Standing Rock. #BlackLivesMatter. Periods for Pence. Women’s March on Washington. Political demonstrations have dominated the headlines this year. With the startling outcome of this year’s presidential election, many scholars and activists believe that political protests will define the next four years under the Trump administration.
The act of protest has a long and complicated history, one that defies geographic or temporal boundaries. Sometimes violent, sometimes peaceful, and sometimes downright odd, a global perspective of political protest clearly demonstrates that they can, at the very least, provide an important tool of resistance, and at most, topple repressive regimes and oppressive legislation. Welcome to the new Nursing Clio series, “What Good Did Protesting Ever Do?” We begin this important series with a surprising group of protesters – children. By beginning with children’s letters to the President of the United States, we hope to signal the wide and diverse forms of political protest included in this series. From political funerals, to suffrage parades, to sit-ins, each week we will bring you a different story of protest and provide inspiration for action over the next four years.
On the morning after approximately sixty-two million Americans elected Donald J. Trump to be President of the United States, I sat down in my office and attempted to force my puffy, red-rimmed eyes to focus on my work, which, ironically enough, consisted on that day of transcribing children’s letters to President Ronald Reagan. My day passed in a haze of pushing computer keys to at least pretend to work on my dissertation (on children’s letters to presidents about issues of race and civil rights — ah, the resonance) interspersed with making despairing clicks on links to articles illustrating the immediate consequences of Americans’ actions on election night. One of these stories recounted a series of hate crimes that made explicit connections between pro-Trump rhetoric and racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and/or White supremacist messages, many of which occurred in elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation.
As I scrolled through the list (yes, the list, which continues to be updated), one in particular caught my eye: high school students in Maple Grove, Minnesota tagged a stall and toilet paper dispenser in a girls’ bathroom with a series of racist messages, and one read: “#Gobacktoafrica Make America Great Again.”
In the process of sorting through the mail children sent to presidents between the 1940s and the 1980s to talk about race and civil rights, I’ve read the phrase “Go back to Africa” over and over again. It didn’t surprise me to see it once more, this time hashtagged, but it did make me feel that it was important to say a few things. One, the language Americans (still) use to talk about race has deep meanings and a long history. Two, children say this stuff too! They often do so to be explicitly political — to either converse with or to show support for political leaders and their policies.
Throughout the campaign cycle, educators have been reporting climbing rates of bullying and harassment among children targeting students whose race, religion, or nationality became part of the political rhetoric of the past year and a half. In the weeks following the election, this trend continued and arguably worsened.
In response to these developments, the Director of the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Maureen Costello, commented: “What made this year really different is that [the rhetoric] broke through that protective moat … [it was] so ubiquitous and so saturated the culture that you couldn’t keep it out of schools. Kids are sponges.”1
But “kids” are more than sponges that simply soak up what’s going on around them. Rather, just like adults, children are and always have been active participants in conversations about race and civil rights. Over the past half-century, much of this activity occurred right in the president’s mailbox.
White Children Write “Go Back to Africa”
Shortly after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981, Derek, a “little boy” from St. Louis, Missouri, who did not specify his racial identity, wrote a letter to the newly elected president. He expressed his excitement about Reagan’s win, telling him: “I’m glad because we need some changes.” He also mentioned a development at school that confused him: “One thing I don’t understand is the black people at school say you’re going to ship them to Africa. They also say the school is going to be blown up that day.”2
“Go back to Africa” is one of those phrases long used by White Americans to protest against civil rights for Black Americans. It allows the speaker — or the writer — to reference historic portrayals of Africa as “uncivilized” so as to characterize Black people in that manner as well, implying the lack of intelligence and even assumptions of sub-humanity that go hand-in-hand with such a claim. These four words simultaneously seek to cast Black Americans out of the nation and to circulate a worldview that denies Black people’s fitness for citizenship.
In the 1950s and 1960s, several White children included the phrase in letters they wrote to fight against integration and civil rights for Black Americans. In 1956, Richard, a fifteen-year-old and a self-described “Robert E. Lee fan,” told Dwight D. Eisenhower how he would make America “better” again (sound familiar?): “If all the Negroes were packed up and shipped back to Africa, the United States would be much better or better still have them killed off.”3
In June 1963, shortly after several widely publicized civil rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama, Cynthia, a nine-year-old White girl from Chickasaw, Alabama, suggested that John F. Kennedy institute a policy of deportation: “if you had enough [sense] you would [gather] all of the [Negroes] and send them back to Africa where they belong instead of letting them tend to our [business] they are causing to[o] much trouble.”4
A few years later, in the midst of several years of urban uprisings against economic exploitation and police brutality (termed “riots” by the mainstream media then and since) led primarily by young Black men in Northern cities, Robin, a twelve-year-old White girl from Westland, Michigan, aimed her anger at the “rioters.” In her July 24, 1967 letter to Lyndon B. Johnson, she acknowledged: “I do know some negros who are very nice. I know that the negros who are doing it is doing it because they think we are unfair, (and maybe some people are, but not all of us.).” Whether or not “some” White people were unfair, Robin ultimately concluded that the protesters were not welcome in America: “These people should go back to Africa.”5
By writing such letters to Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, these White children and others like them raised and waved their hands, using their words to shout at the presidents: “Pick me!” “Protect me!” Inherent in any request for protection is an implication of danger, and many White children during these years described Black children and Black Americans more broadly as violent, out-of-control, and uncivilized. “Go back to Africa” acted as one element of that larger argument.
Children Write Back
Black children recognized the ubiquity of this phrase and its role in contributing to racist characterizations of them and all Black people. They did not allow this rhetoric to go unchecked. During the Little Rock School Crisis in September 1957, Marion, an eleven-year-old Black girl from Marshall, Texas, insisted that Eisenhower and other Americans reckon with their own glass house before they cast stones: “I saw in the paper where some white people were raising money to send us back to Africa, but if that’s the case they ought to raise enough money to send themselves to France, Spain, and other countries, and give America back to the Indians.”6
In September 1963, after four Black girls had been killed in the terrorist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Helen, a fourteen-year-old Black girl from Plaquemine, Louisiana, wrote a letter to Kennedy that responded directly to the concept of “civility” central to the “Go back to Africa” charge:
Helen demanded inclusion in the United States citizenry, writing that she had never been to Africa and would not be sent there. Helen also took aim at Whites who uttered the phrase “go back to Africa,” arguing that they were the “uncivilized” ones who should be sent to Africa (which she called an “uncivilized area of the world,” herself incorporating racist assumptions about Africa in order to make her point).
Her quip that White people could go dig up the bones of her imported African ancestors narrated a long history of White Americans’ “uncivilized” actions: not only had White people stolen Africans to work them to death and bury them across the ocean from their homes, but now, centuries later, they wanted to send back their descendants. Helen and Marion’s letters were ardent, painful protests – written testimonies that recounted acts of racial hatred in order to fight against American racism.
Black and White children used letters to their presidents throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond to attempt to influence the men who symbolized the entirety of American political leadership on the issue of civil rights. They used these letters as a way to demand that the presidents protect them, either by maintaining segregation and limited civil rights for Black people or by fighting for racial equality.
In doing so, they either added to racist rhetoric or interrupted it. On May 10, 1963, Anna, a Black middle schooler from the Bronx, explained to Kennedy just what her letter signified: “I know you may not think this letter means too much to you but it means all the world to me & to any other negro who [feels] he or she has not been treated fairly in this so-called democratic country.”8 A dear friend and fellow graduate student (and also maybe Mark Twain?) frequently notes that history may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. There’s a lot of rhyming going on these days, and it is high time to address more letters to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
- Maureen Costello quoted in Adam Geller, “ Campaign’s Disdain for Civility Could Leave Lasting Damage,” ABC News, November 12, 2016. Return to text.
- Derek to Ronald Reagan, [Undated by author, but White House response dated March 4, 1981 so likely sent around inauguration], Ronald Reagan Papers as President, White House Office of Records Management (WHORM) Subject File, Public Relations (PR), PR 14-1, Requests from Children, Box 6, Folder PR 14-1 Children, Requests to the President from, Cases 008000-009999, Case Number 009931, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, California. Return to text.
- Richard to Dwight D. Eisenhower (Eisenhower), [Undated by author but marked as received December 27, 1956 by White House], Dwight D. Eisenhower Papers as President (DDE-PP), White House Central File (WHCF), Bulk Mail, Correspondence re Segregation and Integration, Box 10, Folder 2, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas (DDE). Return to text.
- Cynthia to John F. Kennedy (Kennedy), June 11, 1963, John F. Kennedy Papers as President (JFK-PP), White House Overflow File (WHO), 1963 letters and telegrams re Birmingham, Alabama civil rights troubles, Box 167, Unfoldered, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston, Massachusetts (JFK). Return to text.
- Robin to Lyndon B. Johnson, July 24, 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson Papers as President, WHCF, Subject File, Human Rights (HU), Box 31, Folder, HU 2/ST 22, 7.24.67 (2 of 2), General, Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, Texas. Return to text.
- Marion to Eisenhower, September 25, 1957, DDE-PP, WHCF, Bulk Mail, Correspondence re Little Rock and Gov Faubus Action, Box 2, Folder 7, DDE. Return to text.
- Helen to Kennedy, September 20, 1963, JFK-PP, WHO, 1963 pressure mail protesting Birmingham bombing, Box 221, Unfoldered, JFK. Return to text.
- Anna to Kennedy, May 10, 1963, JFK-PP, WHO, May-November 1963 pressure mail re civil rights, Box 174, Unfoldered, JFK. Return to text.