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A Vital Progressivism
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Page 1234

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A Different Perspective On Progressivism

[picture of Professor Martin]

Martin: Traditionally, scholars speak of Progressivism as the various middle class reform efforts to alleviate problems associated with the wrenching changes the United States experienced at the turn of the century. Urbanization, immigration, industrialization led to much dislocation and suffering. Child labor laws, women's suffrage, banking reform, settlement houses for urban women in need, and improved food safety are areas of traditional Progressive concern.

I want to offer a different perspective on Progressivism. At the turn of the century, African American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois forecasted that: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." Building upon that insight, I want to argue that the Progressive spirit can be clearly seen in the group-based struggles of peoples of color to realize their hopes and dreams, notwithstanding often overwhelming obstacles. A fundamental aspect of Progressivism, therefore, was the continuing freedom struggles of peoples of color.

[picture of lynching victims]

After Reconstruction, the place of blacks in America was a separate and severely restricted world. Lynching emerged as a weapon in the arsenal aimed at keeping blacks in their place. Legal and extra-legal violence went hand-in-hand with systems of economic repression. A kind of neo-slavery developed, including sharecropping, which kept landless blacks economically shackled.

At the turn of the century, southern whites devised elaborate systems of racial segregation known as Jim Crow. American apartheid extended from schools, churches, and courthouses, to water fountains, restaurants, hotels, department stores, and parks. Blacks increasingly turned inward as a community and mobilized for the long haul.

Fiery Ida B. Wells, nonetheless, led an impressive international and domestic campaign against lynching. Wells labored tirelessly on behalf of federal action against lynching. It is important to bear in mind that segregation affected all peoples of color in varying degrees, including Indians on reservations. The logic was clear: to make the false notion of white superiority appear natural and right.

Indian Schools

Indians, like blacks, experienced the whitening of America. Rather than vanishing, as many at the time and since claimed they would, Indians survived. The old ways, rather than vanishing, persisted in the face of genocide and Americanization. Reservations did not lead to the de-tribalization of Indians. Instead, in spite of the growing American theft of Indian lands, reservations preserved and often extended tribal identities.

In many ways, the most revealing feature of the official turn-of-the-century Americanization project was the Indian boarding school. This educational experiment sought to assimilate Indians out of their Indianness, whitening them into good Americans. This policy removed Indian children from their families and reservations, their homes, and isolated them in off-reservation schools like the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

[picture of students at an Indian boarding school]

These schools wreaked havoc on the children, their families, their tribes, and reservation life. All aspects of Indian culture were attacked. The outward appearance of these Indians underwent a dramatic transformation. Observe the hair, the clothes, the shoes, and most telling perhaps, the attitude, the demeanor. The tragedy of the Indian boarding school experience can be seen in the philosophy guiding the experiment: "Kill the Indian and save the man."

By 1900 there were over 21, 000 Indian children in these schools. The vocational and manual training for boys, as well as the Victorian-inspired domestic training for girls, were ill suited for a return to reservation life. Moreover, extreme anti-Indian racism severely limited off-reservation opportunities. Homesickness, disease, and alienation were rampant.

These factors combined in varying degrees to make the boarding school experience traumatic for many Indian children. Resistance was common. Many who survived were often torn between the two worlds.

An impressive number finessed the tension between these worlds. Some used their new-found knowledge and skill to champion Indian rights. Ironically, many of the pioneering "Red Progressives" who led the early Indian-directed efforts to alleviate their peoples' oppression were boarding school veterans.

Susan and Suzette LaFlesche, sisters from the Omaha tribe, lectured widely and even lobbied Congress on behalf of Indian rights. Susan was the first Western-trained woman Indian doctor. Suzette argued for Indians becoming full citizens under the United States Constitution. Francis, their brother, was a pioneering anthropologist.

Dakota Sioux Charles Alexander Eastman was a "Red Progressive" and a founding member of the Society of American Indians, a pioneering Native Rights organization. This was the first Indian Rights organization created and run by Indians for Indians. Like so many of his "Red Progressive" colleagues, Eastman endeavored to represent the best of both worlds.

He maintained: "I am an Indian, and while I have learned much from civilization, for which I am grateful, I have never lost my Indian sense of right and justice.... Nevertheless, as long as I live, I am an American." Eastman's sense of twoness showed a tension between Indianness and Americaness. This tension revealed an "ambivalent Americanism" common among outsiders to the American mainstream.

Asian Immigrants

[picture of an Asian family]

"Asian American" is a broad category encompassing a wide variety of different peoples, including Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Asian Indians, and Filipinos. Sojourners sought to make enough money to sustain a homeland connection, eventually planning to return home. Settlers, however, saw their destiny as making it in America.

While Chinese exclusion had drastically curtailed Chinese immigration by the turn of the century, Japanese immigration expanded. In response, whites created restrictions aimed primarily at the Japanese. These included alien land laws prohibiting "aliens ineligible for citizenship" from owning or leasing land. Nonetheless, many Japanese found a measure of success in the agricultural sector, particularly in California.

Whites feared and fought success among peoples of color precisely because of the threat, imagined and real, such success represented to white competitors. Indeed, that success blatantly contradicted the very idea of white supremacy. Nonetheless, Asian Americans struggled against the odds to forge viable communities. That these communities were mostly male complicated the task of finding marriage partners and sustaining families.

By the early 1900s, laws prevented the immigration to the United States of the wives of Chinese male immigrants. One male Chinese migrant wrote to his wife back in China: "Yesterday I received another of your letters. I could not keep tears from running down my cheeks when thinking about the miserable and needy circumstances of our home, and thinking back to the time of our separation.... Who could know that the Fate is always opposite to man's design? Because I can get no gold, I am detained in this secluded corner of a strange land."

Early on April 18, 1906, a powerful earthquake devastated San Francisco. Fires caused by the earthquake destroyed municipal records. As a result, without records to prove otherwise, many Chinese men born in China now claimed to have been born in this country. As such, they were entitled to bring their wives to the United States. In short order, the numbers of Chinese women in San Francisco increased dramatically.

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