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.