Bill Green Q&A

June 22, 2020
Bill Green wrote the definitive book on white paternalism and Black repression in Minnesota.

“My son is married to a white woman and my daughter is married to a Costa Rican, and neither have experienced racial comments. The U.S. Speaker of the House took a knee. The mayor of the nation’s capital is a Black woman who ordered Black Lives Matters to be painted on the street in front of the White House. Our state Attorney General is a Muslim. And the governor of Minnesota linked George Floyd’s killing to systemic racism that can only be addressed if the achievement gap, housing gap, employment gap, and health gap are all eradicated. And we’re now honestly talking about the lynchings of Duluth and commemorating the deaths of the three victims. There’s been progress. It’s just not been enough.”

You spent seven years writing The Children of Lincoln. When you embark on a long-term project can it be difficult to keep the finish line in sight? 

I started the book with a clear sense of what I wanted it to be about. After I wrote the first draft, I set it aside for months, which isn’t unusual, because I often start different projects. But I have found in all of my work that I need time away from the drafts, which is why it usually take years to complete. But it also gives me a chance to more deeply understand the issues. I wouldn’t call research and contemplation fun, but it is all-consuming and rewarding as I whisk away yet another layer of sediment. The work takes on a life of its own and I always know when I’ve arrived at the end.

You enliven the past by connecting it to the present through stories. Do you find that storytelling rather than underlining is the best way for people to absorb information?

I do. I want the story to come to life because it’s the only way to keep it relevant, the only way to engage the reader. It is, I believe, how history comes alive for people … and certainly for me. I really need to care about my subjects, whether I like them or not. I strive to find the complexity and contradictions in the subjects, while, for the purpose of moving the story along, trying to find the one element in the character that would help clarify the person.

You have said that the book is not about Black people in Minnesota but white people, in particular white liberals, and how some of the most prominent anti-slavery figures of the time ended up ultimately working against Black people. Have you found that today’s white liberals in Minnesota are open to this scrutiny?

I expected a guarded, if not negative, reaction in some form or fashion. But I was surprised that none came. I believe it means that the liberals of today aren’t the liberals of the past. Today’s liberals seem more willing to deal with uncomfortable things as well as share power, which the 19th century liberal was never willing to do. I think it’s an indication of how far race relations have progressed.

None of the four subjects in your book had Black friends. Has much changed in a century and a half?

Well, we still have racism and racial disparities. We still seemed inclined to protest from the latest outrage, only to be pacified with one-dimensional solutions. With the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments — all, of course, heroic deeds — the friends of Black people decided that they needed to do nothing else in the way of addressing discrimination that denied Blacks of homes and farms and quality education for their children. It remains to be seen whether we have moved forward after the killing of George Floyd. Will the solution continue to be one-dimensional and temporary? After the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Georgians, for example, who are disproportionately poor and of color, still can’t have their votes counted. To paraphrase Mencken, for every complex problem, there is a simple solution, that is usually wrong. I don’t think the solutions were wrong, just inadequate because of a lack of long-term commitment. How much privilege are people willing to give up, or at least share, in the name of fundamental equality? That’s the standard by which we must measure the success of this movement.

You have described the “double-bind” that Black people endure in that they don’t want to spit in the eye of white people because their survival depends on it. Do you sense that BLM is pushing progress forward?

It remains to be seen. White people have been a part of the movement. They were present in the second and third annual meetings of the Niagara Movement and the founding of the NAACP. Southern whites helped Blacks with finance and transportation during the various boycotts in the 50s and 60s, the Freedom Rides, and the marches on Washington and Montgomery. I can’t help but think of the lone white woman who led Elizabeth Eckford though a white mob in Little Rock that threatened to lynch her as she went to school. I commend BLM for its leadership, especially in reaching out and accepting white participation. But it didn’t start with them. White participation was long and genuine and their lives were threatened and occasionally lost. Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife, was murdered while transporting voter registration workers in rural Mississippi. As a historian, this moment, so far, is part of a continuum. But even in the cynical mindset of a historian, I think that progress exists, though very, very, very gradually.

Reverse-historian question: do you think in five years things will be better? Ten years?

I want to believe that it will. I sincerely believe that race relations are better than 100 years ago. My son is married to a white woman and my daughter is married to a Costa Rican, and neither have experienced racial comments. The U.S. Speaker of the House took a knee. The mayor of the nation’s capital is a Black woman who ordered Black Lives Matters to be painted on the street in front of the White House. Our state Attorney General is a Muslim. And the governor of Minnesota linked George Floyd’s killing to systemic racism that can only be addressed if the achievement gap, housing gap, employment gap, and health gap are all eradicated. And we’re now honestly talking about the lynchings of Duluth and commemorating the deaths of the three victims. Yes, there’s been progress. It’s just not been enough.

As the former superintendent of the Minneapolis School Board, what was your reaction to its decision to separate from the Minneapolis Police Department?

I just hope that the kids are safe.

And finally, what is the next book you’re working on?

My book on the redoubtable Nellie Francis, a Black woman who among many achievements, helped lead the women’s suffrage movement in Minnesota in 1919 and drafted legislation for the antilynching law in 1920, will appear next January. I also have another manuscript being considered on the teachers’ strike of 1970.