“What’s Going on?”

June 5, 2020

At the Gilder Lehrman Center we want to express our continued commitment to using history, and knowledge more generally, as well as our teaching and our imaginations to face the current crises in America.  It has become a reflexive gesture to issue statements condemning the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police.  Of course we offer such a condemnation, but we also wish to say that as we mourn we must also mobilize, and as we reflect we must also organize social rage into a politics and an education of change.  Universities are places of contemplation by definition.  But we are also places in which to foment awareness, as well as humanistic and scientific knowledge, in the service of a morally better world.  In our studies of slavery and all the kinds of tyranny that lay beneath it over the ages, we have come to understand something about authoritarian controls over people and institutions.  The United States is a republic and it must remain so.  It has faced many racial reckonings in our history and we are now engaged in a new one of profound dimensions.  The GLC stands ready to work with any local or national organizations, through all of our activities and more, to address the issues raised in the following essay, written in response to events of the past weeks.  A somewhat shorter version of the piece is published in the Atlantic:


“What’s Going on?”

June 5, 2020
David W. Blight
Sterling Professor of History at Yale
Director, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale University

“Picket lines, and picket signs,
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see,
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on.”
— Marvin Gaye, 1970

In America’s house divided we are once again collectively wondering whether racism, in its structures and its individual acts, is tearing us apart in irreparable ways. For the moment the answer is largely yes. We have every reason to be asking, as Marvin Gaye did in his anthem released in the wake of the Kent State and Jackson state killings of students in 1970, “What’s going on?” In the period 1965 to 1970, the American nation did come apart in racial uprisings-riots that, along with the radical stages of the civil rights movement and the bitter divisiveness of the Vietnam War, helped elect a “law and order” candidate, Richard Nixon, to the Presidency. Divisiveness, wedge issues, race itself were all political means to power. They always have been throughout American history. Today we are divided again, and while by no means in exactly the same ways as 1970, the dangers and the stakes are just as high.

Today, at the heart of the complexities in the recent police murders and protests that have swept the nation, Donald Trump’s presidency is a primary context for this historical moment. Trump’s depraved rhetorical behavior, his vile racism, his willful ignorance, his vicious contempt for the free press, and his extraordinary mishandling of the federal response to the Coronavirus pandemic are the template on which actions in Minneapolis, Louisville, Brunswick, Georgia, or on a bird-watching walk in Central Park have exploded. Gangster and white supremacist government enables gangster behavior among police officers, United States senators and congressmen, a Secretary of State, an Attorney General, and many others with a stake in the outcomes of authoritarian rule over taxation, the right to vote, economic and environmental regulation, and the interests of the United States abroad. Authoritarians thrive on chaos and sowing distrust in institutions, and now we really have both.

All that ails American society and politics was not caused by Trump, but he is a social cancer that must be surgically, politically, and we must hope, peacefully removed if we are to save our democracy and civil society. Once the Trump poison is expunged, we face overwhelmingly intractable problems to solve in health, economic inequality, with ever-recurring racism itself, with our increasingly dysfunctional political institutions and the strangling corporate influence that corrupts them. Trumpism in many manifestations will not go away; it has stoked too much fire in the belly of white supremacy and the various forces festering from the politics of resentment. But first, the enabler-in-chief must be sent where he can do less harm, although his post-presidency is likely to be a prime-time position on Fox News or some other media perch. The show will go on.

The current protests and despair over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Armaud Aubrey stand in an agonizingly long line of such killings, such disregard for black life, such pain in the hearts of black families that mere rationality and outrage fail us as responses. From Trayvon Martin through Michael Brown, to Freddy Gray and Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Philandro Castile, and on and on; we try to recite the names out of respect, but also with exhaustion and despair. There is perhaps no way right now to be centered or fully grounded about this recent history, or the history of violence that goes back 400 years, almost 250 of which encompassed the foundational experience of slavery. Our national history with slavery and race provides us important moments of triumph and creative reinvention: emancipation in the Civil War, the passage of the Reconstruction Constitutional Amendments, the civil rights movement and its transformations in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the emergence of black political, economic, and academic leadership in the wake of the 1960s, the modern emancipation of women and their rise into positions of power, and the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. This history has also brought us countless flowerings of sublime artistic endeavor that have told America’s story to the world.  

So much triumph and change, and yet many people, even those with a deep understanding of the patterns and ironies of history, do not sometimes know how to steady themselves, to find any equipoise while watching Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck as a weapon of death, nor how to react to a president’s use of social media to reach millions with the incendiary message that “when the looting starts the shooting starts.” Nor do most of us who care have much energy left to even react to the president’s sheer cowardice in not taking questions at a White House press conference later in the day when he had stoked such anticipation of violence. Many people just want to scream about how hard it is to walk, talk, drive, or shop while black in America. 

We used to have a democracy where, however divided, the right of protest was by and large respected. It still is in many ways, but protest rooted in great outrage while still non-violent, must now it appears face the methods of organized anarchists and white supremacists mobilized on social media to sow disruption, chaos and violence wherever they can in the midst of legitimate resistance. Protesters are gathering in dozens of American cities to make witness against police murders and the many underlying elements of structural racism that lay beneath them. But how do people protest if they discover they cannot trust the protest? Many kinds of trust are now lost in America and we can only hope that the “Boogaloo” crowd of cowards behind their laptops and daredevil militia men may get sufficiently exposed in order to be stopped. Thus far, these “accelerationists” have not won, and the thousands of citizens in the streets, however angry, seem determined to defeat them as well as the bigger enemy of racism.

With more than 104,000 Americans dead from a virus far from under control, nearly 40 million unemployed, and with hundreds of businesses as well as police buildings and vehicles burned in American cities, we are collectively reminded once again that in order to find our grounding we have perhaps three essential options. One is religious faith and spirituality. A second is a peculiarly American secular faith in Enlightenment creeds upon which our nation was founded and then again re-founded in the wake of the Civil War (especially our beliefs in natural rights, equality, government by popular sovereignty, and a Bill of Rights). And a third might be simply a deep, bracing, if chastening sense of history. Right now thousands are also finding purpose in acts of protest with their feet, their voices, their signs, their fingers on computer keys, and their imaginations.

A sense of history arms us with signposts and lessons; it arms us with the power of knowledge, and it can provide a buoy in turbulent waters. Above all, James Baldwin once wrote, to have a “sense of history” means that whatever happens to a person, however horrible, he or she learns that they “are not alone.” What happens, even the bleakest or most frustrating of events, has in some form happened before to other people in other times. It might be small if any consolation, but especially to young people, particularly black Americans right now, no one is alone, even those to whom too much history has happened. In learning each other’s history and the history of our society and nation, no one is alone.

If we are a society coming apart, with small but violent groups among us peddling conspiracy theories and wishing for some kind of civil war, then the 1850s are instructive. The late antebellum period is the only time in our history when the nation dissolved, militarized, and went to war over two profoundly different futures. That decade is even further instructive about how an enormously divisive issue, slavery, perhaps the most divisive in our history, did indeed tear apart the American political and social fabric. The politics of slavery, moreover, left a profound lesson in the nature and necessity of coalitions in order to forge real transformations of society. The 1850s also remind us starkly to beware when political and legal institutions lose their hold on public trust and fall apart.

As part of the Compromise of 1850, temporarily and uneasily settling the question of slavery’s expansion, the Fugitive Slave Act became law. It determined that any escaped slave who managed to reach the northern free states had to be returned to his or her rightful owner, adjudicated by special magistrates who were paid twice as much for returning a black bondsman to the South as for releasing him. The law struck fear into thousands of fugitives already living in northern states and radicalized the American abolition movement. It also led to numerous fugitive slave rescues, some by violence against the state and police authority. The heroic runaway slave became more than ever an object of sympathy and protection instead of pieces of property under American law. The fugitive slave issue broadened the antislavery movement into open resistance and into a politicized crusade. As tracked in the most popular book of the age, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, abolitionists had to act outside and against the law if they truly intended to defeat slavery. Many abolitionists who had previously preferred the strategy of moral suasion – non-violently advocating the change of hearts and minds through persuasion and not politics – began to see that the governmental power at the heart of slavery had to be attacked. And some increasingly began to act with physical force and violence.

The great orator and editor, Frederick Douglass, is a case in point. By the early 1850s, after nearly a decade of practicing primarily as a moral suasionist, the former slave and fugitive slave came to embrace action through political parties and the possibility of violent means. He called the Fugitive Slave Act the “hydra…begotten in the spirit of compromise” and “legalized piracy.”  At the very least, Douglass lost his moral ambivalence about violent resistance to slave catchers and to slaveholders themselves. By his count he participated in helping at least one hundred fugitives escape through western New York state and into Canada over the course of the decade. His own rhetorical rage burst forth with stunning furor. 

In a speech in Syracuse in 1851, Douglass declared: “I do believe that two or three dead slaveholders will make this law a dead letter.” Although he found himself increasingly desperate for direct action against slavery over the course of the 1850s, and morally and financially supported John Brown’s exploits that led to the Harpers Ferry raid while refusing to join what he deemed a suicide mission, Douglass nearly always preferred radical reform to revolutionary violence. His tilting between rhetorical and real violence, between embrace of political antislavery and more radical organizations operating outside of government, and his struggle to believe African Americans could achieve a future in the United States via faith in natural rights alone provide a rich, if sobering, cautionary tale about the tortured relationship between protest and change.

Slavery ought not be equated directly with the struggles of African Americans with police power in our own time. But the depths of fear and distrust in institutions, the denials of dignity, of humanity, of the idea of natural rights before God and law, the near impossibility of self-defense in the face of some police actions, were similar for the fugitive slave as well as the many free blacks and their white allies who sought to protect and aid them. 

In examining America’s road to disunion and Civil War in the 1850s we need great care with analogies. The many-sided issue of slavery broke apart the American political party system; the old Whig party died and the antislavery coalition known as the original Republican party emerged and succeeded nearly overnight in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, an attempted compromise that blew open the American West to the possible expansion of slavery and inspired a slow political revolution across the North on behalf of free labor. 

Next came “Bleeding Kansas,” a vigilante, brutal frontier war for control over whether the new territory would become “proslavery” or “freesoil.” Millions of white Northerners did not as much possess a sense of brotherhood with blacks as they did fear slavery as a labor system that would denigrate or even destroy their hopes for land and livelihood in the West, which inspired the American immigrant’s sense of a future. Increasingly both the rhetoric and reality of violence began to tear apart any centers in American politics. The Dred Scott decision in 1857, in effect, ruined moderation in political life as it not only seemed to open all American territories to slavery’s expansion. Most important, the Supreme Court declared that black people had “no rights” which white people or their governments were bound to respect. After 1857, black Americans lived in the land of the Dred Scott decision, which had bluntly told them they had no future in this country as citizens.

The Republican party became a coalition of remarkably different political persuasions—old abolitionists of varying degrees of radicalism, former Democrats who were both racist and against slavery’s expansion, and nativists who had launched a powerful movement to restrict immigration and especially Catholicism. But what drew these disparate people together was the struggle to imagine an American future without racial slavery and its stranglehold on labor, the economic system, and on the levers of power in every branch of government. The Republican party’s legacy, so complex and sullied by today’s version of the organization, which resembles in no way the egalitarian impulses of its origins, teaches us the great lesson of coalitions. Divergent coalitions, held together by a large common enemy, a shared faith in some essential creeds or goals, and a profound will to win despite the levels of tolerance required to sustain internal unity, are the way to power and great change in America. 

We do not want our current shuddering troubles to end as the 1850s ended—in disunion and civil war. We need a “never again” mentality about that history. But we need to understand the signs and warnings of disunion. In the 1850s, in three consecutive general elections, Americans went to the voting polls in the largest percentages of turn-out in our history. As much as 75-80% of the eligible male voters cast ballots in a still largely rural society. Slavery and its related issues and power drove them to vote, as did a thriving level of hard-nosed partisanship. Granted, women could not vote, but how do we know that they too would not have turned out in similar numbers? One lesson of the 1850s levels of partisanship—eventually between Republicans and Democrats (who were the proslavery party)—is that it can work to gain power and change the world. Our current distaste for partisanship is understandable, but polarization can be a means to power and for good or for evil. If this be partisanship, make the most of it.

In 1855, as Douglass brought his long-form masterpiece, his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, to a close he left us a motto if we choose to adopt it. He said he would never forget his “humble origins” as a slave and his improbable rise to freedom and fame, but as long as “heaven” allowed him to do the work of abolitionism, he would do it, he concluded, with “my voice, my pen, and my vote.” In today’s swirling protests, confusion, and strategizing, people—black, brown and white—are putting their bodies on the line; they are using their voices and in some cases their pens to make the case against racism and inequality. Some have tipped over into property destruction and violence against authority as they see it. But if we forget about the vote, hard as it may be for some young people to grasp, we may be heading down a road of disaster. We need electoral politics now more than ever and responsible leaders need to stand up and say so. This is no time for bi-partisan niceness. It is voting time.

On that count I make the following modest suggestion. On August 16, 2020, or perhaps during the entire week preceding that Saturday, just before both party conventions, in major cities and towns, the enormous rage and energy now exploding in our streets in response to the killing of George Floyd should be harnessed in a massive mobilization effort to declare that in the November election the United States must shift the course of its history. Not only will this be a vast statement that (yes, it will be partisan) Trump and Trumpism must be defeated, but occasions for Americans to demonstrate their coalitions against structural racism, police brutality, unequal health care, and many other issues. Call it the “Save our Democracy” day or week.

How might this modest suggestion actually take place? Local groups of all kinds will have to be in the vanguard of mobilization in coordination with all those who continued the politics of the women’s marches in 2017 and forged the “March for Our Lives” against guns in 2018. The Democratic National Committee should have a central role. There are a thousand more organizations that need to be engaged in planning the days of rallies. This is necessary partisanship to forge the beginning of a national renewal. 

Social distancing will likely still be in order to some degree and it can be done with careful planning. Events can be filmed and attended safely. Towns and cities would erect stages on which citizens read the names of their community’s dead from the Corona virus. They would read the names of the victims of police killings over the past decade. Perhaps even some communities would read names of old abolitionists, twentieth century activists, even famous fugitive slaves. Social justice activism combines with the politics of voter registration and mobilization. Climate activists would share center stage in most cities. Together, we mourn and mobilize. On that Saturday night, a musical concert can be planned similar to others organized during the pandemic, a celebration of American culture both live and online to bring us together as a civic coalition and as a people.

The rallies may be at times chaotic; focus will not be easy. Violent disrupters or accelerationists much be discouraged and suppressed. But Americans must stand up, come out, register young people to vote in numbers never before realized, and make witness before the world that we can still be a democracy, however divided. We have to convert chaos and distrust into political action up and down all ballots. This would not be merely a series of “unity” rallies. It would not be bi-partisan except to the extent that anyone can join in the effort to declare that Trumpism and all its authoritarian allies and cowardly lackies are soon to be on their way out. Our rage must be harnessed for electoral politics, new legislation, new organizing, and yet another American rebirth of freedom. All rallies would be organized in coordination with and respect for police departments in each city. For those who cannot yet be convinced that electoral politics is the way to change, we need to keep teaching about, pleading perhaps for awareness, about the elections of 1860, 1876, 1912, 1932, 1960, 1968, 1980, 2000, 2008, and 2016. Look them up! For better or for worse, they changed the country. So can this one. It has to.

Marvin Gaye’s haunting lyric was as much a plea as it was a question. “What’s going on!” Right now we need our voices, our pens, our feet, our bodies, our imaginations. We need all our powers of persuasion, our teaching, our faith, and our VOTES.