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May 15, 2021

Civil rights and wrongs: Reflections on issues of race, politics and history

Editor’s note: This is a shortened version of a talk Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College, recently gave to the Salisbury Rotary. In the first part of his remarks Bitzer emphasized that he was speaking as an individual, not as a representative of the college where he has taught for 15 years.

Over my nearly two decades of instruction, I have had the privilege of teaching a multitude of subject areas.

My master’s is in American history, with a minor field in the study of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

My doctorate is in American politics, American law and public administration.

Over my tenure, I have taught 30 different courses. In every one of these courses, I try to learn just as much as I impart to my students. I am, to use a cliché, a life-long learner.

And in these various courses, I try to always relate them, whether it’s a history course or a politics course, to the issues of the day, if applicable.

And in the past week and a half, the issues of the day have become monumental in confronting our nation and society.

What I want to do today is share with you my personal perspectives and reflections, based on some of the courses I have taught.

For example, I have taught a course entitled “American Civil Wrongs and Rights.” It’s a course that explores what has been called “the American dilemma,” over the issues of slavery, the Civil War and the era of enshrining civil rights into our Constitution, the era of Jim Crow and segregation, and the modern civil rights movement.

I have also taught a course on the American Civil War.

History has taught us that the subject of race, unlike any other in American thought, has been, and continues to be, fraught with controversy. And we should be willing to address that controversy head on, if we are to understand and, hopefully, address this issue.

To point, much has been said, written and investigated over the controversy that precipitated the Civil War: slavery.

South Carolina’s declaration of secession states, very clearly, that “the slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”

Mississippi, in the second paragraph of its secessionist document, declared “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”

Georgia argued that because of the Republican Party’s “declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3 billion of our property in the common territories of the Union.”

Texas acknowledged in its secession declaration that the state “was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining, and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits.”

Slavery was, and remains, the cornerstone issue of the Civil War. States’ Rights may be claimed by some, but the right of the states to hold slaves within its territory is the proper conception of the term “States’ Rights.”

Within the American Civil Wrongs and Rights class, I discuss the rise of Jim Crow and segregation.

Much has been made about monuments, including in this community. Allow me to set some broad context to this controversy.

Following Reconstruction, which included the adoption of 13th, 14th and 15th amendments that enshrined civil rights into the Constitution, and Reconstruction’s demise in the Compromise of 1877 to resolve the election of 1876 — 100 years after the Declaration of Independence — the era of Jim Crow and segregation began to reinstate the societal confines found in the institution of slavery.

While not predominately held in physical bondage, black Americans were held in bondage due to state laws and extra-legal means, notably lynching.

Using the data of lynchings in the U.S. from Tuskegee University, the peak time was from 1882 to 1901 — during these 20 years, an average of 150 lynchings occurred each and every year, totaling nearly 3,000.

In other words: a lynching occurred nearly every other day from 1882 to 1901.

Over the following 20 years, from 1902 to 1921, an average of 70 lynchings occurred each of those years, with a total of nearly 1,400.

It was during this time period — 1902 to 1921, that the peak of monuments commemorating the Confederacy were built, with a highest yearly total — 43 — being erected in 1910, based on data from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

And in 1915, the modern Klu Klux Klan re-emerged, as part of the reestablishment of white supremacy.

These are facts.

After exploring the rise of the modern civil rights movement and where things stand in our society, I reference the work of Carol Swain, a professor from Vanderbilt who wrote the book “White Nationalism in America.”

A controversial scholar in her own right, Swain wrote that at least seven conditions threaten to fuel the growth of a new racial consciousness movement in the U.S.:

• Growing presence of nonwhite immigrants, both legal and illegal, resulting in white, European Americans becoming a racial minority

• Structural changes to the global economy leading to the decline of high-wage production jobs for unskilled workers

• White racial resentment and hostility over perceived unfairness and questionable legality of race-based affirmative action policies

• Continued existence of high black-on-white violent crime rates

• Growing acceptance of multiculturalism and identity politics

• Rising expectations of racial and ethnic minorities

• Exponential growth in the households connected to the Internet, where like-minded people can consolidate their strength, share ideas, and mobilize their resources for political action.

Many of us recognize these factors today in 2017, but Swain wrote this in 2002.

Today’s issue of race and politics has been a constant theme throughout our political parties.

Thanks to the cause of abolitionists, we have the Republican Party. And yes, the Democratic Party served as the party of the Solid South through the Dixiecrats revolt and the realignment of the South’s politics. But whenever I teach Political Parties, or Southern Politics, or Campaigns & Elections, I spend a great deal of time explaining the transformation, in deliberative terms, to where we are today in ideological coherence and party unity.

In fact, in Campaigns & Elections, one of the core findings of today’s political environment is the level of party loyalty — of partisans, either self-identified or those who “lean” to one party — voting 85 to 95 percent of the time for their party.

In another course that I have taught — Nazi Germany and the Holocaust — I use examples of the Nuremberg Rallies, along with photographs of torch-bearing Nazis marching through the streets celebrating the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor.

I also talk about the term “Blood and Soil.” Based on writings of an individual who would serve as the Minister for Agriculture under Hitler, the term blood and soil references the need for pure Aryan blood to occupy soil to promote and enlarge the German Reich. This slogan is connected to the Nazi ideological goal of “lebensraum,” which was the goal of expanding the Nazi territory to provide sufficient food resources to the Third Reich in their military conquests.

Shouts of “Blood and Soil” and “Jews you will not replace us,” in combination with the Nazi swastika flown in conjunction with the U.S. flag in Charlottesville, is abhorrent to the very history of 75 years ago and the lives lost in World War II, and has no grounding whatsoever in American values.

Now, let me be clear: ideas and beliefs that many find abhorrent and purely evil are present in today’s society. That is a fact, and as much as those of us wish to see it erased from the planet, it will be with us.

But the battle of ideas is at the heart of another class I teach: constitutional law, and especially the course focused on civil liberties.

While there is legal context and protection for things like “fighting words,” the battle of ideas and freedom of speech and assembly recognizes that the Constitution must protect all speech, even ones that many are loath to speak.

And so, the most vile, most hate-filled speech, as long as it does not associate itself with provoked violence, should have the same protection as that with which we agree with. Hateful speech defies good conscience and makes many of us angry; but the solution to this is to make sure we confront speech with more speech. To confront hate-filled speech in the marketplace of ideas.

And it is in the battle of the marketplace of ideas that we saw play out in Boston this past weekend, when those who sought to “share their ideas” through the freedom of speech were met with an overwhelming number of those who challenged their ideas.

With that belief, I will be candid to say I am conflicted at times when I teach that constitutional law class, because it includes civil rights — the protection of fundamental freedoms by the government — at the same time.

Throughout the time of the modern civil rights movement, the voices of those who sought to challenge white supremacy and segregation were often drowned out, especially in this region which we now call home.

But with long, tireless work of challenging segregation and, as some historians would contend, the advent of television, the chance for the voices seeking justice, seeking equality, and seeking opportunity were amplified over the drowning sounds of fire hoses, police dogs and senseless brutality.

And this has been the continued striving for others seeking to have the United States fulfill its promise of “all are created equal.”

One more class experience I want to share is a course on American political thought. Using historical texts, speeches, and ideas, the course forces students, and myself, to come to grips with the American experiment.

At times, I tell my students, we must acknowledge the failures of our experiment.

Our founding framers were not perfect.

Our goal of seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has been darkened in many ways throughout our collective history.

But we as a nation have sought to strive towards not a perfect union, but rather a “more” perfect union, because we know we will stumble.

In the past week, we have stumbled. And, in my belief, this president has not provided the leadership, nor shown the character to help us all rise up and seek that more perfect union.

When I teach the course on the presidency, I use James David Barber’s “The Presidential Character,” where he writes on the last page of the 4th edition of his text, and I paraphrase:

“We need Presidents who know how the world works and how Washington works in it, Presidents who have mastered the skills it takes to make the White House an efficient machine for societal progress, Presidents who can call up from their own characters the steady, hopeful, insistent reasoning to share a good life from a mixed society.”

Yesterday, we experienced the temporary darkness of the solar eclipse. But it is my feeling, and indeed it is my hope, that the American people, having gone through a moral eclipse by our nation’s highest leader, have seen the other side and that brightness will resume, whether our leaders choose to see that same light or not.

For when John Winthrop noted that the new community in 1630 should be a “city upon a hill” using the Gospel of Matthew, other American leaders have modified that phrase to a “shining city on a hill.”

That shining city on a hill, with its engrained values of life, liberty, justice, equality, and the pursuit of happiness, is part of the goal of seeking a more perfect union. I hope that we can all agree — no matter our race, party affiliation, gender, sexual orientation or identity, faith, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or region — that we seek to live out that more perfect union by realizing one simple principle: “e pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.

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