Editor’s note: At the beginning February, Black History Month, Boardhawk posed this question on social media and invited responses: What do you wish you learned about Black history during your education? How would it shape who you are today? In response four members of Ednium, a “collective” of Denver Public Schools alums, submitted heartfelt essays. We will publish them over the next couple of weeks. This is the second in the series.
One thing I wish I learned about Black history is the longstanding use of undemocratic means to oppress Black Americans.
One example of this was the three-fifths compromise. With the three-fifths compromise convention members of slave states wanted slaves to be counted as a whole person even though they were not entitled to the same rights as free people in the country were.
This shows a contradiction in the ideology of proslavery advocates that slaves on one hand are supposed to be property, yet when it comes to representation in Congress then all of a sudden they should be treated as a human being instead of property.
Fast forward to the Civil Rights movement. The FBI and other local law enforcement took it upon themselves to stop the movement on their own. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover started the counterintelligence operation called COINTELPRO in 1956. It continued operating until 1971.
One of the purposes of this operation was to discredit, disrupt, and neutralize the Civil Rights movement. Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Fred Hampton were all listed as a Black Messiah at some point by Director Hoover.
Hoover feared that these men would unite all Black Americans to take on the American government. Hoover even got the permission from the United States Justice Department to wiretap most of these leaders’ phones and hotel rooms. Even though no information was gathered on them having communist ties, Hoover still pursued having these men either discredited or neutralized.
Even though historians argue that COINTELPRO was used as a means to find communism in the Civil Rights movement, it doesn’t hold much weight when the FBI opened a file on Malcolm X a year after he got released from prison.
In addition to this a file was quickly opened on Martin Luther King Jr. right after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Many experts have argued that the FBI and the New York City Police played a role in Malcom X’s assassination. Also, the Chicago Police were encouraged by the FBI to assassinate Fred Hampton. If it wasn’t for a break-in by leftist activists at an FBI field office, there would have been no information released to the public about COINTELPRO. There was also a Senate commission regarding COINTELPRO with another few documents released to the public due thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.
While I was attending George Washington High School in Denver Public Schools, I didn’t know any of these historical events occurred. My teachers always talked about how the United States is a democracy and that everybody’s voice is heard without interference from the government.
They also talked about how during the Civil Rights movement, leaders and their followers only faced opposition from private citizens, racist southern local law enforcement, and racist southern politicians. We were never taught that the FBI and northern local law enforcement played along in trying to undermine the movement.
Even the famous liberal Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy signed off on wiretaps on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for COINTELPRO.
To me this isn’t very democratic when pretty much every level of government is trying to keep the oppression of marginalized Americans intact. Unfortunately, I had to wait until my 100 level United States History Post-Civil War and 300 level The Black Community college courses to learn about the Black History mentioned above.
If I had learned about these Black historical events in high school, I would have had a more realistic and objective knowledge of American democracy when I entered the “real world.” I hope future generations can start learning in elementary school that American democracy wasn’t intended for non-white Americans until non-white Americans started fighting for American democracy.
Maybe then we can have a more realistic perspective on ourselves and the world around us.
Shawn Greene is an Attendance and Academic Support Member at Denvers DC-21 High School. He is a graduate of DPS George Washington High School.