2009-03-20 / Columnists

The Progressive

Commentary By John Paul Culotta

It is often said that all Americans, except for Native Americans (if you discount the journey across the Bering Straits) are from elsewhere. Our shared history is a complicated one. All nations have friction based on ethnic, religious, cultural and regional differences. Race for many nations is also problematic.

Yugoslavia no longer exists because of ethnic differences. India, despite occasional communal violence, thrives with numerous linguistic, religious, and caste differences. China uses military force to keep minorities in check. Our nation's history has been a story of intolerance, violence, as well as respect and cooperation among our diverse groups. Our nation needs to debate our history of assimilation.

Last month we celebrated Black History Month. There were some in the press who questioned the need for the month.

Obama's election, according to many, makes the United States a post-racial society. It was proposed that the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" not be sung in our schools and be relegated to the dustbins of history by the editor of this very paper.

Why? Racism existed and still exists in our society. All groups and their neighbors need to remember their struggles and triumphs. Feminists have March. Italian Americans have October. Saint Patrick makes us all Irish. All ethnic groups have their own way to memorialize their uniqueness. My daughter was proud to learn about the struggle for civil rights and the antiwar protests in which her parents engaged themselves when young. All school children need to learn the songs of protest that inspired and gave optimism.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture given by the Yale professor Beverly Gage. She is the author of "The Day Wall Street Exploded" - the story of an act of domestic terrorism on September 17, 1920.

Although the case was never solved, the incident was considered to be the work of Italian immigrants. This brutal, heinous bombing one-year after the bombing of Attorney General Palmer's house caused mass hysteria. As a result, our nation gave investigative powers to J. Edgar Hoover and the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to monitor left wing and immigrant organizations that advocate violence.

Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were considered especially dangerous. Anti-Semitism was commonplace.

This progressive commented to the lecturer and those attending that it is ironic that the FBI did not until the Kennedy administration use its resources against the Ku Klux Klan, the most successful domestic terrorist group. During the 1920's the Klan had prominent supporters including presidents, governors, senators, congressmen, judges, mayors, and a future Supreme Court judge. A Klan march to our nation's capital was a major political event during the Roaring Twenties. Fear and violence were the Klan's methods. Castrations, lynching, bombings, cross burnings all across the nation gave African Americans, Jews, immigrants, and Roman Catholics reasons to tremble. It was estimated that fifteen percent of Americans belonged to the Klan in the twenties.

Moslems, Mexicans, and Asians are our new arrivals. Do we fear them? Of course, in dire economic times the oppressed victim is often given the additional burden of " not being one of us". All these new arrivals have experienced random acts of violence and discrimination.

Homosexuals often are targets of intolerance. The dirty secret of America is that the poor often inflict violence and race based attacks on each other; for example, African Americans attacking various immigrant groups, Native Americans owning slaves, whites not allowing blacks as members of labor unions etc. We all share some degree of culpability.

Presidents, generals, inventors, statesmen are important; but the slave, immigrant, and the worker are generally ignored when studying our history. I recommend "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn. This book will help put American history in proper perspective. Too often American history ignores the people that built the country.

Spike Lee has made another masterpiece "Miracle at Santa Anna" - a portrayal of African American soldiers fighting not only for this nation but also their dignity and humanity in Italy during the Second World War. All the characters including the Germans were multi-dimensional. This movie was praised by the critics but did poorly at the box office. Serious films do not do well in times of economic distress. Please see this film by renting or buying the DVD; you will find yourself pondering the questions of racism, forgiveness, the futility of war, and the power of love.

We are products of our shared history. Let us lift our voices for liberty as the song declares. Let us celebrate our pain, our triumphs.

We owe this to the war vet, the slave, and the parents who left their native land to work in a sweatshop so a child would have a future; the people seeking to worship in peace, the child denied opportunity. We are diverse and still one. We can choose to thrive together or disintegrate as a nation.

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