Learning about our White Antiracist Ancestors

Dr. Zachary Markwith, Education Director (Bio) and Dr. Henry Millstein, Content Manager and Program Analyst (Bio)

May 30, 2022

Photo by John Goodwin of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. at Arlington National Cemetery in 1968.

As we remember those who gave their lives for the freedoms we have as Americans this Memorial Day, we need to also turn our minds to the continuing attacks on our freedoms by forces promoting bigotry and hatred. The recent racist massacre in Buffalo has shown once again how dangerous racism can be. If we are to draw any good from this horrific event, we need to seek to understand the impact of racism and, more to the point, how we can fight and defeat it.

Hostility between human groups based on real or perceived differences in physical characteristics, cultures, religions, or other factors, is nothing new in human history. Such hostility is not exclusive to any one group or any one period of history. We may think of the long history of wars between the Chinese and Japanese, the more recent genocidal conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, or the ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Intergroup hostility over differences that often seem quite trivial to outsiders have been a part of human interactions throughout recorded history. And while no single group can be seen as having a special propensity to such hostility, the phenomenon we call White racism has played and, as Buffalo all too clearly showed us, continues to play an outsized role in recent history, in large part because of the widespread expansion of European and American power that was almost always accompanied—and justified—by White racism.

It is crucial to understand that “race” is not a scientific category but rather a cultural invention by White people, specifically Europeans who were seeking to colonize and exploit other regions and their inhabitants, and who needed to differentiate themselves from the populations they wished to subjugate and to justify that subjugation. A collection of physical and cultural characteristics that marked off different “races” was formulated to this end. Arranging “races” in a hierarchy that privileged those marked off as “White” created what we now know as White racism and manifested itself not only in colonial conquest, but also in the enslavement and, at times, genocide, of those marked off as “inferior” races.

The History of Racism in the US and the Struggle to Overcome It

In the United States, a multitude of people, White and Black, fought to abolish slavery, finally achieving victory in 1865 with the victorious conclusion of the Civil War. In the decade that followed it looked as if the nation, and especially the South, was moving toward a genuinely non-racist society, as Blacks were elected to political positions of leadership and quite effectively governed, together with Whites, much of the South. Sadly, the withdrawal of Federal troops from the South (as the result of a political deal brokered by and for the Democratic Party) in 1877 forced an end to this promising development. Soon Black Southerners suffered under Jim Crow, enforced both by government measures as well as outright lynch-mob terror, while Black participation in the economy was greatly limited to a sharecropping system that bordered on slavery. In the North, discrimination was almost as prevalent as in the South, although enforced with somewhat more subtlety. Not until a century after the abolition of slavery did the US put an end to overt Jim Crow oppression, but not to less overt racist discrimination and oppression.

The story of racism against African Americans could also be told of other groups, including Indigenous Peoples, who were subjected at times to overt genocide and then confined on impoverished reservations under the tutelage of zealous Christian pastors eager to destroy their cultures; Chinese who were often targets of mob terror and who were finally banned altogether from immigrating in 1882; Japanese, who were interned in prison-like camps during World War II; and even groups later accepted as “White,” such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews, who initially were often met with discrimination, hostility, and even mob violence.

Civil rights laws, though a great step forward, could not and did not guarantee genuine equality for people of color. The centuries of overt White racism left a profound imprint on the hearts and minds of Whites and people of color, who have all internalized racist narratives and stereotypes about other groups and themselves, leading to a phenomenon called “colorism,” where people of color with light skin are privileged over those with dark skin even by those in their own communities. Systemic racism is still prevalent today, as manifested in wide economic disparity between White households and the households of people of color, in the fact that Black males are two-and-a-half times more likely to be victims of a police shooting than Whites, mass incarceration in what has been termed the “prison-industrial complex” disproportionately targeting people of color (especially Blacks), and other phenomena. In a society characterized by such systemic racism, manifestations of racism by individuals, including hate speech and hate incidents, are an all too common outcome—and can become deadly when combined with American gun culture.

The History of White People who Fought Against Racism

While White racism has a long history and a powerful present reality, there have always been and still are White people who have fought valiantly against racism, realizing that contempt for and mistreatment of human beings on the basis of “race” blatantly contradicts the religious and ethical values professed by European and American civilizations (and all others). As far back as the sixteenth century, a Spanish friar named Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) protested vigorously against the subjugation and enslavement by Spanish colonialists of the native populations of the Americas, pointing out that the peoples thus oppressed were fully human and had civilizations of their own.

In North America, Quakers condemned slavery from the early colonial period on, and other religious denominations, such as the early Methodists, joined them. Many Whites joined Black people in the struggle against slavery, including John Brown (1800-1859), a staunch abolitionist originally from Connecticut who was executed for attempting to incite a rebellion of enslaved Blacks at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Acts of solidarity between White and Black activists continued through the civil rights movement. There is in fact a long history of struggle by Whites against racism that is too little known by most people in our country. Islamic Networks Group (ING) stands in solidarity with this antiracist tradition; two of our most recent public statements, on the Buffalo massacre and on the key role of Islamophobia in White Christian nationalism, relate directly to this history.

This powerful heritage of White antiracism is of crucial importance to us today. It not only provides inspiration for our struggle against racism today but also gives the lie to the accusation that antiracists see White communities as an undifferentiated mass of racists. Moreover, study of this history shows that White people have a profound interest in the struggle against racism. One need only think of crucial struggles for social justice, such as the building of unions and other progressive reforms, that were possible only because Whites joined together with people of color to win them.

White Antiracism in US History

We at ING, therefore, are greatly heartened to learn of the Cross Cultural Solidarity History Project, that provides information about antiracists throughout US history and the struggles for social justice that brought White people and people of color together. Their page on “Examples of White Antiracism in U.S. History” aims to bring awareness to the neglected history of White antiracism to inspire people to follow the example of these antiracists and, in particular, to provide young White men with antiracist heroes who were allies with Black and Brown peoples, empowering them to resist the appeal of militant hate groups.[1]

The project provides a view of White antiracist action in America going back to the Quaker Benjamin Lay (1682-1759), who in 1738 authored a fierce anti-slavery tract that was published by Benjamin Franklin. It covers several female White antiracist activists, including the Grimké sisters, Sarah Grimké (1792-1873) and Angelina Grimké (1805-1879), who had grown up in a wealthy slave-owning South Carolina family and were horrified by the brutality they witnessed. They became popular nineteenth-century abolitionist speakers who also fought for women’s rights. It discusses the life of William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), who founded the newspaper The Liberator that published articles by Black abolitionist writers, which in turn inspired Frederick Douglass to establish his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. Douglass would later give the eulogy at Garrison’s funeral. We also learn about Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903), who was born into a family that enslaved Blacks and became an abolitionist at Yale after hearing a speech by Garrison. President Lincoln later asked Clay to serve as a general during the Civil War, a commission Clay would only accept if Lincoln agreed to free all enslaved peoples, which he did through the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The father of Muhammad Ali was named after Cassius Clay, a name that the heavyweight boxing champion, civil rights activist, and humanitarian would inherit at birth.

The project moves through White civil rights activists, including the Jewish scholar and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), who was born in Poland, lost most of his family during the Holocaust, and fled Nazi persecution to the US in 1940. During the civil rights moment, he spoke alongside his friend Martin Luther King about the evils of racism and social action that was needed to overcome it. Like King and many other Black civil rights leaders, some White antiracists, such as James Reeb (1927-1965), were also martyred for their antiracist work. Reeb, a former Presbyterian minister who studied at Princeton and later became a Unitarian Universalist, was murdered in Selma, Alabama on a trip to march with King and others for Black voting rights. 14 days later, Viola Liuzzo (1925-1965), an activist and mother of five children, was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan because of her participation in the marches. Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (1941-present) was among the Freedom Riders, a group of Black and White activists inspired by Rosa Parks who sought to desegregate buses in the South. Due to these actions, Mulholland was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961 with fellow Freedom Riders, including civil rights leader Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael). Mulholland was also threatened by the KKK and narrowly escaped death on at least one occasion. One of the authors of this article, Henry Millstein has fond memories of one of those featured by the Cross Cultural Solidarity History Project, Martin Luther King’s personal photographer Bob Fitch (1939-2016), whom Millstein recalls as “a warm-guy with a great sense of humor, who showed my wife and me around Santa Cruz when we moved there in 1999 and helped plug us in to the social justice struggles there.” It’s impossible to read through this roll call of antiracist heroes without being inspired to follow in their footsteps by joining with activists of color to build a multiracial coalition against racism in all its forms.

ING is committed to this goal through the antiracist educational resources we supply.

At ING, we are deeply committed to countering racism in all its forms. ING’s mission is to promote peace among all, by fostering a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Muslims and other faith-based, racial/ethnic, and cultural communities, through teaching, learning, and engaging across differences. Among the ING programs aimed at fulfilling this mission are:

  • The Intercultural Speakers Bureau (ICSB), which addresses and counters racism across racial, ethnic, and religious groups by bringing together panels of speakers from marginalized communities experiencing bigotry in the US to educate about how racist narratives about a people were formed and framed in history and then embedded in culture institutionally and through implicit biases.
  • Lesson plans for educators about individual and systemic racism and how to combat it.
  • Cultural diversity seminars and diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings for professionals in health care, law enforcement, education, and business.
  • The Interfaith Speakers Bureau (IFSB), which brings together Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim speakers to discuss religious pluralism, shared values, peacemaking, and other topics.

Current events are showing us all too clearly the continuing potency and destructiveness of racism. We invite you to use ING’s resources to join in the struggle for an America and a world that lives up to all peoples’ aspirations for social justice, equity, and inclusion.

[1] Lynn Burnett, “Examples of White Antiracism in U.S. History,” The Cross Cultural Solidarity History Project, March 30, 2022, https://crossculturalsolidarity.com/short-portraits-of-white-antiracists-in-u-s-history/.