February is Black History Month. I mention this fact as a reminder for those of us who have fallen victim to the excitement of our celebrity-obsessed society and have spent the past few weeks watching the Anna Nichole Smith, James Brown or Brittney Spears controversies play out. I’m not going to discuss whether there should be a Black History Month; I’ll save that for later in the week. Instead, I’d like to talk about a recent news item.
Civil Rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton just learned that his family traces back to slaves owned by relatives of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.
He called the revelation one of the most shocking things of his life. He then said that the news brought a mixture of outrage and pride.
In speaking about the conflicting emotions he has experienced since it was revealed that Sharpton’s great-grandfather was a slave owned by one of Thurmond’s cousins, he said this:
“It’s important for America, because in the story of the Thurmonds and the Sharptons, there’s the story of the shame and the glory of America. The shame is that people were owned as property, and the shame is that every time I write my name now, I will think about how I got that name. The shame is that I am the heir of those who were property to the Thurmond family.”But the glory is that Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist ticket. I ran in `04 on a ticket of racial justice. I got 10 percent of the vote in South Carolina. I beat (former Vermont Gov.) Howard Dean and (retired Army Gen.) Wesley Clark in South Carolina.
“I wonder what my great-grandfather would have thought about that.”
I wonder that, too. But since I have no way of knowing, I’ll ask some of my own questions about this “furor.”
First, there’s that basic question: was Sharpton surprised to learn that his descendants were once slaves owned by white people in the South? Can any black person whose family was from the south possibly be surprised by such a finding? And in particular, can a Civil Rights leader from the south really be surprised by it? It is a sad, unfortunate fact of history that whites owned blacks before the Civil War. Blacks weren’t guests, weren’t tenants. They were property. I learned this back in middle school history. I thought that anyone who made it as far as ninth grade was fairly clear on this simple fact. Anyone who hasn’t gotten that by now has apparently spent decades not paying attention to history class and the country’s near-constant discussions of racism.
Sharpton said that he hopes he can take the name that was given to him because his great-grandfather was property and make that name stand for freedom-fighting. Does he, as a Civil Rights leader, not think that this is what he’s already been standing for? What else but freedom — from prejudice, from racism, from inequality — does a Civil Rights leader set as the ultimate goal of their quest?
Second, there’s the question of the slave owner. Would it have been less of a shock to him if the person who owned his great-grandfather hadn’t been related to Strom Thurmond, whom Sharpton believes was a racist? If so, how could that possibly be? The ownership of slaves was a common practice across the south at the time. It was accepted as normal. To that extent, and by today’s standards, all slave owners were racist, right? Why else would they willingly treat people as property? So what difference should it make whether Strom Thurmond’s family owned his ancestor or not? The “who” doesn’t change the “what.”
Third, there’s that follow-up question about that specific relative of the actual slaveowner. To wit, was Strom Thurmond a racist? It sounds like a silly question, since Thurmond ran on the “Dixiecrat” ticket, advocating segregation. But that was 1948. When Sharpton met Thurmond face to face in 1991, Sharpton admits that he wasn’t happy about Thurmond’s past. The thing is, there are a lot of white people who aren’t any more happy than Sharpton was about that past. Does Sharpton think Thurmond changed over the years? It certainly seems that as far as he’s concerned, it wasn’t a possibility.
But some of Thurmond’s colleagues aren’t as sure of that. Take Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn, who is black and represents South Carolina’s 6th Congressional District in Washington. Clyburn has my respect and my vote. He was head of the Congressional Black Caucus when he said this of Strom:
“Senator Thurmond was symbolic of the Old South, but his willingness to change over time set an example for many South Carolinians.”
Then there’s state senator Kay Patterson, an outspoken character at the statehouse who pulls no punches when it comes to the subject of racism. He said of Thurmond:
“Paul had an experience on the road to Damascus, and Strom Thurmond also had an experience on the road to Damascus. And after that experience, I always supported Strom Thurmond for political office because he would do constituent service for all South Carolinians, including me.”
Naturally, there’s a lot of debate over whether Thurmond died a racist. Regardless of whether or not Clyburn or Patterson are right, that Thurmond actually did change, the assumption that because Thurmond was once a racist means he must always remain one is quite disturbing.
Particularly when you consider that this is Black History Month.
After all, isn’t the purpose of celebrating Black History, and specifically, the Civil Rights movement, to remind all of us that we not only can change, but that we must change, to make sure that the color of our skin doesn’t define who we are on the inside?
There’s something to think about before the end of the month. And after.