By Jeffery Robinson, ACLU Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality
Black History Month is meant to be a celebration of the achievements of Black Americans, in spite of our country’s history of blatant, intentional racism. Despite that intention, the American narrative surrounding the enslaving of Black Americans has always attempted to rewrite our past, generating a kinder, gentler image of slavery.
President Trump and his appointees are the embodiment of that attempt to rewrite Black history. Recently, President Trump and his appointee, Philadelphia U. S. Attorney William McSwain, mocked the history that serves as the foundation for Black History Month. While a kinder interpretation of their actions might say that their understanding of past and current U.S. history is limited, their distortion of Black history during this month brings to mind an Orwellian warning — who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past.
For example, U.S. Attorney McSwain spoke this month in defense of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies. During his remarks to about 500 people, McSwain compared so-called sanctuary cities, which have policies designed to protect immigrant communities, to the Southern secessionists who enslaved Black Americans:
“What an amazing concept – one that would have elated those who opposed the desegregation of lunch counters in the Deep South, or those who told Rosa Parks to go to the back of the bus, or those who stood in the schoolhouse doorway to prevent African American children from entering.
And this concept would have absolutely thrilled Southern slave owners. A sanctuary from federal law, where they could continue their practice of human bondage … The secessionists who defied federal authority during our nation’s Civil War are gone but not forgotten. They did not fight in vain. No, their spirit lives on, right here in Philadelphia, in the Cradle of Liberty. Their spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of those who declare Philadelphia a ‘sanctuary city.’”
McSwain is attempting to compare the slaveholders who defied federal authorities when they seceded from the Union to local governments that decline to collaborate with federal immigration authorities in the deportation and detention of their community members. But McSwain’s focus on “obeying the law” crumbles under even a minimum amount of scrutiny.
“Obeying the law” leaves out the fact that slavery was legal in America in both colonial and post-Constitutional days for almost a quarter millennium – 246 years. To those who say America did not begin until the Constitution was ratified, realize that America had a chance to reject the colonial notion of slavery. Instead, our founding fathers doubled down and gave specific protections to slave owners in the Constitution. Separate but equal was law in America for 89 years after the civil war. Those who opposed the desegregation of lunch counters weren’t mad at a social convention that prevented them from living regular life. They protested the fact that it was statutorily legal to segregate lunch counters under federal law for decades – just as it was legal to segregate travel, education, and all other forms of Black existence.
McSwain’s logic sees no difference between the students who sat at lunch counters to protest segregation and those who wanted to disobey the law when segregation was outlawed. It finds no difference between those who worked with Harriet Tubman on the underground railroad and those who wanted to keep slavery once the war ended. This logic divorces morality from the analysis. It can, and has, justified atrocities.
The commonality that links enslaving people with the immigrant justice movement is that in both cases people acted in defense of human dignity, against policies that rejected that dignity for people with Black and brown skin. McSwain’s faulty logic is a vile contradiction to the true principles of Black History Month. The man who appointed McSwain went even further.
During the State of the Union speech at the very beginning of Black History Month, President Trump gave Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom. That medal is intended to recognize an “especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Trump said that Limbaugh fit that criteria because of his voice on important issues. A few quotes from that same voice include:
- “Holocaust? Ninety Million Indians? Only four million left? They have all the casinos — what’s to complain about?”
- “The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.”
- “If any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it’s Caucasians.”
- “The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without weapons. There, I said it.”
- “They are 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?”
Honoring Black contributions to America — the foundation of Black History Month — is completely inconsistent with honoring Rush Limbaugh for his racist rhetoric.
Limbaugh and Trump are singing from the same hymnal. To Limbaugh, Black NFL players are similar to street gangs like the Bloods and Crips, to Trump they are “sons of bitches.” Trump says his ancestors tamed a continent, won’t apologize for America, and Limbaugh agrees, saying Caucasians are guilt-free for enslaving Africans. Limbaugh thinks that the NAACP, Rosa Parks’ employer, should get a liquor store and practice robberies, while Trump bemoans the “rapists, drug dealers and murderers” and “shithole countries” populated by Black and brown people.
Make no mistake, Limbaugh, McSwain, and Trump are all singing the same tune. It is not the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” but rather an ode to hateful rhetoric that contradicts the very foundation of Black History Month.