Black conservatives missing from new African-American museum. Why?

It is abundantly clear that black conservatives have been systematically excluded from the Smithsonian's new African-American museum, recently opened in Washington, D.C.

Exterior of the Smithsonian's new African-American museum in Washington. (Image by fuzheado, via Wikipedia entry on the museum, CC 4.0, modified to fit editorial space)

WASHINGTON, October 22, 2016 —The new Smithsonian Museum of African American History, Culture and Community was opened on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The cost of the new museum was $540 million, with 50 percent of those funds coming from taxpayers.

The museum has a collection of more than 36,000 artifacts and more than 100,000 people are represented.

It is hard to believe that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who just celebrated 25 years on the Court, is only mentioned in connection with Anita Hill, who testified against him in Senate hearings. But he is not alone. It is abundantly clear that black conservatives have been systematically excluded from this museum as they have been from the media for decades, save for negative, partisan portrayals.

This means that this new addition to the Smithsonian system is only telling part of the African American story.

Among those not represented in the museum are:

  • Lora Brown, the first African American woman elected to a State Senate, winning a seat in the Michigan State Senate in 1952.
  • Alreda King, niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., who served in the Georgia State legislature and is a pro-life advocate with Priests for Life.
  • Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote in 1966.
  • Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), the first African American senator from South Carolins and the first black Republican elected since Sen. Brooke  in 1966.
  • Michael Steele, the first African American chairperson of the Republican National Committee.
  • Kenneth Blackwell, who served as mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio State Treasurer and Ohio Secretary of State.

The list of those not mentioned is a long one, including leading black conservative academicians and writers, including Thomas Sowell, Anne Wortham. Walter Williams and Shelby Steele. There is no mention of J.A. Parker, a leader in the conservative Young Americans Freedom who went on to start The Lincoln Institute and served as head of President Ronald Reagan’s transition team at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Why were none of these black conservatives included? Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian said, “We cannot tell every story in our inaugural exhibition.”

There has been an outcry about this one-sided presentation and particular concern expressed about the exclusion of Justice Thomas.

Armstrong Williams, a black conservative commentator, notes

“No matter your view of Thomas’s conservative politics, it is simply undeniable that his record of jurisprudence on the Supreme Court over the past 25 years makes him one of the most important black figures of the post civil-rights era. While Thomas has not presented himself as a ‘race’ leader per se—he’s much like Obama in that regard—the very fact that he wields the quiet power of the court and helps to settle so many of the nation’s most contentious and complex legal controversies cements his place in African American history.”

Clarence Thomas was left out of the museum, argues Williams,

“…because of what can only be his principled dissent from the political orthodoxy of today’s African American leadership. By erasing Thomas in this way, however, the curators of the museum have done a grave disservice to the legacy of the African American experience in this country. And by denying Thomas a rightful place among the pantheon of African-American achievers and strivers, they also deny themselves the very legitimacy they are seeking by erecting a monument in the heart of the nation’s capital.”

Whether or not one agrees with his perspective, Thomas’s 25 years on the Court have been both thoughtful and productive. Mark Paoletta, who served as assistant counsel to President George H.W. Bush and worked on Thomas’s confirmation to the Court, states

“Thomas has now written more than 500 opinions, many of them painstakingly researched analyses. His opinions in United States v. Lopez, McIntyre v. Ohio, and Elections Commission and McDonald v. City of Chicago are some examples from the illustrious list. He has also demonstrated the fortitude to hold true to his jurisprudential principles in the face of withering attacks.”

Nearly a decade ago, Supreme Court correspondent Jan Crawford wrote:

“From the beginning, Justice Thomas was an independent voice who began making his mark as soon as he arrived on the Court, voting initially by himself to dissent in  Forcha v. Louisiana, a case concerning the authority of a state to confine a defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity.”

In Mark Paoletta’s view, the reason Thomas is unpopular with liberals, and for his exclusion from the new museum is that

“Thomas, throughout his career, never wavered from a set of principles many liberals don’t think a black man can legitimately hold. He believes in individual rights, not group rights, a view enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. He opposes racial preferences both because they are bad policy and because they have no basis in the Constitution. In his recent concurrence in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which involved a challenge to affirmative action in the university’s admissions program, Thomas quoted the arguments by (NAACP) lawyers in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that, ‘No state has any authority under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to use race as a factor in affording educational opportunities among its citizens… All applicants must be treated equally under the law, and no benefit in the eye of the beholder can justify racial discrimination.'”

The fact is that Clarence Thomas and the other black conservatives, in advocating a genuinely color blind society, are being true to the values of the civil rights movement. That movement sought to eliminate racial segregation and a host of race-based laws, such as those which, in many states, made interracial marriage illegal.

When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, its  clear intent was to remove race as a consideration in the hiring of employees. In the years since 1964, the civil rights movement abandoned the idea of a color blind society and called for  racial quotas, affirmative action,  minority set-asides and a host of other race-based programs. This became a new form of discrimination.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly argued that men and women should be judged “by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” This is precisely the standard advocated by Clarence Thomas and the other black conservatives. Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first black Supreme Court Justice,  argued in the case of Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948), that “Classifications and distinctions based on race and color have no moral of legal validity in our society.”

Yet, Thurgood Marshall is heralded as a significant figure in African American history at the new museum, while Clarence Thomas is ignored, despite the fact that he has served longer on the Court than Marshall.

There has been dissent and disagreement within the black community from the beginning. What is more racist than the notion that men and women should have particular political or economic views because of their race?

In the first part of the 19th century, national conventions were held where black leaders debated and disagreed bitterly with each other over slavery and freedom, abolitionism and separatism. Frederick Douglass, the first national leader, and Martin Delaney, the first black separatist, were political adversaries and friends. Dissent and disagreement have been the hallmarks of black history.

Many now forget that the first black to win a seat in the House of Representatives in the 20th century and the first to be elected from a Northern state was Oscar de Priest of Illinois, a Republican. He believed in limited government and free markets.

At the time Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Court 25 years ago, a study conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs  found 77 per cent of civil rights leaders supported race-based affirmative action programs while 77 per cent of rank-and-file blacks rejected such racial preferences. Clearly, black opinion is diverse, as are the views of Americans of all racial, ethnic and religious groups.

What were officials at the Smithsonian thinking when they used taxpayer dollars to exclude a host of prominent black Americans from this new museum because they found their views, somehow, objectionable? This thinking is widespread in totalitarian societies, but is alien to our own. The Smithsonian should take steps to quickly reverse this less than accurate presentation of African American history. The very integrity of one of Washington’s landmark institutions hangs in the balance.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.