Blacks could learn from Jews

January 6, 2011


Six years ago I went to Auschwitz. I remember being surprised at the number of Israeli school groups there, some literally wrapped in their national flag.

Israeli school kids, it turns out, often visit the death camp as a means of understanding the genocide that decimated their people. Learning this left me, not for the first time, impressed with the way Jews have institutionalized Holocaust education. A subject that was considered largely taboo into the 1970s has since become the object of manifold museums, memorials and oral histories.

As Maryla Korn, a survivor from Washington, once told the Washington Jewish Week newspaper, “Maybe by talking and telling our stories, we can restrain another little monster from coming up. How can you not talk?”

Her words stand in stark contrast to the responses I once received from two black women when I asked them to describe a lynching they witnessed in 1930.

“I try and put that behind me,” said Sarah E. Weaver-Pate. “I’d just rather forget that.”

“Why bring it up?” snapped Clara Jeffries. “It’s not helping anything. People don’t want to hear it.”

Every January we hear Martin Luther King’s great speech. Every February, school kids dress up as black inventors or social leaders. But there is in us — meaning the African-American community — a marked tendency to avoid the grit, gristle and grime of our history. The telling of those stories is neither institutionalized nor even particularly encouraged.

It is time for that to change.

I sat down today intending to write a different column. I was going to blast Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for his remarks about the so-called “Citizens Councils,” which were popular in the South beginning in the 1950s. “Up north they think it was like the KKK,” he said last month in an interview with The Weekly Standard. “Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town.”

It’s a benign, misleading picture sharply at odds with the historical record. The Citizens Councils — originally the “White” Citizens Councils — served the same purpose social conservatism often does today: to give racism intellectual and moral cover and provide a camera-friendly alternative to the brutish ignorance of the Klan. But their mission was never in doubt.

“The Citizens’ Council is the South’s answer to the mongrelizers,” crowed one pamphlet. “We will not be integrated. We are proud of our white blood and our white heritage of sixty centuries. ... We are certainly not ashamed of our traditions, our conservative beliefs, nor our segregated way of life.”

Which is hardly consonant with the impression Barbour leaves, but let that slide. The governor, after all, is hardly unique. Like Glenn Beck saying conservatives authored the civil rights movement and Civil War apologists claiming slavery did not cause that conflict, he is part of an appallingly audacious conservative effort to rewrite African-American history.

Jews have endured a similar experience, as seen in their struggle against Holocaust deniers. African-Americans must respond as the Jews have.

We must bear witness.

The energy spent blasting Haley Barbour could more productively be spent starting an oral history project at church. Or bringing elder speakers into schools to share segregation memories. Or encouraging children to visit and mark the crucible places of their ancestors. Or ...?

We must claim our remembered passages. It is in those passages that a people define themselves. And Barbour’s sugarcoating of African-American history offers a stark reminder:

If we don’t tell our stories, someone else will.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Maddy Griffin 7 years, 4 months ago

If you want them told right, you better do it yourself. Thanks for another great piece, Leonard. Keep 'em coming.

rabbit 7 years, 4 months ago

This is story is so true. We must do a better job teaching our history ourselves.

pace 7 years, 4 months ago

So, tom, are you saying the holocaust could of been prevented if people just had ignored it?

jafs 7 years, 4 months ago

Actually, Jews have traditionally been strong Democratic supporters.

Bob Forer 7 years, 4 months ago

I am Jewish, Tom. Please explain to me, in your own anti-Semitic words, how we "are self-sufficient by nature."

mbulicz 7 years, 4 months ago

Do you have to hijack every single comments thread with your personal opinions on our bipartisan system? Is everything in your life only assessed in terms of how your pet politicians have come to the rescue and the evil dems have some and ruined it all?

Here's what I don't understand, Tom - you're the guy who sings and sings about society's freeloaders but finds time to make a half dozen posts an hour during work hours. How does that work?

Somehow, I picture you as the guy at parties who wanders into conversations and interjects at that opportune moment, so excited there's spit in the corners of his mouth, how the dems have caused insert-buzzword-here. Suddenly, you're the center of attention, not because you've introduced any thought or sentiment or anecdote or personal experience, but because you can point at half of our failed two party system and blame them for 100% of your first-world problems.

Everything in your rhetoric is Mad Libs about Pelosi, Reed, Obama, Soros, filled with a word bank pulled straight from last night's Hannity highlights. Every conversation you have is filled with facts about other people's lives. The sad irony is that, despite your immense bile, you are controlled by the democrats. Everything they do dominates your conversations, your thoughts, your life, your personality. Good god man, just let it go already. Have your beliefs but find a way to live that isn't centered around people you despise. That's just not healthy.

Your comments have nothing to do with dems, republicans, blacks, whites, Soros, Beck, Fox News or the LJ World. They have to do with making everyone pay attention to you. The political game is just your source for controversial statements, the kind of divisive trivialities that turn a good conversation into an argument that drives the wedge for years to come.

So, congratulations. I concede that you are an internet forum star. All those long, bitter hours typing your virtues and dems' evils have paid off. You're one in a million, Tom, and we all certainly know your name and what you stand for.

Now that you've won, do you mind letting us adults get along with our conversation?

Bob Forer 7 years, 4 months ago

Hey mbulicz, I hope the shoe you just lost up Shewmon's ass was a Florshiem. I understand that's his favorite brand,.

voevoda 7 years, 4 months ago

So you think that it's a good thing to forget the past and not learn from it? HIstory can help us to recognize when evils are starting to occur around us. People in Europe knew that Jews were being arrested and deported and murdered. These sorts of things had happened to Jews (and others) before. But they hadn't taken the lesson from the past that such events were horrific; they hadn't learned empathy for people who were ethnically different. Remembering the Holocaust and the oppression of blacks under slavery and Jim Crow is important not only for Jews and blacks; it's essential for all of us.
Ironic, TomShewmon, that you should try to defend your point about how it's best to forget the past by invoking history!

Bill Getz 7 years, 4 months ago

Yes, putting things in boxes and naming them is exactly what we need to do. It is not only close, it can be precise,

ksriver2010 7 years, 4 months ago

I am not so sure. To pass on your history is admirable and encouraged. The Jews teach Auschwitz as "We had to go through this." teaching it makes them stronger as a people and creates identity. But how will blacks frame it to younger generations? "We had to go through this. We have come a long way, and this is what we suffered so that you could be free."? or will it be used to stoke continuing discontent? At the same time, will the most important part of King's speech be followed - "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Danimal 7 years, 4 months ago

All this alien stuff is BS, and needs to stop. If the aliens had really built the pyramids and helped Hitler, don't you think they would've been a little more effective? Seriously, the pyramids burial vaults were plundered by looters within a couple centuries of their construction, and with extraterrestrial intelligence and technology Hitler could have easily conquered the world. I don't think the aliens would've stood by and watched Hitler against the recommendations of his generals feed his best army, the 6th Army, into a Soviet meat grinder in Stalingrad. It's time that people stop being stupid and we take ownership of the fact that as a species we are capable of amazing, and conversely, horrifying things.

Sorry for the rant, but the demise of the History Channel as watchable television is a sore spot for me.

booyalab 7 years, 4 months ago

I had high hopes for this article based on the title. Immigrant Jews in nineteenth century America lived worse than welfare families do today but they were willing to do the middlemen jobs that everyone else hated them for. Now they are one of the most prosperous groups in the country.

pizzapete 7 years, 4 months ago

Middlemen jobs? You mean charging usury?

voevoda 7 years, 4 months ago

Jews did not charge "usury," pizzapete, except if you define "usury" as taking any interest at all. Medieval Jews did not charge high rates of interest, by modern standards. Most Jews were not in the money-lending business, either. In the US, a lot of Jews worked as peddlars or in factories in the first generation, not as "middlemen."

Bill Getz 7 years, 4 months ago

There has often been denial in the black community of atrocities committed against them, as Pitts points out. Eye-witnesses were reluctant to talk about it; better leave well enough alone. The most notable example was in the case of John Hope Franklin, possibly our greatest African-American historian, who grew up in Tulsa in the 1930s but did not know the extent of the riot there that decimated the black community in the early 20s until a graduate student brought it to his attention as a thesis topic in the 70s. Right here in Lawrence, the two know lynchings were uncovered only recently, through research rather than testimony of witnesses, who had kept silent about it. So Pitts' point is well taken, but Haley Barbour's should be also. As a white southerner, he bought into the legalistic interpretation of the White Citizens Councils, and remains in denial about its motives. I think Franklin would understand, though he would not approve. BG

Flap Doodle 7 years, 4 months ago

If you are dressing like a rodeo clown on his way to a Halloween party, you will probably not be mistaken for someone of the Jewish faith.

voevoda 7 years, 4 months ago

Why? Don't Jews celebrate Halloween? Don't they dress as clowns or cowboys?

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 4 months ago

Because Halloween is a celebration of death, and Judaism is a celebration of life.

seriouscat 7 years, 4 months ago

"Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent" Martin Luther King Jr.

knowing where you've been and where you are going is a big part of that, in my mind.

pizzapete 7 years, 4 months ago

Teaching the youth Holocaust guilt is also a great way to justify and maintain the persecution and denial of basic human rights to the people of Palestine.

jafs 7 years, 4 months ago

That would be an unfortunate, and incorrect use of knowledge of history, in my view.

But you can't understand the founding of Israel and how it happened without understanding the Holocaust.

voevoda 7 years, 4 months ago

Knowledge of the Holocaust does not justify denial of human rights to Palestinians, pizzapete. On the contrary; it makes people more aware of the possibility for a group that feels itself mistreated to turn around and become the oppressors. Many Israelis and Jews throughout the world are acutely aware of this lesson, and so are working to find a solution to the Palestinian conundrum that affirms the rights and dignity of both sides.
Denying the Holocaust or refusing to teach about it in the name of "supporting Palestinians" is about the fastest way to delegitimize their cause, pizzapete. Is that your goal?

pizzapete 7 years, 4 months ago

No voevoda, I am not saying they should not teach about the Holocaust or deny that it existed. I am saying that Israeli school kids are being taught a collective paranoia that the world is out to get them. This paranoia is what is troubling to me. Don't forget the Germans killed more than just Jews. What about Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally or phsysically disabled, old, foreigners, liberals, and intellectuals. Should they get their own country, too?

Jimo 7 years, 4 months ago

"Like Glenn Beck saying conservatives authored the civil rights movement and Civil War apologists claiming slavery did not cause that conflict, he is part of an appallingly audacious conservative effort to rewrite African-American history."

Like Congress reading out-loud a version of the Second Constitution this morning whitewashed of many of its embarrassing provisions. Hmmm...there are amendments but no mention of the provisions being amended. (No wonder so many wingnuts worship our Second Constitution as a 'God inspired' document.)

To be fair, the Republicans were willing to have read out the parts of the Second Constitution they consider to be defective.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 4 months ago

The headline of the article was: "Blacks could learn from Jews"

Jewish people consider education to be extremely important, it's a basic Jewish value. Unfortunately, this value does not seem to be instilled into some Black people at an early age. Of course, there are a great many exceptions, I have known a few personally.

Many Blacks never really have the opportunity anyway, due to the very poor quality of the schools in many Black ghetto neighborhoods.

There are few to no famous Jewish athletes, but there are a great number of Jewish doctors, lawyers, college professors, accountants, and others in fields that require a great deal of education.

Perhaps if the quality of the school systems across the United States would be equalized, the difference in level of education between Blacks and Jews would disappear. Education is the key to a better life.

The death camps are over. It's time to move on into a better world.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 4 months ago

Tikkun olam (Hebrew: תיקון עולם‎) is a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world."

Tikkun olam is a duty for every observant Jew. The only way the world will ever be repaired is when all peoples are equal and have equal opportunities.

Bob Forer 7 years, 4 months ago

"there are few to no famous Jewish athletes ...."

I guess you have never heard of Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Mark Spitz, Amy Alcott, Lyle Alzado, Red Auerbach, Max Baer, Mitch Gaylord, Sid Gilman, Larry Brown, Marty Glickman, Brian Gottfried, Ken Holtzman, Marv Levy, Sid Luckman, Mendy Rudolph, Steve Stone, Dara Torres, Ron Blomberg, Lou Boudreau, Norm Sherry, Steve Yeager, Dolph Schayes, Sasha Cohen, Sarah Hughes. Randy Grossman, Andre Tippett, Corey Pavin, Kerri Strug, Harold Abrahams, Al Davis, Nancy Lieberman, Peter Revson, Mark Roth or Jody Scheckter.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 4 months ago

Not a one of them is as well known as Albert Einstein.

Bob Forer 7 years, 4 months ago

So what's your point? I count around 35 names in this partial list. "No famous Jewish athletes?" Still sticking to you ill-advised pronouncement? A contrite "I was mistaken" might be appropriate

jafs 7 years, 4 months ago

I only recognize at the most 2 or 3 on that list.

Bob Forer 7 years, 4 months ago

Please keep your ignorance to yourself.

jafs 7 years, 4 months ago


"Famous" would mean most people had heard of them, wouldn't it?

bad_dog 7 years, 4 months ago

While I'm not claiming to be representative of "most people", I've heard of and/or am fairly familiar with 23 of those named and I was raised in Catholicism.

jafs 7 years, 4 months ago


And I'm Jewish and haven't heard of the vast majority of them.

weeslicket 7 years, 4 months ago

in way late as usual. pretty much passed by most of the commentary. my apologies. skip this if you like as well. it's only fair.

this writer made me think about something i really hadn't thought about before. that's a good thing.

Mike Ford 7 years, 4 months ago

I spend a lot of time on postings connecting the dots of colonization, land theft, and genocide, towards indigenous peoples because I feel those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it as the SLT supporters sound no different than the railroad supporters who built railroads on Delaware, Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Osage lands because obviously these SLT supporters haven't learned from history and they want people like me to stop reminding them so that they can continue their denials and pave the planet. They want their life simple, their projects funded, and the minorities they're affecting or offending to shut up. Sorry, it's not happening. Good article, Mr. Pitts.

Flap Doodle 7 years, 4 months ago

Smooth transition to your fav topic, tushy. (not)

TopJayhawk 7 years, 4 months ago

It is true that civil rights never would have past the congress if not for major support of the Republicans. The Blue Dogs were never going to support civil rights, so they needed GOP support, which they got a lot of. Fact.

emceelean 7 years, 4 months ago

I don't think that's correct. Post WWII (and even before, during the Roosevelt administration) marked a change in the democratic party. A lot of descent concerning the New Deal and progressive politics caused some southern conservatives to ally themselves with the GOP. The most notable example being, of course, Strom Thurmond.

Look it up.

somedude20 7 years, 4 months ago

I learned a ton from watching Sammy Davis Jr movies

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