Pierre Atlas: Face it: Black history is American history

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Indiana University Indianapolis (formerly IUPUI) is a top-notch urban university that includes Indiana’s premier medical school and one of its great law schools. But much of this campus was built literally on top of a vibrant African American community that was displaced, without its consent or even consideration, in the name of “eminent domain,” the “public good” and “progress.”

Today, Indiana Avenue is just a downtown street, but before the creation of IUPUI in the 1970s, it was the heart and soul of Black Indianapolis. If we go back further in time, the land upon which this campus sits was Indigenous land, something that can be said for pretty much everywhere in North America.

As a nation, we need to know our history—all of it: the celebratory aspects that make us proud but also the downright awful parts. I tell my students that what we do with this knowledge is always up for discussion. That is the realm of public debate and policymaking. But we must begin by telling and acknowledging full and factually accurate history, to the best of our ability.

February is Black History Month, which celebrates the achievements and resilience of African Americans in the context of centuries of mistreatment. The first English settlement in North America was established at Jamestown in 1607, and the first African slaves arrived in 1619, one year before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. The United States of America was founded as a republic, with slavery. Nearly 250 years of multigenerational slavery would end with the bloodiest war in American history, only to be replaced by almost 100 years of legalized racial discrimination and segregation known as Jim Crow—which was the inspiration for South Africa’s apartheid system.

Legalized racial discrimination would not officially end until the federal legislation and Supreme Court rulings of the 1960s. Put differently, Black Americans have enjoyed full legal and political equality for only about 60 years. Yet we still see the legacy of systemic racism evidenced in unequal treatment in the criminal justice system, in lending and housing, in access to quality health care and elsewhere.

Black history isn’t just about the history of Black Americans. White Americans have been integral to Black history, for good as well as for ill, from the very beginning. Racial progress has always required allies outside the Black community: from the 19th century abolitionists to the millions of Union soldiers, to today’s elected officials and ordinary citizens who support equality and equity.

The classic example of allyship was the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. The well-known social movement aspects (the marches, boycotts, sit-ins and freedom riders), led by charismatic leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., attracted critical support from non-Black communities in the North and some white individuals in the South. The movement’s nonviolent actions—and the often-violent reactions by white Southerners—brought national media attention to the issue which, in turn, increased allyship.

However, social activism was a necessary but not sufficient condition to achieve tangible progress toward civil rights and racial equality. True social progress required federal legislation and, here especially, allyship was essential: for the drafting, popular support and passage by Congress of the Civil Rights Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965), Fair Housing Act (1968) and other civil rights legislation.

America is more deeply divided today than perhaps at any time since the Civil War. There are groups and individuals who benefit from sowing division and thus do it intentionally. But Black history should not divide us. Black history is American history—just ask the allies.•

__________

Atlas, a political scientist, is a senior lecturer at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and
Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Indiana University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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