For Memphis professors, the Capitol riots added a horrific chapter to Black history
By Tonyaa Weathersbee
Charles McKinney, associate professor of history at Rhodes College, didn’t imagine that just before Black History Month, he’d have a 21st century example for his lessons on white mob violence.
But the insurrectionists who ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop the electoral vote count, built gallows to hang Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and stopped to take selfies with some of the Capitol police, gave him one.
“When I teach lynching history, and show the photos, the students are like, ‘Well, where were the cops?’” said McKinney, who is the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies at Rhodes.
“I’m like, ‘The cops were there. They were running crowd control.’”
For McKinney and others who teach Black history and the Black experience in the United States, the Capitol riots added a chapter to America’s racial history that they wish had not been written, but one which, sadly, brings modern context to what they try to teach.
And that chapter is still being written.
It’s being written by Republican lawmakers who are using lies about voter fraud to make it harder for Black and brown people to vote. According the Brennan Center for Justice, 253 bills which restrict voting access have been proposed in 43 states – Tennessee included.
It’s being written by the persistent threat of mob violence. That threat led Congress to cancel its session on March 4th after intelligence agencies warned of another possible attack on the Capitol.
That was the day that Q Anon followers and white nationalists believed that Trump would be restored to power – after intelligence agencies warned of possible unrest.
So, what’s it like to teach about Black history and the Black experience as the nation appears to be reliving the worse moments of that history?
For McKinney and Aram Goudsouzian, who teaches 20th century American history at the University of Memphis with a focus on civil rights, culture and politics, these moments are key to facing the past and showing how those events cannot be isolated from the present.
“As Black folks, we’ve had moments where our rights have expanded, and moments where our rights have contracted,” McKinney said. “So, we can be all kinds of things, but we can’t be surprised when we come to another moment of contraction…
“That’s the thing we have to be honest about, when we’re talking about Black folks in the context of American history. We have to be honest about that dynamic…we’ve arrived at that period, once again, where we risk a significant contraction of our rights…”
Goudsouzian said his students hail from a variety of backgrounds. Some have always been interested in Black history, while others are being exposed to it for the first time.
But, said Goudsouzian, who co-edited the book, “An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis,” with McKinney, the Capitol riots have helped to shape discussions in his U.S. history course on the different ways that Americans talk about their history.
“On the right, people want to talk about the story of American history as a story of pure triumph and American values, while on the left people want to talk about American history as a story of oppression, with white supremacy as the central thread, while the big, liberal middle see the story of America as one in which we established a democracy,
that it’s an imperfect democracy, but we keep trying to refine it and make it better,” he said.
The rise of Trumpism, plus the Capitol riots and Trump’s two impeachments, offer a new chance to deconstruct sanitized versions of American history,” McKinney said.
“Some only want to talk about the good parts of history, the Revolutionary War and how we beat the Germans in World War II. That’s pom-pom history, the cheerleader version of history,” he said. “…It’s bad for our version of democracy to teach history bereft of democracy’s contradictions.”
“But if you’ve been taught a version of history where white mob violence has been
stripped away, if you don’t have a sense of how white rage and white violence has been one of the chief drivers of American history, my job is to give you that sense of history.”
While McKinney and Goudsouzian teach college students who already have some interest in Black history and in the Black experience, the Capitol insurrection and the other attempts at marginalizing the power of Black voters ought to inform lessons in high school and in other learning situations.
But, said McKinney, the insurrection shouldn’t cause people to think that Black people’s history is always about fighting white supremacy.
“Black people are achieving in spite of America, not because of it,” he said. “One of our challenges is to place people back in their context, so that we can have these conversations.”
And right now, the conversation is being shaped, once again, by efforts to fight Black
progress. It’s a conversation that must happen, but sadly, is a reminder of the fragility of progress, Goudsouzian said.
“One of the things about this era is the growth of [racial justice] protests, and people critically examining the past and trying to apply them to their own experiences,” he said.
“But at the same time, the [white nationalist] resistance has grown intense as well, so I think we live in this contradictory era now…”
That’s why no one should believe that the Jan. 6 insurrection many young people saw unfold in real time is any less terrifying than the lynching lessons McKinney teaches. All are about white mob violence and its role in U.S. history.
Yet while Jan. 6 added a chapter to the lessons that McKinney and Goudsouzian teach, it also added a challenge: To help people understand the history of racist mob violence and what must be done to stop it from happening again.
Or to at least know what to do if it does.