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Fighting for Freedom: Why We Must Remember the Sonderkommando Revolt

Fighting for Freedom: Why We Must Remember the Sonderkommando Revolt

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It is a forgotten act of suicidally-brave wartime heroism. On 7 October 1944, 75 years ago, a group of Jewish Sonderkommando rose up and took the fight to the Schutzstaffel (SS) guards in Auschwitz death camp, killing some of their captors and briefly allowing their fellow inmates a gasp of freedom.

It is a forgotten, yet deeply inspiring moment of wartime history that ought to sit alongside that of D-Day and Arnhem in this anniversary year.

Professor Mary Fulbrook talks to Dan about the justice process that followed the Holocaust, about what drove people to commit war crimes and what stopped people from resisting them.

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When people arrived in Auschwitz, often after days of tortuous, crowded railway journeys on which they were denied food, sleep or information, they staggered off the trains, utterly confused as to where they were. This deliberate strategy made it easy for the authorities to herd them and defuse potential resistance.

Most women, young children and the old were separated; the rest were told they would be reunited and then hustled elsewhere. The former group were then processed speedily, stripped, shaved and then sent into gas chambers to be murdered.

Some were forced to become Sonderkommando. These prisoners would help the camp guards push doomed Jews, and other proscribed groups, to their deaths. They shaved victims, took their gold teeth, removed possessions, and then cleared the bodies after their gassing.

Sonderkommando knew exactly what was happening, and they were, therefore, far too dangerous to be left alive. Every few months they would be murdered, and a fresh group conscripted.

Auschwitz, Poland, Cremation of bodies by the Sonderkommando, Clandestine photograph taken in the summer of 1944.

The plan

In late summer 1944 the SS killed a particularly large batch of Sonderkommando and the rest knew that they did not have long to live. Incredibly, they dared to dream of rebellion, to fight back against the most complex and powerful machine of genocide the world had ever seen.

Helped by a group of Jewish girls and women who worked in the adjacent munitions factory, they built up a stash of gunpowder. Teenage sisters Ester and Hana Wajcblum along with Regina Safirsztain, and Ala Gertner smuggled powder to Roza Robota a resistance activist who worked in the camp clothing store. She in turn got it to the Sonderkommando.

Demolition charges and primitive hang grenades were made, weapons fashioned from any discarded detritus and from things handed through the wire by Polish partisans.

The hope was they could combine an uprising with the approach of the Soviets. It was not to be.

On the afternoon of 7 October, months before the guns of the Red Army were heard, the SS began to round up the Sonderkommando. The moment had come.

Dan visits the Hasmonean High School in London, which took in refugee children escaping persecution.

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The revolt

The inmates launched themselves at the astonished guards. They used hammers, axes and fists against the troops of one of the most powerful military orders on the planet. The uprising spread. Jews fought with all the ferocious determination of men who knew that death had marked them out years ago. It was only a matter of how.

In crematorium II a particularly sadistic German prisoner – a kapo – was killed and thrown into a furnace. Two SS men were killed and several wounded. The wire was breached. Inmates tasted freedom. But it was too brief.

The SS responded with massive force. Every escaper was hunted down and shot. Heavy machine guns were brought to bear on any occupied structure. Prisoners were executed indiscriminately. Hundreds lined up on the ground and summarily shot.

In crematorium IV the Sonderkommando set fire to the interior, bringing the hated building down upon themselves. The brief flash of resistance was snuffed out.

Ruins of crematorium IV, Auschwitz II, destroyed during the revolt. Image Credit: / Commons.

The aftermath

A few Jews were spared for questioning. The SS tortured them to death and they gave up the names of the women who had helped them stockpile the gunpowder. These women were then beaten savagely but did not give the names of anyone who was not yet dead or in the hands of their torturers.

On 5 January 1945 the four women were hanged in front of the inmates in the women’s camp. Roza Robota shouted ‘Be strong and be brave,’ in the seconds before she dropped to her death.

The SS themselves destroyed the gas chambers just a month after the uprising, eradicating the evidence of their monstrous criminality before abandoning the site ahead of the arrival of the Soviets. The story of what happened at Auschwitz throughout the war cannot, thankfully, be as easily erased, although that has not stopped people trying.

The story of the revolt of the Sonderkommando, the bravery of the Jews who fought and supplied the weaponry, the unimaginable determination of the women must be shared for as long as people speak of the war, of D-Day, of Stalingrad, of Pearl Harbor and Iwo Jima. In fact, for longer.

Featured Image: The railway wagon from Auschwitz II. Credit: Bill Hunt / CC BY-SA 4.0.

The war originated in the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain, which began in February 1895.

Spain’s brutally repressive measures to halt the rebellion were graphically portrayed for the U.S. public by several sensational newspapers਎ngaging in yellow journalism, and American sympathy for the Cuban rebels rose.

Did you know? Yellow journalism was the original fake news. The term was coined in the early 18 century to indicate journalism that relies on eye-catching headlines, exaggeration and sensationalism to increase sales.

The growing popular demand for U.S. intervention became an insistent chorus after the still-unexplained sinking in Havana harbor of the American battleship USS Maine, which had been sent to protect U.S. citizens and property after anti-Spanish rioting in Havana.

Slavery and the Myth of the Alamo

James W. Russell, University Professor of Sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University, is the author most recently of Escape from Texas: A Novel of Slavery and the Texas War of Independence. More information is available at http://escapefromtexas.com.

Two and a half million people visit the Alamo each year where, according to its website, “men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom,” making it “hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty.”

There can be no doubt that the symbolism of the Alamo is at the center of the creation myth of Texas: that the state was forged out of a heroic struggle for freedom against a cruel Mexican dictator, Santa Ana. It represents to the Southwest what the Statue of Liberty represents to the Northeast: a satisfying confirmation of what we are supposedly about as a people.

But if Northeasterners can be excused for embracing a somewhat fuzzy notion of abstract liberty, the symbolism of the Alamo has always been built upon historical myth.

As the defenders of the Alamo were about to sacrifice their lives, other Texans were making clear the goals of the sacrifice at a constitutional convention for the new republic they hoped to create. In Section 9 of the General Provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, it is stated how the new republic would resolve their greatest problem under Mexican rule: “All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude . Congress shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from bringing their slaves into the republic with them, and holding them by the same tenure by which such slaves were held in the United States nor shall congress have power to emancipate slaves.”

Mexico had in fact abolished slavery in 1829, causing panic among the Texas slaveholders, overwhelmingly immigrants from the south of the United States. They in turn sent Stephen Austin to Mexico City to complain. Austin was able to wrest from the Mexican authorities an exemption for the department -- Texas was technically a department of the state of Coahuila y Tejas -- that would allow the vile institution to continue. But it was an exemption reluctantly given, mainly because the authorities wanted to avoid rebellion in Texas when they already had problems in Yucatán and Guatemala. All of the leaders of Mexico, in itself only an independent country since 1821, were personally opposed to slavery, in part because of the influence of emissaries from the freed slave republic of Haiti. The exemption was, in their minds, a temporary measure and Texas slaveholders knew that.

The legality of slavery had thus been at best tenuous and uncertain at a time when demand for cotton -- the main slave-produced export -- was accelerating on the international market. A central goal of independence would be to remove that uncertainty.

The Mexican armies that entered the department to put down the rebellion had explicit orders to free any slaves that they encountered, and so they did. The only person spared in the retaking of the Alamo was Joe, the personal slave of William Travis.

Once the rebels succeeded in breaking Texas away from Mexico and establishing an independent republic, slavery took off as an institution. Between 1836 and 1840, the slave population doubled it doubled again by 1845 and it doubled still again by 1850 after annexation by the United States. On the eve of the Civil War, which Texas would enter as a part of the Confederacy, there were 182,566 slaves, nearly one-third of the state’s population.

As more slaves came into the Republic of Texas, more escaped to Mexico. Matamoros in the 1840s had a large and flourishing colony of ex-slaves from Texas and the United States. Though exact numbers do not exist, as many slaves may have escaped to Mexico as escaped through the more famous underground railway to Canada. The Mexican government, for its part, encouraged the slave runaways, often with offers of land as well as freedom.

The defenders of the Alamo, as brave as they may have been, were martyrs to the cause of the freedom of slaveholders, with the Texas War of Independence having been the first of their nineteenth-century revolts, with the American Civil War the second.

Enlightenment philosophy was a major influence.

Many experts believe that the same ideologies that sparked the American Revolution had long percolated through French culture.

During the war in North American colonies, some allied Frenchmen fought side by side with soldiers of the Continental Army, which allowed for the exchanging of values, ideas and philosophies.

One key ideological movement, known as Enlightenment, was central to the American uprising. Enlightenment stressed the idea of natural rights and equality for all citizens.

The ideas of the enlightenment flowed from Europe to the North American continent and sparked a revolution that made enlightened thought all the more popular back across the Atlantic.

The History of Freedom Is a History of Whiteness

March 17, 2021

Tyler Stovall. (Courtesy of the author)

In his new book, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea, the historian Tyler Stovall seeks to offer a new approach to the relationship between freedom and race in modern Western societies. This approach reveals a different historical perspective for understanding how the Enlightenment era, which provided the basis for modern Western conceptions of human freedom, coincided with the height of the transatlantic slave trade, and for how the United States could be founded simultaneously upon ideas of both liberty and African slavery, Native American genocide and systematic racial exclusion.

Stovall does so by arguing for an alternative explanation to what he describes as the standard “paradoxical” interpretation of freedom and race. “If liberty represents the acme of Western civilization,” says Stovall, “racism—embodied above all by horrible histories like the slave trade and the Holocaust—is its nadir.” In other words, the paradoxical approach sees freedom and race as opposites. This means that there is nothing about freedom that is inherently racialized. The relationship between freedom and race from this perspective, argues Stovall, is due more to “human inconsistencies and frailties than to any underlying logics.”

Stovall challenges the paradoxical view by arguing that there is no contradiction between freedom and race. Instead, he thinks that ideas of freedom in the modern world have been racialized, and that whiteness and white racial identity are intrinsic to the history of modern liberty. Hence Stovall’s notion of white freedom.

Stovall’s book aims to tell the history of white freedom from the French and American revolutions to the present. But to what extent can the vast history of modern freedom be reduced to white freedom? How can white freedom account for class differences? Moreover, if modern freedom is racialized how is it to be differentiated from fascism and others forms of white nationalism? And can political freedom break away from the legacy of white freedom? To answer these questions, I spoke with Stovall about the history of US slavery and immigration, the fascism of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, Trumpism, and Joe Biden’s recent election to the White House.

D aniel S teinmetz- J enkins: Can you explain your concept of white freedom?

T yler S tovall: In this study I argue that white freedom, which is a concept of freedom conceived and defined in racial terms, underlies and reflects both white identity and white supremacy: To be free is to be white, and to be white is to be free.

DSJ: Your thinking on white freedom has been strongly influenced by whiteness studies. Can you explain the connection between the two?

TS: Whiteness studies starts from the proposition that whiteness is not simply the neutral, unexamined gold standard of human existence, arguing instead that white identity is racial, and white people are every bit as much racialized beings as are people of color. White Freedom explores the ways in which the ideal of freedom is a crucial component of white identity in the modern world, that great movements for liberty like the American and French revolutions or the world wars of the 20th century have constructed freedom as white. More generally, this book follows the tradition of whiteness studies in considering how an ideology traditionally viewed as universal in fact contains an important racial dimension. I argue that frequently, although by no means always, in modern history, freedom and whiteness have gone together, and the ideal of freedom has functioned to deny the realities of race and racism.

DSJ: How might you respond to the criticism that your notion of white freedom is potentially monolithic? How do you account for its diverse historical application and impact, especially concerning class differences?

TS: I would begin by saying that white freedom is by no means the only kind of freedom, that in modern history other, more inclusive visions of liberty have frequently opposed it, and those visions have often interacted and mutually reinforced each other. One thinks, for example, of the rise of the movements for women’s suffrage in 19th-century Britain and America out of the struggles to abolish slavery. The concept of white freedom does position race at the center of the history of liberty, something I found it necessary to do both because it has frequently been left out or seen as peripheral to the story, and because making it more central in my view offers new insights about the nature of freedom in general.

Class differences, and the ways in which they have historically been racialized, play an important role in the development of white freedom, as well. The example of Irish immigrants during the 19th century provides an interesting case in point. In both Britain and America, Irish immigrants not only occupied the lowest rungs of society but were frequently racialized as savage and nonwhite during the early parts of the century. In Britain, integration into working class movements like Chartism and the 1889 London dock strike to a certain extent brought them white status, whereas in America the ability of the working-class Irish to differentiate themselves, often violently, from African Americans gradually helped enable their acceptance as white by the dominant society, integrating them into American whiteness.

DSJ: You argue that the paradox of American slaveholders fighting for liberty is not a paradox at all if one considers the racial dimensions of the American idea of freedom during the American Revolution. Denying freedom to Black slaves was not a contradiction, you show, because freedom was reserved for whites. How does your thinking about white freedom and slavery differ here from the notable The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which caused a storm of controversy by arguing that the American Revolution was primarily waged to preserve slavery?

TS: I think the 1619 Project’s argument that the founding fathers waged the American Revolution in defense of slavery has much to recommend it, although I think this debate could benefit from some nuance. Certainly American slaveowners, who were amply represented among the proponents of independence, worried about the implications of the 1772 Somerset case, which banned slavery in Britain, for the colonies and their own property. The 1775 call by Lord Dunmore, royal governor Virginia, to American slaves to free their masters and fight for the British further outraged them, leading them to condemn him in the Declaration of Independence for having fostered domestic insurrections against the colonists. It is also true that this question bitterly divided Northern and Southern patriots, in ways that ultimately prefigured the Civil War. It is quite possible that revolution devoted to abolishing slavery, as many Northerners wanted, would have failed to enlist the support of Virginia and other Southern colonies and thus would have gone down to defeat. Whether or not that means that the Revolution’s primary goal was the preservation of slavery was less clear.

However, there are other ways to approach this issue, which the current debate has tended to neglect. First, one must consider the perspective, and the actions, of the slaves themselves, who constituted roughly 20 percent of the population of colonial America. White Freedom not only considers the question of slavery central to the American Revolution but also sees the Revolution as one of the great periods of slave resistance and revolt in American history. Tens of thousands of slaves, including 17 belonging to George Washington himself, fled their plantations in an attempt to reach the British lines and freedom. Whether or not white patriots believed they were fighting for independence to preserve slavery, many of their slaves certainly did, and acted on that belief with their feet. American history to this day praises Blacks like Crispus Attucks who fought for the Revolution, but ignores the much larger number of American slaves who took up arms for the British. For many African Americans, therefore, the American Revolution was certainly a struggle for freedom, but for freedom from their white American owners and the new independent nation they fought for.

Second, one should underscore the basic point that, whatever the relative motivations of the patriots of 1776 in seeking freedom and independence from Britain, the new United States of America they created was a slave republic, and would remain so for the better part of a century. It is certainly true that the Revolution resulted in the abolition of slavery throughout the North after the Revolution, but that did not change the fact that the overwhelming majority of African Americans were slaves before 1776 and remained so for decades thereafter. Moreover, far from a relic of an imperial past, slavery proved to be a dynamic and central part of America’s economy and society during the early 19th century. Whether or not American patriots revolted to preserve slavery, the success of their revolt did exactly that, creating a new nation that largely reserved freedom for whites.

DSJ: The Statue of Liberty might be considered the most well-known symbol of freedom in the modern world. You provocatively state that “it is the world’s greatest representation of white freedom.” Why is this the case?

TS: The Statue of Liberty symbolizes white freedom in several respects. In my book I analyze how both its French origins and its establishment in America underscore that perspective, and in doing so illustrate the history of white freedom in both nations. In France the image of the statue drew upon the tradition of Marianne, or the female revolutionary, most famously depicted in Eugène Delacroix’s great painting Liberty Leading the People. Yet at the same time it represented a domesticated, nonrevolutionary vision of that tradition whereas Delacroix’s Marianne is carrying a rifle and leading a revolutionary army, the Statue of Liberty stands demurely and without moving, holding a torch of illumination rather than a flame of revolution. She is the image of the white woman on a pedestal. The racial implications of this domestication of liberty became much clearer in the United States: Although France gave the statue to America to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the United States, Americans soon ignored that perspective and instead turned the statue into a symbol of white immigration. The broken chains at Liberty’s feet that symbolized the freed slave were effectively obscured by the pedestal and more generally by the racial imagery surrounding the statue, and remain so to this day. America’s greatest monument to freedom thus turned its back on America’s greatest freedom struggle, because that struggle was not white.

Moreover, many Americans In the early 20th century considered the statue an anti-immigrant symbol, the “white goddess” guarding America’s gates against the dirty and racially suspect hordes from Europe. Only when the immigrants, and more particularly their Americanized descendants, were viewed and accepted as white did the Statue of Liberty embrace them. To this day, therefore, America’s greatest monument to freedom represents above all the history of white immigration. No equivalent memorials exist on San Francisco’s Angel Island to commemorate Chinese immigration, or on the US-Mexican border to memorialize those Americans whose ancestors came from Latin America. The Statue of Liberty effectively conceals the fact that New York City was itself a great slave port, so that for many the arrival in the harbor represented bondage, not liberty. Not only the statue’s white features, but its racial history, make it for me the world’s greatest symbol of white freedom.

DSJ: One implication of your argument about white freedom is that it suggests that the modern history of liberal thought actually shares something in common with the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini, namely that both systems of government defined freedom in racial terms. What, then, fundamentally distinguishes these understandings of freedom?

TS: As I and many other historians have argued, there are some fundamental similarities between fascism and liberal democracy when it comes to race. In some ways, the increasing emphasis on the role of the state as the central locus and guarantor of freedom found its logical culmination in the fascist state, which rejected individual liberty, instead defining freedom as integration into the racial state. But I would also point out two important differences. First, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany stated their commitment to a racist vision of freedom far more explicitly and dramatically than did the democracies of the liberal West. The Nazi vision of a racial hierarchy in Europe with Aryans had none of the pretensions of uplift and stewardship found in Western imperialism, but instead called for domination and ultimately genocide. The horrors of the Shoah were a foretaste of what awaited Europe, especially Eastern Europe, had Nazi Germany triumphed. The liberal democracies of the West, for all their racism, did not share that vision, were instead horrified by it, and in the end combined to destroy it.

Following from this point, I would also argue that, unlike liberal democracy, European fascism developed in a climate of total war, which fundamentally shaped its vision of race and freedom. Fascism and Nazism were born at the tail end of World War I (both Hitler and Mussolini were war veterans), and their histories culminated with World War II. The era of total war powerfully reinforced state racism—the idea that the enemy posed a biological threat to the nation. This happened in the West as well, of course, but did not constitute the heart of national identity in the same way. Moreover, unlike in fascist Europe, total war in the West also created a massive movement against white freedom, for a universal vision of liberty.

DSJ: I found your parts of the book on the end of the Cold War fascinating. Regarding Eastern Europe, you write, “The overthrow of communist regimes in this period happened in the whitest, most ‘European’ part of the world, one barely touched by the history of European overseas colonialism or non-European immigration.” Does this view of Eastern Europe fall prey to a mythology of white homogeneity, which is exploited by white nationalist leaders in Eastern Europe today driven by anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment? The region had long had millions of immigrants from Central Asia.

TS: There are very few, if any, purely “white” parts of the world, and Eastern Europe’s contacts with Asia go back at least to the Roman Empire. There is, for example, an interesting history of Blacks in the Soviet Union, which was itself a regime that spanned and brought together Europe and Asia. I would nonetheless argue that, compared to the rest of the continent and to the Americas, the peoples’ republics of Eastern Europe lacked racial diversity, a situation that led many American conservatives to embrace their resistance to the Soviets during the Cold War as a struggle for white freedom. In the minds of many, the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet control represented a continuation of the war against Nazi rule of Western Europe, an unfinished campaign to ensure freedom for all white people. It was counterintuitive to witness nations of white people as “captive” or “enslaved,” so that the Cold War against Soviet Communism had an important racial dimension. The collapse of the Soviet bloc represented in theory the unification of white Europe, yet at the same time it underscored the fact that Europe wasn’t really “white.” The dramatic rise of ethnic and racial tensions in the former communist countries, especially eastern Germany, after 1991 illustrated the extent to which the victory of whiteness was not completely assured in the post-Soviet era.

DSJ: Do you understand Trumpism to be a white freedom backlash to the Obama administration or in continuation with the longer history of white freedom? Intellectuals and pundits, for example, are significantly divided on the question of whether Trumpism is unleashing long-standing fascist impulses in this country, especially given the events of January 6. Where do you stand?

TS: The Trump phenomenon certainly represents a backlash against the Obama presidency, but it goes well beyond that. In my book I discuss how the campaign for universal freedom represented by the campaign civil rights and many other popular movements provoked the rise of the New Right, which in many ways reinforced America’s history of white freedom. The current Freedom Caucus of the House of Representatives, composed overwhelmingly of white conservatives, exemplifies that. To an important extent, Trumpism represents a continuation of that political movement which triumphed under Ronald Reagan. At the same time, however, the Trump presidency, in contrast with Reaganism, has sounded a defensive and at times even desperate note, a fear for the survival of white freedom. The election of Barack Obama demonstrated that a universal vision of liberty could triumph at the highest levels of American society and politics, prompting an anguished reaction that created the Tea Party and other reactionary movements. The fact that Trump never won a majority of the popular vote combined with the increasingly multicultural and multiracial makeup of America’s population has led many to believe that the days of white freedom are in fact numbered. The fact that so many Americans cling to Donald Trump and his Republican party, in spite of their outrageous and buffoonish behavior, I believe arises out of this elemental fear.

I do believe events in America since the 2020 presidential election show that Trumpism has the potential to morph into an outright fascist movement. We have never in the modern era witnessed such an outright attempt to overthrow the will of the electorate after an American election, one grounded squarely in the fascist technique of the Big Lie. It has represented the culmination of Republican party efforts to suppress the ability of peoples of color to vote, efforts whose history goes back to the white terrorist campaign against Reconstruction after the Civil War. Moreover, I believe that if fascism does come to America, it will come in the guise of white freedom. The insurrection of January 6 is a case in point. On that day America witnessed the spectacle of thousands of mostly white demonstrators invading the US Capitol Building and trying to overthrow the government. They proclaimed their movement as a campaign to protect their freedoms, and were for the most part allowed to depart peacefully after violently invading federal property. If that didn’t demonstrate that whiteness remains an important part of freedom in America, I don’t know what does.

DSJ: Given mainstream acceptance of Black Lives Matter and Biden’s election to the White House, what do you see the implications to be for white freedom today in this country?

TS: For me and many other African Americans, one of the most surprising things about the murder of George Floyd was the intense reaction by so many white people against the official brutalization of Blacks in America. Leaving aside the rather belated nature of this reaction, or the observation that a movement calling for the right of African Americans not to be murdered is hardly radical, the mainstream acceptance of Black Lives Matter does point to a new day in American racial politics, a new affirmation of universal freedom.

Joseph Biden’s electoral victory, and his acknowledgment of his debt to Black voters and voters of color, also suggests the limits of white freedom in American politics. The fact remains, however, that 74 million Americans voted to reelect Donald Trump. He continues to dominate the base of the Republican Party and maintains a wide base of support in the nation as whole. White freedom is in many ways on the defensive, but that can make it more dangerous than ever. It also remains to be seen how committed President Biden is to a progressive vision of liberty. Initial signs seem encouraging, but during the election campaign he boasted of his ability to work across the aisles with white Southern senators to resist busing for school integration. Such bipartisanship in the past led to Jim Crow and Black bodies swinging from trees. Hopefully President Biden will prove more adept at resisting the Republicans’ siren song of white freedom.

DSJ: Finally, very little is mentioned in White Freedom about the political tradition of democratic socialism, which is experiencing a revival today. Do you believe it is a viable option for resisting white freedom today?

TS: I think democratic socialism is not only viable but vital in the struggle against white freedom. The fact that a significant segment of the white working class has embraced Trumpism is by no means inevitable, but rather speaks to the widespread conviction that the Democratic establishment has abandoned the concerns of working people. Some people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 also supported Bernie Sanders, for example. Right now in America one of the strongest reasons for the survival of white freedom is the belief of many white workers that their racial identity “trumps” their class position, that, in a political world where no one stands up for working people and their interests, racial privilege is their greatest asset. The election to the presidency of a key member of the Democratic establishment like Joseph Biden does not augur well in the short term for changing this perspective, yet as the painstaking work of Stacey Abrams in Georgia has demonstrated there is no substitute for long-term political organizing. Socialism does have the potential to empower all people and thus demonstrate the universal nature of liberty. Developing and actualizing that potential will be a central part in the campaign to render white freedom history.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins Twitter runs a regular interview series with The Nation. He is the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Dartmouth College. He is writing a book for Columbia University Press titled Raymond Aron and Cold War Liberalism.

Early History of the Alamo

Spanish settlers built the Mission San Antonio de Valero, named for St. Anthony of Padua, on the banks of the San Antonio River around 1718. They also established the nearby military garrison of San Antonio de Béxar, which soon became the center of a settlement known as San Fernando de Béxar (later renamed San Antonio). The Mission San Antonio de Valero housed missionaries and their Native American converts for some 70 years until 1793, when Spanish authorities secularized the five missions located in San Antonio and distributed their lands among local residents.

Did you know? Ten years after Texas won its independence and shortly after it was annexed by the United States, U.S. soldiers revived the "Remember the Alamo!" battle cry while fighting against Mexican forces in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.

Beginning in the early 1800s, Spanish military troops were stationed in the abandoned chapel of the former mission. Because it stood in a grove of cottonwood trees, the soldiers called their new fort 𠇎l Alamo” after the Spanish word for cottonwood and in honor of Alamo de Parras, their hometown in Mexico. Military troops𠄿irst Spanish, then rebel and later Mexican–occupied the Alamo during and after Mexico’s war for independence from Spain in the early 1820s. In the summer of 1821, Stephen Austin arrived in San Antonio along with some 300 U.S. families that the Spanish government had allowed to settle in Texas. The migration of U.S. citizens to Texas increased over the next decades, sparking a revolutionary movement that would erupt into armed conflict by the mid-1830s.

Gustavus Adolphus

But in 1630, Sweden, under the leadership of Gustavus Adolphus, took the side of the northern Protestants and joined the fight, with its army helping to push Catholic forces back and regain much of the lost territory lost by the Protestant Union.

With the support of the Swedes, Protestant victories continued. However, when Gustavus Adolphus was killed in the Battle of Lutzen in 1632, the Swedes lost some of their resolve.

Using military assistance of Bohemian nobleman Albrecht von Wallenstein, who provided his army of an estimated 50,000 soldiers to Ferdinand II in exchange for the freedom to plunder any captured territory, began to respond and, by 1635, the Swedes were vanquished.

The resulting treaty, the so-called Peace of Prague, protected the territories of the Lutheran/Calvinist rulers of northeastern Germany, but not those of the south and west in present-day Austria and the Czech Republic. With religious and political tensions in the latter regions remaining high, fighting continued.

Origins Of Free Press

Before the thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain, the British government attempted to censor the American media by prohibiting newspapers from publishing unfavorable information and opinions.

One of the first court cases involving freedom of the press in America took place in 1734. British governor William Cosby brought a libel case against the publisher of The New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, for publishing commentary critical of Cosby’s government. Zenger was acquitted.

The forgotten rebellion of the Black Seminole Nation

The Seminole Nation of Florida had one of the most amazing if not one of the most important alliances with freed African slaves. Many Native American Nations formed partnerships and deep relationships with African slaves. Both groups fought for freedom and the right to exist in peace, away from the colonizing forces trying to stomp them out. The rebellion of the Black Seminole nation is one of the most overlooked partnerships in Native American/African American History.

The Seminole Nation, during a period called the second Spanish period, formed a deep bond with the freed African Slaves of the coastal south, creating a mixed culture known today as Black Seminoles. In the 1680s, African slaves fled from English South Carolina to Spanish Florida seeking freedom. In 1693, King Charles II of Spain made an edict that escaped African slaves would receive freedom and protection from slave owners if they help defend the Spanish settlers at St. Augustine. Because of this partnership the freed slaves became a militia and they formed a settlement in 1738, the first legally sanctioned free African town in North America.

Because of the settlement the African slaves formed relations with the Seminole Nation. They began marrying and trading with one another, creating a new cultural identity that fused many aspects of their culture. However, even though there were some Native Seminoles and African slaves getting married and having children, the majority of Black Seminoles were not Native. The U.S. Army coined the term “Black Seminole,” but this did not stop the two groups from working with each other.

One of the things that bound the history of these two groups is both faced utter and complete obliteration. The Seminole Wars began after the American Revolution. With the U.S. slave owners winning the revolution against England, space was opened up within which other issues could be addressed, particularly issues concerning free African slaves living alongside Native Americans in Spanish Florida.

When England lost the war, they ceded to the new U.S. east and west Florida. In the 1790s, all of the freed slaves living in east or west Florida were forced back into slavery. Then there was a break in the United States effort to destroy the Black settlements.

After the War of 1812, however, General Andrew Jackson made destroying these settlements a top priority. The Native and Black communities moved to south and central Florida.

In 1820, when Spain lost the rest of Florida to the United States, many of the Black Seminoles understood that is was dangerous to remain there. In 1821, many slaves and Black Seminoles escaped to Cape Florida and the Bahamas. During this exodus many Black Seminoles were killed or taken back into slavery.

The height of this story happens during the Second Seminole War, which began in 1835. The tension between the United States and the Seminole Nation was at a high point and this was also the biggest moment for the African-Seminole alliance. In 1830, Jackson, the anti-Seminole general, was now president and he signed into law the horrific Indian Removal Act, which forced the removal of more than 4,000 Native Seminole people along with 800-plus Black Seminole allies. The Black Seminoles understood that if their Native allies were to be removed they would be forced back into slavery. So they joined forces with the militant Seminole leader Osceola. After the rebellion broke out, many Black Seminole leaders, such as John Caesar, Abraham, and John Horse, played a key role in fighting against the U.S. Army.

They recruited African slaves on plantations to fight. From the winter of 1835 to the summer of 1836 Black Seminoles, escaped slaves and Native peoples were fighting alongside one another, destroying sugar plantations and killing U.S. soldiers.

The United States government started to panic. What could be done to stop this increasingly growing and increasingly successful alliance? They came up with a plan to turn the Black Seminoles against the Native Seminoles by promising them that if they turned against their Native allies they would be granted freedom.

Very few Black Seminole took this offer. The Black Seminole alliance fought alongside the Seminole Nation until the bitter end. In 1838, over 500 Black Seminoles joined the Seminole Nation on the Trail of Tears. Many Natives, Black Natives, and Black Seminoles died on the trail. Some made it to Oklahoma, other Black Seminoles that didn’t go on the Trail of Tears fled to Mexico.

We must remember the struggles that bind us together. The story of how the Black Seminoles fought and died for freedom is something we are still fighting for today.

The Forgotten History of Greensboro's A&T/Dudley Revolt

Five decades ago, the black residents of Greensboro, North Carolina decided they’d had enough. In May 1969, a controversial election for student body president at Dudley High School turned into an open revolt against police repression and racial segregation.

It culminated on May 21, 1969, when the National Guard mobilized and stormed the campus of historically black North Carolina A&T State University. The affair, which came to be known as the A&T/Dudley Revolt, is largely forgotten history.

When the revolt occurred, Greensboro — a small city in the center of North Carolina — was no stranger to struggle. It’s famous for being the birthplace of the Sit-In Movement, which began when four black A&T students demanded equal service at a segregated lunch counter in 1960. But almost a decade later, countless black residents — especially young people — were frustrated by the slow pace of change.

“Even though the Civil Rights Movement was successful in breaking down certain legal barriers to public accommodations, these changes did not bring about basic change in the overall American political economy,” Greensboro native and retired political science professor Claude Barnes wrote in a 1997 book that addressed the revolt, which was a big part of his life. “In short, the late ‘60s in Greensboro was a period of tremendous hardship for the city's black population. After a massive civil rights struggle in which it appeared that fundamental changes would be forthcoming, in reality only superficial changes in the status quo were allowed.”

That’s part of the reason why Barnes — then a 17-year-old junior at Greensboro’s then all-black Dudley High School — ran for student body president on a “black power” platform in May 1969. And he won in a landslide.

But the school refused to recognize him. Dudley’s election committee said that Barnes “lacked the qualifications to be a candidate for student council president” even though he was an honor student and was involved in several student clubs, author William Chafe wrote in Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom.

While Barnes wasn’t on the official ballot, he received 600 write-in votes and dominated the election, according to Chafe. The school named another student as president anyway, and several students including Barnes walked out in protest.

“I was shocked that they wouldn’t let my name be on the ballot,” Barnes, who is now 67, tells Teen Vogue.

Barnes knows why they wouldn’t recognize his candidacy.

“School officials cited my subversive activities as the reason for the exclusion,” he wrote in his book. “The content of the ‘subversive’ activities was my association with a youth organization affiliated with the Greensboro Association of Poor People. According to these black administrators, I was a suspected Black Panther Party member.”

But Barnes wasn’t a Black Panther. The attempt by school administrators to tamp down on radical students backfired, as students quickly rallied to the cause, protesting and boycotting school, he says.

For many, the incident was the last straw. Students were disciplined more strictly at Dudley High than at other local schools, according to Chafe, who said they were even punished for donning afros. The election fight turned into a larger battle about a wide range of issues at the school and in the city, according to an advisory committee that studied the A&T/Dudley Revolt for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

“Although Greensboro appears to take pride in its designation as the birthplace of the sit-in movement in 1960, the Committee was told that, almost 10 years later, schools are still segregated, and there is still widespread discrimination in housing, employment, and municipal services,” the committee’s report says.

Making matters worse, school administrators refused to negotiate. Nelson Johnson, a black power advocate who had just been elected student body vice president at A&T, talked with Dudley’s principal and encouraged him to meet with black community leaders to sort everything out. The principal refused, as school officials “attempted to give the impression that a group of not-too-bright black students was being led astray by ‘outsiders’ and ‘radicals,’” the report stated.

Protests grew for weeks as more students walked out and joined protests and community meetings. White school official Owen Lewis stepped in and took control of the school from Dudley’s black principal, according to Chafe. When Lewis told police to arrest students who were peacefully protesting outside the school, hundreds of their classmates saw the violent arrests and revolted, according to Barnes, in some cases throwing rocks.

Barnes and other students were brutally arrested and beaten with nightsticks, he tells Teen Vogue. After being bailed out by local religious leaders, Barnes felt even more determined to keep resisting.

“It was eye-opening,” he says. “We thought we were exercising our Constitutional rights. They thought [the arrests were] going to calm down protests, but it inflamed them. The parents and the black community itself got involved. A lot of black parents came out to support the students.”

Tensions were already high between police and black residents. Prior to that May, the National Guard had clashed with black residents after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination a year earlier on April 4, 1968, according to Chafe.

Then in February 1969, at a memorial for the anniversary of Malcolm X’s death, police blocked students from entering, and then “accidentally” set off tear gas at the service, according to Chafe’s book. When about 500 A&T students marched to support striking black cafeteria workers in March, police again teargassed students, he detailed in his book.

The Dudley protests peaked on May 21 when police teargassed students. The teargas affected hundreds of students and some parents too, Chafe wrote. As word spread through the black community, anger spread, and more people joined protests. That night, the mayor requested the National Guard’s help.

The situation quickly spun out of control. Before long, shooting between law enforcement and students at A&T began, with black residents around the city practicing armed self-defense too, Barnes says.

“In the meantime, carloads of white youths were seen riding through the area, apparently looking for trouble,” Chafe wrote. It wasn’t the first time several years earlier, young white people had harassed civil rights protesters in Greensboro during desegregation protests. In 1968, after King’s assassination, white motorists shot at a crowd of black people by A&T, according to Chafe’s book.

“I remember when I was a teenager the Klan raiding our community and there was no response from the local law enforcement agencies, so if we didn’t protect ourselves, we would be the victim of Klan terror,” Barnes tells Teen Vogue. That’s part of the reason he and others believed in armed self-defense, he says.

In the middle of this chaos, 20-year-old A&T sophomore Willie Grimes and his friends left their dorm to grab some food around 1:30 a.m., according to the university’s commemoration for Grimes. Chafe’s book offers a different account, stating that “Grimes had been part of a group moving across campus to head off a group of whites throwing bricks at cars.” It’s not clear exactly what happened next. But fifty years later, it’s still a mystery who shot and killed Willie Grimes.

“As they neared the edge of campus, gunshots were fired and Willie was hit,” the school memorial states. “Witnesses said someone fired on him from a car. Others said the shots came from an unmarked police car, which was emphatically denied by the police.”

Watch the video: Αμερικανική Επανάσταση (June 2022).


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