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Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America — An Excerpt

Excerpted from Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Nation Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 hardly hurt Lyndon B. Johnson’s commanding position for reelection during that election year. Johnson did face an improbable challenge for the Democratic nomination from Alabama governor George Wallace, however. After taking a public stand for segregation the year before, Wallace had received more than 100,000 approving letters, mostly from northerners. Wallace realized, as he told NBC’s Douglas Kiker, “they all hate black people…That’s it!…The whole United States is southern!”

During his campaign, George Wallace sounded more like the 1964 Republican nominee than LBJ. Arizona senator Barry Goldwater’s nomination for president signified his star power over the escalating conservative movement in American politics, powered by his 1960 chart-topper, The Conscience of a Conservative. Inspiring millions of Democrats to turn Republican, including Hollywood movie star Ronald Reagan, Goldwater’s tract deeply massaged those Americans who had outgrown (or never needed) government assistance. Welfare “transforms the individual from a dignified, industrious, self-reliant spiritual being into a dependent animal creature without his knowing it,” Goldwater wrote without a shred of evidence. Many proud, dignified, industrious, self-reliant members of the White middle class, who had derived their wealth from the welfare of inheritance, the New Deal, or the GI Bill, accepted Goldwater’s dictum as truth, despite the fact that parental or government assistance had not transformed them or their parents into dependent animal creatures. After looking at White mothers on welfare as “deserving” for decades, these Goldwater conservatives saw the growing number of Black mothers on welfare as “undeserving”—as dependent animal creatures.

Barry Goldwater and his embryonic conservative movement hardly worried Johnson as he arrived on the beaches of Atlantic City for the Democratic National Convention in August 1964. But he was worried about those northern activists who had violently protested against police brutality and economic exploitation in urban summer rebellions from Harlem to Chicago. In the South, SNCC field agents had weathered Klan brutality during their “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” which brought hundreds of northern college students to teach in anti-racist “Freedom Schools” and assist in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The interracial MFDP came to Atlantic City and requested to be seated in place of the regular Mississippi delegation, which everyone knew had been elected through fraud and violence. The MFDP’s electrifying vice chair, Fannie Lou Hamer, riveted the nation in her live televised testimony at the convention. “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook, because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings.”

President Johnson called an emergency press conference to divert the networks away from Hamer’s transfixing testimony, and then later he offered the Freedom Party a “compromise”: two nonvoting seats accompanying the segregationist delegation. “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats!” bellowed Fannie Lou Hamer. MFDP and SNCC activists traveled home carrying a valuable lesson about power politics. Persuasion does not work. “Things could never be the same,” SNCC’s Cleveland Sellers recalled. “Never again were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the ‘good’ people of America could eliminate them…After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation.” Malcolm X’s empowerment philosophy of Black national and international unity, self-determination, self-defense, and cultural pride started to sound like music to the ears of the SNCC youths. At the end of 1964, Malcolm X returned from an extended trip to Africa with a growing band of SNCC admirers and a growing band of enemies.

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was gunned down by some of those enemies at a Harlem rally. When James Baldwin heard the news in London, he was beside himself. “It is because of you,” he shouted at London reporters, “the men that created this white supremacy, that this man is dead!” From his nationally watched voting registration campaign in Selma, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. was reflectively restrained. “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.” On February 22, 1965, the New York Times banner headline read: “The Apostle of Hate Is Dead.”

Actor Ossie Davis christened Malcolm “our shining black prince” days later in his magnetic eulogy before the overflow crowd at Harlem’s Faith Temple of the Church of God in Christ. “Many will say…he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist,” Davis said. And the response would be, “Did you ever really listen to him? For if you did, you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.”

Antiracist Americans did honor him, especially after recordings and transcripts of his speeches began to circulate, and after Grove Press published The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Journalist Alex Haley had collaborated with Malcolm to write the autobiography, which was billed by Eliot Fremont-Smith of the New York Times as “a brilliant, painful, important book” upon its release in November 1965. Malcolm X’s ideological transformation—from assimilationist, to anti-White separatist, to antiracist—inspired millions. Possibly no other American autobiography opened more anti-racist minds than The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm condemned the half-truth of racial progress, bellowing that you don’t stick a knife in a person’s back nine inches, pull it out six inches, and say you’re making progress. “The black man’s supposed to be grateful? Why, if the white man jerked the knife out, it’s still going to leave a scar!” He argued that White people were not born racist, but that “the American political, economic and social atmosphere…automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.” He encouraged anti-racist Whites who had escaped racism to fight “on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities.” He ferociously attacked “the white man’s puppet Negro ‘leaders,’” who had exploited “their black poor brothers,” and who did not want separation or integration, but only “to live in an open, free society where they can walk with their heads up, like men, and women!” But nothing was more compelling than Malcolm X’s unstinting humanism: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

Excerpted from Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Nation Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.


About Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in AmericaSome Americans cling desperately to the myth that we are living in a post-racial society, that the election of the first Black president spelled the doom of racism. In fact, racist thought is alive and well in America–more sophisticated and more insidious than ever. And as award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi argues in Stamped from the Beginning, if we have any hope of grappling with this stark reality, we must first understand how racist ideas were developed, disseminated, and enshrined in American society.

In this deeply researched and fast-moving narrative, Kendi chronicles the entire story of anti-Black racist ideas and their staggering power over the course of American history. Stamped from the Beginning uses the life stories of five major American intellectuals to offer a window into the contentious debates between assimilationists and segregationists and between racists and anti-racists. From Puritan minister Cotton Mather to Thomas Jefferson, from fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to brilliant scholar W.E.B. Du Bois to legendary anti-prison activist Angela Davis, Kendi shows how and why some of our leading pro-slavery and pro-civil rights thinkers have challenged or helped cement racist ideas in America.

Contrary to popular conceptions, racist ideas did not arise from ignorance or hatred. Instead, they were devised and honed by some of the most brilliant minds of each era. These intellectuals used their brilliance to justify and rationalize deeply entrenched discriminatory policies and the nation’s racial disparities in everything from wealth to health. And while racist ideas are easily produced and easily consumed, they can also be discredited. In shedding much-needed light on the murky history of racist ideas, Stamped from the Beginning offers us the tools we need to expose them–and in the process, gives us reason to hope.

By Ibram X. Kendi, Ph.D.

Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida and author of the new book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. He also authored the award-winning book The Black Campus Movement. Kendi has received research fellowships and visiting appointments from a variety of institutions and associations, including the American Historical Association, Library of Congress, National Academy of Education, Spencer Foundation, Brown University, and Princeton University. A frequent public speaker and writer of commentaries, Kendi lives in Gainesville, Florida.