America's Forgotten Genocide

Published on
by
The Boston Globe

America's Forgotten Genocide

by
Timothy M. Gay

Lost amid the controversy surrounding golf journalists' use of loathsome imagery in discussing biracial superstar Tiger Woods is its root cause. It's not bigotry, although as recent events in Jena, La., point out, there's no shortage of racially motivated hatred in our society. No, the real culprit behind nonchalant references to "lynching" is lack of education - Americans' ignorance about the systematic campaign of terror waged against people of color in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Kelly Tilghman, the Golf Channel broadcaster who was suspended for facetiously suggesting that Woods be lynched in a back alley to make the professional tour more competitive, and David Seanor, the now-fired Golfweek editor who displayed a noose on his magazine's front cover, are hardly alone. Too few of us appreciate the enormity of the struggles that confronted freed slaves and their descendants after emancipation.Thanks to our society's reverence for the Greatest Generation and a renewed emphasis on teaching the moral necessity of World War II, most Americans can recite atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. But few of us can discuss in detail what some historians call the Black Holocaust - a century of American apartheid that stretched from the end of Reconstruction to the attack dogs turned loose on civil rights protestors in Selma.

Too harsh an analogy? Well, consider this: in all its depravity, the Third Reich lasted little more than a decade. America's subjugation of black people lasted many times longer. Indeed, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of freed slaves still lived in fear of being lynched if they failed to observe a code of racial etiquette that forced them to bow and scrape at every turn. During the despicable reign of Jim Crow, most blacks were not only denied their inalienable rights but prevented from receiving a meaningful education or earning a decent living.

The vigilante terrorist group known as the Ku Klux Klan experienced a dramatic rebirth in 1915. Moviegoers that year cheered white horsemen as they saved damsels from marauding black solders in the Civil War epic "Birth of a Nation." Director D.W. Griffith's depiction of history was hideously off-base, but it served as such effective propaganda that Nazi filmmakers later emulated his techniques. Somewhere between 2 and 4 million Americans - a majority of them from the North - joined the Klan over the next few years, all vowing to maintain white supremacy. At rallies in the nation's capital, thousands of white-robed Klansmen defiantly marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. Cowed lawmakers refused to crack down against the KKK.

We'll never know how many black lives perished in racial violence. A University of Illinois study suggests that, between 1882 and 1930, white mobs murdered a black man, woman or child somewhere in America nearly once a week, every week.

Perpetrators were almost never brought to justice. Authorities and judges looked the other way; lynching was seen as a justifiable response to black people getting too "uppity" for their own good.

America's racial genocide took other forms. So many bloody race riots broke out in mid-1919 that it was dubbed the "Red Summer." Two years later, a racial conflagration in Tulsa was sparked when a white woman claimed - falsely, it turns out - that she had been accosted by a young black male. Horrific rioting devastated 30-plus city blocks, leaving homeless 10,000 mainly poor people.

To black writer Ralph Ellison, such outrages were "invisible" to the white majority. Sociologist Gunnar Myrdal argued that Northerners of conscience suffered from the "convenience of ignorance."

Nine decades later, that same malady infected Tilghman and Seanor. The two would never have made similarly casual references to the Holocaust because they've been taught its incalculable horror. Not for one millisecond would Seanor have considered running a picture of a swastika on Golfweek's cover. And human decency would have stopped Tilghman from joshing, "Yeah, for the good of the tour, Woods needs to be incinerated at Auschwitz."

Yet because they lack perspective on their own country's segregationist history, these two presumably well-intentioned journalists - who, between them, probably don't have a bigoted bone - made gaffes that will taint the rest of their careers. They should have known better. But until our schools and churches rededicate themselves to teaching young people the macabre realities of America's racist past, Tilghman and Seanor will continue to have plenty of company.

Timothy M. Gay is a Washington-based writer and historian. His next book will explore the interracial baseball barnstorming tours of Satchel Paige.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company

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