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Black History Month: The African American Civil War

February 1, 2009

art_mlk_dreamWho decides what is and what is not Black History? Who has given us our guidance on what to celebrate and who deserves to be celebrated? It seems to me that pages have been ripped from the volumes of Black History that are of significant relevance. Many African Americans and the rest of America continue to ignore, mismanage and misunderstand their history. In doing so they deprive future generations.

harlem-riot-1968On April 4, 1968 the national media reported that of sections of more than 100 American cities had been set ablaze. No other racially charged single date or event in my lifetime compares to the horror of that day. Once again, as had been the case on so many days, all of America was gripped in fear. Ironically, the events of that day were in response to the assassination of peace advocate and Civil Rights giant, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But this was not the first time the nation had witnessed flames or acts of racial rebellion. Many Americans chose to identify with militant ideologies and to participate in organized revolt during the 1960’s.

baltimore-riots-1968-national-guardThese events are well documented, their impacts were shocking, and over the course of time, unquestionably successful. For years, city mayors, governors, congressman and even our Presidents were prompted to react with both with the force of deployed local police forces, National Guardsmen and federal troops. These actions were supported by their repeated public pleas for calm. For years, angry faces and voices of the Black Movement Leadership were presented on the evening news vowing continued resistance against oppression. This resistance ranged from Harlem on the east coast of America to Watts in the west. Familiar chants rang out from a disgruntled and disenfranchised Black America. Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago among many others, were scenes of violent protest and insurrection. America, found itself engaged in, the “African American Civil War.”

baltimore-riots-1968-fireHad it not been for the fact that I actually came of age observing this period of our history, and find myself armed with firsthand experience, I might be reluctant to offer an opinion or to suggest that African American Civil War ever took place. On so many nights, I heard the gunfire and I saw the flames. I saw uniformed black troops by the hundreds, adorned with black berets, marching in meticulous formations down main traffic arteries by day. I saw weary National Guardsman lining those same streets and looking on with rifles slung. I was witness to armed confrontation by those on both sides conflict. I was well schooled by my pacifist father as to opinions of those on various sides of the legal, moral and social ideological arguments. These events were among the most compelling and arresting of my lifetime. Even today I sometimes grapple with the rationale and justifications that sparked nearly a decade of unsettling violent domestic conflict.

memphis-demonstration-beal-streetGiven the backdrop of my experience it is difficult for me to fathom that the scope and impacts of this period of our history are not given a more prominent level of importance. It may well be that without the more violent efforts, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s might have been far less successful that we know it to have been today. Nonetheless, when I take time each year as an American to celebrate Black History Month, I rethink what I know to be historically accurate. I consider the sacrifices of those who suffered, died and were jailed and whose names have been nearly eradicated from both the pages of Black History and mainstream American history. Those who selected insurrection’s path to Freedom Road were Americans too. They contributed to the advancement of discussions and laws which addressed the plight of an oppressed American people. Even though they sometimes made positive strides within their communities, they continue to be ignored in our history. Their stories remain largely untold, but their contributions on the grand scale were immeasurable.

baltimore-riots-19681Throughout global history, cultural change and social progress has most often been achieved by violent upheaval. America’s history is no different. There is nothing that can be characterized as wrong or illegal about a rebellion which rises to stem the tide of a government or society which is unjust and illegal. Yes, there was a time in our history when we had urban warriors, lions of the violent Civil Rights Movement who were hugely successful organizers and skilled fighters. At the time, they were tremendous icons and role models within many sectors of the Black Community. Their names were spoken daily and they were revered as heroes. These were heroes of a cause that many Black Americans supported as completely justified and a cause that many Black Americans drew pride and respect from. The movement was not a matter of isolated incidents or a few bad apples sowing seeds of insurrection. These were well orchestrated national networks within organizations that pushed their agendas’ by force. There was an exciting and attractive cultural identity that took hold during the 1960’s, seizing the hearts and minds of a broad swath of Black America. People were angry… and they wanted to fight back even if it only meant identifying with the mission of the movement by voicing support.

baltimore-riots-1968-2-biddle-greenmountI was far too young and well protected by my family to be involved. Still, I do understand and appreciate all of the efforts and sacrifices that were made along the path to progress. What I do not understand, nor appreciate, is how so many Americans could have undergone mirror image experiences such as mine and no longer find reason to celebrate, appreciate or even to acknowledge this aspect of our history.

birmingham-fire-hoseNot everyone chose to walk a peaceful path during the Black Movement. That is simply a historical fact. Unlike any other culture I have ever studied; only Black America has found reason to shroud their proud history of violent resistance against oppression as if it never occurred. It was as if  it was something to be embarrassed by, or something to be ashamed of. How is it that this nation’s history clearly documents the most dismal and tragic chapters of social injustice, but fails to acknowledge the revolt that ultimately sprang from the abysmal treatment of Black Americans through the eras of bondage and long standing social oppression? Perhaps history does not reveal the truth and what we choose to remember remains a victim of historical revision.

lyndon-johnsonThis is not, nor was it ever a question of right or wrong. It is only a single chapter in Black History. Each of us unto ourselves, regardless of race, must reconcile all of this nation’s history. Apparently few others remember or care about the truth of our history that well documents the battles on the streets of so many of our cities. I was there and I observed it firsthand. What for me is only the myth of Black History Month feels more like a truncated and selective collection of feel good stories. These are stories of substance, but which unto themselves do not provide a comprehensive historical photograph, or a true impression of the genesis and development of this nation’s social transformation.

mlk-1967This year, within my reflections, I remember again with appreciation all that I observed and all that transpired. Some was uplifting and inspirational.  Some was shocking and horrifying. Within my reconciliation and remembrances there was also a revolution: the African American Civil War.


L. A. Walker, © Leon A. Walker

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 4, 2009 5:42 pm

    Dear Leon,
    I just read your piece on TnTalk.I found it to be very informative and well written.It gave me quite a bit to think about.I have a 13 year old son who comes to me with questions concerning what they don’t teach in school.We have been studying civil rights and the topic of your piece.The schools seem to only wish to promote only what they consider positive influence and contributions of Black Americans.Every year my son is once again introduced to Dr. King and Rosa Parks,and told me that he learns more at home than at school.I approach history with truth and fact,including all sides of the story.I am sad to say that I do not believe that Black History month is handled the way it should be in our school system,and it has to be the responsibility of the parents to teach our children.
    From a white point of view,there are many whites that do not feel that Black History Month is designed for White Americans,however,I feel that we should approach it as our American history.My son is a minority at his school.He attends a performing arts school,were the student body is mostly black.He complains that too many of his classmates care only about sports and rap music.I find this sad,because in the neiborhood that the school is located in,is a beautiful statue of Alex Hailey,with broken wine bottles at the foot of the statue, and the lights that are there to light the statue have been ripped from their base.Just across the street from his school is an historical Black cemetery that has become the neighborhood dumpsite.I believe that part of the problem is that the schools do not use Black History Month to it’s true advantage.I do not know the answer my friend,but I do know that our history has always been sugar coated.We teach about the Holocaust,but do not consider our own history.I take Black History Month very serious, and always take the opportunity to offer education and support to the school and teachers.
    Your article is very important to me because it is a part of history that has been swept under the table.As an adult I can educate myself and can pass on my knowledge and interest to my son.However,the children that do not have the same opportunity are subject to what the school teaches,and it is not always the whole story.I applaud you for your article and the passion in which you wrote it in.It made me want to learn even more,and I am looking forward to more of your writing.
    Best Regards,
    Michael Byerley

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