The Complexity of the Present: Black Lives Matter, History, and Balancing Conflicting Ideas

Silent protest parade in New York [City] against the East St. Louis riots, 1917, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Silent protest parade in New York [City] against the East St. Louis riots, 1917, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
“Whatever may be our quarrel with our fellow citizens in times of peace,” William Dawson wrote to the NAACP on April 10, 1917. “ [I]n times of national danger it is our duty to lay aside for a while the family feud and rally to the call against a common enemy and as long as we claim citizenship, we must respond to the call.”[1] Only days before, President Woodrow Wilson had committed the nation to World War I and the U.S., with a military ranked somewhere between 17th and 20th internationally, had to conscript an army.

Earlier that Spring the government, anticipating the possibility of war and pressured by black leaders like Washington D.C. Reverend J. Milton Waldron and his Committee of 100, agreed to create an officer training camp for African Americans, the first of its kind to address the concerns of black America. “I was called upon many times by Mr. Waldron and representatives of his committee of one hundred. After considering their request I came to the conclusion that a training camp for colored people ought to be established,” Secretary of War Newton Baker wrote the president.[2]

However, with rumors of war, within the black community doubts and frustrations persisted. In March of the same year, L.S. Curtis asked NAACP leaders just what it would mean to acquiesce to a segregated military. Sure, an officers camp would be an improvement, but at what cost? “There is one consideration, however, which has thus far restrained me from applying for such training,” Curtis confided. “I realize that in most of our states we have tacitly acquiesced in a segregated public school system, waiving whatever scruples we may have had in this matter on account of the supreme and immediate necessity of education. Is military training, then, as a parallel to common-school education? Should the American youth of Negro descent, thus, waive his scruples for the present, and accept this valuable training in the form in which it offered to him?”[3]

After the U.S. entrance into the war, Reverend Waldron pointed to similar debates within the African American community, noting that its members required a statement by President Wilson that appealed to the need for robust black participation in the war effort and a promise that “that no discrimination or injustice will be practiced by the Government or the Administration upon Colored American citizens because of their race, color, politics, previous condition of servitude or because of the locality in which the majority of them now reside.”[4] Even without such guarantees, by April, the NAACP, which helped to organize support for the idea, had received over 300 applications for the camp that would convene that following summer in 1918 in Des Moines, Iowa. The camp produced officers that included figures like distinguished civil rights leaders like Charles Hamilton Houston, who would serve as Dean of Howard Law School and argue numerous cases in front of the Supreme Court gradually dismantling segregation statute by statute, while also mentoring a cadre of civil rights lawyers, most famously Thurgood Marshall.

William Augustus Pollard, Application for Officer Training Camp, Iowa, April 25, 1917, Box II:L23, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Drafted at a greater percentage than their proportion of the population than their white counterparts, nearly 400,000 African American men would serve overseas. Though approximately 42,000 saw combat, the majority of them were prevented from fighting in battle by racist military policies; instead, they provided critical logistical support and labor in military camps and ports in France and elsewhere. As Adriane Lentz Smith argues in Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War One, “When they gave it any thought, most black people saw a trade-off: they would join themselves to the American national project in all its light and shadows in return for earning full citizenship rights.” Unfortunately, by the war’s conclusion, “many African Americans would decide the trade was no longer worth it.”[5] Indeed, in the year following Armistice, “at least ten African American soldiers and seventy-seven African American civilians were lynched.”[6]

What does this have to do with the past week? “We’ve got to be able to hold a bunch of messy ideas and histories in our heads simultaneously,” NPR’s Gene Demby tweeted on July 8. For African Americans, as demonstrated above, this has perhaps been truer than for their white counterparts. During WWI, the government worried that German propaganda targeting blacks would affect African American commitment to the war; never mind the racist policies that maintained segregation and subjected blacks to internal army policies that could only described as demeaning. Yet, knowing full well of this reality and acknowledging the persistent grievances held by black Americans, men like Houston and William Dawson enlisted and contributed to the war effort. Yes, the nation is racist and yes we are subjected to it even as we sacrifice our youth and lives to serve the United States overseas. That’s a rather messy reality to have to balance in one’s head.

On a recent episode of the podcast Code Switch, “No Words,” Gene Demby, Sharine Marisol Mirage and Harvard Professor Khalil G. Muhammad discussed the difficult, but necessary task of continuing to pursue many of the objectives of the Black Lives Matter Movement while also acknowledging the noxiousness of what happened in Dallas on Thursday night. In their conversation, Mirage noted that the tragedy in Dallas had led to a change in the conversation, rightly highlighting the risks and sacrifices of the police, but muting the equally legitimate concern that the policing of America’s black and brown citizens remained rife with inequality and state sanctioned violence toward minorities.

The “need to change police culture” so that the use of force would be stopped or eliminated, she pointed out, had given way over the last 24 hours to the condemnation of the killing of the police officers in Dallas. Not that the latter wasn’t justified; Muhammad described the Dallas incident as “horrifying,” arguing that the NRA’s lobbying has led to a nation awash in weapons that leave everyone feeling unsafe. But with that said, both issues deserved attention. “I’m wondering how do we have both those conversations at the same time and do you think we are having both those conversations at the same time?” she asked.

“We must have both those conversations at the same time, so we ought to be clear about what should be happening” Muhammad noted. “But I also think there’s an imbalance in terms of who speaks in the capacity to understand that police violence as is felt by African Americans … cannot continue; that’s a hard stop.”

Unfortunately, two forces prevented this from happening. First, Muhammad pointed out “pockets of white Americans” remain “ambivalent” regarding the policing of America’s black and brown citizens or see it as somehow justified. Moreover, historically “juries and judges” have more or less codified this view. Second, he continued “at the other extreme there is a heroism attached to the occupation of policing … wrapped in the cloth of patriotism” that makes these conversations nearly impossible.

One witnesses this dynamic fairly easily right now. On CNN this weekend, Dallas Police Chief David Brown argued for the “silent majority” to rise up in defense of the police and described the criticism facing law enforcement today as “unsustainable.” While Brown has been celebrated as a reformer and many acknowledge the DPD as particularly progressive in terms of its relationship with minority communities, his interview highlights the very problem highlighted by Muhammad and Mirage’s conversation. When Muhammad tells Code Switch that due to this mindset there exists an “unwillingness to come to terms with some basic facts about policing,” juxtaposed with Brown’s comments, one of the more open minded and progressive law enforcement officials in the nation mind you, it seems hard to debate.

For African Americans, holding difficult, countervailing histories, identities, and beliefs has been a reality for their entire existence. World War One simply represents one of the earliest and most obvious examples of the 20th century. Despite it, African Americans enlisted and fought, once again in segregated units, in World War II as well. Today, they serve in the All Volunteer force far above their proportion of the population, roughly double. Before one raises the issue of the Dallas shooter as having also served, remember that Timothy McVeigh was also a veteran and no one disregards white military service based on the Oklahoma City bombing. Being a black American – really any American citizen of color including citizens of Asian, Latino, or Middle Eastern descent – necessitates this act of mental jujitsu. It will come down to their fellow white Americans beginning to develop the same ability (or if already developed, deploying it more often) so that we as a nation can move forward. If African Americans could simultaneously enlist to fight in Europe while also understanding that the America for which they fought did not see them as equals, one is led to think their fellow Americans could do the same. They traded the possibility of death for a chance at a citizenship that had long been promised but never delivered.

No one’s asking for even remotely that kind of trade-off here—just a climate in which honest conversations regarding the reality of policing for the nation’s citizens of color might take place and perhaps strides in addressing this lethal inequality. It seems like a reasonable request. Who knows if we can accomplish it, but for the nation’s sake let’s hope.

Americans – and not just white ones– understandably wish to defend their local institutions. Everyone acknowledges that the majority of police officers do good work, under difficult and dangerous conditions for poor pay and in the face of public criticism. However, it’s not treason to point out faults and see what can be done to fix them. Teachers endure harsh criticism from public officials (see Chris Christie, Rudolph Giuliani, and numerous others for examples) and the public. While not as dangerous as a career in law enforcement, educators get assaulted and even killed; since 2013 there have been nearly 200 school shootings and many of the victims were teachers. Despite that reality, school reform remains one of the recurring themes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. One can work in a failing school, and admit it, but at the same time recognize that many of his or her fellow employees conduct themselves nobly and with great dedication.

The police are critical to community life. They deserve to be celebrated, but real problems persist and need to be addressed. Much like the problems afflicting urban schools, which often stem from a long history of classist and racist policies, so too does law enforcement struggle to transcend patterns established by this country’s history. In other words, a police force can be filled with great officers but still struggle; holding these kinds of countervailing ideas is not treason, it’s life.


[1] William Dawson to J.E. Springarn, April 10, 1917, II Box L23, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[2] Newton D. Baker to Woodrow Wilson, May 17, 1917, Series 4 Case File 152, Folder Negroes 1917 January to July, Woodrow Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[3] L.S. Curtis to J.E. Springarn, March 4, 1917, II Box L23, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[4] Reverend J. Milton Waldron to Woodrow Wilson, April 12, 1917, Series 4 Case File 152, Folder Negroes 1917 January to July, Woodrow Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[5] Adriane Lentz Smith, Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War One, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 5.

[6] Lentz Smith, Freedom Struggles, 178.

Author: Ryan Reft

I dig ditches.

5 thoughts

  1. Agreed that “it’s not treason to point out faults and see what can be done to fix them.” But what to call it when President Obama highlights racial disparities in the criminal justice system without also noting the behavioral disparities that drive the statistics?

    Why is it that each time a national story emerges (Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown etc.) the rush to judgment says ‘racism’ but when the full facts emerge it proves to be anti-social thuggery rather than racist cops. I don’t know about you but every time i see the ‘Hands up Don’t Shoot’ salute it reminds me the whole thing is based on a lie.

    I agree that an ‘honest conversation’ is the way to go but how can that even start when President Obama lies through omission and Black Lives Matter builds their campaign on an open lie.

    1. Hey JLS,
      Thanks for checking the piece out. I don’t know if I agree with your take on it however, while the Ferguson/Michael Brown incident might remain too muddled to ever truly know what really happened, Trayvon Martin seems more cut and dry. If Zimmerman stays in is car, nothing ever happens that night, no crime, no conflict, no anything. Zimmerman’s also not a cop so when you reference that case I assume you’re saying that you don’t agree with people accusing the system of racism rather than police due to its verdict. In regard to Obama, it’s been shown that the number of cops killed on the job has fallen to its lowest point in decades, well below the Reagan administration ( Also, what do you mean by behavioral disparities? Are you arguing certain groups demonstrate greater proclivities for crime?


      1. When you say the Ferguson/Brown incident was too muddled to know exactly what happened. It makes me wonder if we watched the same prosecutors statement describing the grand jury process. Did you read the transcripts? Did you watch the video reenactment of the witness statements showing the grand jury process? Here is the video for reference, if you are interested.

        Now, i readily acknowledge that we can never know with absolute certainty, so there is always some room for doubt, but it seems to me that an ‘honest conversation’ requires at least acknowledging on which side the major doubt lies. Absent that kind of baseline, i am afraid no progress is possible..

        Your Trayvon Martin comment is puzzling. I don’t understand the probative value of a statement like “If Zimmerman stays in is car, nothing ever happens that night…”. How is that any different than if i say “If Martin stays in his apartment, nothing ever happens that night…”. Seems to me both statements are meaningless.

        If Obama says that “blacks are killed at a disproportionately higher rate than their population rates would suggest” but leaves out the fact that blacks also commit violent crimes at rates higher than their population rates then he is lying by omission. Not conducive to an honest conversation.

        “So the percentage of blacks fatally shot by police officers (26%) is almost exactly equal to the percentage of blacks committing violent crimes (24%). Indeed, given that the black homicide rate is around eight times the white rate, it is surprising that the portion of blacks fatally shot by policemen is not higher.”

        Seems to me an honest conversation has to start with saying about what is that it is.Of course we know that ‘saying what is’ is a little complicated.

      2. Hey JLS,
        Ok let me start with Ferguson/Brown. Let’s say I concede that while I didn’t totally agree with the court’s conclusions, I accept them and that there was more “there there” than activists like to admit. Subsequently, the police force was found to to have some real structural inequalities when applying various regulations and laws. Also, the paramilitary approach taken by the police force their reflected a larger militarization of law enforcement that I think has exacerbated some of the issues we are discussing (and has affects on whites, latinos and blacks, perhaps not equally but definitely has an influence). This is something numerous outlets from the Economist to the NYT have discussed.

        Second, in regard to Zimmerman, I would reiterate that 1) George Zimmerman was not a cop or any sort of law enforcement and had that evening been instructed by the police to stay in his car 2) his history since that incident really raises questions about his mental state and his own level of integrity. The point I made was that Trayvon Martin wasn’t committing a crime, Zimmerman’s act escalated something that didn’t exist into a conflict. It’s not the same as your comparison since Martin wasn’t doing anything remotely illegal except walking through a subdivision.

        Third, regarding increased violent crime by African Americans, to some extent, from what I can tell and I’m no criminologist, there is some validity to this. I’m originally from Chicago and grew up in the SW suburbs. Particularly on the city’s southside the number of shootings and violent deaths is terrible. I personally don’t think any group is fundamentally more likely to commit violent crime than any other, but perhaps socioeconomic conditions drive this number up such that we get numbers like those you point out. As the blog you referenced also noted, African Americans are disproportionately the victims of this crime and actually on average welcome an increase police presence but feel that they also end up bearing the brunt of this though unfair treatment toward the largely law abiding sections of their communities. I also know many black and brown communities are policed at higher rates which might contribute to some disproportionate numbers. For example, (and I know this isn’t necessarily an example of violent crime) but blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate, but far more black men and women are arrested and jailed due to drugs. Why is that? It’s a combination of things, but one is that whites are able to secure drugs and use them in areas with less police surveillance, but if you just look at the arrest data you think (inaccurately) one group uses drugs at much higher rates.

        There’s also just society’s general attitude toward these things that I think sometimes reveals larger biases. I guess think of it this way. In the 1980s, we had a severe crack epidemic that absolutely drove urban crime rates, we passed pretty harsh laws for the sale of crack cocaine and the like. People talked about “law and order” and locking all the “scum” away, fast forward to today where in rural America, opioid addiction has ravaged white America led to increased rates of violent crime and AIDS infection and now we talk about more humane answers to these problems. These people are no longer criminals but rather victims of deindustrialization who need to be treated with dignity or at least a much softer hand than their counterparts from the 1980s. There seems to be a discrepancy there; is it only due to race? I don’t know but something seems off.

        Finally, I appreciate the dialogue here. Clearly we have some different views. However, you do throw around pejoratives like “lie” a lot. I wasn’t George W. Bush’s biggest fan, I think he had no business being president but I believed he was a sincere man even if I think he made the wrong choices a lot of the time. When we never found WMD’s in Iraq I never called him liar, misled and perhaps manipulated, but not a liar. I think he truly believed and continues to believe it was the right thing to do. I know some on the left were far harsher and that is regrettable b/c on both the left and right today, throwing around pejoratives really poisons the water. I think you’re sincere in your positions, not a racist or anything, but you do seem to be willing to lob terms like “lie” at people you don’t really know and I’m not sure that helps.

        Ok at any rate, we both have jobs I’m guessing. Thanks for the conversation, perhaps down the line we can move toward some common ground on this. These sorts of things are never comfortable and they take time. Take care.


      3. I appreciate your openness to reconsidering Ferguson/Brown.

        Relative to Zimmerman/Martin, I suggest the proper frame is that both young men were acting properly, right up to the point of physical contact. Zimmerman working to protect his community, Martin questioning why someone was following him. If fault is to be found, i suggest it has to do with how the two went about resolving their differences, rather than how they came to be where they were.

        I agree that when i use the word ‘lie’ i am imputing an intent as well as a body of knowledge to President Obama that i can’t know he has. I agree with you that we should avoid that flaw when we can. In my defense, i would prefer to think he just doesn’t have the data, but after this long it’s hard to overlook ‘willful blindness’. Maybe i am not being generous here but is it really possible he just doesn’t know? I suspect he does know but doesn’t want to deal with that aspect of the problem.

        In any case, thanks for the feedback and the dialog. BTW i don’t think you are a racist either – at least not in a bad way.


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