Last summer, I led a directed study, with one student, on Jim Crow and the Holocaust. When the student mentioned to other people the topic of the class, they would stare and respond with one word, “Why?”

A lot rests within that one-word question. Why study Jim Crow? Why study the Holocaust? Why think about the links between Jim Crow and the Holocaust? Why dig up the past? Why put yourself through the psychological pain of reading about it?

Why come face to face with yourself? That question rests at the hear of that one word. It serves as the foundation for resistance to the exploration of the intersections between Jim Crow and Holocaust here in the United States South because the illumination of those intersections, while informing us of historical facts, turns a mirror upon ourselves, revealing our own complicity in systems that did, and still, oppress individuals.

The question flies in the face of all we have been taught about the United States and our role during World War II. We defeated fascism and promoted democracy. We stood up to tyranny. We stormed the beaches. We liberated the camps. We . . .

We did do those things, some better than others. Yet, we also participated in fascism. We helped fascism rise in Europe. We had a hand in the construction of the Holocaust. We incarcerated United States citizens in camps during the war. We continued, following the war, to participate in fascism. We continued, following the war, to segregate and oppress individuals. We forced Germany to reckon with its actions while we stood by our own and continued to exploit and oppress millions without acknowledging white supremacy and its impact on the society we inhabit.

We told ourselves half-truths, turning those half-truths into myths that we imbibe, taking into our very cores. When we partake of the myths, we shield ourselves from the true reflection that awaits us in the mirror. The one that stares back at us, giving us an untarnished reflection of our beings. We put a barrier between ourselves and the reflection, willfully obscuring the truth.

“Our myths give the American imagination its oxygen. We breathe toxic air,” Danté Stewart writes in Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle. The give us a shield; they allow us, as Stewart puts it, “to believe that the words progress and equality and honest and love are as American as you know yourself to be.” They lie to us. They choke us. They slowly kill us. They deny us the ability to love one another.

For years, I’ve dug into the depths of that myth that shields us from ourselves. I’ve wallowed in the mire and basked in the suns rays. I’ve thought about that one-word question and what it means.


That question, specifically in relation to studying the connections between Jim Crow and the Holocaust has led me in various directions. It has led me to think about the need to study these connections in more detail and to educate others on the intersections. That question led to the Lillian E. Smith Lecture Series panel “Jim Crow, the Holocaust, and Today,” a panel that examined the sinews that link Jim Crow and the Holocaust.

The panel explored the intersections between the Jim Crow South and Nazi Germany, discussing the historical context and also the importance of knowing this history for today. The panel consisted of Dr. Thomas Aiello (Professor of History and Africana Studies at Valdosta State University), Dr. Chad Gibbs (Director of the Zucker/Goldberg Center for Holocaust Studies at the College of Charleston) and Dr. Jelena Subotić (Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University).

Over the course of about an hour, we discussed a myriad of topics, but that one that kept coming up again and again was the topic of memory and memorialization. While memorials, memory, and education on the Holocaust are foregrounded in Europe, the same cannot be said about Jim Crow in the United States. Dr. Gibbs spoke memorials in Charleston, SC. On a corner, where enslaved individuals were sold, stands a memorial to victims on the Holocaust. about a memorial to John C. Calhoun that cast a shadow on the Holocaust memorial, directly linking, through physical space, the intersections between Jim Crow and the Holocaust.

Dr. Subotić spoke about how governments in Europe, specifically Poland and Lithuania, refuse to accept their roles in the Holocaust and how memorials within those nations construct the narratives to privilege non-Jewish Polish and Lithuanians. She spoke about Auschwitz and how the Polish government runs the site and how the Polish government, in 2018, passed a law making it illegal for scholars or teachers to talk about the role of non-Jewish Poles in the Holocaust and the aftermath.


We need to study history, in all of its dirt and grime, in order to move forward. We must realize that all myths do is shield us from reality. They shield us and cause us to become blind to the dirt and grime that sticks to our own skin. They cause us to become nostalgic for a past that never existed, one that privileges whiteness and denies others their existence.


Noone can answer that question for you. Each of us must answer it for ourselves.

You can listen to “Jim Crow, the Holocaust, and Today” on the Lillian E. Smith Center’s podcast.

What are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.

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