I SEE U

I SEE U, Episode 102: What Kind of American are U? Revisiting Jan 6th with acclaimed historian, Jeremi Suri

Distinguished professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author, Jeremi Suri, builds an interesting case in his latest book of connecting the post-Civil War complexities to what is happening in America today.

University of Texas at Austin professor, Author of Civil War By Other Means, historian and host of the This is Democracy podcast, Jeremi Suri

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Whether U are a Republican, a Democrat, or neither, why do U think there still exists such deep divides in this country? Why do we have a never-ending fight for a democracy, that is for everybody? In 1960 at an elementary school in New Orleans, why was there so much hate from outraged protesters, white parents, who were yelling and shouting at a Black six-year-old girl who simply wanted a better future? And just three years ago in Washington, D.C. on the steps of the Capitol, what prompted thousands of angry rioters to call for the Vice President of the United States to be hanged? Join us, as host Eddie Robinson tackles these questions and more with the award-winning historian and author of Civil War by Other Means: America's Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy, Jeremi Suri. The University of Texas at Austin history professor stops by our I SEE U studios in Houston to explore how decisions made in the wake of the Civil War have culminated into a civil breakdown in equality that continues to unravel the nation's political infrastructure. He argues that what should have been a moment of national renewal and rehabilitation of freedom for everyone after the Civil War, ultimately fell apart with competing visions of democracy that still linger today. In this Season 5 opener, Suri reveals portions of a remarkable history left untold, biases he's grappling with personally as well as any possible solutions that can be examined for a country striving to rebuild its own future.

Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Eddie Robinson: As we mark the third anniversary of the attack on the U. S. Capitol, we dive deep into the history of the competing visions of democracy, race, and freedom that have dominated the politics of our country since the end of the Civil War.

[00:00:16] Jeremi Suri: Wars don’t end when people say they’re over. They still go on, right? The issues that haven’t been dealt with on the battlefield get dealt with elsewhere. They’re tumors that weren’t fully removed from our body.

[00:00:29] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson, and stay tuned for an illuminating conversation with award winning author and historian, Jeremi Suri. His book, Civil War, By Other Means, is a compelling look at America’s long and unfinished fight for democracy.

[00:00:45] Eddie Robinson: Can Conflicts of Confronting the failures of our past help to heal the future of American democracy. Oh yeah, I feel you, we hear you, I SEE U.

[00:01:13] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host. Eddie Robinson. It’s been three years since those unbelievable events of January 6, 2021, one of the most shocking revelations. The insurrectionist mob was calling for the Vice President to be hanged for not going along with the unconstitutional plan to reject Electoral College votes. Watching these videos, I can’t help but think back to images of children like Ruby Bridges, six year old girl who had to be escorted to school by federal marshals with guns.

[00:01:55] Eddie Robinson: She was among the first to integrate an elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. In those photos, you can see wildly angry white parents yelling at this child for daring to go to an all white school. I also think about the images of lynchings from the 1930s with white folks seemingly happy with the violence.

[00:02:18] Eddie Robinson: Where does this anger, this violence, where does it come from? Why this reaction to Black people, to indigenous people, or other people of color who simply want equality? The freedoms put forth in our constitution. Historian Jeremi Suri has sought to answer that very question. In his latest book, Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy, Suri examines the failure of the United States to build upon the foundations that it laid down after the Civil War.

[00:02:52] Eddie Robinson: That, in many ways, would have created a multiracial, much more equitable democracy for all of us today. And we’re so grateful to have Jeremi here with us in our studio, thanks to our remarkable partners over at the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston, acclaimed author and host of This Is Democracy podcast, and professor of the University of Texas at Austin, Jeremi Suri.

[00:03:17] Eddie Robinson: Jeremi, thank you so much for being a guest.

[00:03:21] Jeremi Suri: Eddie, I’m so excited to be on your show. I’m a big fan.

[00:03:24] Eddie Robinson: Oh, make sure we capture that audio, but Dr. Suri, what really drew you into wanting to learn about American history? I mean, why were you so passionate about history to begin with? I mean, did your parents throw encyclopedias at you?

[00:03:42] Eddie Robinson: You know, I remember growing up and I loved almanacs. I have no idea why almanacs were so fascinating to me. But You know, what triggered this interest in American history?

[00:03:54] Jeremi Suri: So my parents are immigrants. My father is an immigrant from India. He came to the United States in 1965, fleeing, among other things, poverty in India.

[00:04:05] Jeremi Suri: And my mother, she’s actually the child of immigrants who came from Russia and that part of the world, Jewish immigrants fleeing people who are trying to kill them. And, uh, from the time I can first remember, you know, being age three or four, I was always struggling to make sense of who I am, to see myself, because I have this mixed background.

[00:04:23] Jeremi Suri: I’m Hind-Jew. I’m half Hindu, half Jewish. Uh, it doesn’t fit any of the categories. I grew up in New York City, and it was an incredibly diverse environment. But there was no one like me. There was no one who had that particular mix of backgrounds. Now there are at least two more like me, my kids, who are Hind-Jews as well.

[00:04:39] Eddie Robinson: Awesome.

[00:04:39] Jeremi Suri: And so before I could even identify what history is, Eddie, I was always interested in it. I remember as a kid looking for even kids books that were historical, that told about the past. And then I’ll say one thing layered on that, both Hinduism and Judaism as religions, and I’m not very religious, but I’ve dabbled in both.

[00:05:01] Jeremi Suri: They’re both very historical. So you know, think about a Passover Seder. It’s reliving the exodus from Egypt, right? And so, history’s always been with me. When I got to college, I was fortunate enough to meet some wonderful history professors. And as I started to talk to them and take their classes, I realized, you know what, this is what I was doing all, I didn’t know what to call it.

[00:05:22] Eddie Robinson: So when was it for you that you started to realize that, you know, something’s pretty strange going on here and, you know, there’s real significant moments of history being conveniently left out?

[00:05:33] Jeremi Suri: So I began my interest in history as Someone interested in American history, as you pointed out, but America’s relationship to the wider world.

[00:05:41] Jeremi Suri: And I remember, again, probably in high school, thinking, wow, why is it that there’s so many Indians coming to the U. S., like my father, and no one studies the relationship between India and the U. S. And then I was also kind of a cold war baby, 1980s sting. Do the Russians love their children too? And, and I, I noticed so many people would comment on Russian policy, but knew nothing about Russia.

[00:06:06] Jeremi Suri: So I learned Russian. In school for that reason, so I think for me, what drew me to history was just what you said, the blank spots, the ignorance that I thought we could fill, and it’s so much fun to read new stuff and find new knowledge.

[00:06:21] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with author Jeremi Suri, and we’re talking about.

[00:06:28] Eddie Robinson: His latest book, Civil War by Other Means. And I’m curious what pushed you or triggered you to write this book? I mean, it’s a very intense book. I almost feel like, you know, I’m a glass half full gentleman,

[00:06:45] Eddie Robinson: but after reading your book, I want, you know, that picture of Malcolm X, he’s looking out in the window with the rifle, you know, by any means necessary.

[00:06:53] Eddie Robinson: I feel like I need to.

[00:06:55] Jeremi Suri: Yeah,

[00:06:55] Eddie Robinson: renew my license of a gun permit and look out the window. I feel so like pessimist, not pessimistic, but I’m still have glass half full, but it’s a very, very riveting and truthful take on what’s happening in our country and using the civil war and the moments after that. as almost a guide to what can very well happen to our future if things don’t change.

[00:07:25] Jeremi Suri: Yes. Yes.

[00:07:26] Eddie Robinson: So, you know, what pushed you to even write something like this?

[00:07:29] Jeremi Suri: It’s not a book I would have written five or 10 years ago. I wrote books on the presidency, a book on Henry Kissinger, books on social movements and civil rights. What drew me to this book, I have to confess, Eddie, is my own ignorance.

[00:07:42] Jeremi Suri: Even though I’m a professional historian, and I’ve been a historian for 15, 20 years now as a professor, I was stunned, shocked, uh, over the last four or five years by some of the things happening in our country. And, and that’s not a political statement because, uh, I’ve gone around the country now for this book.

[00:07:59] Jeremi Suri: I think I’ve spoken in about 40 cities. Every audience I ask at every bookstore, uh, have you been shocked in the last four or five years? It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, everyone raises their hand. There’s been no one who hasn’t raised their hand to say they’ve been shocked.

[00:08:13] Jeremi Suri: And this book was my effort to understand why so many kinds of behavior, so many kinds of speech, so many divisions that we thought were in the past, things we thought we had left behind, why they’re reappearing in front of us. And I’m a half glass full guy too how could I, how could I not be the child of immigrants from India and Russia, right?

[00:08:35] Jeremi Suri: I’m not supposed to be alive, you know, so how could I not be? The reason I wrote this book is not simply as you said, so kindly to give us an intense experience of learning about this, Eddie, I think that if we see this as history, not as something that’s foreordained, not as something that’s about something genetic, but actually as our history, we can change it.

[00:08:58] Jeremi Suri: We study history because we’re looking at the choices other people made. And we’re not being Monday morning quarterback. We’re not even condemning them, right? It’s too easy to sit in the present and condemn the past. We want to learn from the past. And what I try to show is decisions that were made after the civil war or decisions that were not made could be revisited today.

[00:09:17] Jeremi Suri: Take voting. For example, we have a voting system in the United States. That’s not fair to anyone. And that, by the way, is not a political statement too. I grew up in New York. The voting system was dead set against Republicans in New York. I live in Texas. Now the system is dead set against Democrats, right?

[00:09:33] Jeremi Suri: We could create a fairer voting system so everyone could really have their voice heard Democrats and Republicans, Black and white, Hispanic, various other backgrounds, and we’d be a better society. History teaches us how to do that.

[00:09:48] Eddie Robinson: Your background really, I mean, I’m not a historian, but I, I, I lived in New York city for 20 years almost.

[00:09:54] Eddie Robinson: And I. You know, miss my family. And so I moved to Houston. And so now I’ve spent a lot of my time, you know, here in Texas. I’m curious, you know, why has America, historically speaking, had such a difficult and challenging time approaching the sense of renewal, the sense of genuine equality for everyone? Why can’t we seem to get there? Dr. Suri?

[00:10:20] Jeremi Suri: It’s a great question is probably the most important question. And I don’t think it’s because we have bad people. Uh, I think Americans are good people in general, uh, as I think people are, most folk in most places are good people. I think there are two things that make it really hard in the United States.

[00:10:35] Jeremi Suri: One is that we’re a society that has so much, but that what we have is not distributed evenly. And that’s not anyone’s fault, that’s just the way it is. And deciding how to provide people with the ability to get more for hard work, but not to leave others behind. Our system is built around winners and losers.

[00:10:54] Jeremi Suri: And how do you manage that? And the winners are always afraid of becoming the losers. One of the things that motivates backlash politics of any kind is when people, not those at the bottom, those near the top, fear that someone new is going to challenge them. Again, our New York experience, right?

[00:11:11] Jeremi Suri: Neighborhoods that have one group of people in them, and then a new group shows up. It doesn’t matter who the first group is, they don’t like the second group coming into their territory. And then the second problem we’ve had is quite frankly that we don’t teach and think about history enough. We repeat the same mistakes.

[00:11:27] Jeremi Suri: We’re a society that wonderfully wants to reinvent the future. There’s a reason we have Silicon Valley, you know, in, in the United States. Why we have so many people doing this inventive work. But sometimes I feel like as Americans, we’re hamsters on a wheel. Sure. And if we would just look back a bit and learn from the past, we can get through some of these issues.

[00:11:48] Eddie Robinson: You know, uh, people like John Wilkes Booth, as we get into the history for a minute here. Um, John Wilkes Booth didn’t see themselves as assassins per se. They saw themselves as a martyr who was restoring a way of life. A way of life that brought an exclusive white democracy. And you write how Booth relied on the patronage of wealthy white Americans, many of whom who own slaves, who are an essential capital resource for the economy of American democracy.

[00:12:21] Eddie Robinson: They saw Blacks and people of color as tools essentially, and, and as a means to make white men free. White men make them rich and I couldn’t help but read this part of the book without thinking about the January 6th attack on the U. S. Capitol in D. C. And as I was preparing for this interview, CNN was airing the special on the January 6th insurrection and I noticed how prominent lucrative politicians were indeed masterminds and were involved in strategizing and navigating the acts of the insurrection and NPR actually did some reporting on the money trail and those who might have helped fund the events of that day.

[00:12:59] Mississippi Democrat Benny Thompson and News Report: If funds were raised for the January 6th event by an organized group, then there might be an opportunity. Uh, for us to know who it was and what it was paid.

[00:13:12] Mississippi Democrat Benny Thompson and News Report: That’s Mississippi Democrat Benny Thompson, who chairs the House Select Committee. He’s responding to a question about Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is now facing a subpoena to turn over documents on Friday and testify next week before the panel.

[00:13:25] Mississippi Democrat Benny Thompson and News Report: The fiancé of Donald Trump Jr. is a key figure in the committee’s efforts to follow the money, and she was one of several speakers at the January

[00:13:34] Eddie Robinson: 6th rally. I mean, but you just simply can’t topple a country without having commerce, without having money to move chess pieces. And so explain to our audience and those who haven’t really had an opportunity to read the book, the major role that money Really does have and having lots of it, you know, in holding that resistance to civil rights reform.

[00:13:57] Jeremi Suri: Sure, sure. Well, those who have money and this doesn’t really matter what your race is. Those who have money always want to maintain their advantage and they want to use that money to serve their purposes. They, they can, it can be about building bigger homes, earning more money, putting their kids in the right schools, but money confers on people a sense of.

[00:14:17] Jeremi Suri: Privilege and people don’t want to give up that privilege and they will use their money repeatedly throughout our history to protect their privilege and what we’ve seen in January 6 what we saw with John Wilkes Booth 150 years earlier is that those who are part of networks that are now challenged in new ways will use the resources they have to protect their networks.

[00:14:39] Jeremi Suri: So John Wilkes Booth’s followers, he was a very prominent theatrical performer in his time. These were the white slave owners. Booth himself was not a slave owner, but he felt that Lincoln’s attacks on slavery threatened the people who were financing his theatrical career. And so he wanted to defend them.

[00:14:58] Jeremi Suri: Those who went to the Capitol on January 6th to try to overturn an election, to try to stage a coup, and I showed other examples of this in our earlier history too, they were there because they felt that the outcome of the election. was going to allow people to challenge their position in their society.

[00:15:15] Jeremi Suri: So it’s about money being used to protect privilege. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. And I don’t think white people are more likely to do that than people of color. Those who have money will use their money for purposes of power. That’s why we need a government to regulate how people use their money.

[00:15:35] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this show, subscribe to our podcast. Look for I S E E U, it’s the letter U, with Eddie Robinson on your favorite platform.

[00:15:47] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we’re living in an era where an increasing number of Americans are getting news and information on TikTok. As an educator, what does that mean for Jeremi Suri in his classrooms?

[00:15:59] Eddie Robinson: Are young people engaging with this history? And what does civic engagement look like for the next generation? I’m Eddie Robinson. More of our conversation with author Jeremi Suri, right here. On I SEE U. We’ll be back in just a moment.

[00:16:29] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

[00:16:58] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. For journalists, a guiding principle of our profession is that a well informed public is key to a healthy democracy. But what are we to make of that notion in these days of easily constructed fake news, of viral information streaming out to the public on apps with no fact checking or editors to ensure that something is accurate and true?

[00:17:25] Eddie Robinson: We’ve been speaking with historian Jeremi Suri. He’s professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Civil War by Other Means. It’s a compelling look at America’s long and unfinished fight for democracy. Dr. Siri, you’ve traveled to city after city in your book tours. I’m curious. Has anything surprised you or shocked you with regards to feedback or responses from your audiences?

[00:17:52] Eddie Robinson: What are they saying about this book?

[00:17:54] Jeremi Suri: Yes. Um, two things among many I’ll point out. And these are both glass half full things, by the way, uh, because I am an optimist and I wrote this book. To try to be optimistic. Uh, so first, uh, I’ve been so happy with the number of people who young people who are engaged with these issues.

[00:18:12] Jeremi Suri: Uh, I, I want to say this as a professor who teaches 300 undergraduates at UT every semester. Uh, they are the best generation I’ve ever seen. My 18, 19, 20 year olds, my kids are also 18 and 20, so I’m biased, but they are terrific, and when I’ve been going around the country, young people are reading the book, they’re interested in this topic, and they’re not coming at it as Democrats or Republicans, and I have to say, they’re not coming at it as some stereotyped, woke audience.

[00:18:38] Jeremi Suri: They are concerned about the future of the country. And they’re ready to roll up their sleeves and make a difference. Here’s the best thing about young people. They think their parents have screwed it up and they want to fix it. And that’s a good thing, right? They’re not just trying to recreate what their parents had.

[00:18:52] Jeremi Suri: I’ve been so happy to see the number of bookstores I go to, and young people are showing up at bookstores to listen, you know, and, and try to engage. So that’s one thing I’ve, I’ve been positively shocked by. A second thing is to see how when you get beyond Right versus left and Democrat versus Republican, how many things we actually agree on, you know, people do sometimes and it’s appropriate to criticize things in the book, but no one has really tried to disagree with the central proposition that we have some real work to do, that we are not where we need to be.

[00:19:28] Jeremi Suri: We might be the greatest democracy, but we are short. of the kind of democracy we could be. And one of the things that keeps us separated, uh, is a legacy of slavery and racism. We can disagree about what that means, but there’s been very little substantive pushback. Now, maybe the people who believe otherwise don’t show up.

[00:19:48] Jeremi Suri: But I’ve had a lot of Republicans who have engaged deeply on this.

[00:19:51] Eddie Robinson: Professor Suri, as a journalist, where You know, I’m constantly balancing, you know, playing that balancing act of making sure that there is no editorial coming out of this. But have you found yourself having to walk a tightrope as a history professor of being non partisan?

[00:20:10] Jeremi Suri: Every day. Every day. And there are always people, usually not students, but others, readers of the book, people who Just look at who I am, who are trying to typecast me. And my wife jokes that, you know, one day I’m accused of being too far to the right, the next day too far to the left. It means I probably have it about right, but it still doesn’t feel good.

[00:20:31] Jeremi Suri: People are always, and they want to jump on a statement that you may, heaven forbid. You know, you say something that they don’t like. So I’m always conscious of, first of all, pushing back against myself to make sure I’m not just saying something that sounds good to the audience I’m in front of. There is a tendency sometimes.

[00:20:49] Jeremi Suri: And second, I really believe in evidence and facts. I believe, as you said so well, that there’s lots of room for different interpretation. But you gotta know the facts, you gotta know the evidence, and when I get to an issue that’s hard, I try to push myself to find more facts, to learn more, so I’m better informed.

[00:21:08] Eddie Robinson: Yeah. I, um, was watching one of your YouTube clips of one of the book tour cities that you were in, and they had an interesting question towards the end, and I’m actually gonna ask that question, and I wanted to get your thoughts, because I’ve been always fascinated by what kinds of investment our schools should be doing to focus on history.

[00:21:26] Eddie Robinson: How do we break the wall of criticism and pushback and scrutiny from certain individuals who may not be so open to more untold histories of our past being taught in our classrooms? I mean, your book, for instance, people would argue should be required reading for. High school students. Dr. Peniel Joseph’s book on Reconstruction, a required social studies textbook.

[00:21:48] Eddie Robinson: For instance, some would argue Michael Eric Dyson’s Unequal book required junior high reading coursework on the Buffalo Soldiers required middle school reading. What will it take professor to break down the walls of fear, which what I call it personally speaking, and finally incorporate more inclusive histories in our school textbooks for young readers.

[00:22:11] Eddie Robinson: Because I, I, I heard you earlier and saying, you know, these young readers are, they’re wanting to explore, they’re wanting to learn this, but perhaps it’s, you know, the school district administrator, perhaps it’s the parent that just won’t embrace these untold histories. What will it take to break that wall of criticism?

[00:22:34] Jeremi Suri: We need to push back against exactly that. That’s a kind of intolerance. That’s cancel culture. What you just described, right? People accuse sometimes those on one side of the spectrum of believing in cancel culture. I don’t think cancel culture is about politics. I think it’s about fear. I’m afraid people are going to hear something I don’t want them to hear.

[00:22:51] Jeremi Suri: Here’s what we need to say and say loudly that the most patriotic thing you can do is to say I love my country as I love the United States. I wouldn’t be here if it didn’t take in my parents as immigrants, right? I love this country and I believe this is one of the greatest countries in the world. But you know what?

[00:23:08] Jeremi Suri: We’re still falling short of what we can be. We can be even better. And let’s see our full history. Let’s see what we’ve done well. The way we helped to rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II. I’ve written about that. And let’s see what we haven’t done as well. The years after the Civil War that I’ve just written about.

[00:23:23] Jeremi Suri: And let’s learn from both. Uh, the same way to be a good parent, as I’ve learned from my wife, is about, uh, not telling your kids they’re always the best and giving them chocolate cake and letting them watch TV all night. Being a parent is saying, I love you, I support you, I’ll always be there for you, but here are the things you can do better.

[00:23:39] Jeremi Suri: You gotta study harder. You gotta work harder on this if you care about this. That’s how we talk at dinner in our house. And you know what? My kids have a long list for me as well. But they don’t love me less because they’re telling me how to be a better dad. They love me more because they believe I’m a good dad.

[00:23:54] Jeremi Suri: I can be an even better dad. That’s what a history course is. We love this country so much that we want to hold it to its highest ideals, point out where we’ve reached them, where we haven’t and believe that we can do better and learn from that past.

[00:24:09] Eddie Robinson: Well, as a gay single father who just has a toddler son, I appreciate that.

[00:24:14] Eddie Robinson: And I love that advice. Did you ever imagine though, as a professor of American history, that You know, this would somehow become the latest flashpoint of national controversy. What’s being taught in our classrooms? You know, and I mean, all of it. Did you expect all of this?

[00:24:32] Jeremi Suri: Well, yes and no. I mean, it’s as a historian. I know this has always been the case, right? I mean, we had debates in the 20s about whether to teach evolution. In classrooms, right? So to some extent, there’s always a lot at stake. And fear, again, fear is not partisan, fear is not about one, one period or another. People are always afraid of the new, afraid of change.

[00:24:53] Jeremi Suri: What does surprise me is how certain politicians have elevated this to the center of their platforms as if the future of the Republic will be determined or will be undermined because people are learning more about slavery. Come on.

[00:25:09] Governor Ron DeSantis: We’re proud to have robust standards for American history, and that means teaching all aspects of American history. We’ve got great, uh, stories. Well, we’ve had pitfalls, and students need to learn all those. But we reject ideas like Critical Race Theory in our K 12 schools.

[00:25:28] Jeremi Suri: To me, that is distraction politics, and that is perhaps somewhat new. Using social media to get us not to focus on our real problems, inequality, an environment that’s choking us, right, the absence of water, right, war in Ukraine, right, things that are really world historical, and getting us to be concerned because, oh my gosh, students are reading Toni Morrison, or Michael Eric Dyson, or Peniel Joseph, right, come on, actually, that is not the threat to our future, and we’ve got to be grown ups and say, no, let’s talk about the real issues.

[00:26:00] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with history professor Jeremi Suri. He’s a professor over at the University of Texas at Austin, and he’s also the host of a very popular podcast called This Is Democracy. He’s here in studio at I SEE U to talk about his latest book, Civil War by Other Means.

[00:26:24] Eddie Robinson: Professor, I was just down around the South Post Oak area in Houston. I was putting gas in my truck and I noticed a gentleman driving his own pickup. And I couldn’t help but notice his license plate. And it indeed had a Confederate flag blazoned on the front of his vehicle. You mentioned the expansion of the use of the Confederate flag in states, as far as up north, you know, I think your book makes it crystal clear of what’s going on here in the south, but up north, there are states that have that have come to embrace the flag and what it represents even states alongside the Canadian border. Why do you think a. People are still embracing this flag and b. More northern states who are historically part of the union.

[00:27:13] Eddie Robinson: Why are they still, you know, sort of like embracing the displaying of the confederate flag?

[00:27:18] Jeremi Suri: Symbols have power, right? That’s why when I was growing up playing basketball in New York City, everyone wanted Air Jordans, right? It was a symbol that we were, we were basketball players. We were serious because we were, were Air Jordans and a confederate flag sends a message.

[00:27:33] Jeremi Suri: That your white people are still superior. There’s just no way beyond that. That’s what the flag has been about. It’s a confederate battle flag. It was used by those who were fighting to defend slavery. That’s what it symbolizes. Uh, in the book I talk about this gentleman, Kevin Seyfried, who was one of the people who attended the January 6th coup attempt, who brought with him his confederate flag.

[00:27:55] Jeremi Suri: He’s from Delaware. Uh, why did he start putting a confederate flag in front of his house? Well, he was very upset that he lost his job, and he blamed, Black people. And so the flag was a way of saying, I’m part of a group. He joined a neo confederate group even though he had no confederates in his family. Because it’s a statement.

[00:28:13] Jeremi Suri: And, and here’s how I think about it. I’m okay with people putting whatever they want inside their house. But when I publicly display something I’m sending a message, and I think it’s our job as citizens to think about how that’s received. I’m part Jewish. I’m not going to send my kids to Adolf Hitler High School.

[00:28:32] Jeremi Suri: I’m not going to let them go to someone’s house that has a Nazi flag in it. I understand why African American students see a Confederate flag in the same way I see a swastika. Swastika, by the way, played the same role for the Germans, for the Nazis, that the Confederate flag played for the confederacy.

[00:28:50] Jeremi Suri: And so, uh, I think basic civility says, you don’t display that. And when you do, knowing that, as everyone does know that, What it’s about? You’re sending a message that you don’t care.

[00:29:02] Eddie Robinson: In some instances, the message is clear, and they write on the flag, it’s not about hate, it’s about heritage. What say you to that?

[00:29:14] Jeremi Suri: Why isn’t it okay for a German to say that? Nazis were in power longer than the Confederacy. Hitler was in power from 1933 to 1945. That’s 12 years. There are people in the many of written memoirs who grew up and all they knew the first 12 years of their lives was the Nazi flag. Their parents died in the Wehrmacht.

[00:29:33] Jeremi Suri: It’s their heritage too. Why isn’t that acceptable? It’s not acceptable because it’s a heritage that’s associated with hate and violence. As is the Confederacy. I respect Southern culture. I respect, I love Southern food. You know, so, this is not an attack on Southern culture. This is, I also have someone who studied Germany.

[00:29:51] Jeremi Suri: I respect German culture. Germans were the great thinkers of the 19th century. But it’s what the symbol is. And I find it ironic, I have to say, because many of the people who defend the Confederate flag If you put a Black power symbol in front of them, they would say that’s a symbol of hate. And I want to respect that, too.

[00:30:10] Jeremi Suri: I want to respect that. Okay. Okay. So if we shouldn’t have Black power symbols In public places? Well, then we shouldn’t have Confederate flags or Nazi flags in those public spaces.

[00:30:21] Eddie Robinson: Explain the logic of, you know, of why people still believe that holding on to the confederacy and living the values of the confederacy will eventually benefit them.

[00:30:31] Jeremi Suri: Well, because, back to your excellent question before, Eddie, they, they see a time when they Protection, power, privilege. Uh, and again, I don’t think that’s just about race. Everyone is nostalgic for a time when they think they were more powerful. Change is hard for everyone. You and I are, even though we’re both young men, we’re reaching a point in our lives when a lot of people are younger than us, right?

[00:30:53] Jeremi Suri: And that’s unsettling, right? My students, they tell me what music they’re listening to. I have no idea what they’re talking about. So of course I say, yeah, my music was better. I don’t really know. We hold on. To touch tones from the past because our power and privilege is associated with that. And we got to let go. We have no choice.

[00:31:14] Eddie Robinson: You know, the formation of the Ku Klux Klan is mentioned in your book, and it has some really interesting descriptions, narratives of the Memphis massacre, where a white mob in 1866 shot defenseless African American residents. Kind of really didn’t know anything about that myself. Um, so that was fascinating to me.

[00:31:33] Eddie Robinson: When I read a little passage from your book, it mentions here, Klansmen were rarely prosecuted for their violence, but often praised for their actions. Southern sheriffs, mayors, and powerful landholders participated in what were violent festivals of hate that boosted their careers. And then professor, you go on to mention a gentleman by the name of Abram Colby, a former slave who had been elected to Georgia’s state legislature.

[00:32:06] Eddie Robinson: He was one of hundreds to suffer Klan violence. He recounted how a mob of first class men, but as a lawyer, want a doctor and summer farmers viciously attacked him on October 29th, 1869. And then you go on to write that the Klansmen had broken something inside. Colby was not only fearful for his own life, but for his family.

[00:32:34] Eddie Robinson: He says here, quote, My little daughter came out and begged them not to carry me away. They drew up a gun and actually frightened her to death. She never got over it until she died. A few months later, these instances, these killings to where the lives of innocent people are so brutal and the pain reverberates from generation to generation.

[00:32:58] Eddie Robinson: Yet the irony of it is such that those who are a part of these treacherous group carry on a tradition that their ancestors and their family units were part of briefly talked to us about the origins of the Ku Klux Klan and how on some level. You know, they were never or they would never be held accountable for the violence and the terror that they participated in, you know, on some level, you know, based on the notions of, you know, I’m wondering if this could be the reason why today members of this group’s ideology, all of this still withstands the test of time.

[00:33:42] Eddie Robinson: Is this the reason why they’re still prevalent? Because. Some level they were able to get away with it back in the day, and they could still perhaps get, get, get Get over it and never be prosecuted.

[00:33:56] Jeremi Suri: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that history teaches us, unfortunately, is that sometimes bullying and intimidation and brutal violence works.

[00:34:03] Jeremi Suri: That’s why people use it. Every society has struggled with this. If bullying didn’t work, it wouldn’t exist. Unfortunately, it works. What is bullying? It’s when a group of people who have material power use that power to supersede the law. To supersede the law. So the Ku Klux Klan is made up, it’s initially formed in Tennessee, but then it develops branches.

[00:34:23] Jeremi Suri: It’s a terrorist organization that develops within the United States, populated by former Confederates, mostly former Confederate military leaders. Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the most brutal, uh, confederate generals is one of the original Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan. And they are created, they’re a secret society, like all terrorist groups, they developed their own

[00:34:43] Eddie Robinson: They killed 200, what, troops?

[00:34:44] Jeremi Suri: 200 out 200 soldiers, yeah, in cold blood. And, uh, the Ku Klux Klan is an organization designed to basically supersede the law in local communities by intimidating African Americans, immigrants. Sympathetic white people into following their approach, which is an approach of white supremacy. They’re very explicit about that.

[00:35:07] Jeremi Suri: They hate Catholics, they hate Jews, they hate Blacks, they hate anyone who challenges what they see as white Protestant America. Oftentimes the members of the Ku Klux Klan are not extremists. They are the local shopkeepers. The local police chief, local judges, they are protecting that power. And what do they do?

[00:35:27] Jeremi Suri: They use violence, not simply to kill people, but to send a warning to anyone who challenges the way things are done. So the classic case is they make an example of someone like Abram Colby. Abram Colby was an African American former slave. You described him very well. He gets involved in politics, and what they’re trying to do is tell him, they say explicitly, if you run for office, and you encourage other people to run for office, this is what we’re gonna do to you.

[00:35:55] Jeremi Suri: So you better stay quiet, boy. You better stay in your place. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t rock the boat. Uh, in our history, Eddie, that kind of violence is much more common than what we associate with radicalism. Of people trying to bring down power. No, in our society, violence, more often than not, is used by people who have power.

[00:36:16] Jeremi Suri: And they use violence to hold onto power when someone is challenging them. These Klan members are almost never tried and held accountable. Because their members are also the people in law enforcement. It’s a really important point. One of the reasons communities today don’t trust law enforcement is because of this history.

[00:36:35] Jeremi Suri: I’ve had a lot of students who are police officers. One of my closest relatives was an NYPD, New York Police Department, detective for 30 years. I have huge respect for police officers. They are great public servants, but police organizations have in their history. this association, unfortunately, and that is why people knowing this history often aren’t trusting.

[00:36:56] Jeremi Suri: Ku Klux Klan members were almost never tried because they’re people with the people in power who are making the decisions of who to hold accountable and who not to hold accountable. And I will say that what we saw with George Floyd’s lynching in Minnesota a few years ago was actually another version of exactly this, right?

[00:37:14] Jeremi Suri: Here we had police officers. White in this case, but they could have been Black, who are using power to intimidate people in a community, using that power well beyond what anyone could justify. And what you find out when you look at it, is they were doing this all the time. I mean, what made George Floyd different, is that in his case the perpetrators were prosecuted.

[00:37:35] Jeremi Suri: Whereas more often than not, they aren’t. We have to understand that history, and we have to do something about that.

[00:37:48] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we wrap up our conversation with author and historian, Jeremi Suri. A bit of context here, nearly 180, 000 free Black men and escaped slaves served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Writer, abolitionist, Frederick Douglass was instrumental in convincing Lincoln to accept But that didn’t take away the resentment in the ranks of white soldiers and among the wider public.

[00:38:16] Eddie Robinson: Would white Americans come to value the sacrifices of these men for the Union in the wake of the Civil War? Plus, as a renowned historian, has Jeremi ever been discriminated against, even as a highly regarded academic? I’m Eddie Robinson. I SEE U. Our final segment comes your way. Right after these messages.

[00:38:51] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, be sure to subscribe to our podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

[00:39:19] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. African Americans made up 10 percent of the Union troops fighting for the Union in the Civil War. 180, 000 troops. That’s significant given how close to losing the Union came. In the book, Civil War By Other Means, by historian Jeremi Suri, there’s a chapter titled, Citizens that really dives into Frederick Douglass’s efforts to ramp up the enlistment of Black men into the military and how he pressed Abraham Lincoln to give them a chance to fight.

[00:39:56] Eddie Robinson: Ultimately, they were allowed to enlist despite receiving less pay and fewer rations than their white counterparts. These soldiers were loyal and a force to be reckoned with. And ultimately, we’re instrumental in helping the Union win the war. You know, Jeremi, it was so interesting to read in your book about what had enraged John Wilkes Booth, the man who would assassinate Lincoln.

[00:40:22] Eddie Robinson: He was so angry that the Union had transformed slaves into soldiers. Booth had witnessed African American Union soldiers in the army. Guarding white confederate prisoners of war, and that was just so unacceptable to him and you go on to write that union supporters in the north had accepted the end of slavery, but they had not adjusted to freed slaves as a component of law enforcement.

[00:40:50] Eddie Robinson: I question if many white americans today have quote unquote adjusted to seeing Black people in positions of authority, you know, you just have to look at incidents like that 2020 traffic stop in Virginia. Uh, where Caron Nazario, uh, an army lieutenant in his military uniform was illegally removed from his vehicle to be searched while being held at gunpoint and pepper sprayed by Virginia police.

[00:41:15] Eddie Robinson: He sued the two officers of assault and racial profiling in a federal lawsuit. He was seeking a million dollars in damages, but was eventually awarded a measly thirty six hundred bucks. Why do you think it’s still to this day, Dr. Suri, that a mindset exists where even men and women of color who serve our country, who’ve risked their lives for our country, there’s still this mindset that these individuals aren’t seen as equals.

[00:41:42] Eddie Robinson: Why does this mindset still exist some 160 years after the Civil War?

[00:41:49] Jeremi Suri: I think it’s for two reasons among many others. One is because of this history. We’ve inherited patterns of thought and those ways of thinking you end up, I’ve seen this as a parent and as a teacher, you end up imbibing without realizing it.

[00:42:03] Jeremi Suri: Let me just give you one example. I noticed. As a, as a parent, my kids were, you know, watching programs on Netflix or whatever. And more often than not, the people of color are the criminals. And the people who are not the criminals are not of color, with some exceptions. And when they try to diversify things, they diversify the law enforcement in the show, not the criminals.

[00:42:25] Jeremi Suri: Right, if you want to get people scared about someone, right, they’re, they’re a person of color. Not always Black. After 9 11, it was someone Muslim. There are still people who say, you know, I feel uncomfortable when I see someone wearing a hijab. I grew up in a neighborhood with people wearing hijabs all the time.

[00:42:39] Jeremi Suri: I don’t find that uncomfortable. But I can see why people do, because that’s what they see, right? That’s what they see, that’s what they see around them. And I think the problem is that that message, that image, is something we inherit. When you’re making a show, or telling a story, it’s easy to go to those tropes.

[00:42:56] Jeremi Suri: Because they’re already there. It’s much harder. It’s really hard to have an Asian American As your superhero, Superman, most people is white and a white man, right? He doesn’t look Asian because that’s what we’ve imbibed. That’s what’s put in front of us. So that’s one thing. The history matters. That’s why you have to know this history and try to reverse it.

[00:43:17] Jeremi Suri: That’s not being woke. That’s just seeing the world as it is around us, right? The second problem is, uh, is the economic problem. Many communities that are systematically living with poverty and suffering, those are the communities where you will have behaviors that are less conforming. People are struggling, people fall into bad patterns of behavior, they’re incentivized in different ways, they join gangs, etc.

[00:43:44] Jeremi Suri: And those behaviors get associated with someone’s race. When really what’s motivating that are the economic conditions. The majority of the poor people in the United States today are white, and the majority of criminals in the United States are white. But yet our imagery, because of economics and media, makes us think they’re people of color.

[00:44:05] Eddie Robinson: That’s a fascinating point. Our two points. Thank you so much for that. Do you feel that America is regressing? Is America capable of actually experiencing real democracy?

[00:44:17] Jeremi Suri: I think we are capable of real democracy and in some ways we’ve, we’ve made enormous progress. It’s not that we’re regressing. It’s that we’re seeing very, very strong efforts to stop change, to hold us where we are.

[00:44:31] Jeremi Suri: Efforts that will lose, but they will leave scars. As those efforts at the end of the Civil War did, and those scars, my point is, those scars have effects too.

[00:44:40] Eddie Robinson: I want to see if I can get some honesty from you as well, Dr. Suri, and

[00:44:44] Jeremi Suri: Oh, I hope I’ve been honest all along.

[00:44:47] Eddie Robinson: Check this one out. Describe an experience or situation where you felt marginalized as a citizen, where you felt like you were being disenfranchised.

[00:44:58] Jeremi Suri: I’ve had many and I’ve had cases where I’ve realized I was doing that to others, too. So I’m happy to talk about that as well. I have been the victimizer as well as the, as well as the victim, but I’ll just go back to, uh, something I referred to before. I grew up in a working class immigrant neighborhood in New York City when New York City was not Disneyland as it is now.

[00:45:16] Jeremi Suri: And I, um, I,

[00:45:19] Eddie Robinson: So expensive too.

[00:45:20] Jeremi Suri: Exactly. And I, uh, I used to play basketball. I used to think I was pretty good. My first dream was to play in the NBA. That didn’t quite work out. And, uh, I was always marginalized. I learned to sort of turn it to my advantage because I was the, you know, skinny Indian kid. And I looked, I think I looked more Indian then when I was skinnier than I am now.

[00:45:39] Jeremi Suri: I was the skinny Indian kid and people assumed if you were a basketball player in New York, you were Black. And I was told time and time again, I’m not Black enough. To play basketball, and, and that really bothered me for a long time, right? And I didn’t want to play the white sports. I did play tennis, but tennis wasn’t as much fun.

[00:45:55] Jeremi Suri: So, yeah, I felt, as a kid, I remember feeling that, very much. Now, there’ve been times that, that I’ve been the, the victimizer, and not, not realized that. I have felt that way When I think about how we put our kids through school, we have made a very sincere effort. My kids are incredible students and wonderful people.

[00:46:14] Jeremi Suri: They take after their mom. But we have, uh, whenever we can, done everything we could in public schools to get them the best teachers, to live in the best areas, so they have the best access to schooling. And why wouldn’t I do that as a parent? And I wouldn’t change a thing. But I also recognize when I’m doing that.

[00:46:31] Jeremi Suri: There are others who can’t do that. And my kids are getting an advantage that other kids don’t have. Does that mean I’m victimizing? I’m not sure. But it does mean I’m perpetuating an inequality. We moved to a part of Austin where we knew our kids would get to go to good public schools. We didn’t think about other neighborhoods where we might have liked to live also, because those neighborhoods didn’t have the kinds of schools we wanted them to go to.

[00:46:52] Jeremi Suri: Every parent does this. We had the means, Eddie, to choose. We couldn’t live in the richest neighborhood, but we could live somewhere that was expensive. Not because we wanted to live in an expensive place, but because we wanted our kids to have access to that school, to that school. What am I doing in this situation?

[00:47:06] Jeremi Suri: I’m doing well for my kids, but I’m perpetuating a system of, let’s be, let’s be frank, segregated schools.

[00:47:15] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with author Jeremi Suri. His latest book, civil war by other means America’s long and unfinished fight for democracy is available now and published by public affairs books. Are we still in a civil war?

[00:47:32] Jeremi Suri: I think we’re not in a civil war in the way we think of a civil war of two sides fighting each other and shooting at each other.

[00:47:38] Jeremi Suri: Not really. I mean, figuratively, yes, but no, but I think we’re still living with the lingering effects. You see, the thing we learn as historians is that wars don’t end when people say they’re over. They still go on, right? The issues that haven’t been dealt with on the battlefield Get dealt with elsewhere and we need to face up to that that there are still things left We’re not having another Antietam or Gettysburg and we won’t it’s that doesn’t make sense but to say that some of these issues of the challenges of managing multiracialism and Backlash politics of who gets included and how they get included of dealing with economic inequality these issues That were raw and bloody in 1865.

[00:48:22] Jeremi Suri: They’re still there. And the way I think about it is there are tumors that weren’t fully removed from our body. You know, Lincoln in the second inaugural talks about the Civil War as a tumor, right? That it’s sort of, this was a sin that God placed in our society. We have fought this war like surgery to take the sin out.

[00:48:40] Jeremi Suri: Some of that tumor was still left, and it’s still there in George Floyd. It’s still there in all of these things we see around us in the Confederate flag. And so we need to go back in and pull that tumor out, pull what’s left of it out. And until we do that, right, we’re not really in remission from the cancer. We’re still there.

[00:48:59] Eddie Robinson: Of all that you’ve accomplished as a historian, a father An incredible professor. What lessons have you learned about yourself thus far?

[00:49:13] Jeremi Suri: You know, I’ve learned, uh, first of all, to be much more humble. I think studying history teaches us, I don’t always practice that. My wife’s always reminding me of this.

[00:49:23] Jeremi Suri: But it doesn’t matter what you study in history. History teaches us time and again that people who think they know better than others make big mistakes that hurt themselves and those they care about. Humility is the most important lesson from history. I mean, Herodotus says this centuries ago, right? And we’re relearning that.

[00:49:40] Jeremi Suri: And in American society, and I say this not just to people on one side, on both sides, even if you think you’re right, even if you have moral righteousness on your side, be humble, because That sense of being the know it all and knowing better than others will lead you to make big mistakes and overshoot what you’re doing.

[00:49:59] Jeremi Suri: So that’s one. And then one other lesson I’ve learned about myself is that we have to be careful not to let the power of an argument move us past. I, I was a debater in high school too. I love debating. I love talking. I think you do too, Eddie.

[00:50:19] Eddie Robinson: Yeah, me too.

[00:50:20] Jeremi Suri: And sometimes, you know, you make a good argument, and you want to go with it.

[00:50:23] Jeremi Suri: And you’re winning the argument. And as a debater, that’s all that matters. You know what? Winning the argument’s not most important. The argument is, is just an approximation. It’s the GPS for the world that’s much more multidimensional than the 2×2 screen. And, and so we gotta get beyond arguments. And I am an argument driven guy, right?

[00:50:41] Jeremi Suri: I like arguments. A good book, I think, needs to have an argument. But, you know what? The world is far more complex. And I don’t, I no longer think. That arguing what the right position on Civil Rights is matters as much as understanding what the challenges are and the different experience for people white, black, brown.

[00:51:00] Jeremi Suri: Don’t let the argument or the ideology drive you. Make yourself more of a reality person.

[00:51:06] Eddie Robinson: Acclaimed author of his most recent book entitled Civil War by Other Means and host of the popular podcast This Is Democracy, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Jeremi Suri, thank you so much.

[00:51:21] Eddie Robinson: Thank you so much for being in studio and for being a guest on I SEE U.

[00:51:25] Jeremi Suri: Eddie, this has been so much fun and thank you for your really terrific questions.

[00:51:35] Eddie Robinson: Our team includes technical director Todd Hulslander, producers. Laura Walker and Mincho Jacob. Subscribe to our podcast wherever you listen and download your favorite shows. Search for I S E E U, that’s the letter U, with Eddie Robinson. I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media. Visit our show page at I SEE Ushow. org. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson. And I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time.

[00:52:18]

 

This article is part of the podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson

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