This month has brought two alarming proclamations from the White House: The Office of Management and Budget ordered federal agencies to cease anti-racism training and the use of materials that discuss topics such as white privilege. In a subsequent speech condemning anti-racist curriculum, President Donald Trump threatened to defund schools that use The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning feature on the history of slavery, the 1619 Project. These events have shocked many Americans.
Trump’s attempt to censor histories of race hearkens back to early 20th century attempts by the federal government to stifle public criticism of racist laws and practices.
Black newspapers’ editorials seen as unpatriotic
Between 1917 and 1945, federal agencies, most prominently the FBI and Office of War Information, investigated Black newspapers and magazines like the Chicago Defender and The Messenger for sedition. The charge was that editorials they ran in opposition to lynching, poll taxes, and other aspects of Jim Crow reality were unpatriotic, especially in a time of war.
The FBI viewed white local officials in the South as “experts” on “their Negroes.” And so, the FBI relied on local sheriffs, postmasters, and others to report on suspicious activity, including reading habits. Several local governments took advantage of the federal government’s assault on the First Amendment during World War I to try to stem the tide of the Great Black Migration. Southern cities were losing Black workers, many of whom read about jobs in the Defender and other northern papers. Some counties passed laws outlawing the sale of Black newspapers; others turned a blind eye to mob violence against Black newspaper sellers and readers.
Under the guise of patriotism, Black people were beaten, even shot for daring to read or distribute the news. Through this mix of brutality and warping of the First Amendment, white officials hoped to stop the in-flow of information, the out-flow of cheap labor, and stifle any hint of dissent against racial apartheid.
The role of the Pullman porters
But Jim Crow officials and local thugs didn’t take into account the stealth activism of Pullman porters. Most whites who traveled the rails viewed the Pullman porters as happy and subservient, with no purpose in life other than to serve white travelers. In reality, many porters were college educated; they were forced to take jobs in the service industry only because Jim Crow laws and hiring practices made it impossible for them to get hired in professions reflective of their education and ability.
The porters secretly collaborated with legendary publisher Robert S. Abbott to smuggle copies of the Defender on the trains, tossing them off between stations. Some porters also worked as journalists, writing up information gathered on their trips South to be published in the Defender.
Like many of his other outrageous acts this year, Trump’s call to create a “patriotic” history curriculum that erases critical analysis of the ways racism and slavery shaped this country’s laws, wealth, and cultural practices chillingly echoes early 20th-century racist practices. The OMB directive and Trump’s proclamation that anti-racist curriculum is unpatriotic mirror the charge that anti-Jim Crow editorials were sedition.
Past attempts to stifle the Black press and present efforts to block anti-racist curricula is not “cancel culture:” This is the executive branch of the U.S. government using its weight to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.
We must never forget
We must amplify and highlight the work of historians who are willing to unearth and analyze the ugly parts of our past, lest we be doomed to repeat the horrific excesses of violence and oppression. We must never forget how easy it is for one group to control all the levers of government, and use that power to crush dissent, to stymie progress, and to warp core elements of the Constitution until they are unrecognizable. And we must protest as long and loud as we can when we see it happening in our own time.
Catherine Squires, Ph.D., is associate dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of several books and articles on media, race, gender, and politics.
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