Jonathan Zimmerman: What John Hope Franklin could teach Ward Churchill

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University.]

Should the University of Colorado have fired Ward Churchill, the fiery ethnic-studies professor and Native American advocate who is suing to get his job back?

I really don't know. But here's what I do know: By playing fast and loose with historical truth, Churchill harms the same racial minorities he claims to defend. To see why, take a quick look at the long career of John Hope Franklin.

Franklin, who died Wednesday at the age of 94, was the preeminent African American historian of the postwar United States. He was a warrior for civil rights, too, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and assisting Thurgood Marshall's team of lawyers in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

But Franklin understood that social justice demanded rigorous attention to historical fact, detail, and logic. To fight American racism, which was built upon fantasy and deception, minorities needed to keep a steady grip on their only real weapon: the truth. That's the lesson that seems to have eluded Ward Churchill.

Last week, as Churchill's tragicomic case unfolded in a Denver courtroom, most of the attention focused on his admission that he ghost-wrote a book for another scholar and then cited it in support of his own work. That's unusual and probably unethical, but it's not nearly as bad as Churchill's real sin: pawning off rumors as facts.

Most notoriously, Churchill wrote that the U.S. Army intentionally spread smallpox among the Mandan tribe of Native Americans by distributing infected blankets from a St. Louis infirmary. The truth of the account was "self-evident," Churchill blithely told a university investigative committee. "Such stories have been integral to native oral histories for centuries," he explained. "I've heard them all my life."

So that makes them true? Consider the steady stream of lies that have plagued racial minorities, all of them equally "self-evident" to the people who repeat them. When John Hope Franklin started graduate school at Harvard in the 1930s, most American history books described blacks as ignorant savages, and slavery as a benign institution for civilizing them. Blacks looted Southern coffers in the wake of the Civil War and raped white women, who were saved by the noble knights of the Ku Klux Klan. And the rest, as they say, was history.

It wasn't, of course; it was deceit and folk wisdom dressed up as fact. So Franklin and his generation painstakingly dismantled it, uncovering millions of new documents - including letters, diaries, and interviews - that gave us a more accurate account of our past.

As any historian can tell you, this process is never easy. But it was that much harder for Franklin, who was denied access to whites-only archives or forced to sit in segregated sections of them.

While conducting research at the Library of Congress, Franklin couldn't find a nearby restaurant that would serve him. But he pressed on. "For a Negro scholar searching for truth," he later recalled, "the search for food in the city of Washington was one of the minor inconveniences."

To Ward Churchill, by contrast, the search for truth is itself an inconvenience. Why try to document your hunches with archival material when you can pass them off as fact? Indeed, why visit an archive at all?

Churchill says he was fired because of an essay he wrote after the 9/11 attacks describing the victims as "little Eichmanns." Maybe he's right about that being the reason for his dismissal. But he's wrong about the Mandan Indians and about history itself, which shouldn't be fabricated to fit present-day political whims. Such practices echo the worst excesses of white supremacists, who distorted the past to prop up their own power.

By replacing those falsehoods with a new set of myths, we injure America's ongoing struggle for racial equality. If an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, to quote Gandhi, a lie for a lie makes us all cynics. You can't speak truth to power if nothing is true.

No matter what happens to Ward Churchill, then, let's make sure we set the historical record straight. And let's tip our hats to John Hope Franklin, who reminded us why it matters. For America's least fortunate citizens, the truth is often all they have.

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Vernon Clayson - 4/16/2009

The government has nothing to do with this, Ward Churchill is not an enrolled member of any Indian tribe. I imagine if he really believed it himself he would get his DNA tested, if there is a trace of Indian ancestry it would show where his ancient ancestors came from.

Thomas Ford Brown - 4/7/2009

You're misinformed. Each tribe sets its own criteria for membership. The US government stays out of that.

Vernon Clayson - 4/6/2009

If, by "conquerors" you mean whites, Churchill is white so closer to the "conquerors" than he is to any Native American. In addition to his shabby scholarship he proclaimed himself to be Native American, if it was a delusion that he came to believe, didn't the administration of the university wonder in retrospect that he might be mentally unstable? It's not like children playing cowboys and Indians, they don't come to the conclusion that they are a real cowboy or a real Indian. I wonder what he would take as an Indian name in this child's game, Tonto and Little Beaver are taken.

Randll Reese Besch - 4/4/2009

It is the conquerors, the USA, that decide who they will allow to be "native American" and who isn't. Churchill decided he didn't need them or you or me to tell him either who he was and is.

Vernon Clayson - 4/4/2009

The university took him at face value, apparently believing his claim that he was Native American and may even have believed his sloppy scholarship was because of a notion that he was quaint and and a little different from them, perhaps from having endured the trials and tribulations of being a Native American. Wrong, he was no more acquainted with living the life of a Native American than any of the so-called "palefaces" that lapped up his story and granted him tenure. Instead of using the Native American pretense, growing a pigtail and wearing beads, he could have become a serious advocate and authority on Native Americans through research and study. But he still would not be an Indian.

Randll Reese Besch - 4/3/2009

I understand Ward Churchill's reaction but thought it was in poor taste and a bit sensational but the reaction against him was also on a raw emotional level and was power in a venal backlash to a subordinate by employers and I was appalled. How many of us have lost a job or seen others do by being fired for some supposed infraction of procedure after the real reason came and went and everyone knew what it was.

I agree with Jonathan Zimmerman that Mr. Churchill should take some cues from Dr. Franklin and use a better, smoother and less coarse way of making the points and hewing to a closer mark on historical narratives. I too had heard about the Mandans but as of now don't have the data to evaluate if the blankets given to them from small pox victims were done to infect them or not. I would question Churchill's use of Eichman as and example when it should have been all of the workers and secretaries that kept the Nazi machine (or any other bureaucratic system running) names far less known but just as important that without them the dictatorships would never accomplish nearly as much. He could have mentioned the corporations like IBM that were indispensable in lubricating the Death Camps logistics would also have been appropriate or at least more relevant. Though I admit I don't recall the article so if he had made more correct analogies were lost in the hubbub over that one line.

Emotion can strenghthen intellectual processes but too much anger can cancel it too. We must all learn from this action.

Michael Green - 4/3/2009

I would like to thank the author for the best-reasoned discussion I can remember seeing on this issue. I do think that Ward Churchill would not have been investigated and fired if not for the controversy over his comments about September 11, and that is a horrific thing for all of us who believe in free speech. But that does not diminish the damage he has done to genuine scholarship by claiming, to paraphrase an old song, that "oral tradition tells me so." That is not to denigrate what Native Peoples have said through the generations. But that does not make it accepted fact any more than the lore handed down through my family automatically makes it fact.