When President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House, in 1901, the Southern white press condemned President Roosevelt while many African Americans hailed him as a friend of the “Negro.”
But delving into the background of Theodore Roosevelt, it is not difficult to find troubling instances of his belief in white supremacy. One such instance involves the most famous narrative about Teddy Roosevelt.
As school children, we were taught that in the Battle of San Juan Hill, the courageous Teddy Roosevelt led his valiant Rough Riders to victory against a larger enemy force during the Spanish-American War.
But that narrative is far from the truth.
Modern-day research has brought to light a different story where Black troops, from the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers) and other units, led in much of the fighting of that campaign and even rescued Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders from annihilation. According to Jerome Tuccille, author of “The Roughest Riders: The Untold Story of the Black Soldiers in the Spanish-American War,” Roosevelt “straggled up there (the top of San Juan Hill) with just a handful of the remaining Rough Riders” after Black soldiers had taken the hill and the fighting was over.
Soon after the Battle of San Juan Hill was won, Roosevelt praised the Black soldiers for their valor and steadfastness. But as time passed, he walked back his praise, and by the time he was running for re-election as president in 1904 and needed Southern votes, he denied that Black soldiers had participated in the battles in any meaningful way.
It was bad enough that Roosevelt, through the skillful manipulation of the press, was able to center himself in a narrative of American heroism. But what is worse is that he diminished the sacrifices of Black soldiers and hid the story of their valor from history.
Roosevelt believed himself to be a friend of, and advocate for, people of color. But his advocacy was for the gradual adjustment in the minds of whites, who through their belief in their own racial superiority, would accept the challenge proposed by British writer and poet Rudyard Kipling to “take up the white man’s burden” and civilize the non-white people of the world.
With friends like Theodore Roosevelt, people of color did not need enemies.
Today, there are many self-proclaimed friends of people of color. These friends are quick to point out what is best for us and assure us that the path they want us to take is superior to any other. This scenario plays out in education and industry, as well as in every other area of American life. But nowhere is this phenomenon more injurious to our interests than in the political arena.
Experienced politicians have cajoled people of color into having faith in a political process that has yielded pitiful gain and still leaves us on a precarious ledge over the abyss of over-zealous policing, electoral disenfranchisement and a legion of other socio-economic and racial disadvantages in American society.
While we have allies, and indeed, friends, people of color should not allow politicians to credentialize themselves by vouching for their own authenticity as racially aware individuals. The struggle ahead of us is too critical to our well-being for us to be hamstrung by people claiming to be our friends while counseling a “go slow” approach to “securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Politicians claiming to be our friends have been attacking junior members of color in the U.S. House of Representatives because those junior members choose to faithfully represent the voters who sent them to Washington rather than engage in a complicated political dance that prioritizes remaining in office over representing the people. Four of these junior members, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, are known as “The Squad” and they have been attacked by Democratic politicians who self-identify as moderates or liberals.
While it is very easy to identify someone like Donald Trump as a threat to all people of good conscience, it takes close scrutiny to recognize the problematic characteristics of those who call themselves our friends. But it is for our own sake, and the sake of those who come after us, that we must scrutinize critically anyone who advocates against what we know to be in our best interest.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” His letter was in response to a statement in friendship from eight white religious leaders of the South who had cautioned him against his nonviolent protests and questioned why he had come to Birmingham.
The members of The Squad are in Washington because there is injustice in America. And we cannot allow politicians who think they are our friends to hobble those congressional representatives who are prepared to fight for our best interests.
With friends like these who attack The Squad, who needs enemies.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia. His earlier commentaries may be found at https://oblayton1.medium.com/