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John Hope Franklin: Apologies aren't enough

The prominent historian speaks out on the real work of ending discrimination

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Dr. John Hope Franklin is wearing shades of brown: a brown camel-colored blazer, dark brown vest, caramel and chocolate silk tie and brown slacks. His 6-feet-plus frame is brown (and slightly stooped with age); his dark brown complexion expressive still, even more so with the wrinkles and wisdom of his years.

So he has: a doctorate from Harvard, professorships at St. Augustine's College and N.C. Central among others, chairman of the history departments at Brooklyn College and the University of Chicago, professor of legal history at Duke and now the James B. Duke Professor of History Emeritus at Duke. He's the author of numerous books, including the seminal From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, now in its seventh edition, and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 2006 John W. Kluge award for his lifetime achievements in the humanities. (Franklin split the $1 million prize with historian Yu Ying-Shih.) He has accomplished much. But still, he is not satisfied with the America he sees for future generations.

And he talks about this dissatisfaction as often as he has an opportunity, no matter the many who find the continued conversation on matters of race or slavery or reparations or apologies tiring. "Americans are getting tired of anything that's constructive or serious, so I'm not disturbed that they find this [discussion] a bore or problem," he says.

On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, in January, Virginia legislator Frank Hargrove was clearly among the bored, judging by his response to a resolution that the state of Virginia apologize for slavery. Hargrove suggested that it was counterproductive to dwell on slavery, and that Virginia's black citizens should just "get over it." The Virginia Assembly promptly followed the ensuing controversy by becoming the first American state to pass a measure—fully supported by Hargrove—expressing "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery.

Now North Carolina has gotten into the act. The state House and Senate just passed a resolution that expresses "the profound regret of the North Carolina General Assembly for the history of wrongs inflicted upon black citizens by means of slavery, exploitation, and legalized legal segregation and calling on all citizens to take part in acts of racial reconciliation."

But one has to wonder how far apologies will go in righting past wrongs. Is it the scab that, left unbothered, will heal wounds, or is it merely a quick-fix Band-Aid, slapped on to make the ugliness of injury just go away?

Franklin, who knows what it is to grow up in a world where one's rights and equalities are constantly being questioned, refuses to let go. He thinks it's not just time for somebody to apologize, but to do something about it.

"No one knows the price that I've paid for what I've gotten out of this world and this life," he says. "My efforts represented sacrifices untold, indescribable. They don't know what my mother went through to see that I had opportunities, and even the fundamentals such as food and clothing and so forth. They don't know what my grandfather, on my father's side, paid in terms of taxes so that white young men could go to the University of Oklahoma, where my own father could not go.

"And I don't see any reason why I should get over that kind of exploitation of my immediate family—my father, my grandfather, my mother, and so forth. I see no reason I should get over it. I see every reason why there should be compensation, apologies, particularly in the hypocrisy it's represented, in their saying on the one hand that all men are created equal, and on the other hand, them saying if they're created equal, some are more equal than others."

We talked to Franklin in January and then last week about apologies and the politics of slavery and the post-Reconstruction era that created the need for one.

Independent: What do you think of the General Assembly's apology last week for slavery?

Dr. John Hope Franklin: It's going to become epidemic now. People are running around apologizing for slavery. What about that awful period since slavery—Reconstruction, Jim Crow and all the rest? And what about the enormous wealth that was built up by black labor? If I was sitting on a billion dollars that someone had made when I sat on them, I probably would not be slow to apologize, if that's all it takes. I think that's little to pay for the gazillions that black people built up—the wealth of this country—with their labor, and now you're going to say I'm sorry I beat the hell out of you for all these years? That's not enough. They ought to develop some kind of modus operandi that they can do something else—something to absolve themselves of three centuries of guilt from which they are the direct beneficiaries.

How large is the black population now living in abject poverty in this country? How large is the population of blacks who have poor health? Sometimes they inherited the poor health right from their forebears who were beaten and treated like they were animals all over this country. It's simply not enough. And I'm impatient with the piety that goes along with it. They're so syrupy in their apologies. What does it cost? Nothing.

What else do you think they should do?

Why don't they work on that instead of trying to draft a syrupy apology. I don't have to work on it. They have to work on this. They're the ones with the guilt from the treatment of my people. Then I'll decide if it's enough.

This past November, The News & Observer and other North Carolina newspapers revisited the Wilmington race riots in a 16-page supplement subtitled "Wilmington's Race Riot and the Rise of White Supremacy," a response to a 300-page report published by the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission. (Visit www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/1898-wrrc for the full commission report or www.newsobserver.com/1370/story/511596.html for the N&O Wilmington Race Riot supplement.) What are your thoughts on these recommendations, and are there any you would add?

I think the recommendations are commendable. I don't know if they go far enough; they go pretty far to the extent that they undertake to reverse the sentiments and to establish a new basis for racial harmony, not only in New Hanover County but also throughout the state. I can only hope that they do almost as much as they propose to do.

It's a big order and I must say, if the recommendations are seriously considered by the population of this state, we will be doing a remarkable job in moving in the right direction.

We've had difficulty in securing or getting groups to acknowledge their mistakes and to pledge to do better—that's been a very difficult task, especially in the area of race relations. If they want the [N.C.] Department of Public Instruction, for example, to revise the curriculum and take steps to teach the younger children about what happened in Wilmington in 1898, that's most commendable.

We'll have to wait and see before I can believe it—if it can be done or if it will be done.

When I was chairman of [Bill Clinton's] president's advisory board on race, I found very few groups that wanted to acknowledge that they had made mistakes in the past, and that it would be well to reconsider them and apologize for them—very seldom did I find any group that was willing to do that.

I'm not at all certain that we can find any groups that want to give up any property or any resources that they've gained through the years as a result of the way in which they acquired these properties and so forth. They simply don't want to think about it or to do anything about it. And if they do, in this case, I would be delighted, but surprised.

There have been suggestions recently that the statue of Josephus Daniels in Raleigh's Nash Square should be removed because of his role in the massacre as a Democratic Party leader and owner and editor of The N&O. How do you feel about that?

Josephus reviewed my first book in 1943 (The Free Negro in North Carolina). Oh, he was very cordial. It wasn't difficult for him to review it favorably, and he did review it favorably. He's on the right side of everything by 1943.

I don't have any problem with his statue. It ought to be pointed out what kind of man he was. He did a lot of things that are good and he might deserve it, but it ought to be pointed out that he led the coup to overthrow the government in Wilmington, and that he ran a racist newspaper for years. In Raleigh, I don't have any problem with the monument. We can't go around tearing down all the [Thomas] Jefferson monuments, and he was a prime racist.

Click for larger image • Franklin, now 93, was 6 years old when the race riots took place in Tulsa, where his father was establishing a law practice. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

When we last talked, you said the price we pay for silence and forgetting our past is "the persistence of lies, denial of guilt and denial of justice." How does the 1898 commission report and the subsequent publication address this silence? How does it stand up in terms of acknowledging the past?

It does, it stands up well. When it came out, I was surprised to find its humility and its modesty, addressing the problems that existed in the turn of the century. [Franklin reads from the newspaper supplement.] That they would acknowledge this violence in 1898 was a conspiracy of a white elite; that they would say they used force to replace a duly-elected group of officials; and that people lost their lives and were banished away from Wilmington because of their race and so forth—that's all a great gesture.

And it's all the more remarkable that these sets of recommendations would be set forth. I, for one, just don't believe that we've come that far and that this represents the views of the people of North Carolina at this time. I would say that if it does, I think we have experienced a sea change, and I would be the first to commend us all for that.

Republican delegate of Virginia Frank Hargrove, in a response to a resolution to have the state of Virginia apologize for slavery, said that it is counterproductive to dwell on slavery and Virginia's black citizens should "get over it." What is your response to that?

Well, I think the whites, the descendants of the slaveholders, ought to get over it, too. That the descendants of slaveholders are enjoying the fruits of the labors of slaves. I know that's true in my case. It's true in the case of the Virginia slaves. I'm the descendant of Tennessee slaves, Oklahoma slaves, Louisiana slaves, Mississippi slaves.

And I know enough about the history of Virginia to know what slaves gave to Thomas Jefferson, for example: The profits with which he was able to become a public servant. And it was they who labored and provided the resources for him to buy the wine he bought in Paris, and to live a life of leisure. Why should blacks get over it, the fact that he wallowed in the wealth that they produced for him all those years?

I'm not a descendant, as far as I know, from the slaves of Jefferson and all the other Virginia aristocrats, but I'm not over the exploitation of their contemporary fellows, and I don't see why their descendants—many of whom were black—should get over it either. So I'm not impressed by him claiming that contemporary blacks should get over it.

Has this type of attitude accounted for the silence or collective forgetting of incidents like the Wilmington and Tulsa Riots?

They've not been forgotten about. They've been buried. There are people, even when I go back to Tulsa, who claim they hadn't heard of the riots until they were grown. And maybe that's so, but the conspiracy of silence has been what has kept the history of this country distorted and misrepresented. So I'm not impressed with the fact that they haven't heard of it or don't know about it. They haven't heard of it or don't know about it simply because there's been a conspiracy of forgetfulness. There's been no intention to remind them of it and no desire on the part of people to learn about what happened in the past.

There seems to be a fine line between remembering and honoring the past, and not using the past as a crutch to keep you from pursuing your present and future. How do you navigate this line?

One must always use whatever talents he has or she has to do the best even in adverse circumstances. You don't use it as a crutch. If you have any deficiencies, the past may be used as an explanation—not even as a defense—for your shortcomings. They can explain your deficiencies without apologizing for them, or without using them as an excuse. Everything must be done by every human being to utilize whatever it is in the way of gifts or talents, resources, in order to achieve what they want to achieve.

At the same time, it is unwise and unrealistic to say that the existence of slavery did not retard the slave families to develop in the way the white families did. [Or] that the experiences of slavery and after slavery—it's unreal to say that they didn't have anything to do with how you got along yourself. They simply are a part of an explanation of any defects you have experienced.

They are not an apology for, so much as they are an explanation of, what you have been unable to do. If I say that my metabolism is low or that my physical structure is deficient because I didn't have the right kind of diet when I was a child, that doesn't apologize for it, it explains why I'm sick or allergic to this or that.

And it's not even offered as an excuse, it's simply another part of the picture that sometimes is overlooked.

What do you think is the appropriate response from the American government now that the truth about Wilmington—the only coup in American history—is out in the open?

I don't know that there is an appropriate response or there could be an apology. The American government, whatever its needs are to equalize opportunity and to provide justice for all, is probably not responsible for making up the defects of slaveholders and shareholders in Virginia or Maryland or North Carolina. And I would not expect the federal government to assume the responsibility for making amends all up and down the line, and to provide resources where there are deficiencies financial and otherwise.

I really expect though, that the government would not tolerate any continued discrimination and any continued defects in the relationship between one group of citizens and another. That if it is not in the position to make amends for everything that has happened, it can certainly see that it doesn't continue to happen. And I would settle for the government doing that.

Timothy Tyson, the author of The N&O supplement on Wilmington, found that in many North Carolina textbooks dating back to 1907, authors either left out the Wilmington riots altogether, or wrote about them in a skewed way—putting the blame on the black residents of the city. How do you re-educate students on what really happened in Wilmington and in cities across America where there were these types of riots?

Well, we need more reports like the report of this commission. I think if we had those reports we would overcome the deficiencies, at least of the side of history, of what happened and understanding the trends. If we were all exposed to a discussion of the riot, such as we have here, and if we at the same time committed ourselves to the resolutions of the recommendations, I would think that would go far in correcting and making amends for what happened.

I would also add that if this material could somehow be incorporated into the teaching and the textbooks and so forth, that would be very good for the future.

How do you capitalize on the commission's report and Tyson's summation to take this beyond just a process of examination?

I think that we can study with great care; that we can organize groups, not merely in Wilmington, but in many communities throughout [the nation]. And study the report and hold it up as a yardstick to see what we in our community and you in your community and they in their community can do that would improve the communities race-wise, economically and culturally.

Click for larger image • Franklin beside a portrait of his late wife, Aurelia. It was she who lured the Oklahoma native to North Carolina. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

At a time in our history when Americans are being faced with things like terrorism, global warming and war, why should we be concerned about race and race relations?

Race relations are so central to the history and well-being of this country that they cannot be overlooked. If we're talking about terror, we can't fight terror without doing something about race because that divides the country and weakens the country; we can't do anything about education unless we look at it across the board, for everybody; and the same thing is true with all the other problems that we face, including global warming. I think it's very central to a civilized community and we needn't bother about terrorism if we can't learn to live together black and white, brown and whatever else color [we are].

One of the main things that fueled the Wilmington massacre was an editorial published by Alexander Manly, a black editor who was a descendant of North Carolina's white governor, Charles Manly.

In response to a speech made by white suffragist Rebecca Felton, who championed lynching black men "a thousand times a week if necessary" to protect the virtues of white womanhood, Manly wrote, "Our experience among poor white people in the country teaches us that the women of that race are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than are the white men with colored women."

Even so, for decades after Manly wrote this editorial, the sexual stereotypes of the marauding black buck and the promiscuous black jezebel pervaded American media. Do you think these sexual politics still exist, and if so, how does it play itself out, for instance, in the case of the black exotic dancer who accuses three white men of rape? [Editor's note: This question and answer preceded the dropping of charges in the Duke lacrosse case.]

I suspect that it plays out in the outrage that so many in the white community had or felt with even the suggestion that a black woman could be raped. For the tradition in this country, tragically, is that black women cannot be raped because they're free and open to white men. And for a black woman even to think or to suggest or to hint that she could be assaulted by a white man, is a denial on her part—and from the point of the general public—of her submissive character that she's free and open to the public, so to speak. It's a ghastly misrepresentation of her virtue, chastity and all of that.

But this is one of the problems in the Duke lacrosse case, is how dare a black woman suggest that white men could force her.

Again, this ties back to the effects of slavery; we are still dealing with the stereotypes of race and sexuality that slavery promoted. How do you separate the two?

You can't separate it. You can just appeal to the intelligence of white people [who think this way] or appeal to their sense of fairness. They're all caught up in the emotion, which explains the outrage; but it does not relieve the situation at all, it merely exacerbates it, if anything. And so why shouldn't we regard this as the myth that it is?

When I was on Ken Burns' television show on Thomas Jefferson, he asked me if Thomas Jefferson slept with Sally Hemmings. And I said, 'Well, he could have.' She belonged to him; he had dominion over her. He didn't need to court her and ask her and beg her to give him sexual favors. He could take them. And that was the tradition. But what's so exciting and outrageous about suggesting that in the 20th century, where people are supposed to have certain rights of their own, what's so outrageous about someone saying a white man raped a black woman?

This is not to speak to the facts of the case, it's merely to speak to the allegations that were made and that seem to outrage this country.

How should the descendants of Wilmington Race Riot victims be compensated?

I don't know. I speak with less and less authority now. You see, I don't think they will be compensated. Therefore it's difficult to talk about what ought to be done, when you don't think it will be done.

The indictment of the people was general; the government was overthrown. And if there is to be recompense for what happened, it has to be a public response. Then the question is, who would be the beneficiaries? Who would be the recipients of any largesse that is provided? And I don't know. Would they be Manly's descendants, descendants of the slaves?

The same thing is true in any kind of suggestion that we ought to have a conversation with the [descendants], period. I simply would say that the best conversation to have is that you don't go out and find the descendants of the victims. You can try to do something for that segment of the population: improve their schools, provide resources for their general welfare, and so forth.

What has happened since the commission report on the Tulsa race riot [which occurred just as Franklin's father was establishing his law practice there]?

Well, they made recommendations, then we went to court to sue them, but we lost in court. See, there's no serious intention or effort or willingness to take on this as a real responsibility.

In a perfect world where people are willing to confront the past to make the present and future better, what should happen next?

I think that we ought to focus intensely on the plight of the young [black] male and be certain that he's given opportunities. That would be an effort to shore up our schools and make sure they are truly integrated, because we haven't done much of that. Even when we put blacks and whites in the same room, we don't do what needs to be done in order to facilitate their getting along together and their learning together. And along those lines, I think that's what they need to do.

Do you think the plight of the young black male has worsened in this country?

I know it has. All you have to do is look at them standing around on the streets—they're not in school. Look at the statistics of dropouts, that will tell you a lot. We need to work on all these things simultaneously if we are going to have a viable society.

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