Part Two: Summer, 2013

July 31, 2013

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

** Ella Baker


Summer, 2013, Part Two

And let’s take another look backward to understand a bit of falseness then and now: on October 26, 1992 the US Congress designated Monroe Elementary School, one of the segregated Black schools in Topeka, Kansas, a National Historic Site because of its significance in the famous 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools, Brown v. Board of Education.  The National Archives includes several documents from the case in its digital classroom.

Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessey v. Ferguson and heralded the legal termination of racially segregated schools; it’s become an icon in the popular story America tells itself about its inherent goodness and its inevitable upward trajectory: America the beautiful; Brown as icon.  Americans are devoted to Brown, myth or symbol, just as we’re dedicated to Superman’s motto: Truth, Justice, and the American Way. But “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

Brown was decided in the wake of World War II, in the wash of that reenergized sense of freedom, and, critically, with the return of young Black veterans from Europe and Asia. Whenever you read or hear that Brown unleashed years of struggle for civil rights, flip the script and remind people that years of struggle for civil rights resulted in Brown. The decision followed incessant and increasingly intense demands and mobilizations by African-Americans that the country live up to the promise of full citizenship encoded in the Fourteenth Amendment:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

And Brown coincided with clear white interests that had nothing to do with Black well-being: avoiding a revolution led and defined by subjugated African-Americans; transforming the feudal South and integrating it into a repositioned capitalist juggernaut; removing a blatant hypocrisy and an embarrassing fact of American life that was effectively wielded against the US in the UN and other international forums as an escalating Cold War raged on. White people needed Brown—but only a bit of Brown

The language of Brown includes the language of justice.  It repudiates racial segregation and says—correctly—that separate is inherently unequal.  It affirms the full humanity of African Americans.  It endorses core principles of democracy.  It cries out for equality. 

To take Brown to heart would require a hard look at the racial landscape we inhabit—a system with institutions operating at every level to construct Black “inferiority” and to deny full participation in social and political and economic life.  That hard look could lead to an iron commitment, then, to smash the institution of white supremacy. No such luck—yet.

Brown also embodies a fundamental, even a fatal, flaw that runs deep in the American racial narrative. The argument in the case turns on the harm suffered by Black children and the feelings of inferiority that are a result of segregation, rather than  the despicable, immoral, and destructive system of white supremacy itself.  Black people—not racism—became the exclusively acknowledged concern; Black pathology, not white privilege, was the focus of action. 

And so Brown, the widely celebrated and lofty statement of principle, was followed immediately by its lesser-known brother, the betrayer and assassin, Brown IIBrown II was the implementation phase of the decision, and here again—consistent with the long tradition of all things racial in America—the remedy fitted neither the crime nor the injury. In fact Brown II gave local school districts, the parties defeated in Brown, the power and responsibility to construct the solution—to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.”  The fox—far from being banished from the hen house—was given the only set of keys. 

The Supreme Court had never in history issued an order to implement a constitutional right that was so vague, and “all deliberate speed” turned out in practice to mean “never.” The activity in the courts over the decades following Brown went decidedly south: racially isolated communities of color were denied the right to draw students from adjoining white suburbs; children were denied the right to equal school funding; the concept of “neighborhood school” was reinforced and strengthened even if the result was re-segregation; on and on and on. Recently the Supreme Court ruled against voluntary desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville in which race was one of several factors used to maintain a diverse student body in public schools. Almost 60 years after Brown, school segregation is alive and well, more firmly entrenched than ever, and each year schools are more segregated. Brown is all but dead, and the structure of white supremacy rules.

As usual white supremacy is hiding in plain sight. The most dissembling hypocrites argue that anyone who sees race is a racist, that race-conscious integration is the equivalent of Black-hating segregation—because both are based on skin color. This is an invented and wholly fictitious symmetry.

The problem in America is not and has never been race consciousness per se; the problem has always been white supremacy in fact. Anything that undermines white supremacy and fights for inclusion and equality sides with humanity; anything that excludes, segregates, or subordinates is on the side of oppression and exploitation.  And so, using the lofty language of Brown, ordinary white supremacists continue to herd Black children into unnatural and inferior schools, build walls, and lock the gates. 

Monroe Elementary—that iconic temple in Topeka elevated as a National Historic Site—may as well be turned into a mausoleum: here is one more place where African-American aspirations and the on-going struggle for justice and liberation were laid to rest. 

It’s time for all of us to rethink and recommit, to decide which side we’re on in the ongoing struggle for human rights and liberation, and then to dive into the wreckage on a mission of repair. Now more than ever we need a popular mass movement for justice; entrenched power concedes nothing whatsoever fire from below.


SUMMER 2013, part one

July 28, 2013

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

** Ella Baker


1). Summer, 2013

I felt the double blow to my gut before my head could reasonably catch up: the 1965 Voting Rights Act—a crowning achievement of the classical phase of the Black Freedom Movement—was emasculated on June 25 by the Supreme Court, 5-4, in Shelby County v. Holder, and Trayvon Martin—the young Black man who by all accounts had done nothing wrong and was unarmed, walking home from a trip to the store for snacks on the night he was stalked, confronted, and shot to death by an armed vigilante—was denied any semblance of justice on July 13 when his killer was acquitted in a Florida courthouse.

This summer a friend sent me the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ angry and stirring 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”—something worth re-reading every Fourth of July—and he circled one passage with an urgent marker:

Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.

Let’s look to the past: Trayvon Martin joins the long list of young Black men cut down by agents of the state or lynched by self-appointed enforcers: Emmett Till, Oscar Grant, Fred Hampton, Amadou Diallo—each a complex human being whose life was infinitely precious to himself, each singled out, sometimes randomly, as symbol and threat, each an open wound and an unresolved crime. None will be forgotten.

Go further into the past: the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1870 at the height of Radical Black Reconstruction, stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This was a powerful victory brought about by decades of abolitionist action, the self-activity, resistance, and general strike and flight of enslaved people, and finally a great Civil War, a War of Liberation, a reminder—and we need to be reminded in good times as well as bad—of another provocative and incendiary statement from the incomparable Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.” With the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877 (the rotten compromise that won Rutherford Hayes the presidency, lost the Republican Party its soul, and plunged the nation backward as it reversed the gains of that long and bloody Civil War) combined with a range of new laws and legal sanctions as well as the opening of a mass campaign of terror against recently liberated Blacks, white supremacy reasserted itself with a vengeance.

Political power and the vast system of white-skin privilege it upheld rested firmly on the broad back of white supremacy, and cold reality made restricting the Black franchise a top priority and an urgent goal for the establishment. Whites built a broad and complex structure designed to maintain and strengthen white supremacy: the infamous “Black Laws,” chain gangs, poll taxes, literacy tests combined with semi-official and sanctioned violence against the whole community—lynchings, arson, banning and black-listing—all played their roles in the campaign. And the law followed suit: in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court found segregation constitutional and enshrined the doctrine of “separate but equal” as settled law; in 1898 in Mississippi v. Williams and again in 1903 in Giles v. Harris, the Court upheld laws that disenfranchised African-Americans. And the results were predictable: in 1896, there were 130,334 Blacks registered to vote in Louisiana; in 1904 there were only 1,342. Black turnout in the 1904 Presidential election in Virginia and South Carolina was exactly zero.

America is false to the past, and she is false to the present: there are millions of African-American men today (as well as growing numbers of African-American women, and men and women of various races, ethnicities, and backgrounds) who have been barred from voting or seeking elective office or serving on juries or qualifying for some kinds of housing and student loans or seeking employment in specified professions based on their status as convicted felons. This is the system of mass incarceration which the brilliant lawyer and activist Michelle Alexander has named “the new Jim Crow.” She points out that mass incarceration is a defining fact in the US today, whether acknowledged or not, just as slavery was the fundamental reality in the 1800’s. In fact, there are more Black men today held in prison or on probation or parole than there were held in slavery in 1850; there are significantly more people caught up in the system of incarceration and supervision in America today—over six million folks—than inhabited Stalin’s Gulag at its height; the US, less than 5% of the world’s people, holds over 25% of the world’s combined prison population; on any given day tens of thousands of men, overwhelmingly Black and Latino, are held in the torturous condition known as solitary confinement; and in the past 20 years the amount states have spent on prisons has risen six times the rate spent on higher education. I could go on, but I’ll stop.

Mass incarceration and felony disenfranchisement constitute broader, more all- encompassing, and more complex restrictions on voting rights and on the dream of justice than the Black Freedom Movement reckoned with when mass direct action resulted in the passage of several far reaching federal laws, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2006 Congress overwhelmingly re-authorized the Act, and named it the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Reauthorization Act and Amendments Act in recognition of the activism that created the law in the first place: Power conceded something because of a demand.

And now in Shelby County v. Holder the Supreme Court binds herself to be false to the future—it has gutted the Voting Rights Act and returned to form, aligning itself once more with Mississippi v. Williams and Giles v. Harris. It can’t hold.

Another world is surely coming; whether that world is a better world depends more on our collective action for more democracy, more participation, more peace and justice now than it does on the good intentions, wisdom, or sense of justice from any high bench or lofty quarter. An authentically democratic society is as threatening and unacceptable to the establishment today as emancipation was in generations past.

It’s time for all of us to get busy, because power concedes nothing without a popular movement from below and nothing whatsoever without a demand.