The human brain doesn't handle complexity very well. You can see this most dramatically in how we read and understand history. We want everything to be a neat, simple narrative of good guys and bad guys, of clear beginnings and endings. Those attempting to "correct" history as it's taught tend to oversimplify in the other direction ("The side you were taught were the good guys were in fact the bad guys!").
If you want to see how messy real history can be -- and how important it is that we recognize its messiness -- look no further than the Civil Rights Movement. For that, we suppose we should start from the beginning ...
6Myth: Slavery Ended In 1865
We mean, of course it did. The Civil War ended that year, while the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and spin-kicked slavery right in the dick, and that was that. You learn that shit in kindergarten.
The thing is, simply winning a war and saying "Slavery is abolished, assholes!" doesn't make it stop any more than telling your cat not to use your shoe as a toilet stops her from doing it. The South's economy (and occasionally geography) was in ruins after the war, and they weren't exactly thrilled about giving away a significant chunk of their workforce. As such, they didn't so much do away with slavery after the end of the Civil War as they did something much more American: They just rebranded the operation, albeit on a smaller scale.
"Congrats, you have been upgraded to 'forced independent contractors.'"
The years after the war saw both black and white criminal activity increase, which was a problem, because most prisons had been destroyed during the war. The states took a look at the massive influx of prisoners in their hands, surreptitiously glanced at each other ... and started leasing them to wealthy planters and industry big shots as free, forced labor.
This system, known as convict lease, quickly became one of the most lubed-up loopholes in history. Some of the criminals caught up in the machine were white, but an estimated 80 to 90 percent were black, because of fucking course they were. Many former slaves found that freedom was the worst thing that could have happened to them, as the police got hold of them and piled on enough arbitrary charges to put them into "totally not slavery" forced labor for years, toiling under essentially the same assholes who had owned them during their slave days.
"If you love someone, set them free. If you force them to come back shackled, kicking, and screaming, it was meant to be."
The conditions were generally much worse, too. There was a lot less financial incentive to keep a prisoner alive than a slave, so living conditions of prisoners under convict lease tended to be abysmal. In some cases, the death rate was as high as 40 percent. But the public was okay with it, because hey, that's what they get for committing crimes! We're not exploiting a racial and economic class, we're punishing the bad guys!
Some would argue that this legally-sanctioned prison slavery ended in 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt stepped hard on involuntary servitude (because he was worried that the Japanese would use it to embarrass America with their propaganda). However, others would point out that convict lease ended precisely fucking never. Establishments like the Louisiana State Penitentiary are still employing the model today, and are cool enough with what they do that they let a camera crew record their operation in 2015. Their preferred deployment for the (nigh-invariably black) prisoners is forced labor. In the fields. While watched over by white, armed men on horseback. Somewhere, Calvin Candie is smiling.
5Myth: Malcolm X Was A Violent Radical, While Martin Luther King, Jr. Was All About Pacifism
History sees Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. as two sides of the same coin. Malcolm X was the violence-preaching militant radical, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Gandhi-like pacifist, though both were pushing for the same outcome. These days, we always tend to put activists into one of those two molds, and only offer public approval for the latter.
Reality, however, is always more complicated. For all of his militant talk, Malcolm X did not advocate attacking the government. He urged that black people should be ready to defend themselves violently if need be, but never once by initiating violence. Sure, he used scary-sounding rhetoric, but it was never "Kill the whites to affect change" (which his mentor Elijah Muhammad told him would be suicide). Rather, it was, "We're not afraid to fight back," or in his own words, "Put your hands on us thinking that we're going to turn the other cheek -- we'll put you to death just like that." He was otherwise known to actively defuse situations where his supporters were getting too unruly, and even in his private life he was far more likely to be polite to the "white devils" he met.
Herman Hiller/New York World-Telegram
"Thank you -- both for the questions and for causing irreparable harm and suffering to my people."
Meanwhile, Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't quite as averse to guns as his popular legacy would have us believe. While he certainly did organize all of those nonviolent protests you know him for, he fully bought into the idea of "just in case" firepower. Remember, King was a man of the South, fighting against acts of terrorism against his person and his people. Of course the dude had a piece or 16. In the early period of his leadership, his household could be accurately called an arsenal. It wasn't unheard of for a visitor to sit on a chair, only to be warned at the last second they were about to place their ass on a couple of guns. After his house was bombed in 1956, King even tried to get a concealed carry permit, though this went about as well as you'd expect. King also preached what he practiced, incidentally; his writings acknowledge the right to armed self-defense.
Once again, please don't take this as some kind of simplistic "So King was the violent one, and X was the peace-seeker!" switcheroo. The point is that we tend to remember activists by their catchiest soundbites, boiling an entire body of work into something that can fit on a T-shirt. Malcolm X got mainstream headlines for being scary, while King's most famous speeches are about Christian calls for peace and justice. But humans aren't slogans, and real life demands that every activist has a practical side.
"Maybe start focusing on the issue that makes me needing to own an M1 carbine practical to begin with."