Now more than ever, we must talk about slavery’s continuing legacy in America

By: Clarence B. Jones

In the aftermath of the racist murders of nine African Americans in a venerable church in Charleston, South Carolina, Americans are beginning to talk more openly about the issues of race and race relations in our nation. But a common denominator of much of this discussion is the absence of factual historical information about American slavery, the Civil War, the intent of the subsequent Reconstruction era and its demise following the presidential election of 1876 and the Compromise of 1877.

In his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James W. Loewen writes:

Perhaps the most pervasive theme in our history is the domination of black America by white America. Race is the sharpest and deepest division in American life. …

The struggle over racial slavery may be the predominant theme in American history. …

Over the years white America has told itself varying stories about the enslavement of blacks. In each of the last two centuries America’s most popular novel was set in slavery — Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. The two books tell very different stories:Uncle Tom’s Cabin presents slavery as en evil to be opposed, while Gone With the Wind suggest that slavery was an ideal social structure whose passing is to be lamented. …

The very essence of what we have inherited from slavery is the idea that it is appropriate, even “natural,” for whites to be on top, blacks on the bottom. In its core our culture tells us — tells all of us, including African Americans — that Europe’s domination of the world came about because Europeans were smarter. In their core, many whites and some people of color believe this.

The filmmaker Ken Burns, in a speech at the University of Vermont, Burlington, on Sept. 12, 1991, said:

The black-white rift stands at the very center of American history. It is the great challenge to which all our deepest aspirations to freedom must rise. If we forget that — if we forget the great stain of slavery that stands at the heart of our country, our history, our experiment — we forget who we are, and we make the great rift deeper.

In the years that followed the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, many universities began to offer courses in African-American studies or “Black history” as electives; a few included the subject in generally required American history courses.

In addition to its larger menu of African-American, Asian, and Latin American history courses, the University of San Francisco offers the course “From Slavery to Obama.” It is intended to provide students with specific information about the origin, development, operation, and legacy of the institution of slavery in our country, including its consequential historical impact on the culture, politics, and those private and government economic policies affecting subsequent generations of descendants of slaves and slaveholders. For years, comprehensive information on this subject, organized in one course, has been omitted from our high school and college curricula. But this new semester, for the first time, the University of San Francisco will provide online access to “From Slavery to Obama” as a 21st-century source of information on the peculiar institution of slavery.

Regrettably, too few historians seem willing to thoughtfully describe and explain contemporary political efforts to oppose, restrain, and undermine the presidency of Barack Obama. There is much to suggest that such efforts are similar to earlier efforts to oppose, restrain, and undermine Reconstruction following the reelection and subsequent assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The syllabus of the USF course, soon to be posted online with its 15 weekly assignments, lectures, and reading materials, states:

Notwithstanding the election and reelection of America’s first African-American president of the United States, frank discussion of race relations in America and the historical impact of the institution of slavery upon our current society remain problematical.

Events in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, Staten Island, and Charleston in 2015 indicate a “fierce urgency of now” for our nation, once and for all, to confront the reality of the consequential impact of the legacy of slavery upon the current attitudes and conduct of the descendants of slaves and slaveholders.

Through an in-depth examination of the long history of the white supremacy and the black struggle against it, this course is designed to enable honest and critical discussion about race in America.

In the days immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. concluded that it was unlikely that there would be any fundamental political transformation on the issue of race in America or widespread acceptance of desegregation unless it was accomplished through the leadership of a white, Southern political leader. Then we had the white, Southern presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

This week in South Carolina, the cradle of the old Confederacy, the governor and principally white state legislators called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds following the massacre of nine African-American residents of Charleston attending a Bible study class in their church. It appears that other states are also considering removing the Confederate flag from their state capitols.

As French author Victor Hugo wrote, “One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.”

scroll to top