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.