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America’s future depends on a truthful reckoning with its past

Those trying to coat slavery in Barbie pink need to go back to school

President Joe Biden is applauded by members of the Till family and members of Congress as he signs a proclamation in the Indian Treaty Room to establish the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Illinois and Mississippi on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden is applauded by members of the Till family and members of Congress as he signs a proclamation in the Indian Treaty Room to establish the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Illinois and Mississippi on Tuesday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

It’s a quote that in some form has been attributed to many and uttered by many more, perhaps because it is so wise and has proven itself again and again.

Unfortunately, anyone who revived the slogan in 2023 would be labeled “woke” in a nanosecond by politicians looking to score points and their followers who prefer to live by another oft-used mantra — “ignorance is bliss.”

The truth is, all the folks attempting to bury the past or slather a cheery coat of Barbie pink over it, the better to hide any unpleasantness, need to go back to school — and fast. And I’m talking real school, not one with Florida’s “why torture, whippings and having your children sold away wasn’t all THAT bad” curriculum.

Taking a seat in the front row should be Republican Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona, who was not even original in his cluelessness during a debate over an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. Insisting on the elimination of any kind of diversity training before authorizing the release of needed funding, Crane said: “The military was never intended to be, you know, inclusive. Its strength is not its diversity, its strength is its standards.”

Besides his racist assumption that diversity and standards are, you know, mutually exclusive, Crane, whether he realized it or not, also repeated the same argument used by those opposed to the integration of the military in 1948. At the time, Army Secretary Kenneth Royall said the Army was not meant to be “an instrument for social evolution,” and sympathized with the Southern white troops who would be forced to fight for democracy next to Americans of a different race.

That did not stop President Harry S. Truman from signing Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, mandating the desegregation of the U.S. military. Truman was appalled by the treatment of members of the military who fought Nazis and fascism in World War II, only to face violence and discrimination in the country they served. The case of Sgt. Isaac Woodard, beaten and blinded by law enforcement in South Carolina in 1946, particularly moved Truman, a World War I veteran.

Then and now, Royall and Crane insulted Americans of every race who have served with distinction, patriotism and pride, even when the military constructed barriers to impede their ambitions.

Crane’s assignment — forgive the self-promotion — is to listen to the latest episode of my CQ Roll Call podcast “Equal Time,” an interview with retired Adm. Michelle Howard, the first woman to become a four-star officer in the U.S. Navy, the first Black woman to captain a U.S. naval ship and the first woman graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy to become an admiral.

And that’s just for starters.

Truman’s order and subsequent policies opened a path for the talented and dedicated, like Howard. She is part of a program marking the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9981 this week in Washington at the Truman Library Institute.

Extra credit for attendance, Congressman Crane.

GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis continues to earn a failing grade for his support of his state’s revisionist Black history standards. There were echoes of South Carolinian and fellow Yale alum (class of 1804) John C. Calhoun’s defense of slavery as a “positive good” in the Florida governor, whose words judged enslavement as a chance for building character and a resume. Actually, as Gillian Brockell pointed out in The Washington Post, the enslaved weren’t looking for an unpaid internship, but instead, were human beings living full lives before being kidnapped by enslavers anxious to exploit those very skills DeSantis seems to believe they lacked.

Now that he sees doubling down on racism isn’t shoring up his crumbling presidential hopes, DeSantis is dodging accountability, playing the “who, me?” game.

Country singer Jason Aldean picks and chooses when he wants to play that same game, defiant in front of fans when defending his song “Try That in a Small Town,” but playing the innocent when it comes to the backdrop for its incendiary video, Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tenn., site of a notorious lynching of a Black 18-year-old, Henry Choate, in 1927.

If you take them at their word, the millionaire and his team simply didn’t do their homework.

I have to give them credit, though. They along with the songwriters — a bunch of folks not named Aldean — have certainly learned how to make a mediocre song a hit in a divided America.

“Cuss out a cop, spit in his face” are some behaviors the lyrics condemn.

Instead of using stock footage of mayhem, some from countries other than the U.S., why not include scenes from the Jan. 6 anti-democracy riots at the Capitol? One criminal just got sentenced to 52 months in federal prison for beating a defenseless police officer with a flagpole, a whole lot worse than spitting and cussing.

Aldean could turn to one of his nemeses, the man who really won in November 2020. This week, President Joe Biden offered a true lesson in leadership, on how a country should honor the past and present with respect and dignity.

On what would have been Emmett Till’s 82nd birthday, Biden signed a proclamation establishing the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Mississippi and Illinois.

Till-Mobley, in an action that took great courage and sparked the civil rights movement, showed the world — by ordering her son’s casket remain open — the torture racist domestic terrorists inflicted on her 14-year-old child when he visited relatives in the small town of Money, Miss., in 1955.

Authorities wanted to quickly bury the evidence, just as today’s history deniers would bury any truth about the systemic racism that allowed Till’s killers — who later freely admitted their crimes — to be speedily acquitted by an all-white jury in a courthouse in Sumner, Miss.population 243.

Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till’s cousin and best friend, doesn’t need lessons to remember; he was 16 and a witness to the kidnapping, a living witness to the fact that, to quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

A previous memorial to Till had to be fortified, made bullet-proof and replaced, in 2019, after racists repeatedly vandalized marker after marker, throwing one into the river. Think about that. And think about why comic-book American history, all simple narrative and happy endings, can never satisfy true patriots.

Knowledge is power.

The power to grow.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter,@mcurtisnc3.

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