With the beloved children’s author Dr. Seuess being the latest on the chopping block of what is being called “cancel culture,” it is once again worth taking a look at things historically. First, was Dr. Seuess racist? Yes. I have not even investigated the supposedly racist books, but I know he is a product of his time. In fact, if we have to ask of any historical personality, author, singer, actor, or politician before a certain time, if they were racist or sexist, then the answer is yes. Every time, yes. I am not saying they wore a white sheet and burned crosses, but by the standards of our time, every historical figure said or did something that was acceptable at their time but not in ours.
If we go back to the 19th century, most whites were overtly racist and sexist. It was completely acceptable in their society. We are not talking about just slave holders, but even those who fought against slavery still did not think of Blacks as completely equal. Lincoln falls into this category. He abhorred slavery but would have kept it if it stopped the nation from going to war. He certainly never said or did anything to make us believe he hoped for women’s equality. Even avid abolitionists like Henry David Thoreau, who absolutely hated slavery and demanded its abolition, had an entry in his journal that praised a newspaper column that rejected race mixing and hoped to send freed slaves back to Africa. Though Thoreau fought for women’s suffrage, modern feminists would object to plenty of his words and actions towards women. So, what do we do with someone in early America who was considered progressive towards Blacks and women’s rights, but falls short today?
Let’s jump 100 years, to the 1950s and ’60s. There were still plenty, especially in the South, who were just as racist as the 19th Century. Then there were those who believed Jim Crow was wrong and Black Americans should have the same rights as Whites, but still occasionally told a racist joke or used the N-word because it was still acceptable in polite society. Finally, there were even those represented by the character Matt Drayton in the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The Draytons were a well-off liberal white family who had taught their daughter that all forms of racism were wrong and everyone should be treated equally. They were offended by the N-word. Yet things changed when their daughter brought home her Black fiancé from college. Suddenly her parents faced an internal moral dilemma of what they always believed and what their new reality was.
I am grateful for the MeToo movement. It’s about time we stood up for the treatment of women. The behavior towards women in the workplace in the ’50s and ’60s is despicable, yet it was accepted then and, in some ways, celebrated today. The extremely popular show “Mad Men” has won awards. As depicted, sexually harassing women just seemed part of a normal workday, yet today the entire firm would be under investigation, as it should be. What do we do with the Don Drapers of today? It is easy to take down the street sign of someone in the Klan in the 1960s, but what about the people who were like Matt Drayton or Don Draper? They were fictional, but they represented thousands of men and women in their day. What do we do with people who did not consider themselves racist or sexist in their day but are by our standards today? What do we do if, at their times, slavery was completely acceptable? What do we do today if a children’s author used a racist word that was not considered racist at the time? What about one of America’s greatest authors who at the time was seen as progressive on race and gender issues but does not fit in today?
I hope no one thinks I am trying to say that racism or sexism were ever okay. I am not. Just because something was accepted does not make it right. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am far from perfect, but I try my hardest to live a good life and be a good person. I just hope that in 100 years from now when people are judging me, if I have done something repulsive to them, that they understand I meant no harm. I don’t know the answers. I wish I did. I don’t know if we should stop reading Dr. Seuess to our kids. I don’t know the man or his heart, but his books have brought joy and I think he cared about making kids smile. Though racism is wrong, they would not have been published at the time if they were socially unacceptable.
I don’t want any Black children in any way to feel “less than. ” If Dr. Seuess makes them feel this way, then maybe we should stop reading those books. But I do worry about where it ends. I will go back to my original point. I believe that if we investigate anyone before the modern era and ask if that person is racist or sexist, the answer is yes. If we set that as the standard, we basically remove all classic literature, music, culture and historical figures. That does not seem to be the answer. Somehow, we need to come to an understanding and some type of historical forgiveness.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. He is Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog.
Clarifying the historical record on voting rights and modern politics
James Finck’s article has some valid and helpful insights, but he is wrong on his overall argument regarding Voting Rights. In sum, we need to be reminded that we are not living in 1789 or 1963. Society and technology have made some advances since then.
Mr. Finck observes that Democrats for many years in the “Solid South” kept blacks from voting. Let’s be clear. Senator Richard Russell told President Lyndon Johnson that when the Voting Rights Act of 1965, forwarded after “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, was enacted, the Democrats would lose the South forever. Russell was right. Even currently, 56 years later with the exceptions of Virginia and Georgia, all the Senate seats in the states of the old Confederacy are now Republican held.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prevented changes in voting laws from being imposed with pre-clearance by the Justice Department. The Act had its intended effect. Blacks voted and many black citizens were elected to public office throughout the South.
Voting Rights became the Democratic Party’s issue while voter suppression has of late emerged as a Republican strategy. As late as the administration of George W. Bush, Congress passed extensions of the Voting Rights Act. Ronald Reagan approved an extension. Rep. Bob Goodlatte was a moderate on voting rights in the Congress but toward the end of his career, as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he would not even hold a hearing on the subject.
Did Bob Goodlatte change? Perhaps, but what clearly changed was the Republican Party. When the Supreme Court approved the Shelby decision striking down the pre-clearance provisions of the 1965 law, states primarily, but not exclusively, in the South rushed to impose voter suppression laws.
Donald Trump had it right when he said if everyone voted, Republicans would have a hard time winning elections. Trump didn’t want people to vote in Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia because they had a high number of black voters. Black voters heavily favor the Democratic Party. How to beat them? Prevent them from voting.
Some states have long used mail-in voting. Military personnel deployed in foreign lands use mail-in voting. Tom Paine never imagined that the U.S. military would be based in Iraq or anywhere else. Yes, the Founders wanted it to be hard to vote. Voting rights for women or blacks, unthinkable. Mail-in ballots were never an issue until Donald Trump and the Trump Party made it an issue. Voter fraud was rare, but it became the thin reed on which to base voter suppression.
Has Jim Crow left the building? Most certainly not and that is why we need a new voting rights law that makes it easier, not harder to vote. It is alarming that so many of our fellow citizens do not bother to vote. Voting is the foundation of our democracy. Those who undermine voting rights undermine democracy itself.
Warren County, Virginia
(Note: Tom Howarth holds a Masters’ Degree in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin; he taught constitutional government at Northern Virginia Community College; and is a former aide to the late Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, D-NJ.)
Jim Crow Voting?
Possibly one of the most important fights of this new century is being waged right now in the halls of Congress, in state houses across the nation, and with lesser significance on social media. The question is about voter accessibility and who has the right to determine it.
With COVID-19, voter accessibility was expanded and quite possibility responsible for Biden’s victory. The Democrats who benefited from COVID rules want to make those changes permanent on the federal level, while Republicans who suffered want to return to traditional rules through state governments. President Biden weighed in last week, calling Republican attempts a return to Jim Crow.
It is worth taking a look at Jim Crow voting practices, but historically speaking, what seems ironic is during Jim Crow Democrats tried to keep Black Americans from voting booths while today Republicans are trying to force them to have to use them.
First things first. What does the Constitution say about voting practices? According to Article I, Section Four, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.” In other words, voting laws are made state by state. The Federal government has passed amendments dealing with who can vote, but not how. Even then, as discussed in an earlier column, the Constitution does not say voting is a right, only that you cannot deny voting based on race, sex, or age. The Constitution does not prohibit states from blocking voters for different reasons.
Gender a good example of this. Before the passage of the 19th Amendment, states could choose for themselves if they wanted to allow women to vote. In fact, starting with Colorado, thirteen states, mostly in the west, gave women the right to vote before the Federal Government forced the rest to catch up.
Because states can decide who votes, they can also decide who does not, as long as the reason is not illegal. So, for Jim Crow, the 14th Amendment stated you could not deny anyone the right to vote based on their race, skin color, or condition of previous servitude (used to be a slave). What southern states did was establish poll taxes or education tests as requirements for voting. Since most Black Americans at the time were poor and uneducated, this legally stopped the vast majority of Blacks from casting a ballot. To be legal, states that wanted to stop Blacks from voting also had to stop poor and uneducated White Americans from voting as well. There is some suggestion that some poor whites were willing to give up some political power to retain white supremacy.
With this in mind, are new proposed voting laws in Republican states the same as Jim Crow laws? Biden clearly thinks so. It seems like at the heart of all the laws are two things: mail-in voting and voter IDs. On the surface, these new state laws are saying that in-person voting with an ID is the only way to stop voter fraud. Below the surface, however, they are saying that mail-in voting is allowing Democrats to go door-to-door to collect ballots from those who traditionally do not vote. Democrats are arguing that Republicans are trying to restrict voters, especially Black voters, by making them show up in person. This assertion is that it is harder for the poor to make it to voting stations and afford IDs, while Republicans claim voting is the only official activity allowed without an ID.
Is it like Jim Crow? Yes and no. Republicans are not trying to pass new laws per se. They are trying to retain the laws from before COVID. It is actually Democrats trying to change or keep new election laws. But yes, it is true, Republican laws will limit participation. However, the laws are really just a screen for the real issue that needs to be addressed. Should all people be allowed to vote? This is a difficult question because our instinct in a democracy is to say yes, but we also get the question confused with should all people have the opportunity to vote? Those are different questions.
The Founding Fathers did not find the question difficult. They believed that all people should have the opportunity to vote but that did not mean that all people should be able to. The Founders limited voting only to men who had a stake in society. This was shown by owning property or controlling their own means of survival. If you worked for someone else, then you were not truly free and so did not have voting rights. Property requirements did not deny citizens the opportunity to vote. It was seen and even hoped that all Americans could become property holders and hence vote, but it took some effort on the part of the person.
One other requirement we see across all thirteen states was that the men had to show up. They had to. Most early voting was done by voice. Early in the 19th Century, voters would turn in a piece of paper with their vote, but even then, the votes were published. At the time, it was believed voters should openly support who they voted for. Even though transportation was more difficult in early America than today and they had a functioning postal service, part of a stake in society was the expectation of showing up.
No person who wants to vote should be denied the privilege to do so. Extending voting days to up to a week should guarantee access, yet the process, at least according to the Founders, should be done in person as intended. Thomas Paine once said, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” Voting should not be easy. It should be important. As a bare minimum, voters should at least show up. As for Jim Crow, there are some similarities, but there are those who risked their lives in the 1950s and 1960s for the opportunity to vote in person. Let’s be careful not to compare them to those who want to be able to sit at home and mail in their ballot instead of having wait in line.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. He is Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog.
Where are you this Easter season?
Jesus said the greatest commandment is that; “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37). Jesus also said; “…Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ya shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). In my letter (Jesus In Valentine’s Day), I suggest that in showing His great love for us by going on the cross, He is saying “Be Mine”; “Love me, too”! So, seeing Him there, where do you stand? God is asking where you/we are. He actually does know; so what He is REALLY asking is if you/we know!
In this regard, imagine a very young child sitting on a couch beside “Mama” while watching intently as a manly figure enters the room. A big smile appears and its little heart “jumps” with sheer joy; for this man is known as “Daddy”! Sitting down across from the couch, Daddy lovingly and adoringly observes his wife and child. And then it happens; His eyes meet with those of his “little one” and instantly, the child turns over on its stomach and slides down off the couch! He then begins to quickly crawl towards Daddy. The father, while watching his little darling, is wondering what the child is up to. Upon reaching Daddy, a hand grabs his pants leg and pulls to stand up. Daddy’s heart is then “captured” as he sees his child struggling mightily with both hands and feet to climb his leg! Still wondering what the child will do, Daddy helps his little darling onto his lap. And so, onto Daddy’s tummy, and the pulling at a shirt pocket to stand up. The child’s intent is now apparent, and there is a “swelling” in Daddy’s heart as two little arms reach around his neck and pulls him close. Tears of love and joy follow, for he hears his “little one’s” small, soft voice; although imperfectly and yet, unmistakably say, “I Love You Daddy!”
Seeing and feeling such a display of love, this father surely would willing LAY DOWN HIS OWN LIFE FOR HIS CHILD!
Folks, the way to get the attention of our Lord Jesus Christ is to love him! He first loved us, and besides commanding us to love Him; He loves to be loved!
Why love Him? There is a song that speaks of broken vows and the saddest words of parting; so nothing will ever be the same except in memory. This is the “picture” of what happened in the Garden of Eden, but because of His great love for us, He could not be satisfied with only memories of what used to be. Therefore, His desire to bring us back home took Him to the cross to die for us!
Can you see, hear, and perhaps feel, the anguish and pain from the cruel whipping and the nails driven into His hands and feet; His body covered by blood; and perhaps groaning as His arms are yanked from their shoulder sockets? His desire and intent is now evident; for we hear Him say; “Father Forgive Them…”!
So have you, will you, go to Him and tell Him that you love Him? And believe and trust Him as your Lord and Saviour? God is indeed asking, “Where are you this Easter season?”
Rev. Jess Shifflett
Front Royal, Virginia
Front Royal/Warren County Tree Stewards reflect on Arbor Day
Twenty years ago, on Arbor Day 2001, the Front Royal/Warren County Stewards “adopted” the Happy Creek Arboretum. For 20 years, the Tree Stewards have planted and labeled trees and shrubs, and planted perennials and bulbs to beautify the Arboretum. Throughout these 20 years we pruned, mulched, watered, sprayed, and fertilized these plants, thus saving the Town hundreds of dollars in man-hours. We also arranged to have installed dog refuse bag stations, a water fountain, an information Kiosk, and other amenities to make the Arboretum attractive to visitors.
Although the Tree Stewards have worked on many other Town and County projects throughout our 24-year existence, our work at Happy Creek Arboretum is our longest focus on a single project. We invite the public to visit the Arboretum and enjoy this beautiful spot within the Town.
A. Joan Brubaker, Tree Steward
Warren County, Virginia
Can we create an interracial dialogue to our mutual benefit?
Will 90% of the population in a county support change desired by 5% of that jurisdiction?
On March 19, I listened to a report on West Virginia Public Radio on actions by the West Virginia State Legislature. Before the body, that day was a debate on what to do with monuments and other structures that honor those who created and supported the Jim Crow era aptly called “Slavery by Another Name.”
Black members of the West Virginia Legislature sought to place memorials to Jim Crow in museums where those interested in history could view, and if they are so inclined to worship a racist past.
To the black people in the legislature and to the black community, these relics of a racist past are painful to be seen by those who suffered under slavery and later were denied basic civil rights like the ability to vote or attend integrated schools.
The monuments and memorials should not be destroyed but put in places where they can be viewed by those for whom they are not a source of pain.
The black population of West Virginia is less than five percent. The black population of Warren County, Virginia is about 5%. Does 95% of the population know or care about the 5% who are black and the descents of those brutalized by slavery?
It is beyond difficult for the white population of the county to understand the perspective of those who are not white without engaging the black community in a dialogue – that is without knowing the story of individual black citizens.
We fear what we do not know. If all we know about Black Lives Matter is what we see on television, then we do not know much at all. Black lives do matter – and those who matter most to our local discussion are the lives of those black citizens who live in Warren County. If we do not know a black person and have heard his or her story, they become a faceless mass of people on whom we can project our fears. But if we know a black man named Joe as Joe and not just a person with different color skin, if we have listened to Joe and know his story, then we can see him as a fellow human being and citizen and not as a threat, not as an object of fear.
By putting the question of the relocation of the statue on the Courthouse lawn to a popular vote, the Board of Supervisors essentially asked if the 95% in the county who are white know and care about the lives and the stories of the 5% who are not.
The relocation of the monument is but one of several issues facing the black people of Warren County. What does the black community think of an effort to relocate the monument? Have they been listened to? Is there a forum by which this listening session can take place?
Many white people, but not a majority by any means, support what they believe to be the desires of the black community. Many white citizens have only a superficial connection to their fellow citizens. It is not racist not to know something about black people, but it is racist to act on one’s ignorance and contribute to a person’s pain by your belief that another person is not deserving of your respect.
Some political leaders have garnered support by creating the myth that there is no difference between peaceful protesters and criminals. There is a big difference. Peaceful protesters deserve the respect of their fellow citizens as they exercise the foundational right of every citizen since the founding of the nation. Those who put their perceived needs ahead of other black citizens and engage in the destruction of property and looting should be arrested and prosecuted. Black Lives Matter is a simple fact. Any other agenda does not serve a just cause and undermines the efforts of those who do.
Warren County should consider the creation of a Human Rights Commission to provide a forum where we can listen to each other’s stories and get to know each other’s joys and fears.
Warren County, Va.
Congressional Freedom of Speech
As the U.S. House of Representatives voted recently to strip Marjorie Taylor Greene of all her committee assignments, I was reminded of two sections of the Constitution. The first is Article 1, Section 5, which reads, “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.” Clearly the Constitution gives the House the power to punish its own members for wrongdoing. Yet, at the same time, I also cannot help thinking of the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.”
Coming to terms with these two sections can be difficult. If members of one party say something that members of the opposite party find extremely offensive, should the opposite party be able to censure someone from the first party? What rights to freedom of speech are given to members of Congress and what have we seen historically?
Anyone who has ever taken a class from me has at least once heard me rant against the misunderstanding of freedom of speech. That clause of the First Amendment does one thing and one think only; it protects you from government censorship and perhaps prosecution. It does not protect you from the consequences of your words. For politicians it could cost you an election, but not your freedom. You can say that Trump is a dictator or that Biden is senile, and government officials will not come kick down your door and take you away.
However, if you are in your workplace and rant about how your bosses are tyrants or senile, you may be fired. The First Amendment does not protect that speech. Not even all political speech is protected. If you wear a shirt that says “Make America Great Again” or “Black Lives Matter” at a workplace that has a policy against wearing political slogans, you can be fired. This is not a First Amendment Issue.
This is the most confused amendment in the Bill of Rights. The Founders did not intend to remove people’s responsibility for their actions or speech. They wanted to protect the people’s right to say what they thought, even peacefully protest the actions of their government. When passed, the Bill of Rights only applied to federal cases, not state ones, so, before the 1920s, the Bill of Rights actually had little effect on most people’s lives. Yet today, “freedom of speech” is thrown around like some sort of weapon every time anyone is criticized for their words.
Where I am torn is that it seems like the one place where there truly should be freedom of speech is in the Congress. The amendment literally says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech,” yet is that not what is happening? Please understand that I am no way supporting the comments made by Rep. Green. What I am saying is the Constitution does not give freedom of speech only to statements we agree with or only for intelligent comments. No, it’s there for the exact opposite, for the outlandish and controversial things. I said I was torn. It does seem like there should be a line that our elected representatives do not cross. But the Constitution does not say that either. The courts have weighed in on this and have deemed some speech is not protected, such as incitement to lawless action or child pornography, but conspiracy theories are not on the list. Maybe, especially with the House, it should be up to the voters if they think she has gone too far in the next election.
Having said that, there is precedence. In 2019 Republicans removed one of their own, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, from committees after he questioned why “white supremacy” was offensive. Even bigger was the 1954 censure of the junior Senator from Wisconsin Joseph McCarthy. There is no room for many details here, but McCarthy took advantage of American’s fear of communism to make himself powerful. He claimed to have a list of communists who had infiltrated high levels of government and the entertainment industry. He set up a committee to hold hearings to expose anyone supporting the communist cause. During the hearings he accused people of being communists without evidence to the point that it ruined their careers and lives. After four years he finally fell when he questioned the U.S. Army after they refused to defer one of his staff from the draft. With no evidence, he made several accusations on TV that finally showed him as the bully he was. With his fall from grace, the Senate voted 67-22 to condemn his actions and strip him of key committee membership.
There is one key difference between Steve King, Joe McCarthy, and Marjorie Taylor Greene. In the cases of King and McCarthy, Republicans punished their own as is tradition. With the Greene case, the Republicans condemned her comments, yet the Democrats (now the majority party), along with only 11 Republicans, did not feel the punishment was strong enough and stripped her of committee assignments. It is highly irregular to interfere with committee assignments made by each party. Though her comments were inappropriate and have been disproven in the courts, it might just be a slippery slope for the opposing party to start the practice of punishing their opponents for comments made, especially ones they made earlier in their lives. Some Republicans have even talked about retribution if they take over in 2022. They point to racist and violent comments made by Democratic legislators. Is this really how we want Congress to spend their time?
Free democratic governments are hard. There is a reason historically there have not been that many successful ones. Freedom of speech is one of the things necessary for a free government. Yet freedom of speech means people will say things you despise. Rep. Green was elected by her state because of who she is. If her constituents deem her unfit, they are not bound by the First Amendment and have the opportunity to make changes next year.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. He is Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog.