OPINION: Either CNN host Chris Wallace doesn’t know history, or he thinks Nikole Hannah-Jones shouldn’t discuss how America’s ‘greatest generation’ fought against democracy for Black people.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
One of the things that infuriates me about most Hollywood versions of Black history is how they cast crotchety, wrinkled white dudes as racists.
Think about it: Who were the men spitting on Black kids and yelling at protesters in the civil rights photos? (We’ve seen the pictures of the civil rights protests.) Who brought tiki torches in bulk to march at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.? Who donned a Viking helmet and smeared feces inside the U.S. Capitol?
According to Chicago Project on Security & Threats, 78 percent of right-wing extremists arrested between 2015 and 2020 and 63 percent of the people arrested for the Capitol Hill insurrection were under 45 years old. George Stauber was 24 when he drowned Eugene Williams and sparked the Chicago Race Massacre during the Red Summer of 1919. James Earl Ray was 39 when he killed Martin Luther King Jr. Two of the four men who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 were under 40. Alabama teenagers shot and killed 13-year-old Virgil Ware minutes later. Kyle Rittenhouse was 19 when he took a long gun to a protest in Kenosha, Wisc. The reason why they call themselves Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys is that old white people have stuff to do and people to oppress!
Far be it from me to write about the mistreatment of white men, but the notion that old white people are the most virulent kind of white supremacists is problematic in many ways. It’s why every generation seems to believe that their generation of white kids will magically disinherit themselves from the white supremacy perpetrated by their forefathers. Apparently, young white kids aren’t racist. Everyone knows racists are old.
Ask Chris Wallace.
On Thursday, the water-carrier-for-white-supremacy-turned-CNN+ host challenged Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has an actual degree in history and African-American studies, on actual history, African-Americans and her factual claims that the young white freedom fighters known as “the greatest generation” were responsible for withholding democracy from Black Americans.
CHRIS WALLACE: Here’s where I take some objection. If you say the country that we were fighting for democracy overseas, and we were not living in, walking the walk, talking the talk at home, I completely agree with you. But you specifically say the greatest generation brutally suppress it, many of this generation, brutally suppressing democracy for millions of Americans.
To me, and I think Tom Brokaw when he originally wrote the book, The Greatest Generation, was talking about 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds who came out of the farm fields of the Midwest, who came out of ethnic neighborhoods in Brooklyn and South Philly and storm the beaches of Normandy and and, you know, fought to defeat the most, the worst regime, I would argue in world history. And to say that they were 20, 30 year olds, the country was brutally suppressing Blacks, but the greatest generation wasn’t.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, they were.
CHRIS WALLACE: No, they weren’t, you don’t be telling me that a farm, that a kid coming off a farm in Indiana or a kid who came from Brooklyn, is was suppressing Black people?
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Indiana has the largest population of the Klan in the United States. The Klan was raised, was reached first in Indiana.
CHRIS WALLACE: I understand but that wasn’t the 20-year-old kid who —
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: You don’t think 20-year olds were in the Klan?
CHRIS WALLACE: I didn’t think many of them were, no.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I mean, I don’t know what evidence you have of that.
CHRIS WALLACE: Well, what evidence do you have that they were, since you wrote it.
— Tommy moderna-vaX-Topher (@tommyxtopher) April 7, 2022
Nikole Hannah-Jones is right. Chris Wallace is wrong.
According to the actual facts, the greatest generation was racist AF.
Historians estimate that in 1925, the “second wave” of the Ku Klux Klan boasted between 3 and eight million official members, which means somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of white American males were members of the KKK. And it wasn’t just a Southern thing. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana all had more than a quarter of a million Klansmen as citizens of their states.
Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was actually arrested at a New York Klan rally when he was 21 years old. The greatest generation gave us America’s first blockbuster movie—Birth of a Nation—which was adapted from the book written by Thomas Dixon Jr., the “great-granddaddy of American white nationalism.” The New Negro movement, which birthed the civil rights movement, was inspired, in part, by Black World War II veterans returning home to inequality, discrimination and racial terrorism at the hands of the “greatest generation.”
But Chris Wallace is just a man who says things on television, and Nikole Hannah-Jones is a woman who knows things.
She knows that the murder that sparked the movement for democracy that we call the “civil rights era” began when 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant sicced her 24-year-old husband on Emmett Till. She knows that Robert Edward Chambliss, the man convicted for killing four little girls in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing in 1963, was a member of the greatest generation. She knows that the record for the longest filibuster in American history is held by a member of the greatest generation, Strom Thurmond, who fought every effort for civil rights and true democracy and was repeatedly elected by the greatest generation. She knows that greatest generation member Edgar Ray Killen killed three civil rights workers who were fighting for democracy during the Freedom Summer of 1964. She knows that George Wallace, who vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” was part of the greatest generation. Jones probably knows that the men who murdered Medgar Evers, beat Fred Shuttlesworth and broke John Lewis’ skull were also part of the same great white dopes defended by Chris Wallace.
Here’s what else Chris Wallace doesn’t know.
In 1913, John, a high school graduate nicknamed “Speed,” earned his first job at the Library of Congress, a few blocks away from the neighborhood of his youth. Speed displayed such a skill for organizing and cataloging the library’s massive amount of material that, by the time he earned his law degree in 1917, Speed had been tapped for a new position at the Bureau of Investigation’s War Emergency Division.
Speed’s boss was Woodrow Wilson, who had become president by radicalizing the American youth with a new form of populist, white nationalism. When Wilson held the first movie screening in the White House, he invited Speed’s frat brother Thomas Dixon Jr. because his book was the basis for the racist blockbuster Birth of a Nation, which Wilson screened at the White House. Meanwhile, Speed got a new job in the Justice Department’s “radical division,” where he would convict Marcus Josiah Garvey of mail fraud. Garvey was the first of many Black leaders who would be targeted by Speed over the next 50 years.
But over that time, all the names would change. The New Negro Movement began to use the phrase “civil rights.” The “radical division” became the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Bureau’s director, Speed, was now called J. Edgar Hoover.
Instead of employing law enforcement agents, Hoover preferred to hire military veterans with experience in surveillance and counterintelligence. After World War II, the FBI agents came exclusively from the ranks of military veterans. According to the book Enemies: A History of the FBI, these young, dogged G-men formed the spine of the greatest generation of FBI agents because they targeted “enemies” like W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and the leader of every movement for freedom and justice for the next 50 years.
Too bad there isn’t a movie about this.
Chris Wallace could star in it.
Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.
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