It begins with slavery, of course — and religion.  Samuel Parris, a Puritan and early English colonist, turned to the ministry for a more regular income than that offered by his efforts at trade and his sugar plantation in Barbados (an inheritance).  Ironically, the parish of Salem Village, whose pulpit Parris assumed in 1689, had a history of failing to compensate its ministers as agreed, and the same would happen with Parris in the end.  The promise of pay brought him to the unchartered burg, however, and with him came his wife and family — and their slaves, Tituba and John.
In 1692, Parris’ daughter and niece began having “fits,” and the family could not account for the bizarre behavior.  When it persisted for a few weeks despite watchfulness and prayer, the family sent for the local doctor to consult.  His diagnosis: possible bewitching.  Under questioning, the girls accused Tituba of witchcraft, blaming her for their enchantment — as assisted by local outcasts, Sarahs Osborne and Good.  At the charge, the just Reverend Parris beat his slave, inducing her to confess to practicing witchcraft, signing the “Devil’s Book,” flying, and assaulting the girls.  Under duress, Tituba confirmed Osborne and Good as her co-conspirators and claimed that there were others involved in a plot by the Devil against the colony.  Fear of Satan, black magic, and a conspiracy of witches flooded Massachusetts Bay.  Tituba was jailed and later sold away, while Good was hung and Osborne died awaiting trial.  By then, however, more persons had begun to display signs of being “afflicted” and named other colonists as their persecutors.  Instances of false witness burgeoned into a judicial rampage.
In the end, more than 150 persons were imprisoned and 22 died — either by hanging, torture, or poor conditions while in jail awaiting prosecution after being accused. Some were excommunicated from their churches and two fled the colony until the hysteria passed.  Many were harassed or tortured into confessing, while those who adamantly maintained their innocence were convicted and executed.  As fall began to wane, however, Governor Phips — returning from a military expedition against the Indians and finding that his own wife had been accused — suspended all trials, and the furor too started to ebb.
In May of the following year, Phips released the remaining accused, as popular opinion shifted against the witch hunts.  Reverend Parris admitted that he might “have been mistaken” in his position, while some accusers recanted their claims.  Much later, jurors, a judge and one of the alleged victims would publicly regret their involvement in the injustice.  A penitent colony held a Day of Repentance in 1697 for what had occurred, and in 1702, the trials were declared “unlawful” after the fact.  Beginning in 1711, the colony undertook restitution to the falsely accused and their survivors.  The names of the condemned were cleared, and memorials were made to those sacrificed to fear, hatred, and panic.

These words adorn the front of a stone monument erected in 1992 for historically-minded tourists who come to visit still today for the town’s infamy.  After perusing the memorial’s inscriptions, visitors can walk the well-kept grounds of the demolished parsonage, where the marker tells us Tituba told the children tales of witchcraft, and wander the old cemetery, where they can read the poem Parris wrote to his wife inscribed on her tombstone:
Sleep precious Dust no Stranger now to Rest.
Thou hast thy longed wish in Abrahams Brest.
Farewell best Wife, choice Mother, Neighbour, Friend.
Weel wail the less for hopes of Thee i th End.
Tituba, of course, is not honored with the town’s victims, in the cemetery, or at any of the other local sites, and she received no restitution for her imprisonment.  Her ending is unknown.
I am always amused when Staters describe our citizenry as “people of faith” — in part because faith, per the Good Book, is supposed to overcome fear.  Judging Staters on their responses to fearful situations or on acts indicative of their faith in themselves and the American Way to overcome doesn’t always suggest a people of confidence — more a community of doubt.
Looking back at our history, we can see that we have often been motivated by fear and that this has shaped the choices we’ve made — even as we see ourselves as a proud, powerful nation.  Ours is a superpower that acts repeatedly in panic and alarm.  One could argue that we are the perfect foil for terrorism; it’s almost Pavlovian the way our country behaves in the face of the pettiest of threats at times (much less when the situation warrants true concern). We don’t even seem to recognize the disconnect between the ways we act and the words we use to describe ourselves either.  We may swear that these colors don’t run, but they don’t hesitate to pass discriminatory laws or voluntarily surrender our rights in a panic just the same.
The Ebola epidemic, which has dominated headlines in the US for months and for which Congress recently appropriated $5.4 billion to fight after it claimed the life of one citizen, is the most recent example (and don’t kid yourself that Staters were eager to drop that kind of coin out of pure humanitarianism) — but it’s probably not the most egregious act.  Certainly, we’ve spent far more of our tax money on and expanded governmental powers to combat other threats before.  Robert Wiebe brilliantly described how the Progressives, driven by fear of immigrants, the poor, and those of other races (in combination with social and economic upheavals), created new mechanisms of control in the early 20th century in response to their anxieties about the disorder around them.  I think it wrong to see this exclusively as a Progressive trait or a temporary abnormality in outlook.  I think it American — though I’m not sure we are exceptional in this.
As a writing project for this year, I’m going to dedicate my blog posts to recounting some of the stories of how we have responded to and acted out of fear in the past.  Each month, I’m going to cover another example from our history that illustrates the effects of our fright and the things dread has prodded us to do.  Hopefully, these stories will be illustrative as much as embarrassing and entertaining. Truthfully, there has been a boldness to our fearful acts at times, and we hardly seem to fear what our fears make us.  In that, perhaps a sense of consciousness is the least we fear and the most interesting thing about American anxiety.
There’s a natural but unsettling feeling of not-belonging that comes with being in a new place. Nothing gives you a sense of the familiar — not the street leading to your new “home,” not the local pub, and most certainly not the faces of the strangers all around you. You are a visitor or a transplant. You are a stranger.
I left a place I know, and by “know” I mean I have a history there — and I am familiar with its history beyond me.  I came to know it through my time and experience there.  Temporality of knowing is fundamental to the human condition.  We must have time with something — with a place, with people — in order to know it or them.  Experience is the only way to get beyond the instantly observable.  That is, to have a conscious understanding of something.
Can I navigate this new place?  Yes, with difficulty.  I get lost.  I look things up.  I have to ask for help.  With tools, I can be functional here, but I do not know it.  I don’t understand the signs in the windows of houses I pass or the unfamiliar traffic patterns or the beer selections.
In time I will.  If I stay, I will know these things — and the more serious history and aspects of the place too.  I can come to understand the socio-economic conditions, the culture, the habits and mores of the folks here.  Now, I guess at it, but I can come to have such an awareness of it that I take its familiarity for granted.  Then I will have a history here.
There’s no getting around it: belonging — knowing — requires historical experience. Making history here will take some time.  Until then…
     ”The whole family hadn’t one member buried here. Everybody was
     on the surface of the country, flat on his feet, selling watermelons,
     or plowing a row of vines.
     We were in Fresno, but we were nowhere, too.  How could we really
     be in a place until death had caught up with one of us, and we had
     buried him and knew he was there?”
     – William Saroyan, “Madness in the Family”
White residents fled Charleston, South Carolina in droves as the Union army approached in mid-February, 1865.  In short order, the city population became overwhelmingly black, due to the white flight, and in the months following, the free black population began determining what their post-war life would be like. They sought out displaced kinfolk, hoping first to restore their families, which had been divided by slavery.  Like other southerners, they also struggled to find means to obtain food and shelter in a devastated economy.  And, too, they celebrated their freedom and the death of the Confederacy with tears and gladness.
Amidst this battle for survival and their eruptions of celebration and joy, black residents also honored those who died in the cause of bringing them freedom.  During the war, the plantation class’ old playground — the Washington Race Course, a track operated by the South Carolina Jockey Club in Charleston — was transcripted to serve as a prison for Union POW’s.  The dying Confederacy had neither the means nor the drive to provide decent detention conditions at the end.  In the cold winter months of December, January, and early February, a great many of the prisoners died from exposure and poor care; others died from disease.  All told, 257 of the more than 2,000 kept there did not survive.  Their bodies were unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave behind the fine Grandstand — abandoned by the fleeing Confederate army as Union forces neared.  But, local black citizens did not forget them.  Even as they struggled to feed their families and build new lives, they stopped to dig up the remains and rebury them properly on the grounds.  The graves were marked, and over the new cemetery, an arch was erected with “Martyrs of the Race Course” emblazoned on it to signify the sacredness of the site.
On May 1st, black Charlestonians gathered — with white sympathizers — in the thousands to pay tribute to these fallen soldiers. Three thousand children led the procession singing tribute to another white martyr of the cause:
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.
The parade continued with the singing of spirituals and the Star-Spangled Banner.  Women followed the children in — their arms full with wreaths and crosses to place on the graves.  Behind them rows of free black men marched in time, followed by Union troops and various other local residents — white and black — who brought up the rear.  After the grand entrance, local ministers conducted a dedication service, and then the celebrants ate picnics while soldiers drilled for their entertainment.  Some 10,000 people — mourners and friends, the paper called them — participated in the day’s events.
A year later, white ladies in the South appropriated this remembrance.  In April and May of 1866, they held “Decoration Day” ceremonies — this time to honor Confederate soldiers lost to the Lost Cause.  White South Carolinians then also laid wreaths on graves and held solemn services to remember the dead — not the Union soldiers their black peers celebrated the year before, but the white men who died to preserve the old slave system.  These remembrance activities, in turn, inspired northerners to emulate the practice a couple of years later.  Northern celebrations, however, were more likely to include singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe’s appropriation of John Brown’s Body, than the original that was sung by the black children of Charleston in 1865.  In the south, the anniversary of General Johnston’s surrender to General Sherman and Jefferson Davis’ birthday were common Decoration Day dates — but in South Carolina, it was marked on May 10th, Stonewall Jackson’s birthday.  In 1971, Congress legislated a national Memorial Day celebration on the last Monday in May, but Confederate Memorial Days persist in states around the south on traditional days of remembrance.
Later in the nineteenth century, the cemetery of the martyrs in Charleston was similarly appropriated.  The bodies were ultimately moved to a federal site in Beaufort, South Carolina, and the old race track repurposed into a city park.  It was renamed for Wade Hampton — a Confederate general and post-war governor of South Carolina who helped “redeem” the state for white Democrats.  Hampton’s own redemption led to political prominence; later in the century, he even served as Railroad Commissioner for the US government, appointed by Grover Cleveland.  Now named for one who helped free the state from northern control, the racetrack-turned-burial-site was “redeemed,” too, and remade into a public space that again offered recreation for generations of white Charlestonians under segregation and the Hampton banner.
When the race track was dissembled in 1903, scions of Charleston society gifted the old gates from its entrance to industrialist August Belmont.  Belmont, of course, built the race track in New York that bears his name.  His was a new private recreational site where the great monied set could indulge in sport and fashion, and the membership was unparalleled in its wealth and power.  Those gates that once welcomed the old slave-owning aristocracy of Charleston then greeted the new industrial aristocrats: the Vanderbilts, DuPonts, et al.  The gates, and with them the legacy of antebellum leisure made possible by slavery, were thus appropriated as well then.  New money and a new system of legal segregation built on the remnants of antebellum wealth and privilege created a modern social structure also based on race and class.
Very soon, thousands of attendees will stream past those very race course gates to attend the Belmont Stakes.  They will be eager for the possibility of another historic Triple Crown win.  Just a week after South Carolina observed its most recent Confederate Memorial Day, a Derby winner also took the Preakness — another product of the new money aristocracy’s supplanting of the slave-owning class, giving form to Crown hopes at Belmont.  Before then, however, we will mark our annual remembrance of those lost in war — with appeals to patriotism and celebrations of militarism throughout our country.  We do this because we remember the martyrs to the causes (and especially the more recent causes),  but we want to forget The Cause and those grateful people who benefited from its success — but then lost much of the freedom for which the martyrs had given their lives.  It has all been appropriated into sport and recreational spaces and white privilege and biased history now.  This is the course of race in America: past privilege seeds new privilege and the legacies go marching on.
Trooper Charles Hanger was patrolling the I-35 corridor in north-central Oklahoma on the morning of April 19, 1995, stopping to help a stranded motorist and then heading north on a call to aid another when he noticed a yellow Mercury sedan without a tag.  Hanger signaled for the car to pull over, and the driver complied.  The two men got out of their vehicles and met between them.  The trooper testified later that he questioned the man about the missing tag, and the driver said that he had recently bought the car and had not yet obtained a tag for it.  It seemed a routine stop, until Hanger noticed a bulge under the driver’s windbreaker.  He instructed the man to unzip his jacket and open it.  Before being discovered, the man volunteered: “I have a gun.”
The trooper immediately pulled his gun and aimed at the driver’s head.  He took the weapon from the man and tossed it away.  Hanger asked why he was carrying the weapon, and the man, now splayed against the car, responded that he thought he needed it for protection.  The trooper handcuffed the driver and read him his Miranda rights.  Thereafter, with little conversation between them as they sat side-by-side in the front of the patrol car, they made their way to the jail in Perry, Oklahoma.  The man’s only concern, the trooper said later, was that he should have his gun returned to him.  At the county jail, the driver — Timothy McVeigh — was booked for transporting a loaded firearm in a vehicle, unlawfully carrying a weapon, and failure to obtain a tag and insurance on the car.  In the subsequent two days leading up to his court hearing on these charges, federal agents were able to identify McVeigh as the man responsible for the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City and locate him waiting in the county jail.
Normally, failure to display a tag and carry proof of insurance are not violations for which one is arrested.  These are just misdemeanor charges under the Oklahoma Statutes, and a car isn’t even impounded during stops based on these infractions, usually.  Instead, one is simply ticketed/fined and, perhaps, denied driving privileges for a period of time later (although a conviction can warrant a brief jail sentence, which is not common in practice).  Since McVeigh was carrying a loaded weapon, however, he was arrested immediately.  The following month, the Oklahoma legislature passed a law (that the Governor signed) permitting citizens to carry a concealed weapon upon obtaining a license to do so — ostensibly for personal protection.  Just a couple of years ago, the legislature amended the Self-Defense Act to permit licensees to carry their weapons in full view as well.
Of course, the persons from whom McVeigh would have needed protection were the authorities, pursuing him for his crimes.  Bizarrely — and disturbingly — if he had committed his act of terrorism just a few months later, the trooper could have had no cause to detain him at his stop.  With credentials, McVeigh could have continued on his escape north, delayed only to obtain a ticket he would likely never pay.  The manhunt for him would certainly have become more lengthy and complicated then as well.  Who knows how long it would’ve taken to locate him, had he not been tucked away in a jail in Noble County.  He probably could have hidden in a remote location in another state and even gone underground — perhaps aided by sympathizers who shared his hostility to government.  A costly and time-consuming pursuit would then have been necessitated.  It might even have been that the authorities would never locate him.  Had he not been stopped and discovered illegally carrying a weapon when he was, his odds of finding safe haven would have been far greater.
Even more troubling, any number of future domestic terrorists and armed anti-government revolutionaries need not fear being detained as McVeigh was either.  Fleeing from a crime scene created by their impersonal weapons — at a sporting event, clinic, parking lot, or courthouse — their personal ones might not be enough to cause their arrest if stopped.*  License to protection would preclude any detention that would allow investigators time to track their suspects as they sat incommunicado.  Reduced gun restrictions now prevent a trooper from responding as Hanger did.  Accordingly, self-protection has undoubtedly made us all less safe.
*Since 2001, bombs have been set by domestic terrorists at each of the kinds of places listed.  Some of these crimes remain unsolved.

It Ends

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Mar 092014
I’ve been working — on an ongoing basis — on a general history of the US.  Although it’s a survey of our past, it is by necessity about growth and advancement.  With our history there are some requisites: you have to deal with the “discovery” and founding of the country; the national expansion across a continental land mass must be described; and the evolution of a confederacy into a superpower begs explanation.  Invariably, when telling a story about how this country got to where it is today, you are talking about building — about coming together and progress (even at the expense of the first inhabitants).  This is the story of migrants and colonists becoming citizens.
It is my job as a historian — with this project and with all my classes — to explain how things came to be.  We observe where we are now, and our histories describe the way here.  Constructing tales of this construction is the essence of my historical work.  It is, then, too, my habit.
But, I was watching the news the other day, and it struck me that our society seems as if it is unraveling.  I have a sense that we’ve become so enamored of natural law that we are headed to a brutish natural state.  I look at the political divisions in our country, and I wonder if they can be mended.  We have had these fights so many times it seems.  Even at the political founding of our nation, the Federalists and anti-Federalists fought against one another.  We are constantly disagreeing, and I wonder just how long we can last with this as our state in the States.  We must lack the knack for diplomacy because dispute has already led us to civil war.  We tried to reconstruct but it didn’t really take, and eventually we returned to our corners.  Just as we became a superpower, we seemed again to erupt in civil strife. The culture wars began, and there hasn’t seemed to be any domestic peace since.
And, I remembered: things fall apart.  In the back of my mind, I know nothing lasts forever.  History is about change, and political unions are as temporal as the people who make them.  Sometimes, nations are reborn.  Sometimes, they are swallowed up by others.  Sometimes, they are glued together with other loose bits at the bidding of men around conference tables.  They do not stay the same though, and mostly, they have endings.
I know this — really, we all know this.  We don’t always actively use that awareness in our everyday thinking or analysis though.  We go on as if, because we would have no reason to bother if we only thought about the end. Life must be lived; there is no skipping forward.
As I was thinking these things, I suddenly became very sad.  I was sick-at-heart sad.  Of course the first part of our history is how it comes together, and, by necessity, the later part is how it ends.  It occurred to me that quite literally, I could be living in the coming apart period (although, really, we might ultimately describe the unraveling as beginning even while the weaving occurred).  It could be that in a couple of generations I could be explaining the previous republic to students.  Or The Republic, should we move on to something else.  (Hello, techmocracy.)  In the future, I might likely be explaining, then, how we came not to be.
It seems likely to me that it won’t be one nation, indivisible much longer, and that we might become three or four or five nations for whom the Union is like the empires of old.  We might be better neighbors than we are family, but it saddens me just the same.  I like being a Stater, and the notion of choosing to which fragment I would go depresses. I think probably I am not the first citizen to foresee this outcome, and it might be some time coming still.  It no longer seems to me, however, that the Union is something to which we commit our lives, fortunes, and sacred honors. My historical perspective on this has, very sadly, shifted.
For my mother, who was there.
The need to carry Texas and Florida in the 1964 election prompted JFK’s staff to schedule a trip to the Lone Star State in November, 1963.
The whirlwind trip would abort in Dallas, where hostile crowds jeered at and a woman assaulted US Ambassador Stevenson a mere month before.
The First Lady was to accompany her husband — her first official public outing since the loss of their second son shortly after childbirth.
Much of Nov 21st the presidential party was to spend in Houston — a motorcade followed by two public appearances before friendly crowds.
Yellow roses, wind, a mariachi band, smiles & handshakes, sour poll results, roast quail & Heineken, & a Medal of Honor recipient met them.
For security, tenants of downtown office buildings received instructions not to open windows or throw anything  as the motorcade passed.
Crowds along the way spilled onto the streets; no barricades separated them from the open motorcars crawling single file mere feet away.
The Kennedys gave impromptu talks — hers in Spanish — after stopping at the LULAC gala that evening; the crowd responded “Viva Kennedy!”
The day’s final event: a speech at a dinner for Congressman Thomas, where a well-planned slip of the President’s tongue amused attendees.
JFK spoke hopefully of the future — quoting the Bible: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” — before the party flew to Ft. Worth.
Just hours later, crowds again spilled onto Houston streets — disbelieving, in grief standing where they had welcomed the day before.
Nov 102013

Starting tomorrow, I will be tweeting another short twistory — serial posts that tell a mini-history over several days.  Follow me on Twitter to read them as they appear.  At the conclusion, I will post the tweets here altogether as well.  I hope you enjoy it.  Feedback is welcome.


Sep 022013
Recently, our local city council considered a motion to change the name of a street downtown, which honored a city founder who was also a Klan member and involved in various acts of violence against political opponents.  Depressingly, the Council found a compromise that allowed them to pretend to rename the street while actually preserving the same surname on it.  It resolved none of the lingering racial issues in our city (in fact, it probably exacerbated them) but incurred financial costs just the same (thankfully, donations save the taxpayers from added insult to their pocketbooks to go with the injury to their civic sensibilities).  In any case, there was a lot of talk about the role of history in relation to this incident.  I will confess that it was sometimes painful to listen to laypersons pontificate on the same without any substantive understanding — but it was a good reminder that Everyman is his/her own historian.  I spoke at the council meeting where it was opened to public comments, and I post here what I said then:
Like so many other Tulsans, I want to weigh in on the matter of renaming Brady Street.  I support the change and ask you to vote in favor of it.
I have taught history for some time, and it always strikes me how little people understand its power.  Every semester, to illustrate that, I tell my students this story:
When I was an undergrad, I had an instructor whose son was in an accident and developed amnesia (true story, by the way).  She told our class that when she was taking her son home from the hospital, they stopped to eat.  As they were looking over their menus, he grew increasingly agitated.  When she asked him what was wrong, he said:  ”I don’t even know what to order.  I know what all the words mean, but I don’t remember eating them before.  Do I like hamburgers?”
I tell this story because it demonstrates how important memory is to making us who we are.  We simply can’t make choices or function well without it.  Who we are is shaped by what we’ve experienced.  History is our collective memory and makes us who we are as a group.  The memory of what has happened to us as a community shapes the choices we make together — whether we know it or not.  Today, we face an important challenge because what we are really doing is trying to come to terms with our history and make choices based on that for our future.  This is a momentous thing.  Very rarely do we come to such obvious crossroads in life.  There is a wealth of opportunity here.  We can continue to dismiss the past and try futilely to forget it, or we can do the ugly work of wrestling with the difficulty of making a new response.  I say after almost 100 years, it’s time we do the latter.
This dilemma has, unfortunately, been characterized as a black v. white issue — south Tulsa v. north Tulsa.  In looking at it that way, we fall into the same pattern we have since the riot happened.  Black versus white is the legacy of that riot.  We have to find a way to get past that, and it’s high time we did so.  Truthfully, the issue here is really white Tulsans deciding how we are going to embrace the blame for that event (which we have failed to do so far).  We have benefited from the riot — you cannot look at the booming district that now sits on the site of those old burned out houses and not know that.  The owners are no longer the people who once lived there or their offspring.  And, white Tulsa did not have to spend money on rebuilding after the disorder; it had sound homes and businesses upon which to continue to build.  That was not the case for north Tulsa.  Most importantly, white Tulsans did not have to live in fear that the more powerful members of their society — including leaders like Tate Brady — would do them great physical harm.  Black Tulsans, however, did have to grow up under that cloud.  It shapes who you are.  It shapes the choices you make.  It impacted the way the civil rights movement played out (and stalled) here so many years later.  For example, in 1968, the federal government barred discrimination in housing.  Our state law did not match that until the mid-80′s, and we still struggle with housing discrimination in our city today.  It is undeniable that the riot and the race relations that developed after it still affect us. White Tulsans must come to terms with this legacy.  We cannot say “well, that wasn’t me.”  As Abraham Lincoln noted in his 2nd Inaugural Address, there is a woe that is due.  It has now come to this generation to decide what it will do with this mantle.
I would love if the City of Tulsa — instead of being what people point to as an example of intolerance and backwardness — chose to demonstrate how to handle such things a better way, and with dignity and grace.  I believe we can do this.  I look at the Murrah Bombing Memorial and know that the people here know how to set the standard for handling our history with decency and maturity.  It is time that we do so with the riot.  This will be a harder task because it means owning up to a great failure and harm.  We are not alone in this, and I think it might be helpful to look at how other places with similar histories have dealt with theirs as inspirations for what — or what not — to do.  This dilemma is solvable — and even better, it offers us a bridge to a more positive future.  The way we choose to treat our past today will affect our potential for the future.  I ask you to choose the option that leads us closer to reconciliation and hope.  To do so, it is necessary that we make this change as a sign that we repudiate that past and, in breaking away from the legacy left to us by Brady and his peers, set a unified path forward.

I was reminded recently of a piece I read some time back by Andrew B. Lewis for the Los Angeles Times (“The Sit-ins That Changed America,” 2/7/10).  Lewis’s tribute to civil rights history began:

“The ‘Sixties’ were born on February 1, 1960…when four African-American college students staged the first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.”

Lewis went on to describe how this and subsequent sit-ins inspired by the Greensboro example revitalized the civil rights movement, which had floundered after so many attempts to integrate southern schools following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education had failed and the successful Montgomery bus boycott had become a memory.  Lewis specifically noted that the young people involved in these sit-ins formed the separate Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to preserve their independence from the NAACP, which balked at their aggressive tactics.  This separation gave room for significant young leaders like John Lewis, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael, and Marion Barry to develop.  The success of the civil rights movement thereafter was largely the result of the aggressive egalitarian pattern set by these student protesters, Lewis claimed.  Because of these, our country was permanently and significantly changed.

Only, there were sit-ins in the US that pre-dated the events in North Carolina.  Civil rights groups desegregated literally hundreds of restaurants and public spaces between 1942 and 1964.  The organizers and participants of these protests never got national credit for their leadership like Bond and Carmichael, et al, and their sit-ins didn’t spark a chain of similar events around the country.  One has to wonder why – and, also, why we haven’t investigated that question more.  How is it that Greensboro has become a symbol in our memories but the others have been lost to our national consciousness?  History textbooks mark the beginning of the sit-in movement in North Carolina, but we in Oklahoma certainly know better.  We know that it came here first (or, rather, not – but we’ll get to that).  We also know that the rest of the country didn’t notice what happened in our state – and others nearby.  I bet most Americans aren’t even aware that there ever was segregation in Oklahoma.  They probably also don’t know that it was a couple of court cases from this state that led to the desegregation of public schools in our country.  Oklahoma was a pivotal part of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century, only the rest of the country doesn’t pay any attention to that.  Truthfully, it was the heartland that set us on the path to desegregation – places that we don’t think of when we think of Jim Crow were the vulnerable ways in for activists.

In 1939, the real first sit-in protest for desegregation in the south occurred in Alexandria, Virginia.  Five young black men went to the library there to obtain library cards, and when they were denied them, they took seats at various tables and sat down with books to read.  The men were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.  When the cases went to trial later, their attorney got a police officer to acknowledge on the stand that they were disorderly by being black in a library meant for white people.  After the judge continued the case multiple times to avoid issuing a ruling, it was let go without resolution.  Meanwhile, a black World War I veteran brought a lawsuit to obtain a library card there through legal channels.  The judge in that case affirmed that there were no grounds for denying the applicant a card, which prompted the City to delay issuing cards to black residents so they could hastily construct a separate library for them.  Although these incidents made the news, they were quickly forgotten after World War II broke out.  Attention turned elsewhere, and the Alexandria library system was left segregated.

During the war, a group of pacifists formed an organization they called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).  They were influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi on nonviolent protest.  The group had white and black members, and its goal was to bring Gandhi’s form of non-violent resistance to the United States. Chapters of the organization sprouted around the country.  Their efforts kicked off in Chicago, where members undertook desegregating a noted restaurant in the City’s famous Loop district in October, 1942.  At first activists were denied service altogether; then, later, they were admitted but served garbage from the kitchen trash and inedible concoctions on multiple occasions.  In June of 1943, protesters finally had their first success after a lengthy sit-in.  Despite substantial waits, the parties were served properly for once.  There were sporadic incidences of poor treatment after that, but for the most part, the group had succeeded in obtaining equal treatment at the establishment.  By the post-war period, that had become the norm.

After the war, CORE’s St. Louis branch decided to challenge segregation there.  We don’t think of Missouri as a Jim Crow state like Mississippi.  It was, however, a former slave state and segregation had become the practice there too.  As in Chicago, CORE members opposed a well-accepted custom that reached well beyond the Old South.  At first, the group just handed out flyers denouncing segregation outside of a local store with a lunch counter which would not serve blacks.  Later, white members of the group went in to order food and shared it with their black cohorts who joined them inside.  Store employees closed down the counter in response.  Sit-ins at the counter became a weekly event then, and participants included veterans and women with babies whose pictures appeared in the local press as part of the coverage.  It took until 1954 before the store agreed to desegregate but eventually, the protesters won.  Subsequent sit-ins by CORE members and supporters in Baltimore had speedier results, effecting change within days.

Four years after the St. Louis protests ended, members of the NAACP Youth Council in Wichita, Kansas began organizing sit-ins at the drug store lunch counters in their city.  This effort was planned and executed by students, and they pursued it against the wishes of the national NAACP leadership.  Beginning with a two-day-a-week schedule in July 1958, their plan was to occupy all the seats at the lunch counter so that the store wouldn’t make any money if it didn’t serve them.  Other patrons wouldn’t have a place to sit and be served.  Here, white patrons, spectators, and employees tried to intimidate the protesters and were overtly hostile to them.  Despite the threats and insults, the young people persevered, and in 23 days, they met their first success.  In short order, the youth turned their sights on other local businesses and more victories followed.

On the heels of that first win in Wichita, young NAACP members in Oklahoma City also began organized sit-ins.  Some of them had gone to New York to perform at an event at the NAACP’s headquarters that summer and experienced for the first time what it was like to have equal access and service in public places.  When they returned home, they decided to organize a program to end the segregation in OKC; this included picketing, sit-ins and protests.  Their work gained support from the local Catholic Church and some other religious groups.  They had some quick successes and other longer campaigns.  The protests spread to various other parts of the state and continued until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to deny service in public places to anyone because of their race.

Clearly, then, there was a history of sit-ins and protests in the US that pre-dated Greensboro’s in 1960, yet Lewis’ take on North Carolina as a starting point for the struggle for desegregation is a common misconception that endures.  The idea persists that it began there – in the Old South.  In reality, it was the heart of our country that pioneered the change that later took off in the southeast.  In the days after the Greensboro protests began, students in Raleigh, Charlotte, Richmond and Nashville followed suit.  Not long after that, young people in Mississippi did the same.  Soon, sit-ins would spill into communities throughout the south – a river of change that somehow didn’t seem to flow from earlier protests.

Today, a piece of the Greensboro lunch counter sits in the National Museum of American History as a tribute to the wave of desegregation efforts the sit-in there set in motion.  Earlier successful protests, in contrast, have become part of a largely forgotten past, and the “Sixties” are now defined by a popular civil rights folklore that is shaped by how we remember rather than by the actual history.  Everybody knows about Mississippi, but they don’t know about Oklahoma or Missouri or Kansas, goddam.