Who Causes Change?

(June 12, 2019) Yesterday Andrew Klavan interviewed ninety-four-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Harry T. Stewart who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen group of black fighter pilots during World War II. Klavan admired how Stewart successfully pursued his goals during the years that bridged from segregation to the present. Although Stewart was aware of racism in the early part of his career he navigated through it as it gradually crumbled. He especially appreciated the whites who helped him along the way during the period of segregation, beginning with the Tuskegee flight instructors. When Klavan asked the retired airman to share advice for today’s youth he said, “I’d tell ’em to keep their eye on the prize.”

After Stewart had moved off stage Klavan addressed his audience with a personal reflection. He said, “I have a theory that it is not the social activists that effect change.” It is men like Harry. After guys like Harry have done the job its “easy for Hollywood actors to speak out, shout, parade and pretend to be heroes” but they are merely “riding the tides of change.” People like Harry had already done the job without grandstanding or whining.

Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Harry T. Stewart.

Grandstanders are ineffective for two reasons. First, they’re latecomers. The real work is already done. Second, they’re outsiders. They are not really Theodore Roosevelt’s metaphorical “man in the arena” who deserves the credit.

Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King and Robert Owens* were black men “in the arena.” They lived all of their lives in the South. They experienced first-hand the dynamics of a racially mixed society; One centered in an underprivileged region in which they were a large  but underprivileged minority.

In contrast, James McPherson, Eric Foner, and David Blight are latecomers and outsiders. By comparison to the three blacks noted above, they know nothing of the South. McPherson was from North Dakota and deliberately avoided his dissertation advisor’s recommendation to study Alabama reconstruction because he did not want to go to Alabama. Foner had access to any kind of education or career he wanted merely by getting off at different subway stop. Aside from his readings, Foner knows the South about as well as a cotton picker from Toad Suck, Arkansas knows New York. The economic privileges of Blight’s Flint, Michigan hometown steadily dwindled after he went to college because the Rust Belt lost its tariff protection. Fisher Body could no longer prosper by providing mere cosmetic innovations to automobiles.

McPherson, Foner, Blight and their acolytes are merely “riding the tides of change” when they demand that Confederate statues be removed. The professors did not end racism. The Southern white supremacy groups they fear are as rare, and small, as fresh water wells in Death Valley. They are phantoms which, like Don Quixote, the statue critics think “might be giants.” In reality, blacks started moving back to the South only a few years after McPherson and Foner published their signature books thirty-two years ago.

Finally, the professors either have—or pretend to have—no comprehension for the statue interpretations of Confederate descendants. They are like Klavan’s Hollywood entertainers who “speak out, shout, parade and pretend to be heroes” after racial attitudes have already changed. The only thing modern historians have changed is freedom of speech.  They silence anyone who disagrees with their understandings of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Even though the senior academics in charge during their formative years allowed them to challenge then-contemporary interpretations, they now censor opinions contrary to their own. As always, it is those in power who censor, which they do for a single reason: to retain power.

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* Robert Owens is the grandfather of political commentator Candace Owens. She credits him with teaching her the morality she values.

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