise of the future.

“To confront our past and see it for what it is.” Franklin’s words. The past “is.” Not the past was. The past lives on. What would it mean to confront it, to see it clearly? Recent history can offer us some examples of nations that have taken on the burden of their history. Germany and its Nazi past. South Africa and apartheid. The principle, and in South Africa an explicit policy and practice, was that of “truth and reconciliation,” a recognition that only a collective investigation and acknowledgment of past wrongs can exorcise them and liberate a nation and a people for a better future. History must move beyond the academy, must become a recognized part of everyday life and understanding for all those who would themselves be free from its weight.

Recently, two powerful new advocates have taken up Franklin’s call for history to come to America’s rescue, echoing many of his observations and insights for a new time and across new and different media. These two twenty-first-century black intellectuals are outside the formal precincts of the academy, yet speak explicitly about why historical scholarship and understanding must play a central part in addressing the tragedies of race in American life. They offer us new, yet in many senses familiar, ways of approaching a moment when it seems possible that both history and policy might change.

Nearly a half-century younger than Franklin, Bryan Stevenson, who grew up in segregated southern Delaware, remembers saving his money for a first youthful book purchase: From Slavery to Freedom. Stevenson’s life and work reflect the historical sensibility that characterized Franklin’s understanding of the American present. In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue.

Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration. “Burdened” by a past of racism and cruelty, “we don’t like to talk about our history,” he observes. We have been “unwilling to commit ourselves” to a necessary “process of truth and reconciliation,” so we have not succeeded in transcending our past, in confronting and abandoning its assumptions and inequities. We have been too “celebratory” about the civil rights movement; we “congratulated ourselves too quickly” that the ugliness of racism was eliminated when it continued to infuse our institutions and our attitudes.

Aside from his teaching at NYU, Stevenson’s day job is directing the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—suing to stay executions of innocent prisoners, persuading the Supreme Court that children should not be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But he has made himself a historian as well. The EJI recently issued a detailed report on the slave trade in nineteenth-century Montgomery—part of a project its website describes as

focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history.

EJI joined with the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery memorializing the domestic slave trade in which the city played such a prominent part. Now Stevenson has embarked on a new project to erect markers at the sites of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, nearly sixteen years younger than Bryan Stevenson, was born six decades after John Hope Franklin. Martin Luther King was seven years dead; much of the hope of the civil rights movement had evaporated; racism, bitterness, and a combination of militancy and despair prevailed. Coates’s father, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an initially self-taught intellectual who became an archivist of black history and created a press to share the record of those of African descent from ancient Egypt to Marcus Garvey to Attica. Paul Coates grounded his son “in history and struggle,” lessons that would make Franklin’s work seem a bit old-fashioned, conciliatory, perhaps even compromising.

It was Malcolm X who became Ta-Nehisi’s hero. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied…. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” Coates resisted white tools or rules. And he would flee the academy—dropping out of Howard without completing a degree. But he too embraced history. “My reclamation,” he wrote, “would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Perhaps, he mused, “I might write something of consequence someday.”

It would seem he has done just that. On the second page of his recent meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Coates proclaims, “The answer is American history.” His own deep immersion in the past—“I have now morphed into a Civil War buff,” he confesses—served as epiphany and impetus: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.” Searching for a deeper understanding of the forces underlying the realities of black oppression that he already knew so acutely, Coates turned to scholarship and the traditions of African-American history that John Hope Franklin had done so much to build. Coates has mastered the academic literature and from it he has come to understand that slavery was not “ancillary to American history” but “foundational.” It remains as a “ghost” all over American policy today, as Coates has demonstrated in his call for reparations to counter the enormous inequities of race reinforced by modern federal housing and zoning legislation.

In Coates’s view, whites have been urged away from their real history by myths that have hidden the violence and injustice at its core. America must reject Civil War narratives that have obscured the war’s origins in slavery, that have permitted unexamined celebration of Confederate gallantry, and that have turned the “mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and élan.” The “lie of the Civil War,” he explains, “is the lie of innocence.” It is a dream, a myth that has lulled and blinded white America as it denied and evaded so much of its past. White Americans “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.” It is the denial of this history that sustains an emollient innocence and makes the injustices of the present possible.

As John Hope Franklin learned when he undertook the research that he fashioned into From Slavery to Freedom, an understanding of history destroys innocence. And the brutal and undeniable truths of murders captured and shared on social media challenge our national presumptions of innocence as well. Can this unavoidable confrontation with the realities of our present open us in new ways to the meaning of our troubling past? Can history help relieve us once and for all of the burden of that ignorance and the evil it can produce? Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this responsibility to extend history beyond the academy? Are we as a nation at last ready to welcome the truth that can yield reconciliation?

If so, it is in no small part because of the kind of history John Hope Franklin dared to write and the ideals he represented as he walked the “tightrope” between engagement and objectivity, as he struggled to unite history with policy and meaningful change, as he sought truths to save us all. Black Lives Matter. History Matters. John Hope Franklin showed us how much they matter to each other.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/XN6hfC-HFgc/

John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America

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Peter Foley/epa/Corbis

Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005

The historian John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009, would have turned one hundred this year. I have thought of him often in recent months as we have seen a conservative Republican governor call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, as the Democratic Party has renamed the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in order to distance itself from two slave-owning forebears, as Yale University debates removing the name Calhoun from one of its undergraduate colleges.

Many Americans in 2015 seem to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that has made us anything but a colorblind society. There could be no more fitting tribute to Franklin’s one hundredth birthday than this collective stock-taking, for no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future. And in that effort he has also done something more for history itself: insisting not just upon its relevance, but indeed its preeminence as the indispensable instrument of change and even salvation from legacies that left unexamined will destroy us. “Good history,” he remarked in 1989, “is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

Franklin’s childhood in segregated Oklahoma introduced him to racism’s cruelties at an early age. He was just six when he and his mother were ejected from a train for sitting in a white-only car. His father was so embittered by his treatment as a black lawyer that he moved his family to an all-black town after resolving to “resign from the world dominated by white people.” Yet Franklin’s parents insisted that he was the equal of any other human being, and his mother repeatedly urged him to tell anyone who asked him about his aspirations that he planned to be “the first Negro president of the United States.” If you believe in yourself, his mother urged, “you won’t be crying; you’ll be defying.”

Defying, not crying. That captures John Hope Franklin’s life, and it captures the history he wrote, a history that would, in his words, “attempt to rehabilitate a whole people” and serve them as a weapon of collective defiance. Inspired by a brilliant teacher at Fisk University, Franklin came to see how “historical traditions have controlled…attitudes and conduct,” and how changing history, challenging the truth of the “hallowed past,” was the necessary condition for changing the present and future. In important ways, the study of history was for Franklin not a choice; it was an imperative. “The true scholar,” he wrote in 1963, “must pursue truth in his field; he must, as it were, ply his trade…. If one tried to escape,…he would be haunted;…he would be satisfied in no other pursuit.” History, in the many meanings of the term, chose him.

But the “Negro scholar,” Franklin wrote, should not imagine he could disappear into an ivory tower. The choice to “turn his back on the world” was not available. From Jonathan Edwards, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Kenneth Galbraith, Franklin observed, the American scholar had been drawn into policy and the practical. The black scholar must fully embrace this tradition of American intellectual life. “I now assert,” Franklin proclaimed,

that the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his history and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.

Fundamental to the task at hand would be rewriting the history of history, revising the “hallowed” falsehoods, illustrating how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well. Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given “the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.” Post–Civil War southerners had endeavored to “win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.”

Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II.

But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.

Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began “stalking” him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.

The kind of exhaustive research Franklin undertook and described for this biography underpinned all his efforts to expand the scope of American history. He discovered the ironies and contradictions of American unfreedom in the lives of free blacks in antebellum North Carolina; he demonstrated how the pervasive presence of violence shaped and controlled every aspect of white—as well as black—lives in southern slave society; he illustrated the hunger for liberation in the records of runaways determined to free themselves. And in From Slavery to Freedom (1958) he sought to create an overarching American and global narrative to explain it all. The book has sold more than three million copies.

Even Franklin, who had personally felt the brunt of segregation, who had understood the terrors of racial violence and oppression, was sobered by what he found. Writing From Slavery to Freedom, piecing together a comprehensive account of five hundred years of black history, brought tales of horror before his eyes:

I had seen one slave ship after another…pile black human cargo into its bowels…. I had seen them dump my ancestors at New World ports as they would a load of cattle and wait smugly for their pay…. I had seen them beat black men…and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, “Give us liberty or give us death,” and not mean one word of it…. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs…. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”

Franklin reserved a particularly vehement resentment for any effort to co-opt or distort his own historical work—to undermine its truths in support of a particular agenda. What he came to regard as one of the worst of such incidents occurred in the early 1960s when the US Commission on Civil Rights invited him to write a history of civil rights since the nation’s founding, to be completed in time for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963. When Franklin delivered the manuscript, however, it was greeted with disappointment by commission members who had anticipated “a note of greater tolerance and moderation.” Franklin reminded the commission that the history of blacks in the United States was “not a pretty picture,” and continued, “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.” Forty years later, Franklin still deplored the commission’s “blatant and crude use of me in its effort to present a false picture of ‘Negro progress.’” Just as bad, it was also a blatant and crude use of history.

The truth that was at once scholarship’s product and purpose must not be undermined. The black scholar, he wrote, “must understand the difference between hard-hitting advocacy on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other.” This commitment embraced both idealism and instrumentalism. I am struck as I reread John Hope Franklin’s meditations on history by his sense of vocation, by the awe with which he regarded the role of scholar, by the almost sacred language with which he spoke of what I fear is today now more often regarded as just another job or profession. For Franklin, it was a transcendent calling, one that in the logic of his era and origins should have been unattainable for him.

Franklin recognized an irony in this. The black scholar must “pursue truth while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.” The revisionist history Franklin sought would, he believed, be unassailable, would overtake past interpretations and exert its force in changing the world because it would, within the clearly articulated standards of the prevailing historical enterprise, be more exhaustively researched, more powerfully argued. It would be a quintessential use of the master’s tools to take down the master’s house. Franklin had a deep and inextinguishable faith in the power of an accurate and just history to change the world. It was, as he put it, “armed with the tools of scholarship” that he did battle against laws, superstitions, prejudices designed to destroy “humane dignity” and even “his capacities for survival.”

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Harvard University Archives

A photograph of John Hope Franklin from his Harvard University admissions file, circa 1935

Yet the historian did not need to be entirely confined to the realm of pure scholarship. The tools of history could also—though separately—be deployed in policy work where past realities could illuminate pressing contemporary dilemmas. Perhaps the most meaningful of such engagements for Franklin was his work with Thurgood Marshall and the team of lawyers and advisers building the case against school segregation for Brown v. Board of Education. The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment would be a crucial element in the case. This was an instance, Franklin proclaimed with some pride, of “historians to the rescue!” In this circumstance, he deemed it appropriate to present his findings “like a lawyer’s brief,” rather than aspiring to the more “objective” and dispassionate stance of the disinterested scholar.

Ultimately, Franklin concluded as he looked back, “I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to,” but the tensions between this activism and his scholarly ideals compelled him throughout his long life to self-consciously negotiate the treacherous shoals between advocacy and objectivity. “While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship,” he observed in his autobiography, “I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tightrope walking.”

In 1980, in an address that marked his departure from the University of Chicago, where he had taught for sixteen years—what proved to be only his first retirement—Franklin announced an explicit shift in perspective in relation to the past. With now unimpeachable credentials as a highly distinguished historian, with a large and influential oeuvre of historical writing, and as the recipient of almost every imaginable honor, he perhaps felt the burden of establishing legitimacy partially lifted. He had earned the right and freedom to speak his mind. Up to this point in his career, he said, he had regarded himself as among “the faithful disciples of Clio, concerned exclusively, or at least primarily, with the past.” He had for four decades, he said, left it to “sociologists, political scientists, and soothsayers” to chart a course for the future. But now, as he was leaving formal teaching responsibilities, “I propose to shift my focus and to dare to think of Clio’s having a vision of the future.”

In actuality, Franklin can hardly be said to have abandoned his accustomed rigorous historical research during the twenty-nine remaining years of his life. Nor had he been entirely silent about the future in his first sixty-five years. His evolution would perhaps better be described as an expansion of focus rather than a shift. But as the twentieth century approached its end, Franklin began to envision the century to come and to anticipate the persistence of race and its legacy into a new time.

In April 1992, while Franklin was in the air en route to the University of Missouri to deliver a series of endowed lectures, a Simi Valley, California, jury announced the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Rodney King. By the time he reached the St. Louis airport, Los Angeles had erupted in riots that ultimately killed fifty-three people before the California National Guard was summoned to quell the violence. For Franklin, these events seemed a tragic affirmation of the argument at the core of his already-prepared Missouri lectures: racism, “the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history,” had not been eliminated—even with the notable progress of the civil rights movement. As W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed the problem of the twentieth century to be “the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” so now Franklin cast his eyes forward to declare it the fundamental challenge for the twenty-first. “I venture to state categorically,” he proclaimed, “that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line.”

And again (or still) he worried about willful distortions of history—this time including more recent emerging histories—that threatened to undermine the nation’s capacity to confront and eliminate racial injustice. The myth of a colorblind society, often erected upon a cynical celebration of the achievements of civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, was being developed in the 1980s and 1990s, Franklin believed, to end the struggle for racial equality by proclaiming it already achieved. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States,” Franklin stated emphatically to his Missouri audience, “and never has existed.” But to advance the myth, Franklin asserted, was not simply a delusion; it was a far more pernicious act of bad faith. “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Brown had, in Franklin’s words, been “no magic wand.” “Litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, degradation, segregation, and discrimination.” Color remained “a major consideration in virtually everything Americans thought, said, or did.” Rodney King’s beating was clear testimony to the persisting force of race. Today, more than twenty years later, Franklin could deliver the same message. We are neither colorblind nor post-racial. Franklin would have been deeply saddened, but I doubt he would have been surprised, by the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore. He would have been equally saddened and, one guesses, angered by the recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and by the threat to student body diversity in higher education implied by the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Fisher v. University of Texas.

In the last months of his life, Franklin was buoyed by the rise of Barack Obama, which he declared “amazing.” “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.” He dared hope that the nation had “turn[ed] a significant corner.” But he knew that erasing the color line required far more than electing a black president. Until we had a new history, we could not build a different and better future. The fundamental requirement, what we

need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past that is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around.

In other words, it is history that has the capacity to save us. “Historians to the rescue!” Dare we think that the recent rejections of Confederate symbols and of the reputations and legacies of slaveowners might be the opening for such a revisionist and clarifying effort? How can we lodge the truth of history in national discourse and public policy?

In an editorial on September 4, 2015, The New York Times underscored how a full understanding of history must be at the heart of any resolution of America’s racial dilemma. In words that come close to echoing Franklin’s, the Times wrote of what it called the “Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’”—a truth rooted in the legacies of the past. “Demonstrators who chant the phrase,” the Times noted,

are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact—that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.

Only if we understand and acknowledge this past can we grapple with the conflicts of the present and the promise of the future.

“To confront our past and see it for what it is.” Franklin’s words. The past “is.” Not the past was. The past lives on. What would it mean to confront it, to see it clearly? Recent history can offer us some examples of nations that have taken on the burden of their history. Germany and its Nazi past. South Africa and apartheid. The principle, and in South Africa an explicit policy and practice, was that of “truth and reconciliation,” a recognition that only a collective investigation and acknowledgment of past wrongs can exorcise them and liberate a nation and a people for a better future. History must move beyond the academy, must become a recognized part of everyday life and understanding for all those who would themselves be free from its weight.

Recently, two powerful new advocates have taken up Franklin’s call for history to come to America’s rescue, echoing many of his observations and insights for a new time and across new and different media. These two twenty-first-century black intellectuals are outside the formal precincts of the academy, yet speak explicitly about why historical scholarship and understanding must play a central part in addressing the tragedies of race in American life. They offer us new, yet in many senses familiar, ways of approaching a moment when it seems possible that both history and policy might change.

Nearly a half-century younger than Franklin, Bryan Stevenson, who grew up in segregated southern Delaware, remembers saving his money for a first youthful book purchase: From Slavery to Freedom. Stevenson’s life and work reflect the historical sensibility that characterized Franklin’s understanding of the American present. In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue.

Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration. “Burdened” by a past of racism and cruelty, “we don’t like to talk about our history,” he observes. We have been “unwilling to commit ourselves” to a necessary “process of truth and reconciliation,” so we have not succeeded in transcending our past, in confronting and abandoning its assumptions and inequities. We have been too “celebratory” about the civil rights movement; we “congratulated ourselves too quickly” that the ugliness of racism was eliminated when it continued to infuse our institutions and our attitudes.

Aside from his teaching at NYU, Stevenson’s day job is directing the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—suing to stay executions of innocent prisoners, persuading the Supreme Court that children should not be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But he has made himself a historian as well. The EJI recently issued a detailed report on the slave trade in nineteenth-century Montgomery—part of a project its website describes as

focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history.

EJI joined with the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery memorializing the domestic slave trade in which the city played such a prominent part. Now Stevenson has embarked on a new project to erect markers at the sites of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, nearly sixteen years younger than Bryan Stevenson, was born six decades after John Hope Franklin. Martin Luther King was seven years dead; much of the hope of the civil rights movement had evaporated; racism, bitterness, and a combination of militancy and despair prevailed. Coates’s father, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an initially self-taught intellectual who became an archivist of black history and created a press to share the record of those of African descent from ancient Egypt to Marcus Garvey to Attica. Paul Coates grounded his son “in history and struggle,” lessons that would make Franklin’s work seem a bit old-fashioned, conciliatory, perhaps even compromising.

It was Malcolm X who became Ta-Nehisi’s hero. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied…. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” Coates resisted white tools or rules. And he would flee the academy—dropping out of Howard without completing a degree. But he too embraced history. “My reclamation,” he wrote, “would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Perhaps, he mused, “I might write something of consequence someday.”

It would seem he has done just that. On the second page of his recent meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Coates proclaims, “The answer is American history.” His own deep immersion in the past—“I have now morphed into a Civil War buff,” he confesses—served as epiphany and impetus: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.” Searching for a deeper understanding of the forces underlying the realities of black oppression that he already knew so acutely, Coates turned to scholarship and the traditions of African-American history that John Hope Franklin had done so much to build. Coates has mastered the academic literature and from it he has come to understand that slavery was not “ancillary to American history” but “foundational.” It remains as a “ghost” all over American policy today, as Coates has demonstrated in his call for reparations to counter the enormous inequities of race reinforced by modern federal housing and zoning legislation.

In Coates’s view, whites have been urged away from their real history by myths that have hidden the violence and injustice at its core. America must reject Civil War narratives that have obscured the war’s origins in slavery, that have permitted unexamined celebration of Confederate gallantry, and that have turned the “mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and élan.” The “lie of the Civil War,” he explains, “is the lie of innocence.” It is a dream, a myth that has lulled and blinded white America as it denied and evaded so much of its past. White Americans “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.” It is the denial of this history that sustains an emollient innocence and makes the injustices of the present possible.

As John Hope Franklin learned when he undertook the research that he fashioned into From Slavery to Freedom, an understanding of history destroys innocence. And the brutal and undeniable truths of murders captured and shared on social media challenge our national presumptions of innocence as well. Can this unavoidable confrontation with the realities of our present open us in new ways to the meaning of our troubling past? Can history help relieve us once and for all of the burden of that ignorance and the evil it can produce? Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this responsibility to extend history beyond the academy? Are we as a nation at last ready to welcome the truth that can yield reconciliation?

If so, it is in no small part because of the kind of history John Hope Franklin dared to write and the ideals he represented as he walked the “tightrope” between engagement and objectivity, as he struggled to unite history with policy and meaningful change, as he sought truths to save us all. Black Lives Matter. History Matters. John Hope Franklin showed us how much they matter to each other.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/XN6hfC-HFgc/

John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America

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Peter Foley/epa/Corbis

Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005

The historian John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009, would have turned one hundred this year. I have thought of him often in recent months as we have seen a conservative Republican governor call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, as the Democratic Party has renamed the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in order to distance itself from two slave-owning forebears, as Yale University debates removing the name Calhoun from one of its undergraduate colleges.

Many Americans in 2015 seem to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that has made us anything but a colorblind society. There could be no more fitting tribute to Franklin’s one hundredth birthday than this collective stock-taking, for no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future. And in that effort he has also done something more for history itself: insisting not just upon its relevance, but indeed its preeminence as the indispensable instrument of change and even salvation from legacies that left unexamined will destroy us. “Good history,” he remarked in 1989, “is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

Franklin’s childhood in segregated Oklahoma introduced him to racism’s cruelties at an early age. He was just six when he and his mother were ejected from a train for sitting in a white-only car. His father was so embittered by his treatment as a black lawyer that he moved his family to an all-black town after resolving to “resign from the world dominated by white people.” Yet Franklin’s parents insisted that he was the equal of any other human being, and his mother repeatedly urged him to tell anyone who asked him about his aspirations that he planned to be “the first Negro president of the United States.” If you believe in yourself, his mother urged, “you won’t be crying; you’ll be defying.”

Defying, not crying. That captures John Hope Franklin’s life, and it captures the history he wrote, a history that would, in his words, “attempt to rehabilitate a whole people” and serve them as a weapon of collective defiance. Inspired by a brilliant teacher at Fisk University, Franklin came to see how “historical traditions have controlled…attitudes and conduct,” and how changing history, challenging the truth of the “hallowed past,” was the necessary condition for changing the present and future. In important ways, the study of history was for Franklin not a choice; it was an imperative. “The true scholar,” he wrote in 1963, “must pursue truth in his field; he must, as it were, ply his trade…. If one tried to escape,…he would be haunted;…he would be satisfied in no other pursuit.” History, in the many meanings of the term, chose him.

But the “Negro scholar,” Franklin wrote, should not imagine he could disappear into an ivory tower. The choice to “turn his back on the world” was not available. From Jonathan Edwards, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Kenneth Galbraith, Franklin observed, the American scholar had been drawn into policy and the practical. The black scholar must fully embrace this tradition of American intellectual life. “I now assert,” Franklin proclaimed,

that the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his history and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.

Fundamental to the task at hand would be rewriting the history of history, revising the “hallowed” falsehoods, illustrating how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well. Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given “the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.” Post–Civil War southerners had endeavored to “win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.”

Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II.

But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.

Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began “stalking” him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.

The kind of exhaustive research Franklin undertook and described for this biography underpinned all his efforts to expand the scope of American history. He discovered the ironies and contradictions of American unfreedom in the lives of free blacks in antebellum North Carolina; he demonstrated how the pervasive presence of violence shaped and controlled every aspect of white—as well as black—lives in southern slave society; he illustrated the hunger for liberation in the records of runaways determined to free themselves. And in From Slavery to Freedom (1958) he sought to create an overarching American and global narrative to explain it all. The book has sold more than three million copies.

Even Franklin, who had personally felt the brunt of segregation, who had understood the terrors of racial violence and oppression, was sobered by what he found. Writing From Slavery to Freedom, piecing together a comprehensive account of five hundred years of black history, brought tales of horror before his eyes:

I had seen one slave ship after another…pile black human cargo into its bowels…. I had seen them dump my ancestors at New World ports as they would a load of cattle and wait smugly for their pay…. I had seen them beat black men…and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, “Give us liberty or give us death,” and not mean one word of it…. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs…. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”

Franklin reserved a particularly vehement resentment for any effort to co-opt or distort his own historical work—to undermine its truths in support of a particular agenda. What he came to regard as one of the worst of such incidents occurred in the early 1960s when the US Commission on Civil Rights invited him to write a history of civil rights since the nation’s founding, to be completed in time for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963. When Franklin delivered the manuscript, however, it was greeted with disappointment by commission members who had anticipated “a note of greater tolerance and moderation.” Franklin reminded the commission that the history of blacks in the United States was “not a pretty picture,” and continued, “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.” Forty years later, Franklin still deplored the commission’s “blatant and crude use of me in its effort to present a false picture of ‘Negro progress.’” Just as bad, it was also a blatant and crude use of history.

The truth that was at once scholarship’s product and purpose must not be undermined. The black scholar, he wrote, “must understand the difference between hard-hitting advocacy on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other.” This commitment embraced both idealism and instrumentalism. I am struck as I reread John Hope Franklin’s meditations on history by his sense of vocation, by the awe with which he regarded the role of scholar, by the almost sacred language with which he spoke of what I fear is today now more often regarded as just another job or profession. For Franklin, it was a transcendent calling, one that in the logic of his era and origins should have been unattainable for him.

Franklin recognized an irony in this. The black scholar must “pursue truth while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.” The revisionist history Franklin sought would, he believed, be unassailable, would overtake past interpretations and exert its force in changing the world because it would, within the clearly articulated standards of the prevailing historical enterprise, be more exhaustively researched, more powerfully argued. It would be a quintessential use of the master’s tools to take down the master’s house. Franklin had a deep and inextinguishable faith in the power of an accurate and just history to change the world. It was, as he put it, “armed with the tools of scholarship” that he did battle against laws, superstitions, prejudices designed to destroy “humane dignity” and even “his capacities for survival.”

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Harvard University Archives

A photograph of John Hope Franklin from his Harvard University admissions file, circa 1935

Yet the historian did not need to be entirely confined to the realm of pure scholarship. The tools of history could also—though separately—be deployed in policy work where past realities could illuminate pressing contemporary dilemmas. Perhaps the most meaningful of such engagements for Franklin was his work with Thurgood Marshall and the team of lawyers and advisers building the case against school segregation for Brown v. Board of Education. The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment would be a crucial element in the case. This was an instance, Franklin proclaimed with some pride, of “historians to the rescue!” In this circumstance, he deemed it appropriate to present his findings “like a lawyer’s brief,” rather than aspiring to the more “objective” and dispassionate stance of the disinterested scholar.

Ultimately, Franklin concluded as he looked back, “I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to,” but the tensions between this activism and his scholarly ideals compelled him throughout his long life to self-consciously negotiate the treacherous shoals between advocacy and objectivity. “While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship,” he observed in his autobiography, “I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tightrope walking.”

In 1980, in an address that marked his departure from the University of Chicago, where he had taught for sixteen years—what proved to be only his first retirement—Franklin announced an explicit shift in perspective in relation to the past. With now unimpeachable credentials as a highly distinguished historian, with a large and influential oeuvre of historical writing, and as the recipient of almost every imaginable honor, he perhaps felt the burden of establishing legitimacy partially lifted. He had earned the right and freedom to speak his mind. Up to this point in his career, he said, he had regarded himself as among “the faithful disciples of Clio, concerned exclusively, or at least primarily, with the past.” He had for four decades, he said, left it to “sociologists, political scientists, and soothsayers” to chart a course for the future. But now, as he was leaving formal teaching responsibilities, “I propose to shift my focus and to dare to think of Clio’s having a vision of the future.”

In actuality, Franklin can hardly be said to have abandoned his accustomed rigorous historical research during the twenty-nine remaining years of his life. Nor had he been entirely silent about the future in his first sixty-five years. His evolution would perhaps better be described as an expansion of focus rather than a shift. But as the twentieth century approached its end, Franklin began to envision the century to come and to anticipate the persistence of race and its legacy into a new time.

In April 1992, while Franklin was in the air en route to the University of Missouri to deliver a series of endowed lectures, a Simi Valley, California, jury announced the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Rodney King. By the time he reached the St. Louis airport, Los Angeles had erupted in riots that ultimately killed fifty-three people before the California National Guard was summoned to quell the violence. For Franklin, these events seemed a tragic affirmation of the argument at the core of his already-prepared Missouri lectures: racism, “the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history,” had not been eliminated—even with the notable progress of the civil rights movement. As W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed the problem of the twentieth century to be “the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” so now Franklin cast his eyes forward to declare it the fundamental challenge for the twenty-first. “I venture to state categorically,” he proclaimed, “that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line.”

And again (or still) he worried about willful distortions of history—this time including more recent emerging histories—that threatened to undermine the nation’s capacity to confront and eliminate racial injustice. The myth of a colorblind society, often erected upon a cynical celebration of the achievements of civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, was being developed in the 1980s and 1990s, Franklin believed, to end the struggle for racial equality by proclaiming it already achieved. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States,” Franklin stated emphatically to his Missouri audience, “and never has existed.” But to advance the myth, Franklin asserted, was not simply a delusion; it was a far more pernicious act of bad faith. “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Brown had, in Franklin’s words, been “no magic wand.” “Litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, degradation, segregation, and discrimination.” Color remained “a major consideration in virtually everything Americans thought, said, or did.” Rodney King’s beating was clear testimony to the persisting force of race. Today, more than twenty years later, Franklin could deliver the same message. We are neither colorblind nor post-racial. Franklin would have been deeply saddened, but I doubt he would have been surprised, by the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore. He would have been equally saddened and, one guesses, angered by the recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and by the threat to student body diversity in higher education implied by the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Fisher v. University of Texas.

In the last months of his life, Franklin was buoyed by the rise of Barack Obama, which he declared “amazing.” “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.” He dared hope that the nation had “turn[ed] a significant corner.” But he knew that erasing the color line required far more than electing a black president. Until we had a new history, we could not build a different and better future. The fundamental requirement, what we

need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past that is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around.

In other words, it is history that has the capacity to save us. “Historians to the rescue!” Dare we think that the recent rejections of Confederate symbols and of the reputations and legacies of slaveowners might be the opening for such a revisionist and clarifying effort? How can we lodge the truth of history in national discourse and public policy?

In an editorial on September 4, 2015, The New York Times underscored how a full understanding of history must be at the heart of any resolution of America’s racial dilemma. In words that come close to echoing Franklin’s, the Times wrote of what it called the “Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’”—a truth rooted in the legacies of the past. “Demonstrators who chant the phrase,” the Times noted,

are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact—that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.

Only if we understand and acknowledge this past can we grapple with the conflicts of the present and the promise of the future.

“To confront our past and see it for what it is.” Franklin’s words. The past “is.” Not the past was. The past lives on. What would it mean to confront it, to see it clearly? Recent history can offer us some examples of nations that have taken on the burden of their history. Germany and its Nazi past. South Africa and apartheid. The principle, and in South Africa an explicit policy and practice, was that of “truth and reconciliation,” a recognition that only a collective investigation and acknowledgment of past wrongs can exorcise them and liberate a nation and a people for a better future. History must move beyond the academy, must become a recognized part of everyday life and understanding for all those who would themselves be free from its weight.

Recently, two powerful new advocates have taken up Franklin’s call for history to come to America’s rescue, echoing many of his observations and insights for a new time and across new and different media. These two twenty-first-century black intellectuals are outside the formal precincts of the academy, yet speak explicitly about why historical scholarship and understanding must play a central part in addressing the tragedies of race in American life. They offer us new, yet in many senses familiar, ways of approaching a moment when it seems possible that both history and policy might change.

Nearly a half-century younger than Franklin, Bryan Stevenson, who grew up in segregated southern Delaware, remembers saving his money for a first youthful book purchase: From Slavery to Freedom. Stevenson’s life and work reflect the historical sensibility that characterized Franklin’s understanding of the American present. In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue.

Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration. “Burdened” by a past of racism and cruelty, “we don’t like to talk about our history,” he observes. We have been “unwilling to commit ourselves” to a necessary “process of truth and reconciliation,” so we have not succeeded in transcending our past, in confronting and abandoning its assumptions and inequities. We have been too “celebratory” about the civil rights movement; we “congratulated ourselves too quickly” that the ugliness of racism was eliminated when it continued to infuse our institutions and our attitudes.

Aside from his teaching at NYU, Stevenson’s day job is directing the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—suing to stay executions of innocent prisoners, persuading the Supreme Court that children should not be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But he has made himself a historian as well. The EJI recently issued a detailed report on the slave trade in nineteenth-century Montgomery—part of a project its website describes as

focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history.

EJI joined with the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery memorializing the domestic slave trade in which the city played such a prominent part. Now Stevenson has embarked on a new project to erect markers at the sites of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, nearly sixteen years younger than Bryan Stevenson, was born six decades after John Hope Franklin. Martin Luther King was seven years dead; much of the hope of the civil rights movement had evaporated; racism, bitterness, and a combination of militancy and despair prevailed. Coates’s father, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an initially self-taught intellectual who became an archivist of black history and created a press to share the record of those of African descent from ancient Egypt to Marcus Garvey to Attica. Paul Coates grounded his son “in history and struggle,” lessons that would make Franklin’s work seem a bit old-fashioned, conciliatory, perhaps even compromising.

It was Malcolm X who became Ta-Nehisi’s hero. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied…. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” Coates resisted white tools or rules. And he would flee the academy—dropping out of Howard without completing a degree. But he too embraced history. “My reclamation,” he wrote, “would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Perhaps, he mused, “I might write something of consequence someday.”

It would seem he has done just that. On the second page of his recent meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Coates proclaims, “The answer is American history.” His own deep immersion in the past—“I have now morphed into a Civil War buff,” he confesses—served as epiphany and impetus: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.” Searching for a deeper understanding of the forces underlying the realities of black oppression that he already knew so acutely, Coates turned to scholarship and the traditions of African-American history that John Hope Franklin had done so much to build. Coates has mastered the academic literature and from it he has come to understand that slavery was not “ancillary to American history” but “foundational.” It remains as a “ghost” all over American policy today, as Coates has demonstrated in his call for reparations to counter the enormous inequities of race reinforced by modern federal housing and zoning legislation.

In Coates’s view, whites have been urged away from their real history by myths that have hidden the violence and injustice at its core. America must reject Civil War narratives that have obscured the war’s origins in slavery, that have permitted unexamined celebration of Confederate gallantry, and that have turned the “mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and élan.” The “lie of the Civil War,” he explains, “is the lie of innocence.” It is a dream, a myth that has lulled and blinded white America as it denied and evaded so much of its past. White Americans “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.” It is the denial of this history that sustains an emollient innocence and makes the injustices of the present possible.

As John Hope Franklin learned when he undertook the research that he fashioned into From Slavery to Freedom, an understanding of history destroys innocence. And the brutal and undeniable truths of murders captured and shared on social media challenge our national presumptions of innocence as well. Can this unavoidable confrontation with the realities of our present open us in new ways to the meaning of our troubling past? Can history help relieve us once and for all of the burden of that ignorance and the evil it can produce? Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this responsibility to extend history beyond the academy? Are we as a nation at last ready to welcome the truth that can yield reconciliation?

If so, it is in no small part because of the kind of history John Hope Franklin dared to write and the ideals he represented as he walked the “tightrope” between engagement and objectivity, as he struggled to unite history with policy and meaningful change, as he sought truths to save us all. Black Lives Matter. History Matters. John Hope Franklin showed us how much they matter to each other.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/XN6hfC-HFgc/

John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America

faust_1-121715.jpg

Peter Foley/epa/Corbis

Bill Clinton and John Hope Franklin discussing race relations in America at the New York Public Library, October 2005

The historian John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009, would have turned one hundred this year. I have thought of him often in recent months as we have seen a conservative Republican governor call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, as the Democratic Party has renamed the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in order to distance itself from two slave-owning forebears, as Yale University debates removing the name Calhoun from one of its undergraduate colleges.

Many Americans in 2015 seem to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that has made us anything but a colorblind society. There could be no more fitting tribute to Franklin’s one hundredth birthday than this collective stock-taking, for no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future. And in that effort he has also done something more for history itself: insisting not just upon its relevance, but indeed its preeminence as the indispensable instrument of change and even salvation from legacies that left unexamined will destroy us. “Good history,” he remarked in 1989, “is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

Franklin’s childhood in segregated Oklahoma introduced him to racism’s cruelties at an early age. He was just six when he and his mother were ejected from a train for sitting in a white-only car. His father was so embittered by his treatment as a black lawyer that he moved his family to an all-black town after resolving to “resign from the world dominated by white people.” Yet Franklin’s parents insisted that he was the equal of any other human being, and his mother repeatedly urged him to tell anyone who asked him about his aspirations that he planned to be “the first Negro president of the United States.” If you believe in yourself, his mother urged, “you won’t be crying; you’ll be defying.”

Defying, not crying. That captures John Hope Franklin’s life, and it captures the history he wrote, a history that would, in his words, “attempt to rehabilitate a whole people” and serve them as a weapon of collective defiance. Inspired by a brilliant teacher at Fisk University, Franklin came to see how “historical traditions have controlled…attitudes and conduct,” and how changing history, challenging the truth of the “hallowed past,” was the necessary condition for changing the present and future. In important ways, the study of history was for Franklin not a choice; it was an imperative. “The true scholar,” he wrote in 1963, “must pursue truth in his field; he must, as it were, ply his trade…. If one tried to escape,…he would be haunted;…he would be satisfied in no other pursuit.” History, in the many meanings of the term, chose him.

But the “Negro scholar,” Franklin wrote, should not imagine he could disappear into an ivory tower. The choice to “turn his back on the world” was not available. From Jonathan Edwards, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Kenneth Galbraith, Franklin observed, the American scholar had been drawn into policy and the practical. The black scholar must fully embrace this tradition of American intellectual life. “I now assert,” Franklin proclaimed,

that the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his history and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.

Fundamental to the task at hand would be rewriting the history of history, revising the “hallowed” falsehoods, illustrating how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well. Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given “the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.” Post–Civil War southerners had endeavored to “win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.”

Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II.

But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.

Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began “stalking” him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.

The kind of exhaustive research Franklin undertook and described for this biography underpinned all his efforts to expand the scope of American history. He discovered the ironies and contradictions of American unfreedom in the lives of free blacks in antebellum North Carolina; he demonstrated how the pervasive presence of violence shaped and controlled every aspect of white—as well as black—lives in southern slave society; he illustrated the hunger for liberation in the records of runaways determined to free themselves. And in From Slavery to Freedom (1958) he sought to create an overarching American and global narrative to explain it all. The book has sold more than three million copies.

Even Franklin, who had personally felt the brunt of segregation, who had understood the terrors of racial violence and oppression, was sobered by what he found. Writing From Slavery to Freedom, piecing together a comprehensive account of five hundred years of black history, brought tales of horror before his eyes:

I had seen one slave ship after another…pile black human cargo into its bowels…. I had seen them dump my ancestors at New World ports as they would a load of cattle and wait smugly for their pay…. I had seen them beat black men…and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, “Give us liberty or give us death,” and not mean one word of it…. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs…. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”

Franklin reserved a particularly vehement resentment for any effort to co-opt or distort his own historical work—to undermine its truths in support of a particular agenda. What he came to regard as one of the worst of such incidents occurred in the early 1960s when the US Commission on Civil Rights invited him to write a history of civil rights since the nation’s founding, to be completed in time for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963. When Franklin delivered the manuscript, however, it was greeted with disappointment by commission members who had anticipated “a note of greater tolerance and moderation.” Franklin reminded the commission that the history of blacks in the United States was “not a pretty picture,” and continued, “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.” Forty years later, Franklin still deplored the commission’s “blatant and crude use of me in its effort to present a false picture of ‘Negro progress.’” Just as bad, it was also a blatant and crude use of history.

The truth that was at once scholarship’s product and purpose must not be undermined. The black scholar, he wrote, “must understand the difference between hard-hitting advocacy on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other.” This commitment embraced both idealism and instrumentalism. I am struck as I reread John Hope Franklin’s meditations on history by his sense of vocation, by the awe with which he regarded the role of scholar, by the almost sacred language with which he spoke of what I fear is today now more often regarded as just another job or profession. For Franklin, it was a transcendent calling, one that in the logic of his era and origins should have been unattainable for him.

Franklin recognized an irony in this. The black scholar must “pursue truth while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.” The revisionist history Franklin sought would, he believed, be unassailable, would overtake past interpretations and exert its force in changing the world because it would, within the clearly articulated standards of the prevailing historical enterprise, be more exhaustively researched, more powerfully argued. It would be a quintessential use of the master’s tools to take down the master’s house. Franklin had a deep and inextinguishable faith in the power of an accurate and just history to change the world. It was, as he put it, “armed with the tools of scholarship” that he did battle against laws, superstitions, prejudices designed to destroy “humane dignity” and even “his capacities for survival.”

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Harvard University Archives

A photograph of John Hope Franklin from his Harvard University admissions file, circa 1935

Yet the historian did not need to be entirely confined to the realm of pure scholarship. The tools of history could also—though separately—be deployed in policy work where past realities could illuminate pressing contemporary dilemmas. Perhaps the most meaningful of such engagements for Franklin was his work with Thurgood Marshall and the team of lawyers and advisers building the case against school segregation for Brown v. Board of Education. The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment would be a crucial element in the case. This was an instance, Franklin proclaimed with some pride, of “historians to the rescue!” In this circumstance, he deemed it appropriate to present his findings “like a lawyer’s brief,” rather than aspiring to the more “objective” and dispassionate stance of the disinterested scholar.

Ultimately, Franklin concluded as he looked back, “I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to,” but the tensions between this activism and his scholarly ideals compelled him throughout his long life to self-consciously negotiate the treacherous shoals between advocacy and objectivity. “While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship,” he observed in his autobiography, “I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tightrope walking.”

In 1980, in an address that marked his departure from the University of Chicago, where he had taught for sixteen years—what proved to be only his first retirement—Franklin announced an explicit shift in perspective in relation to the past. With now unimpeachable credentials as a highly distinguished historian, with a large and influential oeuvre of historical writing, and as the recipient of almost every imaginable honor, he perhaps felt the burden of establishing legitimacy partially lifted. He had earned the right and freedom to speak his mind. Up to this point in his career, he said, he had regarded himself as among “the faithful disciples of Clio, concerned exclusively, or at least primarily, with the past.” He had for four decades, he said, left it to “sociologists, political scientists, and soothsayers” to chart a course for the future. But now, as he was leaving formal teaching responsibilities, “I propose to shift my focus and to dare to think of Clio’s having a vision of the future.”

In actuality, Franklin can hardly be said to have abandoned his accustomed rigorous historical research during the twenty-nine remaining years of his life. Nor had he been entirely silent about the future in his first sixty-five years. His evolution would perhaps better be described as an expansion of focus rather than a shift. But as the twentieth century approached its end, Franklin began to envision the century to come and to anticipate the persistence of race and its legacy into a new time.

In April 1992, while Franklin was in the air en route to the University of Missouri to deliver a series of endowed lectures, a Simi Valley, California, jury announced the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Rodney King. By the time he reached the St. Louis airport, Los Angeles had erupted in riots that ultimately killed fifty-three people before the California National Guard was summoned to quell the violence. For Franklin, these events seemed a tragic affirmation of the argument at the core of his already-prepared Missouri lectures: racism, “the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history,” had not been eliminated—even with the notable progress of the civil rights movement. As W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed the problem of the twentieth century to be “the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” so now Franklin cast his eyes forward to declare it the fundamental challenge for the twenty-first. “I venture to state categorically,” he proclaimed, “that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line.”

And again (or still) he worried about willful distortions of history—this time including more recent emerging histories—that threatened to undermine the nation’s capacity to confront and eliminate racial injustice. The myth of a colorblind society, often erected upon a cynical celebration of the achievements of civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, was being developed in the 1980s and 1990s, Franklin believed, to end the struggle for racial equality by proclaiming it already achieved. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States,” Franklin stated emphatically to his Missouri audience, “and never has existed.” But to advance the myth, Franklin asserted, was not simply a delusion; it was a far more pernicious act of bad faith. “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Brown had, in Franklin’s words, been “no magic wand.” “Litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, degradation, segregation, and discrimination.” Color remained “a major consideration in virtually everything Americans thought, said, or did.” Rodney King’s beating was clear testimony to the persisting force of race. Today, more than twenty years later, Franklin could deliver the same message. We are neither colorblind nor post-racial. Franklin would have been deeply saddened, but I doubt he would have been surprised, by the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore. He would have been equally saddened and, one guesses, angered by the recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and by the threat to student body diversity in higher education implied by the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Fisher v. University of Texas.

In the last months of his life, Franklin was buoyed by the rise of Barack Obama, which he declared “amazing.” “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.” He dared hope that the nation had “turn[ed] a significant corner.” But he knew that erasing the color line required far more than electing a black president. Until we had a new history, we could not build a different and better future. The fundamental requirement, what we

need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past that is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around.

In other words, it is history that has the capacity to save us. “Historians to the rescue!” Dare we think that the recent rejections of Confederate symbols and of the reputations and legacies of slaveowners might be the opening for such a revisionist and clarifying effort? How can we lodge the truth of history in national discourse and public policy?

In an editorial on September 4, 2015, The New York Times underscored how a full understanding of history must be at the heart of any resolution of America’s racial dilemma. In words that come close to echoing Franklin’s, the Times wrote of what it called the “Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’”—a truth rooted in the legacies of the past. “Demonstrators who chant the phrase,” the Times noted,

are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact—that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.

Only if we understand and acknowledge this past can we grapple with the conflicts of the present and the promise of the future.

“To confront our past and see it for what it is.” Franklin’s words. The past “is.” Not the past was. The past lives on. What would it mean to confront it, to see it clearly? Recent history can offer us some examples of nations that have taken on the burden of their history. Germany and its Nazi past. South Africa and apartheid. The principle, and in South Africa an explicit policy and practice, was that of “truth and reconciliation,” a recognition that only a collective investigation and acknowledgment of past wrongs can exorcise them and liberate a nation and a people for a better future. History must move beyond the academy, must become a recognized part of everyday life and understanding for all those who would themselves be free from its weight.

Recently, two powerful new advocates have taken up Franklin’s call for history to come to America’s rescue, echoing many of his observations and insights for a new time and across new and different media. These two twenty-first-century black intellectuals are outside the formal precincts of the academy, yet speak explicitly about why historical scholarship and understanding must play a central part in addressing the tragedies of race in American life. They offer us new, yet in many senses familiar, ways of approaching a moment when it seems possible that both history and policy might change.

Nearly a half-century younger than Franklin, Bryan Stevenson, who grew up in segregated southern Delaware, remembers saving his money for a first youthful book purchase: From Slavery to Freedom. Stevenson’s life and work reflect the historical sensibility that characterized Franklin’s understanding of the American present. In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue.

Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration. “Burdened” by a past of racism and cruelty, “we don’t like to talk about our history,” he observes. We have been “unwilling to commit ourselves” to a necessary “process of truth and reconciliation,” so we have not succeeded in transcending our past, in confronting and abandoning its assumptions and inequities. We have been too “celebratory” about the civil rights movement; we “congratulated ourselves too quickly” that the ugliness of racism was eliminated when it continued to infuse our institutions and our attitudes.

Aside from his teaching at NYU, Stevenson’s day job is directing the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—suing to stay executions of innocent prisoners, persuading the Supreme Court that children should not be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But he has made himself a historian as well. The EJI recently issued a detailed report on the slave trade in nineteenth-century Montgomery—part of a project its website describes as

focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history.

EJI joined with the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery memorializing the domestic slave trade in which the city played such a prominent part. Now Stevenson has embarked on a new project to erect markers at the sites of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, nearly sixteen years younger than Bryan Stevenson, was born six decades after John Hope Franklin. Martin Luther King was seven years dead; much of the hope of the civil rights movement had evaporated; racism, bitterness, and a combination of militancy and despair prevailed. Coates’s father, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an initially self-taught intellectual who became an archivist of black history and created a press to share the record of those of African descent from ancient Egypt to Marcus Garvey to Attica. Paul Coates grounded his son “in history and struggle,” lessons that would make Franklin’s work seem a bit old-fashioned, conciliatory, perhaps even compromising.

It was Malcolm X who became Ta-Nehisi’s hero. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied…. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” Coates resisted white tools or rules. And he would flee the academy—dropping out of Howard without completing a degree. But he too embraced history. “My reclamation,” he wrote, “would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Perhaps, he mused, “I might write something of consequence someday.”

It would seem he has done just that. On the second page of his recent meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Coates proclaims, “The answer is American history.” His own deep immersion in the past—“I have now morphed into a Civil War buff,” he confesses—served as epiphany and impetus: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.” Searching for a deeper understanding of the forces underlying the realities of black oppression that he already knew so acutely, Coates turned to scholarship and the traditions of African-American history that John Hope Franklin had done so much to build. Coates has mastered the academic literature and from it he has come to understand that slavery was not “ancillary to American history” but “foundational.” It remains as a “ghost” all over American policy today, as Coates has demonstrated in his call for reparations to counter the enormous inequities of race reinforced by modern federal housing and zoning legislation.

In Coates’s view, whites have been urged away from their real history by myths that have hidden the violence and injustice at its core. America must reject Civil War narratives that have obscured the war’s origins in slavery, that have permitted unexamined celebration of Confederate gallantry, and that have turned the “mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and élan.” The “lie of the Civil War,” he explains, “is the lie of innocence.” It is a dream, a myth that has lulled and blinded white America as it denied and evaded so much of its past. White Americans “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.” It is the denial of this history that sustains an emollient innocence and makes the injustices of the present possible.

As John Hope Franklin learned when he undertook the research that he fashioned into From Slavery to Freedom, an understanding of history destroys innocence. And the brutal and undeniable truths of murders captured and shared on social media challenge our national presumptions of innocence as well. Can this unavoidable confrontation with the realities of our present open us in new ways to the meaning of our troubling past? Can history help relieve us once and for all of the burden of that ignorance and the evil it can produce? Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this responsibility to extend history beyond the academy? Are we as a nation at last ready to welcome the truth that can yield reconciliation?

If so, it is in no small part because of the kind of history John Hope Franklin dared to write and the ideals he represented as he walked the “tightrope” between engagement and objectivity, as he struggled to unite history with policy and meaningful change, as he sought truths to save us all. Black Lives Matter. History Matters. John Hope Franklin showed us how much they matter to each other.

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