As a high school student growing up in Memphis, Facing History and Ourselves helped me understand the history of my hometown. When I was a sophomore in high school on Facing History’s tour of major cities in the Civil Rights Movement, I could see how Memphis fit into the larger context of that history as it rippled through Alabama cities like Birmingham and Montgomery and in Little Rock, Arkansas. And through Facing History’s emphasis on upstanders, I saw how I had a part to play in my city’s future.
After nearly a decade away from Memphis, I recently moved back. As a writer, I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to sit down with journalist Jelani Cobb who served as the keynote speaker at the organization’s Memphis benefit dinner. As a staff writer for the New Yorker with a PhD in history, his writing on contemporary events is suffused with historical context that provides rare moments of clarity in today’s chaotic world. As Facing History celebrates 25 years in my home city, Dr. Cobb’s perspective was the perfect fit to shed a light on where we go from here in these uncertain times.
Over the past couple of years, Facing History students at several Memphis high schools have led the way in getting memorials and historic markers placed at the sites of lynchings in the city. Why do you think there’s been comparatively little fight against erecting these new monuments to lynching victims, versus the incredibly aggressive response we’ve seen against removing monuments to Confederate leaders?
I think that people feel like when you’re taking down a statue, they’re losing something, in a way that they don’t if someone puts up another marker. If you put up something, you can ignore that. That’s there, and you may not ever pay attention to it. But if there’s something that you feel like you identify with, and that’s actually being taken away, then they feel a sense of loss.
Part of what I think motivates the vocal defense we’ve seen with these statues is that it’s asking people to grapple with the implications of symbols that they have been taught were innocuous, or that they have convinced themselves were innocuous. And deep down, they always knew that wasn’t really the case. And having to actually confront it—to literally face history—that’s difficult for people.
What upstanders inspired you as a young person learning about history?
When I was a high school student, I didn’t have a program like Facing History. We had a very particular, straight-laced approach to what we then called social studies. There was some study of social movements, and big picture individuals in history, but it took me until later to actually develop the kind of granular approach to history where I saw people as actual living individuals that were making decisions under difficult circumstances and doing amazing things despite adversity.
I wish I’d had that kind of insight when I was younger. But then when I got older, there were people like Steve Biko and A. Philip Randolph who were really fascinating to me in terms of the moral questions that they were interested in. Ida B. Wells was tremendously inspirational to me. I learned about J. Robert Oppenheimer, who might be kind of unusual, because he led the movement to invent the atomic bomb, but also recognized how destructive it was, and then fought to make sure that people would never use that kind of weaponry. Those are pivotal things—people who realize the implications of their actions and then try to change the way that plays out in the rest of the world.
What areas of history would you specifically recommend young people explore to help ground them as they try to understand today’s societal tensions?
One thing I always tell young people is not to be confined to the examples of the United States. We think that things are exceptional and particular, and then when we read history we see that there are broader kinds of connections.
Sure, we can talk about what happened after Reconstruction in this country, or lynching, but we also need to have as a frame of reference the pogroms that happened in Eastern Europe, the genocide of Armenians in World War I, the elimination of the indigenous population in Tasmania, and the exploitation and oppression of the indigenous population in Australia.
All these kinds of things we could have as examples of how humans have constructed systems of inequality and injustice, rationalized those systems to themselves, and then modified the record of the past to camouflage the horror of what they actually did.
So, read broadly—in the history of other groups, other societies, and other peoples. When you look at history in that context, you can see this is something that we’ve seen time and time again in different ways. We can understand what the identifying hallmarks of it are, and we can also understand that there were people who fought against it, and that people fighting against long odds can actually win.
Help your students explore issues of race in American history with our lesson, "Race, Democracy, and Citizenship: The American Ideal." Taken from our unit, Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement, this lesson dives into how misconceptions surrounding race and identity have influenced ideas of citizenship.
This publication was produced in partnership with MLK50.