The Fake History of the 20th Century

It’s one of the most famous moments in sports history, or 20th Century American history, period. Jackie Robinson, the first player to break the pro baseball color barrier, took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on the road against the Cincinnati Reds. A hostile racist crowd poured abuse down onto him. But then, Robinson’s teammate Harold “Pee Wee” Reese shamed and quieted the crowd by walking over to Robinson and putting his arm around him in a gesture of support. It’s a moment immortalized in film, in children’s books, and even in bronze.

But as the Wall Street Journal revealed in a recent article, the whole episode never happened:

No newspapers reported the event at the time. In fact, the New York Post said Robinson had been “the toast of the town” in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Post reported the day after the game: “If anyone had any objection to Jackie’s presence on the field, he failed to make himself heard.” Writing in his weekly newspaper column, Robinson called his visit to Crosley Field “a nice experience.”

The story of the Cincinnati embrace surfaced decades later in an interview with one of Robinson’s teammates, pitcher Rex Barney. But Barney got one of the key details wrong. He said he was warming up to pitch in the first inning of the game when Reese shut down the hecklers. The fact is, Barney didn’t pitch that day until the seventh inning.

In interviews I conducted with Robinson’s wife, Rachel, for my book on his breakthrough season, she insisted that no such hug occurred in 1947.


This wasn’t just a harmless myth. For decades, ordinary people in Cincinnati were tarred as hateful racists in order to further a specific narrative about America. They weren’t the only victims of myths related to Robinson. Enos Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals has been villainized for decades for slashing Robinson with his spiked cleats during a play at first base. But Slaughter always insisted the injury was accidental, and sportswriters at the game from both St. Louis and New York City agreed, saying that nothing appeared deliberate about the incident. Similarly, in the 2013 film about Robinson, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller is portrayed intentionally hitting Robinson in the head with a pitch before insulting him with a racist comment. In reality, the pitch hit Robinson on the wrist and there is no evidence of such an insult at all.

But all three myths will live on, because they are useful. They promote a certain story about America: That until very recently the country was overwhelmingly bigoted and hateful, and good for very little else. In fact, America’s entire 20th-century history, as it is taught in schools and portrayed on screen, is essentially “fake.” It is a sequence of myths atop myths, created to make Americans hate their ancestors and their history.

A full list of these myths could fill several books. For now, we will illustrate the point with some central examples.

The Tulsa Riot

As America steadily replaces pride in its achievements with a new white guilt national ideology, the nation has craved greater atrocities to further fuel a deep sense of shame. Lynchings and segregation were bad, but they lack the electric spark of a Kristallnacht.

For Americans desperate to hate their grandparents, then, the Tulsa Riot of 1921 has become the perfect symbol. Over the past few years, the riot has been promoted with a strange amount of glee. It was used to open HBO’s awful “Watchmen” adaptation, and both the press and President Biden made a major show of the riot’s 100th anniversary last year. Biden’s remarks on that anniversary repeat what is, essentially, the mainstream understanding of events:

[T]he mob terrorized Greenwood [the black neighborhood affected by the riot] with torches and guns shooting at will. A mob tied a Black man, by the waist, to the back of their truck, with his head banging along the pavement as they drove off. A murdered Black family draped over the fence of their home outside. An elderly couple knelt by their bed, praying to God with their heart and their soul, when they were shot in the back of their heads. Private planes dropping explosives, the first and only domestic air assault of its kind on an American city here in Tulsa.

10,000 people were left destitute and homeless, placed in interment camps. As I was told today, they were told, “Don’t you mention you were ever in a camp or we’ll come and get you.” That’s a survivor story. … The death toll records by local officials said there were 36 people. That’s all, 36 people. Based on studies records and accounts, the likely number is much more than the multiple of hundreds. Untold bodies dumped into mass graves.


But as Scott Greer wrote for Revolver last year, every part of Biden’s statement is a gross factual distortion. Even the most exhaustive investigation of the event could only confirm 39 deaths (13 of them white), with the supposed “hundreds” of other victims lacking bodies, causes of death, or even names. There is little evidence of any aerial bombing happening. The “internment camps” were temporary housing for those displaced by the massive fire (apparently they were supposed to just be left without shelter?). Lurid tales of elderly couples executed while praying have remained just that, lurid tales, a kind of racist pornography passed down through the years without any serious effort to verify them.

Emmett Till

We don’t need to narrate to you the story of Emmett Till. You’ve heard it, your kids have heard it, everyone has heard it. Publications like the New York Times provide breaking Emmett Till news every few months. The constant drumbeat regarding the case has, ironically, fueled lynch mobs which have burst into nursing homes on the hunt for Carolyn Bryant, who accused Till of making sexual advances on her while she worked at a general store in Drew, Mississippi.

Emmett Till’s story isn’t a myth in the sense that it didn’t happen, or that Till deserved to die (he certainly did not). Rather, the myth of Emmett Till lies in how it is treated as a symbol of “typical” behavior in the Deep South shortly before desegregation. Till’s death, and the acquittal of his killers by an all-white jury, supposedly represent what was still normal behavior in the South even in the 1950s. But in fact, nothing about the case was typical, which was precisely why it generated so much attention. Mississippi’s governor, Hugh White, put enormous pressure on authorities to find the culprit. The largest law firm in Tallahatchie County, where the murder occurred, refused to represent Till’s killers. Mississippi’s white newspapers unanimously condemned the slaying and demanded justice:

The Greenwood Commonwealth, in a front-page editorial, stated, “The citizens of this area are determined that the guilty parties shall be punished to the full extent of the law.” The Vicksburg Post said, “The ghastly and wholly unprovoked murder . . . cannot be condoned, nor should there be anything less than swift and determined prosecution of those guilty of the heinous crime.” … The Clarksdale Press Register said, “Those who kidnapped and murdered Till have dealt the reputation of the South and Mississippi a savage blow. It is a blow from which we can recover only by accepting this violent and insane challenge to our laws and by prosecuting vigorously the individuals responsible for this crime.”

[A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Murder and Trial of Emmett Till]

Even the label of “lynching” is a misnomer. Till’s death wasn’t ad hoc mob justice, carried out in public. It was just a normal murder, carried out in secret and denied afterwards. When Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam went on trial for the murder, they didn’t proudly defend their actions, but instead denied them. Only after being acquitted did they admit the truth to “Look” magazine, at which point whatever support remained for the pair evaporated completely. The Bryants and Milams were essentially “canceled,” not by Northeastern elites but by their own Mississippi peers. Neighbors who had supported them during the trial were disgusted, and the hatred was so intense that both families had to leave the state.

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