From the very beginnings of American history, we’ve had to push back against systemic oppression to fulfill the mandates of democracy.
The theme for Black History Month 2023 is Black Resistance. Chosen by Black History Month’s founding organization, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), it could not be timelier.
In suggesting community-level events around this theme, the ASALH is looking to illuminate the many ways Black people in America have resisted oppression. There’s a particular focus on resistance to lynchings, mass murder motivated by racism, and murders at the hands of police. This resistance has taken on many forms—from marching and peaceful protests, to artistic works and journalism, to physical revolt.
Resistance means refusing to comply with orders from authority figures that could be deadly to people of color. It means stepping up and standing out to challenge—and rework—the system.
Peaceful resistance to Jim Crow laws in the 1950s and ‘60s involved sit-ins, marches, strikes, and other methods. Black people and their allies refused to stop insisting on equality in education, housing, the justice system, and economic opportunity.
Black writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin used lyrical language to capture the spirit and substance of African American resistance. Today, writers like Angie Thomas, author of the popular young adult novel The Hate U Give, are making powerful statements calling out the still deep-rooted sins of racism.
Painter Jacob Lawrence was among the artists who depicted the Black American experience of escape from bondage, from the days of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to the Great Migration.
Musicians like Billie Holiday put their pain into the world in the form of song and saw it transformed into anthems of freedom. For example, Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” was a bleak but evocative verbal depiction of lynching, so controversial in its day that the FBI targeted her for persecution.
Physical revolts against the oppression of slavery and injustice included the Haitian revolution against French colonialism from 1791 to 1804, when Haiti became the first independent Black republic in the modern world.
Revolts also included the times Black communities, refusing to be cowed by white mobs threatening violence, armed themselves and fought back.
This happened in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1892. Three Black men armed themselves inside the People’s Grocery, a popular store owned by one of them, in response to menacing behavior from a white rival proprietor. In the resulting gunfight, three of the white storekeeper’s supporters were injured. Neither local police nor white-owned newspapers would support Thomas Moss, the Black storeowner, and his employees. Conspiracy theories proliferated suggesting Memphis’ Black community was planning a “race war,” but this was a lie.
With white mobs calling for their blood, Moss and his employees turned themselves in to prevent bloodshed in their community. A few days later, about 75 white men stormed the Shelby County Jail, kidnapped the three men, and brutally lynched them. Months afterward, the white grocer who had instigated the murders purchased the People’s Grocery for pennies on every dollar it was worth.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Memphis was journalist Ida B. Wells’ hometown. She knew Thomas Moss and his family, and the murders galvanized her to devote more time to documenting racist attacks on Black people across the country. She became a pioneer in investigative journalism, vividly evoking the horrors and injustices of the Jim Crow era and the need for resistance. Her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, details how she sought to create substantive change through her investigative work.
Another case of Black resistance that deserves to be remembered took place in the town of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. It began, as so many assaults on entire Black communities have, with an accusation that a local Black man had attacked a white woman. A white mob descended on the Black town of Rosewood while residents concealed themselves in swamps, along with a few in the house of an empathetic white businessman.
One Black man, Sylvester Carrier, decided he had no choice but to arm himself in self-defense. He ended up killing two of the white men who had attacked him in a shootout. When the news got out, white residents from nearby towns swelled the mob’s numbers into the hundreds, and a days-long spree of killing and destruction followed.
Estimates of the number of dead vary, with many historians today citing six African Americans murdered. Some chroniclers say there were hundreds. But the entire population was displaced, since Rosewood had been burned to the ground by the attackers. One month later, a grand jury found insufficient evidence to bring a prosecution, and no one was ever charged.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that survivors told their stories to a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times. In 1994, the Florida state legislature approved compensation in the amount of $150,000 to the handful of former Rosewood residents then still alive.
Descendants of the survivors spoke at centenary events in early 2023, and historians noted that the generational trauma they carry: Families were devastated, emotionally and financially, after the Rosewood massacre. Against their pain, the $150,000 doled out by the legislature seemed like a joke.
In 1997, director John Singleton premiered his movie Rosewood based on these events. The film offers a searing portrait of the racism and hatred inflicted on that Black community. But, as with all the late director’s work, Rosewood also raises the flag of proud defiance and resistance that has characterized the African American community since its beginnings.