The history of what is not true | Column
Robed Ku Klux Klan members join hands and circle the flag pole. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
They say the Israelites worshipped a golden calf when Moses was on Mount Sinai, but not all idols are made of gold. Some of them are the stories we tell ourselves.
We run late for a good reason, never sloth or inconsideration. Our greed goes by the name “ambition.” We so want to forgive the faults of our loved ones that we amend their stories for the children’s ears. Daddy works hard. Grandpa has no filter. As a result these children grow up thinking they come from a long line of saints, and become enraged when it is suggested they come from mere human stock.
You and I and all Americans are some of these children.
The U.S. Civil War was complex, to be sure, but all of the factors boiled down to cultural, political and economic differences over chattel slavery. The Union won the war, mostly because of industrial superiority and the force provided by immigrants and freedmen.
After the war Southerners resented Reconstruction, as any people would regard occupation. But the occupation was also necessary to protect the safety of recently freed Black men and women. Free Black communities formed governments and began organizing schools and businesses. They were all destroyed by former Confederates, the people terrorized or killed. The Ku Klux Klan rose to fulfill this very purpose.
And they were so successful that they reasserted white supremacy in the South using modified versions of human bondage. Their tactics included sharecropping, indentured servitude, and mass incarceration. After time the hoods and robes of the KKK were no longer necessary. Such policy thrived entirely in the open and spread nationwide. Even in the absence of personal racism, these systems endure.
Our modern understanding of the KKK came from a silent film, “The Birth of a Nation.” This 1915 movie was the highest grossing film of all time before “Gone With the Wind” overtook it in 1939. This is ironic since both films share the goal of recasting the brutal terrorism that took place after the Civil War as a necessary response by good and noble “real” Americans.
“Birth of a Nation” played everywhere, including here on the Mesabi Iron Range. The film enjoyed a huge engagement at the Power Theatre in Hibbing that drove conversations throughout the village as it did in small towns and big cities across the nation. President Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. Supreme Court attended a special screening, with Wilson endorsing its message for all Americans to see. If our ancestors were in America and could afford to see movies, they probably saw this one. To say otherwise would be like saying that no one from our time really saw “Titanic,” “Avatar,” or any of those Marvel movies.
The combination of this popular film and widespread belief in the debunked study of racist eugenics theories proved so successful that many new chapters of the KKK formed. These weren’t Southern nobility. These were movie fanboys. And if they couldn’t find any Black people to terrorize, they looked for immigrants and Catholics. That’s what they did here on the Iron Range, where robust chapters of the Klan organized in Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Virginia. Some of our ancestors were among them, including quite likely some of mine.
Honest people can disagree about what this history means and what should be done about it. False notions like the Southern “Lost Cause” were originally created and perpetuated by profoundly racist people. Yet human nature explains why, even as people became less racist on a personal basis, they still find comfort in the sanitized version of these terrible stories. Or why institutions seem much less biased and exclusionary to those who benefit from them.
A deeper understanding of what actually happened goes a long way in explaining how things got the way they are now. That lets us fix problems that have vexed this nation since its founding, and certainly since the end of the Civil War. To me, that is much more useful than a fairy tale.
Unfortunately, we now hear that the real problem in America is that people are learning these ugly truths. Some so fear a future where the childish idols of false history are forever retired that they pass laws to ban teaching it. They give it some fearsome name devoid of any real meaning. Senators blither like fools.
But this is just another story. Another idol to be worshipped instead of the truth.
Averroes said the truth cannot contradict the truth. It is always there. Always waiting. Forever patient. To some this is God. For me this is true. But whatever your conception of God, if any, objective truth remains immutable.
There is no need to fear the exploration of our past through fresh eyes, or danger in seeking a more just and loving future.
Only truth prevails over the long march of time. All idols return to the dust, as well they should. Their adherents go with them.
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