Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Thanksgiving: A Time for Americans to Come Together
Thanksgiving 2018 is coming along just when we need it. The divisions in our diverse society have been growing, in large part because of intemperate political rhetoric which casts those with whom we disagree on matters of public policy as “enemies.” and the growth of “identity politics,” in which we are asked to identify ourselves by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion — not view ourselves as individual citizens of a free and democratic society.
It is time to take a moment and recall the uniqueness of the American society. From its very earliest days, ours has been a country made up of men and women of every conceivable background. In colonial America, Thomas Paine noted that:
“Is there a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least experienced, it is America. Made up, as it is, of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the Union of such a people was impracticable. But by the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires and the parts are brought into cordial unison.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out that “We are the Romans of the modern world — the great assimilating people.” America, F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out, was not simply another country:
“France was a land. England was a people, but America, having about it still the quality of the idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh, and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”
In recent days, some have said that diversity is an American “weakness,” not a strength. Any who hold this view simply do not understand our history. Diversity is not a novel 21st century notion. It is the reality of our society from its earliest days — long before we became an independent nation. Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that eighteen languages were being spoken in this town of 8,000 people. J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782 in his Letters From an American Farmer, that, “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
There was never a time when the American society was not diverse. By the time of the first census in 1790, people of English origin were already a minority. Enslaved Africans and their American-born descendants, made up 20 percent of the population. There were large clusters of Scotch-Irish, German, Dutch and Scottish settlers, and smaller numbers of Swedes, Finns, Huguenots, and Sephardic Jews.
America has been a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany, Frenchmen have loved France, Swedes have loved Sweden. This, of course, is only natural. But America has been loved not only by native Americans, but by men and women throughout the world who have yearned for freedom. In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote that, “We are the heirs of all time and with all nations we divide our inheritance. If you kill an American, you shed the blood of the whole world.” America dreamed a bigger dream than any nation in history. The dream remains very much alive, despite the efforts of those who would diminish it. It will survive even the tortured partisanship of the present time.
At a time when intolerance is widely expressed — especially on social media that enables disgruntled and disturbed individuals to connect with one another — we see growing manifestations of hatred and violence. The murder of eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is a recent example. The alleged killer is a white nationalist, a neo-Nazi who expressed particular anger at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which helps resettle refugees from around the world. HIAS started its work in the 1880s. It says it originally helped refugees because they were Jewish. Now it helps refugees — from Iraq, Syria, Bangladesh, and elsewhere — “because we are Jewish.” If the Pittsburgh shooter, who denounced what he called an “immigrant invasion,” thinks he was upholding some sort of American tradition, he could not have been more wrong. After all, his own ancestors were immigrants — as were the ancestors of all of us — other than the descendants of those who greeted them.
The American tradition we celebrate on Thanksgiving Day is the one set forth by George Washington in his now famous letter to Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
From the beginning, America has represented hope for a better future to people throughout the world. In a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1849, Thomas Carlyle wrote:
“How beautiful to think of lean tough Yankee settlers, tough as gutta-percha, with most occult unsubduable fire in their belly, steering over the Western Mountains to annihilate the jungle, and bring bacon and corn out of it for the Posterity of Adam. There is no Myth of Athene or Herakles to equal this fact.”
In 1866, Lord Acton, the British Liberal Party leader, said that America was becoming the “distant magnet.” Apart from the “millions who have crossed the ocean, who should reckon the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West?”
We are a young country, but we are also an old one. Our Constitution is the oldest in the world, and we have continuously maintained the freedoms to which we first paid homage. There has been no period of an elimination of freedom of religion, or of the press, or of assembly. We have weathered wars and depressions. We will also weather the difficulties in which we are now embroiled. How ironic, that in a period of peace and prosperity, our political life has deteriorated to its present state. Democracy cannot thrive if men and women who disagree about public policy — health care, criminal justice, immigration, the environment, regulation of firearms, tax policy — are unwilling to work together and insist upon labeling those with whom they disagree “enemies of the people,” or worse. What happened to our traditional view of the “loyal opposition?”
We will move forward only if we recognize the fragility of a free and democratic society. It can be broken if its genuine uniqueness is not recognized and cherished. Thanksgiving is a time to recall our history and remember our values — and not give assent to those, on both the right and left, who seek only to condemn and divide.
Remembering George H. W. Bush
It was with sadness that I learned of the death of George H. W. Bush.
I first met him in the early 1960s when I was in law school. I spent a summer in Houston working as a reporter for the Houston Press — and lived in the home of good friends Marjorie and Raymond Arsht, who were good friends of the Bushes.
One night, George and Barbara Bush came to dinner. He was then chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. One of his goals was to convince black voters to join the Republican Party. At that time, many Texas Democrats were still sympathetic to segregation. He encouraged Marjorie and Ray to have a reception for black leaders at their home. This took place after I returned to law school.
Later, after Bush was elected to Congress, I worked with him when I served as assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference. We had two future presidents on our committee — Bush and Gerald Ford. We met weekly. I don’t remember hearing any abusive — or mocking — rhetoric about the Democrats. They were not viewed as “enemies.” Our goal was to convince as many Democrats as possible of the merits of the public policy proposals we were developing.
George H. W. Bush wanted the Republican Party to genuinely be the party of Lincoln. He wanted it to welcome Americans of all backgrounds. In his view, the role of a leader was to unite the country — not divide it. Sadly, the generosity of spirit he brought to our political life is lacking at the present time. Hopefully, we will return to it and abandon the divisive and narrow partisanship that is now corrupting our public life.
Making a Place for Christmas in a Chaotic World
As we enter the Christmas season, it seems that most of society’s concerns and obsessions are quite the opposite of what is, in fact, being celebrated. We live, more and more, in a materialist era in which the Christmas season begins with “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday.” Newspaper headlines tell us how much money was spent each day — the more the better. In our political life, we are told that “nationalism” and “America First” are values we should embrace. But the Christmas message is something quite different.
I remember, after the murder of Martin Luther King, attending a memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral. The hymn chosen declared, “In Christ, there is no East or West.” Its words express a universal religious message, which many seem to ignore:
“In Christ there is no East or West.
In Him no North or South.
But one great Fellowship
Throughout the whole wide earth.”
The idea of viewing all men and women as children of God, of respecting the stranger as oneself, was part of the Jewish tradition Jesus learned from his earliest days. Ironically, we have political spokesmen who at the very same time stir suspicion of those who are different — either by race, religion, or ethnicity — and proclaim they are Christians. What would Jesus say?
The views of man and the world set forth by Jesus — and the one that dominates in the modern world — are contradictory. Christmas should be a time of contemplation of the meaning of life — and of our own lives — and of seeking our answer to the question of what God expects of us.
In his book Jesus Rediscovered, Malcolm Muggeridge, the distinguished British author and editor, who had a religious conversion while preparing a BBC documentary about the life of Jesus, pointed out that a desire for power and riches is the opposite of what Jesus called for. Indeed, Jesus was tempted by the Devil with the very powers many of us so eagerly seek:
“Finally, the Devil showed Christ all the kingdoms of the world in a moment in time and said, ‘All this power I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will give it.’ All Christ had to do in return was worship the donor instead of God — which, of course, he could not do. How interesting though that power should be at the devil’s disposal, and only available through an understanding with him! Many have thought otherwise, and sought power in the belief that by its exercise they could lead men in brotherhood, and happiness, and peace — invariably with disastrous consequences. Always, in the end, the bargain with the Devil has to be fulfilled — as any Stalin, Napoleon or Cromwell must testify. ‘I am the light of the world,’ Christ said. ‘power belongs to darkness.’”
Muggeridge, who died in 1990, lamented the path in which he saw the Western world moving:
“I firmly believe that our civilization began with the Christian religion, and has been sustained and fortified by the values of the Christian religion, by which the greatest of them have tried to live. The Christian religion and these values no longer prevail. They no longer mean anything to ordinary people. Some suppose you can have a Christian civilization without Christian values. I disbelieve this. I think that the basis of order is a moral order; if there is no moral order there will be no political or social order, and we see this happening. This is how civilizations end.”
And yet, despite all of this, there is a spiritual yearning in our American society, a feeling that things are not what they should be, and a desire to set ourselves and our country back on a better path. Christmas speaks to the spiritual vacuum in our lives — but only if we will listen to the message.
G. K. Chesterton, discussing the meaning of Christmas, wrote:
“. . . there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not, in its psychological substance, at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest form of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never expected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good.”
A key question for Chesterton was, “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?” His sense that the world was a moral battleground, wrote his biographer Aliza Stone Dale, “helped Chesterton fight to keep the attitude that has been labeled ‘facile optimism,’ something that he could never recover, the wonder and surprise at ordinary life he had once felt as a child.”
The divisions in our society are unseemly and unnecessary — and the opposite of the Christmas message. Dividing people on the basis of race or ethnicity ignores the reality that all men and women are created in the image of God. To view people as “enemies” because they disagree about how best to deliver healthcare, or what the tax rate should be, or what our immigration policy should embrace, is to misunderstand the nature of democratic government. Men and women will naturally disagree about matters of public policy. That is why compromise in a democratic society is necessary. Genuine leaders strive to unite the American people, not divide it. We used to think that we could disagree without being disagreeable. Why is that no longer true for so many? Jesus urged his followers to love their enemies. Even many who call themselves Christian cannot even love those with whom they disagree upon one policy proposal or another.
This holiday season we would do well to reevaluate the real gods in our lives and in the life of our country. Our health and that of America may depend upon such a genuine celebration of Christmas.
As Political Passions Rise, Knowledge of American History and Government Declines
One of the ironies of our society at the present time is that, as political passions rise, the knowledge of American history, and how our system of constitutional government is meant to work, is in sharp decline.
The evidence of this decline is all around us. Recently, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation conducted a multiple choice poll using questions used on the test administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and found a shocking lack of knowledge.
Only 13 percent could identify 1787 as the year the Constitution was written. The foundation said passing the citizenship test requires a score of at least 60 percent. But just 36 percent of the citizens they surveyed achieved that score. The poll found older Americans did better, with 74 percent of seniors answering enough questions correctly to have passed. Fewer than one in five Americans under 45 cleared the threshold.
The Woodrow Wilson Foundation President Arthur Levine said:
“With voters heading to the polls . . . an informed and engaged citizenry is essential. Unfortunately, this study found the average American to be woefully informed regarding America’s history and incapable of passing the U.S. Citizenship Test. It would be an error to view these findings as merely an embarrassment. Knowledge of the history of our country is fundamental to maintaining a democratic society which is imperiled today.”
The evidence of this sad reality has been building for some time. Several years ago, a student group at Texas Tech University went around campus and asked three questions: “Who won the Civil War?”; “Who is our Vice President?”; “Who did we gain our independence from?” Students’ answers ranged from “The South,” for the first question to “I have no idea,” for all three of them. However, when asked about the T.V. show Snookie starred in (“Jersey Shore”) or Brad Pitt’s marriage history, they answered correctly.
A study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute surveyed more than 2,500 Americans and found that only half of adults could name the three branches of government. Studies have shown that 60 percent of college graduates don’t know any of the steps necessary to ratify a constitutional amendment and 50 percent don’t know how long the terms of representatives and senators are. Forty percent don’t know that Congress has the power to declare war; and 43 percent don’t know that the First Amendment gives them the right to freedom of speech; and a third can’t identify a single right it guarantees.
A 2016 American Council of Trustees and Alumni report showed that, even though all 12th grade students took a course in civics, less than a quarter of them passed a basic examination at “proficient” or above. In a survey of over one thousand liberal arts colleges, only 18 percent include a course in U.S. history or government as part of their graduation requirements.
Diane Ravitch, an education historian, was invited by the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s governing board, to review the results of a history and civics test in which 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency. She was particularly disturbed by the fact that only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, which she called “very likely the most important decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the past seven decades.”
Students were given an excerpt, including the following passage: “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Students were then asked what social problem the 1954 ruling was supposed to correct. “The answer was right in front of them,” said Ravitch. “This is alarming.”
The evidence of our failure to teach our history is abundant. Fewer than half of eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights on a recent national civics examination and only one in ten demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
“These results confirm that we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education,” said Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court justice, who has founded icivics.org, a nonprofit group that teaches students civics through web-based games and other tools. Justice O’Connor says that:
“We face difficult challenges at home and abroad. Meanwhile, divisive rhetoric, and a culture of sound bites threaten to drown our national dialogue. We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship.”
Historian David McCullough laments that:
“We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate. I know how much these young people, even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning, don’t know. It’s shocking.”
McCullough tells of a young woman who came up to him after a lecture at a respected university and said: “Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original thirteen colonies were all on the East Coast.”
Historian Paul Johnson points out that:
“The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, totally false.”
The history of the world indicates that freedom is not natural to man, but must be carefully cultivated and taught. Through most of recorded history, man’s natural state has been to live under one form of tyranny or another. Freedom must be learned and carefully transmitted from one generation to another if it is to endure. As Cicero (106-43 B.C.) understood:
“To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child. What is human life worth unless it is incorporated into the lives of one’s ancestors and set in a historical context.”
The men who framed the U.S. Constitution were careful students of history, particularly the fate of early democracies in the ancient world, Athens and the Roman Republic. They sought to learn lessons from the demise of those early democracies. As a result, they crafted a government of limited power, and divided that power between three separate branches, hoping that freedom would be preserved in this way.
But free societies are very fragile. Our overheated political rhetoric at the present time, with each party portraying its adversary as a virtual enemy of freedom itself, threatens the very civility and honest competition that a properly functioning democracy requires. The less we know of history — and we seem to know less each year — the further we move away from what the Founding Fathers understood were the necessary prerequisites for freedom. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Do Those Who Promote “Socialism” Have Any Idea of What It Means?
Suddenly, we are hearing a great deal about “socialism.” A Gallup Poll in August found that 57 percent of Democrats said they view socialism positively. Other polls show the popularity of socialism among millennials. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez achieved celebrity promoting socialism, after she defeated the fourth-ranked Democratic House leader, Joseph Crowley, in a New York primary. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), has long called himself a “democratic socialist,” and gained widespread support in his 2016 challenge of Hillary Clinton.
What exactly do its proponents mean when the use the term “socialism?” In his article, “Socialism Is So HOT Right Now” (Commentary, Oct, 2018), Jonah Goldberg, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that:
“. . . socialism has never been a particularly stable or coherent program. . . . It has always been best defined as whatever socialists want it to be at any given moment. That is because its chief utility is as a romantic indictment of the capitalist status quo. As many of the defenders of the new socialist craze admit, socialism is the off-the-shelf alternative to capitalism, which has been in bad odor since at least the financial crash of 2008.”
“For millennials’’ writes the Huffington Post’s Zach Carter, ‘‘capitalism means ‘unacceptable people ripping off the world’ while ‘socialism’ simply means ‘not that.’”
There was a time when socialism was widely understood to involve government owning the means of production, deciding exactly what was to be distributed, and who would get it. If contemporary advocates of socialism believe that the economies of Norway, Sweden and Denmark represent their ideal, they must be reminded that these Scandinavian countries are capitalist countries, with thriving, privately owned industries. They simply have decided to have higher taxes than we do, and to provide additional social services. They are not socialist.
We did have our own colonial experience with a genuine variety of socialism. From the earliest days, the American colonists learned the important lesson that the entire idea of the “common ownership” of property was both impractical and inequitable.
Discussing the experience of the Plymouth Colony, Professor Gottfried Dietze, in his book, In Defense of Property, writes that:
“Irrespective of what each of the colonists produced, everything went into a common warehouse and the government doled out the proceeds of the warehouse as need seemed to require. However, this system soon proved to be unsatisfactory. The warehouse was constantly running out of provisions and many of the colonists were starving. In view of this emergency, Governor Bradford and the remaining members of the colony agreed during the third winter to give up the common ownership and permit each colonist to keep the products of his work. This gave incentive to all.”
When Spring came, reported Governor Bradford:
“. . . the women now wente willingly into ye field and tooke their little-ons with them to set corne, which before would alledge weakness, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.”
The result of these efforts was a happy one.
Professor Dietze, reviewing the history of the entire American colonial period, as well as the thinking of the framers of the Constitution, concludes that, “. . . the American Revolution became, to a great extent, a movement for the protection of property.”
Those who today advocate an “equal” distribution of property claim that in doing so, they are simply applying the philosophy of the Founding Fathers to matters of economic concern. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In The Federalist Papers, James Madison clearly deals with this question. He wrote:
“The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interest. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.”
It is difficult to understand how political activists who express suspicion of government and the ruling elites they believe to be in charge would think that socialism — which would give government power over our entire economy — would, somehow, be an improvement. What they misunderstand is the fact that economic freedom is the form of organizing an economy most consistent with other freedoms — of religion, speech and press, among others.
This point was made by Professor Milton Friedman:
“The kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely competitive capitalism, also, promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other.”
Unfortunately, we do not now have a system of genuine competitive free market capitalism. We have what some have called “crony capitalism,” with government subsidizing favored sectors of the economy, bailing out sectors which have gone bankrupt with taxpayer dollars, and interfering in the economy in myriad ways — most recently by imposing tariffs on products from a number of countries, leading to an unnecessary trade war. Democrats and Republicans are co-conspirators in this enterprise.
Jonah Goldberg explains how this works:
“The major difference between the left and the right when it comes to any movement dedicated to overthrowing the free market order . . . is which groups will be the winners and which groups will be the losers. A left-wing system might empower labor leaders, government bureaucrats, progressive intellectuals, universities, certain minority groups, and one set of industries. A right-wing system might reward a different set of industries, as well as traditional religious groups and their leaders, an ethnic majority, aristocrats, or perhaps rural interests. But both systems would be reactionary in the sense that they rejected the legacy of the Lockean revolution, preferring . . . a natural state where the ‘stakeholders’ colluded to determine what was best for their interests.”
Where today’s conservatives stand is, Goldberg argues, increasingly confused:
“Today, in America, we associate defense of the market with the political right, although the new nationalist fervor aroused by Donald Trump and his defenders may overturn that somewhat. Already, the president’s economic rhetoric — and considerable swaths of his policies — is more reminiscent of natural state economics. Just as Obama picked economic winners and losers to the benefit of his coalition, Trump rewards industries that are crucial to his. One can argue that favoring wind and solar power is better policy than favoring steel or coal, but it’s still an argument for favoritism.”
Socialism, real socialism as envisioned by Karl Marx and his adherents, has always led to economic inefficiency and scarcity, and has eliminated political and religious freedom as well. The state controls everything and citizens become mere pawns of those in power.
It seems that those in our American political arena who casually embrace “socialism” know little of this history. They would do well to undertake a study of what socialism really involves and where it has led. If they did, they might be surprised to learn that they are promoting an ideology far worse, with far greater inequality, than whatever problems they seek to address in our own imperfect, but far preferable, society.
If, as has been said “ignorance is bliss,” then today’s advocates of socialism are having a moment of euphoria, to be followed, as night follows day, by a harsher reality.
The Green Book — The Travails of Traveling While Black During the Years of Segregation
For those of us who are old enough, and lived in the South, the years of segregation remain an indelible memory. I remember a time, not that long ago, when restaurants, restrooms, trains, buses, and almost every aspect of life was segregated. When I taught a course in international law at the Pentagon, I asked one of my students why there were so many restrooms along the hallways. I was told that the Pentagon, located in Virginia, was built during the years of segregation and that on the halls there were four sets of restrooms, for white men, black men, white women and black women.
The recent movie “The Green Book” shows the travail endured by black travelers in those days. It tells the true story of Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class African-American pianist who is about to embark on a concert tour in the South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, he recruits Tony Valielonga, a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger. Tony is given a copy of The Green Book by the record studio, a guide for black travelers to find safe havens throughout the South. It guides them to the few establishments that were then safe for African Americans.
The Negro Motorist Green Book was originated and published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966 as a guide to places and services relatively friendly to blacks. Many black Americans took to driving to avoid segregation on public transportation. The black journalist George Schuyler wrote in 1930 that, “All Negroes who can do so purchase an automobile as soon as possible in order to be free of discomfort, discrimination, segregation, and insult.”
Victor Green compiled resources “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into discrimination and to make his trip more enjoyable.” In 1917, the black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois observed that “the impact of ever-recurring race discrimination” had made it so difficult to travel to any number of destinations, from popular resorts to major cities, that it was now a “puzzling query as what to do with vacations.”
It was not only in the South that black travelers were not welcome. In Cincinnati, the African American editor Wendell Dabney wrote of the situation in the 1920s that, “Hotels, restaurants, eating, and drinking places almost universally are closed to all people in whom the least tincture of colored blood can be detected.” Not one hotel or other accommodation was open to blacks in Salt Lake City in the 1920s. Only 6 percent of the more than 100 motels on Route 66 in Albuquerque, New Mexico admitted black customers. Across the whole state of New Hampshire, only 3 motels in 1956 served African Americans.
In 1943, George Schuyler wrote: “Many colored families have motored all across the United States without being able to secure overnight accommodations at a single tourist camp or hotel.” He suggested that they would find it easier to travel abroad than in their own country.
In Chicago in 1945, St. Clair Drake and Horace A. Clayton reported that “the city’s hotel managers by general agreement do not sanction the use of hotel facilities by Negroes, particularly sleeping accommodations.”
Lester Granger of the National Urban League reported that black travelers had to carry buckets or portable toilets because they usually were barred from bathrooms and rest areas in service stations. African American travelers often packed meals and carried cans of gasoline because many service stations did not welcome them as customers.
Civil rights leader Julian Bond recalled that his parents used The Green Book, He notes that:
“It told you not where the best places were to eat but where there was anyplace. You needed The Green Book to tell you where you could go without having doors slammed in your face.”
Victor Green looked forward to a time when such guidebooks would no longer be necessary:
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication. For then we can go as we please without embarrassment.”
The 1966 edition was the last to be published after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations. We have come a long way since then. When I was in college, in the years of segregation. If anyone suggested that we would live to see a black Supreme Court Justice, Secretary of State, and President. that person would have been considered mad. Yet, it has happened. Our society has shown a great capacity to change — for the better.
But the story is not over. Even today, we have politicians who seek to divide us on the basis of race. Too often, innocent people have been killed by the police, largely because of race. In December, a black man was escorted from the lobby of a hotel in Portland, Oregon because he was innocently speaking on his telephone in the lobby — even though he was a guest at the hotel. The news, unfortunately, has too many such stories.
Reviewing the history of The Green Book is instructive. We have come a long way. But our journey is hardly finished. And, sadly, divisions of people based on race, religion, and ethnicity is hardly a uniquely American problem. The growth of nationalism — often a euphemism for tribalism of one kind or another — is growing throughout the world. Hopefully, we — and people of good will everywhere — will learn some lessons from the story of The Green Book. *