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.