Category Archives: History and Change

Can Understanding History Help People Change?

I have learned quite a bit from Rachel Maddow about the historical underpinnings of the streaks of rebellion, racial hate, and anti-government sentiment which run beneath the mainstream of American life. I heard from Rachel about the Posse Comitatus when we were watching the self-appointed militias threaten to off the Feds in support of the rights of local sheriffs to rule over Federal law. The Posse Comitatus was a movement that arose during Reconstruction after the Civil War and wounds were still too raw to make a point of overturning these groups. And although Posse Comitatus rules were later repealed many acted as if they were still in use.

I don’t have a historical view of these modern events and that is why I love the political geeks at MSNBC. They show me that we did not arrive at this current moment out of the blue. The Civil War has left indelible marks on our nation and we have ignored the remnants of bad feeling for far too long. We no longer allow the blatant expressions of hate and rancor (at least since 1964), but the more we have tried to put a lid on these strong emotions, the more they have squished out sideways.

After Dylann Roof’s deplorable killings Rachel told me (and all her viewers) about the White Citizen’s Councils and the Council of Conservative Citizens formed in cities throughout the South. These “political entities” are where the Ku Klux Klan went to “repackage” themselves as concerned citizens doing their political duty which included an entire slate of activities designed to shore up racial separation.

Does Rachel Maddow just know this stuff; does she carry it around in that analytical brain of hers, or does she just have great research resources/people? Doesn’t matter. She is always teaching me something and for that I thank her.

When slavery began in America it was not at all new to the world. At the time, when Africa was being divided up as spoils among European nations, Africans and other native peoples whose cultures differed from Western culture were regarded as savages. This view should not have persisted but for some it has. What’s so crazy is that the very people who ripped Africans from their native lands now want to walk away from the problems that were created when their ancestors imprisoned African people and brought them to America as slaves, and that these same Southerners continue to nurture an outdated attitude and to exploit it in order to form a “pure white” city, state, or nation. Are they just the ultimate sore losers?

Our forefathers were very clear about the ideals included in the American founding documents, after all they wrote them. They were obviously clearer than we are at this late date. The only way they could justify their treatment of African slaves was by making a cultural decision that they were animals – savages, not real people. This was actually the prevalent view in the 18th century and as such Southern Plantation owners were just creatures of the culture they swam in. Northerners were not blameless either. Slavery began in 1620 and no great disavowal was forthcoming until the Civil War in 1860. So, Northerners must at least accept guilt by omission or by association.

Are we guilty for the bad cultural decisions of a less enlightened age? Perhaps not, but we are guilty for having kept those poor cultural ideas alive and for acting on them in the present. There is, sadly, no skin-color –“ectomy” that we can perform to rid us of our prejudices. It is and always has been our minds we must change.

Rachel’s historical perspective and a study, that I also heard from Rachel, or read somewhere, traced the groups who entered America in the 1800’s and who immediately moved west. This study concluded or postulated that those who moved west tended to be folks who liked a lot of autonomy and that the descendants of these almost anarchistic immigrants may be exhibiting attitudes passed down through generations that may account for that rebellious streak previously discussed; the rebellious streak that continues as the state’s rights movement, militias, survivalists, hate groups, gun activists and perhaps even those who stock-pile of weapons in case of a need to defend against their own government.

History gives us perspective. It traces things back to their roots. Will knowing how these trends began offer any insight into how we can heal all this stored anger and pain? Well it seems better than just believing this stuff is made up or just appeared out of thin air. How can we teach people who have kept their rancor close and regularly relived the injustice and unfairness of it all, that we are not trying to fight with them, we are trying to win them back?

By Nancy Brisson