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Black Lives Matter: A little historical context seems in order

MinnPost photo by Brent Moore
Protesters with Black Lives Matter reading a message from the Mall of America during their Dec. 23 protest.

#BlackLivesMatter is not yet 3 years old, but the idea has been around for a long time. For many white people, the insistence that Black Lives Matter is still difficult to understand. The recent attempt by the Mall of America to unsuccessfully prevent a peaceful protest asserting that black lives matter and the current call by some in the African-American community to boycott the Mall convinced me of the need for a little historical context.  

Jeff Kolnick

The Star Tribune recently argued on its editorial page that the cause of Black Lives Matter is “unrelated to the Mall of America.” I disagree.

The necessity of insisting that black lives matter is tied very closely to private property and commerce. When racial slavery was first legalized in Virginia in 1662, black lives were tied directly to private property and commerce. More specifically, black lives were legally recognized as a form of private property and a vehicle for white people to make money. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court made the connection crystal clear.  In denying Dred and Harriet Scott their freedom — because they were black — the court ruled:

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. …

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. 

When slavery was abolished in 1865, according to historian David Oshinsky, southern “planters sought a way to control black labor now that slavery had expired.” Oshinsky’s book, “Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice,” argues that the criminal justice system in the United States was transformed after the Civil War from enforcing the law against white people to a system designed to control black bodies and labor. Under slavery, justice was meted out, for the most part, by the slave owner or his subordinates. After slavery, state and local police were used to recreate systems of unfree labor. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote of this era, “The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

Indeed, as many historians have pointed out, the value of black bodies, in the minds of white Americans, declined after slavery. During slavery days, African-Americans who challenged their subordination could be sold, thus preserving at least some of the investment of the slaveholder. After slavery, black lives mattered even less to white folk and the U.S. embarked on a century of lynching where few whites ever faced the bar of justice.

Today, too many white Minnesotans are ready to defend commerce and private property over the right of black people and their allies to state simply, clearly and peacefully that black lives matter. In 1963, while sitting in a Birmingham jail for breaking the law, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reflected on those who prefer order to justice:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Rather than try to squelch speech behind the veil of private property or the pleasantness of a shopping experience, the Mall of America should have welcomed #BlackLivesMatter to the East Rotunda. Had they done so, they would look less like the owners of segregated businesses in the 1950s and ’60s and would find themselves instead on the right side of history.  

Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota.


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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/06/2016 - 08:52 am.

    Martin Luther King had a point

    Jeff Kolnick doesn’t.

    The irony is that when the Christmas shoppers were being blocked from engaging in commerce by the (mostly) white crowd of BLM protesters, it was a young black woman being interviewed by the local TV station who expressed the most vitriol for those who were preventing her from buying gifts for her kids.

    “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” – MLK

    Indeed. I grew up in a thriving working class black neighborhood that no longer exists. Some of my old friends have said that the white liberal has done more harm to the black community than the KKK ever could.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 01/06/2016 - 09:31 am.

    Whether it be black lives matter or TEA party or 1970’s protests against draft or any other group that gets fed up with having no individual control over a situation, it is anger based. It is folks expressing their anger of losing control of an aspect of their life. Go to a school board meeting and see the same passion from folks who don’t feel strangers are looking out for their kids. When anybody white, black, brown or purple feel they have lost control of an aspect of their life, anger, uncertainty and a need to fix it kicks in.

    It is not hard to understand why the black lives matter folks are upset, it is how any group goes about expressing that anger that defines the movement. MLK, did it through peaceful protests, Vietnam protesters (i being one) did it by disruption, TEA party did it by organized group dissent. Getting a change is what starts movements how you go about it defines that movement.

    Not that hard to understand!

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/06/2016 - 09:45 am.


    Legitimate history obliterates contemporary objectives. Elvis really has left the building. BLM doesn’t draw it’s legitimacy from contemporary institutionalized racism justifying and promoting lethal police violence against black people… it’s all about property rights? That sound you here is the sound of BLM sails collapsing into drapes as the becalming effect of twisted logic sucks the wind out of the atmosphere. Say goodnight Gracie.

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/06/2016 - 12:23 pm.


      A high school teacher of mine used to have this big sign in his class quoting Satayana, “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.” I have always always wanted to add, “And so are those who do.”

      There is a lot to be learned from history. I think it’s useful to go back and think about Martin Luther King’s problems, and maybe Charles, the second’s problems and think about how they responded to them.

      IMO, BLM has confused tactics with strategy, creating a platform not capable of supporting the message they want to deliver. There has been a lot of that going around lately.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/06/2016 - 10:32 am.


    In thinking about Black Lives Matter, it’s valuable to think about what their objective is. Is the object to seek confrontation? To communicate a message? Or to do something else? Does playing out political issues dating from 1857 or 1662 amount to an effective political strategy in 2016?

    For myself, I spend a lot of time communicating political messages and it is a humbling task. The fact is, while I have a right to speak, no one has an obligation to listen to me. It’s my job, and my responsibility to find ways to persuade people to turn away from whatever they are doing to listen to whatever I have to say. And I am always honored when they do.

    I wonder if the organizers of BLM feel that way. I wonder if they have ever come to grips with the issue that the use of tactics of disruption does not show the respect to the audience which in my experience, is a necessary precondition to being heard and listened to.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/06/2016 - 01:37 pm.


    “Had they done so, they would look less like the owners of segregated businesses in the 1950s and ’60s and would find themselves instead on the right side of history.”

    What do the owners of Mall of America want? To place themselves on a side of history? Or to sell stuff?

    Now that we have gone through two holiday seasons of engagement between BLM and Mall of America and BLM what conclusions have we reached? The author of the piece says the MOA and it’s merchants look like segregated businesses of the 1950s. Do you agree with that? Are you as a reader less inclined to shop at the mall and it’s stores because you perceive it as racist?

    Was it the objective of BLM protestors to demonstrate that the mall businesses are racist? Is that a message that you received from the demonstrations and their aftermath?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/06/2016 - 02:34 pm.

      From an historical perspective

      Frankly, any comparison between MOA enforcing it property rights and segregation under Jim Crow is a severe diminishment of Jim Crow and segregation. Such a comparison is one that a history professor should know better than to make.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/06/2016 - 02:06 pm.

    It’s really difficult to see the logic in the analogy between slaves as private property and the Mall of America as private property. And also difficult to see how BLM protesters who refuse to face consequences of a previous MOA protest where they were arrested, want to be compared to Dr. King and his cohort, who did accept and broadcast the consequences (beatings and/or jail) of their protest actions. Arguably, it was the awful consequences of Dr. King’s group’s peaceful actions that shocked America and turned public opinion.

    Also, at this point we have to ask why the BLM organizers are so insistent on using this particular piece of private commercial property for their protests (can you imagine how fast they’d be thrown out of Walmart? or a Macy’s?). It is safer, and warmer, than blocking a major urban freeway with bodies. But the MOA as place has no relevance for BLM: in itself, the Mall does not participate in the injustices BLM wants us to focus on. It’s simply a convenient large indoor venue that BLM knows has a lot of money invested in keeping it open for shoppers, not protesters

  7. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/06/2016 - 02:31 pm.

    BLM – are we bored yet?

    The only thing interesting about the BLM movement is the intellectual, editorial, and historical gymnastics used by it’s supporters to make this movement and its tactics sound legitimate.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 01/06/2016 - 04:05 pm.


      I thought the BLM Ltd. had chugged on to Cleveland

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/07/2016 - 10:57 am.


      Yes, the idea that African-Americans would agitate for racial justice is so boring! We don’t need to consider anything about the reasons for the movement, or any of the reasoning behind it. It’s interfering with shopping! And the important stuff on TV, like where the Vikings game on Sunday falls on the scale of coldest NFL games.

      It’s turning white people into the real victims, yet another time. Why don’t those people stop being near, and shut up?

      • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/07/2016 - 11:21 am.


        One of my favorite things to say is that while everyone has the right to speak, no one has the right to be listened to. When you are asking someone for the privilege of listening to what you have to say, the most basic thing to understand is that you have to be respectful of that’s persons needs and interests. You don’t get in the way of last minute Christmas shopping, you don’t interrupt last minute Christmas, and you certainly don’t get in the way of a Minnesotan and his state fair onion rings.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/07/2016 - 01:27 pm.


          Of course no one has the right to be listened to. If discussions about racial justice bore you, or offend your sensibilities, you can always find something else to occupy your mind. Maybe the Khardashians are up to more shenanigans! Or how about them Vikings–what do you suppose the players think about beating the Packers?

          The dismissive attitude towards BLM is symptomatic of the issue. Affecting boredom, complaining about their techniques, making jokes about state fair food (Uff da! You forgot to mention lutefisk!) show that the issue is unimportant. Why should you care about something that won’t affect you?

          As you say, there is no right to be listened to. There is also no right to be amused. Ignoring a problem will not make it go away. Belittling those who would speak out about it is also no answer.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/06/2016 - 02:42 pm.

    why the BLM organizers are so insistent on using this particular piece of private commercial property for their protests (can you imagine how fast they’d be thrown out of Walmart? or a Macy’s?)

    They chose the mall for it’s national and even global fame. The problem is they didn’t link their platform to what they want to say, whatever that might be. In this case, the author of the piece is trying to repair that lack of message discipline by linking it to something that happened in 1662, but that act of after the fact repair hardly rises even to the level of the tenuous.

    BLM isn’t communicating to people, it’s irritating people which is something people who take on the tough work of persuasion work hard to avoid.

  9. Submitted by Jeffrey Swainhart on 01/07/2016 - 07:06 am.

    If it weren’t for Black Lives Matter

    the current inequities in policing would be swept under the rug like they have been for years. BLM is confrontational because that’s they only way they’re going to get their grievances heard. All this butt-hurt about x-mas shopping and delayed commutes is just that. All these people want is justice and they’re not getting it.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/07/2016 - 11:51 am.


      If you had worked long and hard to squirrel away enough money to buy a small Kiosk at the MOA and then soon realized that this is going to be a tougher haul than expected; but, you put in the long hours to make it go and then on the busiest day of the year, when you could earn 20X an average day, you are shut down for 3 hours at peak selling time that could have made up for those lean days in January. Would that be a big deal to you or just some whining butt-hurt? You are calling for EMPATHY (ie: the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes) for the BLM folks and seem to have zero understanding of applying it uniformly.

    • Submitted by miki polumbaum on 03/23/2016 - 10:15 am.

      It’s not just simply a matter of shopping.

      Physically preventing or trying to prevent people from going into places of business, or making people super-late for work, appointments, etc., and causing ambulances to be diverted, so that patients being transported to hospitals end up either dying or getting 2nd-rate medical care at not such good hospitals as a consequence is totally out of line, imho. During anti-war demonstrations, and the Civil Rights Movement, the organizers of demonstrations/protests made the demonstrators move aside to let ambulances and other emergency vehicles go through. This isn’t happening with the BLM movement, and, imho, it doesn’t speak well for them as a movement, imho.

      Moreover, blocking freeways with extremely fast-moving vehicular traffic on them is extremely dangerous and irresponsible, for the protestors and commuters alike.

      I also might add that one cannot automatically assume that everybody who’s commuting is going about “business as usual”. Suppose one has to take his/her sick or injured pet to the veterinarian on an emergency basis? Time is of the essence in such a thing. The same thing goes for an important medical appointment, such as Chemo treatment, etc.,

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/07/2016 - 08:28 am.

    Hearing of grievances

    BLM is confrontational because that’s they only way they’re going to get their grievances heard.

    But are their grievances getting heard? Or is the story being heard one about inconveniencing shoppers, drivers and state fair goers?

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/07/2016 - 09:39 am.


    No successful movement ever makes real progress until it moves beyond the mere expression of grievance and demands specific policy changes.

    I don’t see how converting the MOA into public property will in any way reduce police violence against people of color. Nor do I see MOA’s prohibitions on political demonstrations as an example of racial segregation. Maybe publicly subsidized malls should allow more public activity but if THAT is the primary BLM objective it’s a swing and a miss for social justice.

    So what specific demands are we left with? Justice for Jamar? Beyond an thorough investigation what does that actually mean? Tear down the 4th precinct? Stop using Grand Juries?

    Someone needs to do the intellectual work. Someone needs to produce some real policy objectives that can actually address the grievances.

    In the meantime Hiram’s question is a serious one, are these tactics provoking attention or dismissal?

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/07/2016 - 11:47 am.

      I’ve always said

      Conservatives love BLM. Every time BLM pulls another stunt, more republican voters are created.

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/07/2016 - 08:57 pm.

        And the corrorarly:

        Every time some big hatted cowboy points a gun at local, state and federal law enforcement because it just ain’t fair that they can’t do whatever they want on federal lands and pandering Republican Presidential candidates say “I support ’em!” another voter flees the Republican party.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/08/2016 - 09:17 am.

          Yeah but…

          Really, this is wishful thinking on Tester’s part. Nothing BLM could possibly do would ever get me voting for republicans… and I’m not atypical in that regard.

  12. Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 01/07/2016 - 11:49 am.


    The historical context in the article is revisionist at best. The only clear objectives that BLM has is preferential treatement and disruptive protests with riotous behavior.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/08/2016 - 12:05 pm.

      “Preferential Treatment?”

      What “preferential treatment” do you mean? The right not to have routine confrontations with law enforcement end in deadly force?

      I guess there’s just no pleasing those people, is there?

      • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 01/13/2016 - 03:30 pm.


        Little to no police involvement in criminal matters as well as a few other things. They are hard to please aren’t they? What is the rate of confrontations with law enforcement that end in deadly force in relation to the rate of instances where law enforcement are involved?

  13. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/08/2016 - 05:28 pm.

    The fundamental issue is a matter of life and death,

    … and so it couldn’t be more serious nor more important in the life of our community.

    However, by focusing on the Mall of America and the State Fair (as examples), I’m afraid BLM has confused the public on this basic issue. The protest at the 4th precinct police station, on the other hand, pointed directly at the issue, in my view.

    I’m inclined to agree with Hiram Foster and Paul Udstrand above – there is little room for errors in strategy in a matter so fundamentally important. The public is easily confused.

  14. Submitted by Carrie Anderson on 01/11/2016 - 11:40 am.

    Great post

    Thank you for putting this into a much needed historical perspective.

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