The Value of Teaching Juliette Hampton Morgan to American Children

I wish she was taught in American public schools. I’d call her the Notorious JHM. Or, something catchy, so that children amplified her memory through songs and Halloween costumes.

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Alabama’s Juliette Hampton Morgan (1914 – 1957)

On January 14, 1957, a rich, influential white woman named Juliette Hampton Morgan allowed a newspaper man named Bulford Boone, who was battling his local White Citizens Council, to publish the following words in The Tuscaloosa News.

 

There are so many Southerners from various walks of life that know you [Bulford Boone] are right. … They know what they call ‘our Southern way of life’ must inevitably change. Many of them even are eager for change, but are afraid to express themselves – so afraid to stand alone, to walk out naked as it were. Everyone who speaks as you do, who has the faith to do what he believes right in scorn of the consequences, does great good in preparing the way for a happier and more equitable future for all Americans. You help redeem Alabama’s very bad behavior in the eyes of the nation and the world. I had begun to wonder if there were any men in the state – any white men – with any sane evaluation of our situation here in the middle of the Twentieth Century, with any good will, and most especially with any moral courage to express it.”

 

Resistant Models Matter

I do not remember either I, or my fellow elementary school students, being exposed to those words. We were exposed to many versions of the 13 years American historians call The Civil Rights Movement (1955 – 1968), however.

 

The curriculum distributed across the nation did not need much translation. More than one librarian played my generation film clips from PBS’s highly popular “Eyes on the Prize” documentary. It was easy for our nine year old minds to interpret the material. We could see  all of the White people in the newsreels oppressing the Black people. Not one white voice disagreeing with the segregation or KKK-inspired violence was shared.

 

It made my (so-called) White friends uncomfortable. Some started crying in shame or turning red from emotions they could not articulate.

 

The librarians tried to soothe them by saying the Civil Rights Movement changed America. Once Dr. King showed the White people who were committing the violence the error of their ways, all of American society decided to change for the better.  [A myth we all were told.] The friendships inside of our classrooms, and the lack of violence because of those friendships, proved America had changed.

 

The curriculum – and myth of racial progress – didn’t improve in high school. My advanced placement American history classes also failed to mention Morgan. When the curriculum reached 1955, my memory banks are filled with the sounds of my fellow White students squirming in their chairs. The way the textbook presented Montgomery Whites in the boycott dispute, all of them wanted segregation; not just the political elite. It wasn’t Dr. King vs the Mayor; it was the average Negro house cleaning lady cleverly explaining to the middle class wife she worked for why she was late to work.

 

No ground was given for those who wanted to feel like there were White residents who disagreed with segregation being the “natural order of things.” No explanation was given for the behavior of the racist other than evil. All I remember the White history teacher’s passionately saying is: “I do not understand how Southern Whites could treat another human being like that.” They spoke the same way about the German Nazis.

 

Borrowing a Dr. Robin DiAngelo frame, the “good/bad” binary idea around race and racism probably became internalized at this time. Who wants to be associated with the psychopathic behavior of racism?

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JHM influenced her community as a school teacher and librarian.

Where Am I in American History?

Just because the textbooks did not connect the dots and explicitly state to us students that we were reading about the resistance the white students’ grandparents collectively put up to honoring human rights, didn’t mean we failed to connect the dots.

 

It clicked to us (so-called) Black students, our White friend’s parents originally attended all-White schools, practiced segregation and witnessed lynchings: they just never told their children. This became evident during class discussions. Us Black children shared our parents and grandparents personal stories from the Civil Rights Movement. It was their childhood.

 

The White students did not have similar stories to share. The White students never asked their parents to tell them those stories. The “why” was understood, and unspoken. They did not want confirmation that their families were aware Black people were being oppressed, and chose to not help.

 

It was like the grandparents and parents of our fellow White students lived in an alternative Universe the entire 13 years. For them, race and racism was an externalized issue, something seen on television. Like intellectual stimulation, or entertainment. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t “real”, in that it directly affected their lives. It affected the lives of Black people – only.

 

In classroom discussions, our fellow White students occupied silence like a medieval monk. They appeared to search for those spaces in the curriculum where they saw themselves reflected. They knew they, themselves, weren’t racist. Where were the anti-racist White persons outside of the abolitionists and Quakers?

 

Where were those individual White Southerners who told the Negro population they knew segregation was wrong. They hated to see the advertisements for a lynching in the local newspapers, or announced during church services. They wanted to do something, but were scared the White Citizens Council would kill them just as viciously as it killed Negroes. They did not view themselves as unfeeling psychopaths; they viewed themselves trapped inside the oppressor caste, just like Negroes felt trapped in the oppressed caste.

 

“Good” White Persons Always Existed

After twenty years of having racial conversation, I now advocate teaching about the Juliette Hampton Morgans and Eleanor Roosevelts who vigorously used their privilege to fight segregation. It benefits the self-identity development around “whiteness”. White skin isn’t permanently stained with the blood of oppression.

 

For those new to this information: the notorious JHM was a highly-educated Southern Belle. She suffered anxiety attacks, forcing her to ride the city bus, rather than drive a car. On the bus, she witnessed to the treatment the Negro population suffered under segregation.

 

In 1939, this brave Southern Belle startled White riders by pulling the emergency brake and demanding a driver return to pick up a Negro patron he defrauded out of fare. Per segregation law, Negro patrons had to pay through the front door, but enter through the rear door. Drivers would accept payment, then drive off, leaving the Negro patron there on the curb, with no legal recourse to recover the stolen bus fare. Morgan’s status as Montgomery aristocracy forced the driver to obey her.

 

Morgan also published scathing editorials in the Montgomery Advertiser, criticizing segregation as un-Christian and un-American.

 

Within her family, Morgan’s mother berated her daughter for protesting segregation in a way American history now celebrates. In fact, most of White Montgomery ostracized Morgan after an particularly offensive letter published in 1952. To maintain employment, she agreed to shut up. She broke that agreement on December 12, 1955 in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The price of conformity was too great. So, was the awful sight of watching White Montgomery writhe in pain over the Negro demands for humane treatment. She committed suicide in the summer of 1957.

 

Tragic as Morgan’s example is, it is better than the belief no dissenting voices existed against segregation. I think such fits how the average (so-called) White person is feeling right now in 2018 America. They do not understand where the White nationalism emerging into the national conversation is coming from. They do not understand the political ideas, or emotional culture, supporting such rampant tribalism, especially in the light of the education distributed via America’s public school system.

 

Perhaps, if Morgan’s thoughts and emotions were studied, the masses of White America could insert themselves in the Civil Rights Movement, or segregation, slavery and the genocide which dominate American history. These aspects of our culture aren’t externalized, but internalized as a part of the collective self-identity. Perhaps, it would help the average White person choose to pull the emergency break and demand their fellow White Americans treat everyone in America like fellow Americans.

 

Words by Kokayi Nosakhere

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