On not forgetting


As a fourth year undergrad student, I entered Julian Bond’s course on the history of the Civil Rights movement in the fall of 1993 not knowing what was going to happen to me. I didn’t really realize how much the class was changing me until I worked on my class project, which ended up being a paper on Virginia’s Massive Resistance laws.

Learning that my home state had, not fifteen years before my birth, decided that closing public schools was preferable to having to integrate them was mindboggling. Learning that a superintendent who still has an elementary school named after him in my home town could cite the small number of black applicants to a school as a reason not to desegregate it was shameful. Understanding the perfectly legal mechanisms that were used by segregationists and racists to avoid, subvert, and delay the implementation of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board decision made me aware that there were more dimensions of evil than just cartoonish Klansmen.

In that context, it’s easy to understand why university students would want to remove the name of slaveowners from  buildings. And why there have been calls to tear down monuments to Confederate soldiers. I find myself looking on such calls with mixed emotions, however.

As the historian of the Virginia Glee Club, I’ve had to grapple with the University’s mixed legacy on slavery and race. I learned about the Movement there, and the Glee Club was integrating truck stops on tours during the 1960s, but many of the Lawn buildings were probably built with slave labor, and as late as Faulkner’s first year as writer in residence, his proposal (in “A Word to Virginians“) of going along with integration met with an outcry there.

One cannot change history by removing names, and one cannot remove the stain of slavery’s original sin from the United States by removing monuments. Until one understands that one’s parents or grandparents felt no shame in putting out an issue of the student magazine with a triumphant Lee standing over Grant in front of the stars and bars (see above), one can’t understand the forces that shaped the culture that exists today.

2009 University of Virginia reunions


I returned yesterday from an extended weekend attending my 15th class reunion at the University of Virginia. It was a great weekend and I had a lot of fun, though not necessarily because of the reunion itself.

We started the weekend on a rocky note, driving through pouring rain through Connecticut and New York before it finally cleared away when we got to New Jersey. Lisa and I drove on solo the next morning and made it to Charlottesville about 3 pm. I had grand plans of catching up with a few folks in town but was exhausted by the drive and we punted, managing only to have a few drinks at Michael’s Bistro and to get over to L’Etoile. Okay, so that wasn’t such hardship. In fact, Friday was a pretty amazing date, the first we’ve had in quite a long time.

Saturday was a more structured day. This year I went in with the expectation that we would go to a few things that interested us and otherwise spend most of the day with friends. And it worked out that way, kind of. We did hear Julian Bond speak about the connection between civil rights, changing demographics, and the evolution of R&B and rock music–an unexpected but pleasurable discussion with an old professor, if not perhaps as consciousness raising as some of Bond’s past lectures have been.

Then it was lunch, which was unpleasant. The Big Tent was raised over yesterday’s muddy grass, our claustrophobia was in full swing, and we retreated to a stone planter near the Small Special Collections Library to eat our hot dogs (good) and hamburgers (overcooked). A slow stroll around Grounds followed, during which I snapped the majority of the photos from this trip. We sat in the Rotunda for a disappointing class panel, but the real unexpected jewel was sitting in the Shannon Garden along the west side of the Rotunda. Named for Edgar Shannon, who presided over the University during its most turbulent period since the Civil War during the 1960s and early 1970s, it was a fittingly tranquil place that I had walked past many times before but never appreciated until the weekend. (The picture above shows the colonnade that Stanford White added during the post-fire renovation of the Rotunda to create what became the Shannon Garden.)

The reunion part of the weekend was the least successful, primarily because the 15th reunion is not too well attended for a lot of folks, and partly because I didn’t sign up for enough fun activities. (Lesson learned: will sign up for wine tasting next time.) But we had a great time catching up with Greg, Bernie, Anne and the other folks from the class that were there, and the reunion left me wanting to go back in five years and do it again–which I suppose is the goal of all good reunions.

Fighting for justice in our lifetimes

I took a course on the History of the Civil Rights Movement when I was at the University of Virginia. Taught by Julian Bond, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the course’s readings alone were enough to make any thoughtful American think long and hard about social justice, as was the opportunity to research local reactions to the movement (see my paper on Virginia’s Massive Resistance movement). One of the thoughts I had at the time was about what I would have done if I were alive in the movement years.

Now, of course, I know: I would have been performing somewhere rather than protesting. Because that’s how the quest for justice played out today: my colleagues and pastors from Old South were at the State House rallying for equal marriage while I was rehearsing the Gurrelieder at Tanglewood.

—Someone with less of an axe to grind than mine, by the way, should look at the signs on both sides of the street from today’s protest and learn what can be learned from them about the protesters. The thing that struck me—and again, I’m biased—is the preponderance of identical “Let the People Vote” signs, professionally made (by VoteOnMarriage.org, who don’t merit a link but who also apparently trucked in cases of water), on the anti-equal-marriage side, and how the few off-message signs that appear on that side of the street are incoherent and threatening, while just about every sign on the pro-equal-marriage side is handmade and many of them are funny or thoughtful. I especially like this rebuttal to the specious “let the people vote” argument.

Fortunately there are others out there who are more proactive than me, including the Tin Man, who has decided to take advantage of his current between-positions status to try to make a new career in gay-rights law.

For more context on the constitutional convention today—and the protesters—check out Bay Windows’ liveblog. To take a look at what the other side is saying, see VoteOnMarriage.org’s “Arguments for Marriage” page, which is a fine collection of strawmen.

Bringing it all back home: segregation-era local TV news

Virginia Center for Digital History Research: Television News of the Civil Rights Era. This new archive at the University of Virginia provides film and primary documents from two local Virginia television stations between 1950 and 1970. The archive gives you a chance to explore one of the Old Dominion’s least proud moments in recent memory, the so-called “Massive Resistance” campaign that sought to fight desegregation and generally resist federal civil rights initiatives.

Particularly shameful to me: a 1958 clip showing then-Superintendent of Newport News’s public schools R.O. Nelson explaining that having three applications from black students to enter a segregated school meant that the city didn’t have to take more direct action to end segregation, and that it planned to continue with business as usual. (There is to this day an elementary school named after Superintendent Nelson in Newport News. In my day, we nicknamed it “B.O. Nelson,” not knowing the deeper reasons we should have had for feeling antipathy to it.) Also: the glossary entry for Newport News noting its role in resisting salary equity for black teachers.

As I learned in 1993 researching the archives of the Daily Press for a paper in Julian Bond’s civil rights class, there’s nothing like finding out what little bits of nastiness were happening in your own home town to really bring home the magnitude of injustice.

(In the interests of completeness, here’s that paper.)

RIP, James Forman

New York Times: James Forman Dies at 76; Was Pioneer in Civil Rights. I read Forman’s book, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, during my History of the Civil Rights Movement class at UVA—taught by Julian Bond, Forman’s former SNCC comrade in arms, the class was easily one of the top three that I took there. And the book was a big part of the reason. Together with CORE’s Jim Farmer’s Lay Bare the Heart, Forman’s book planted a seed of radical liberalism in my heart—the sort of radical liberalism that says that you stand up to injustice wherever you see it, no matter how unpopular the stance may be. That you stand up for the rights of the oppressed especially when no one will let them stand up for themselves. That you speak out about civil liberties, because when you let them be infringed you destroy the premise and promise on which this country was founded.