THE MOVEMENT: WHAT IT DID AND WHAT REMAINS UNDONE
The story of the Movement is usually told in terms of what happened in the single decade of 1955 1965. During that period, students spearheaded the fight for civil rights, primarily the right to be treated equally before the law and the right to vote.
But the Movement was broader than the struggle for civil rights. It was also about human rights, and the fight for equality, economic justice, and social justice. The victories and setbacks of the Movement understood both as a fight for civil rights and in this larger sense are outlined below.
The civil rights phase:
At that time, in
The bus Rosa Parks was on soon filled with white people. A man was left standing. The bus driver ordered the Black riders to give their seats up. All but Parks obeyed. The police were called in and she was arrested.
Rosa Parks is often portrayed as a tired woman, too exhausted after a long day's work to move. The reality is that Parks was well aware of what she was doing. She had been the first Secretary for the Alabama State Conference of NAACP branches. The summer before her refusal to move on the bus, she had attended a workshop at the
There was also a history in
The Black community quickly mobilized in support of Parks. The NAACP saw in her case an opportunity to attack segregation on the streets and in the courts. The one-day boycott organized by Jo Ann Robinson and the Women's Political Council grew to become a 381-day boycott. The strategy was direct economic action. The Black community refused to ride the buses. Their commitment to civil rights outweighed the difficulties they had to endure.
Black churches became centers for organizing and renewal. A group of ministers organized the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to carry out the boycott. The minister of the
The white power structure reacted sharply against this affront to their power. The Black community in
The mayor of
Movement veteran Hollis Watkins has said that one of the hardest obstacles Movement activists had to face was their own fear. But once fear was overcome, activists could focus on their aims. During the boycott, a
Students had staged earlier sit-ins in
On February 1, 1960, four Black freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and
When the waitress told them, "I'm sorry. We don't serve coloreds here," one student, Ezell Blair, Jr., replied, "I beg to disagree with you. We've in fact already been served. You took our money at a store counter two feet from here." They were making the point that segregation made no real sense. The waitress ignored the students, but they remained seated until the store closed. The next day they returned, this time with some 20 fellow students, including four women from near-by
The sit-in continued a third day. White students began taking part in the protest. Students soon filled the Woolworth's. After a bomb threat and two weeks of sit-ins, the Woolworth's shut its doors. But by then, the sit-ins had spread to a S.H. Kress store nearby. In two months, the sit-in movement was active in 54 cities in nine states. Even in
The Movement strategy of nonviolence
There was nothing passive about this form of confrontation. Instead, it was a way of facing injustice and violence head on, in an attempt to persuade oppressors and the nation of the injustice of their actions.
This strategy proved effective. But it required rigorous training. There were nonviolence workshops which taught students how to conduct themselves. "Sit straight," they were told. "Don't laugh," or "don't curse."
As sit-ins became more widespread, whites began their own campaign of harassment. As in the bus boycott, they felt threatened by this display of student power. They began to heckle the students, yelling "nigger" at African Americans and "nigger lover" at whites. They threw food and condiments at the students. Some even ground their cigarettes into the backs of protesters. The police hit the students with billy clubs, let the dogs loose on them, and used tear gas to blind them.
Throughout all this, the students had to remain disciplined. They could not retaliate. They had to keep in mind that not only the white hecklers, but the white power structure awaited any break in their composure. If a Black student struck back at his assailant, that student would not only be arrested and probably beaten up, but the state would be sure to play up that incident in order to discredit the sit-in movement. Black people had to rely on the justice of their cause, and they had to have faith that the powers-that-be which were white would eventually recognize that justice was on their side. This was a strategy used again and again.
Certainly the young people were quicker than adults to push demands for justice. By the end of 1960, about 70,000 people, most of them students, had participated in a sit-in, a march or a rally. The young were particularly suited to take part and give shape to what was becoming the Movement. They had the courage to take a stand. More practically, students could afford to take part in activities which challenged people in power. They didn't have to worry so much about being fired from their jobs or about supporting their families.
During the Easter weekend of 1960, students from Southern Black colleges came together to talk about how they could play a part in sustaining a movement for change. The experienced activist Ella Baker told them that they needed to do more than integrate the lunch counters. They needed to change the entire social structure. This task, she believed, was a task best left for young people. She said to the older members of the conference, "The younger generation is challenging you and me. They are asking us to forget our laziness and doubt and fear and follow our dedication to the truth to the bitter end." 2
It was at this conference that SNCC, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was formed. It would soon become the dynamo which powered many of the Movement's campaigns.
The Birmingham Children's Crusade
Civil rights leaders in 1963 planned a campaign to challenge segregation in Birmingham. The campaign, Project C, would select boycott targets and mobilize demonstrations. The "C" stood for "confrontation."
The first stage of Project C began with a round of sit-ins. "Bull" Connor quickly arrested the demonstrators. By the week's end, more than 150 people had been arrested.
Connor resorted to a full arsenal of terror to halt demonstrations. In addition to nightsticks, he unleashed police dogs upon demonstrators, and used fire hoses with currents so strong they could rip the bark off trees. Dr. King had anticipated that Connor would crack down in this way. His hope was that the media, especially television, would report what was happening in Birmingham to the rest of the nation, and so stir the national conscience. It was "a victory" when cameras from around the world snapped photos of Connor loading Dr. King into a police van.
King used his time in prison to write his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a reply to white ministers denouncing his Birmingham campaign as "unwise and untimely." He wrote, "For years I have heard the word 'Wait.' It rings in the ears of the Negro with a piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never'....justice too long delayed is justice denied."
Project C went into a new phase. A strategy was devised in which Black high school students and children would pour into the streets to protest segregation. The campaign was dubbed "the Children's Crusade."
On May 2, 1963, one thousand Black children from six to eighteen years of age marched out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church into the Birmingham streets and Kelly Ingram Park. Reporters from around the world observed as they were loaded into the school buses Bull Connor had brought in to take them to jail. By the day's end, 959 children had been imprisoned.
The next day, police barricaded the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where, inside, another thousand Black students had assembled. When the students tried to leave the church, Connor unleashed dogs upon them, and had the children blasted with high-pressure hoses which ripped off their clothing and left them bloodied. Across the nation, people watched their television screens in horror. The marches continued, swelling in size. By May 6, more than two thousand demonstrators had been jailed. The cost of keeping them in jail placed a great strain on the police budget.
What finally brought the city to the bargaining table was the economic pressure the arrests and boycotts exerted. Birmingham merchants, alarmed at the drop in sales, agreed to desegregate their stores and lunch counters, and hire African-American workers. The city, for its part, released the demonstrators from jail and agreed to open a channel to discuss race relations.
The Klan, however, one of the city's unofficial authorities, pronounced the agreement void. Bombs went off at the home of Dr. King's brother and at Dr. King's hotel, much as bombs had gone off in Montgomery when the bus boycott was victorious. In September 1963, on its annual youth day, a bomb tore apart the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls.
Later the same day, two Eagle Boy Scouts on their way home from a Klan rally shot at two Black children riding on a bicycle, killing one of them. Outrages like these served as a reminder that every victory only revealed how far there was yet to go.
The campaign for voting rights
Aware that African Americans had been making civil rights gains, Klansmen stepped up their pressure tactics, intent on keeping political power in white hands. The Klan could easily and openly lynch Black people, or make sure they were harassed or deprived of their jobs. Who, after all, would punish Klansmen, especially when local law enforcement and the powerful Whites Citizens councils were likely to be in sympathy with them?
The Mississippi Summer Project
COFO invited assistance from the North, believing that this would help focus national attention on what was happening in Mississippi. Hundreds of student volunteers from all over the country flocked to join the 1964 summer project. They saw it as an opportunity to play a role in the Movement. The plan was that they would move into Black neighborhoods and there engage in literacy training and voter registration.
Mississippi braced itself for what it regarded as an invasion. The mayor of Jackson enlarged the police force, bought hundreds of extra shotguns and a tank with a submachine gun mounted on its turret. "I may be killed and you may be killed," Jim Forman, the SNCC executive secretary, told students in the orientation session. On June 20, 1964, the first crew of volunteers, 200 of them, went into Mississippi.
The next day, three young men Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner - were reported missing. After having investigated the burning of a church that was to have been a center for literacy training, the three had been detained in Philadelphia, Mississippi for "speeding." Later that night the sheriff released them, and the Klan was waiting. All three were shot at close range in the head. The only African American in the group, James Chaney, from nearby Meridian, was beaten before being killed. Their bodies were buried in an earthen dam; their car was burned.
The day after their murder, the sheriff told reporters that their disappearance was probably a publicity stunt aimed at stirring up sympathy for the Movement. The FBI conducted a half-hearted search. When they combed the rivers, they found the bodies of other Black men who had gone missing during the Movement. It wasn't until early August that the bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were found after a Klan member gave the FBI a tip in exchange for a $30,000 reward.
After the state of Mississippi refused to prosecute anyone for the murders, eighteen men were arrested and brought before a federal court. In 1967, a jury convicted seven of the men of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the victims. They all served less than six years in prison. The jury was deadlocked on whether to convict Edgar Ray Killen, an ordained Baptist minister and the "chaplain" of the Ku Klux Klan. He went free.
On June 22, 2005, forty-one years after the three civil rights workers were murdered, a racially-mixed jury convicted Killen of three counts of manslaughter in the Mississippi Freedom Summer murders. He was sentenced to twenty years on each count.
Selma and the Voting Rights Act
Selma, once a cotton center and slave market, had only three percent of its 29,000 Black residents registered to vote. The town had a history of harassing civil rights workers and taking quick action to stamp out protests. Civil rights leaders calculated that if they could get the national media to report on what was happening in Selma, the federal government would be forced to pay attention to the issue of voting rights.
The strategy worked. On February 1, 1965, Dr. King and a number of schoolchildren were arrested for marching. The news broadcast images of kids being herded into police vans. As in Birmingham, the scenes stirred the national conscience. Two days after King's arrest, another charismatic Black leader, Malcolm X, arrived in Selma.
Malcolm told an interviewer, "I am 100 percent for any effort put forth by Black people in this country to have access to the ballot. And I frankly believe that since the ballot is our right, that we are within our rights to use whatever means is necessary to secure those rights....I believe that it is right to be nonviolent with people who are nonviolent. But when you're dealing with an enemy who doesn't know what nonviolence is, as far as I'm concerned, you're wasting your time." 3
On February 18, 1965, a small civil rights march in Selma was attacked by law enforcement officers. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old demonstrator, rushed to shield his mother from the blows of the police. As he did so, an officer put a gun to his belly and shot him. He died a week later.
"Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?" King asked, as he delivered Jackson's eulogy. In response, he said that Jackson was killed by every lawless sheriff, every racist politician from the governor on down, every indifferent white minister, and every passive Black person who "stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice."
King then announced a march from Selma to the Alabama state capital, Montgomery, a distance of 50 miles. The march was a protest against police brutality and the denial of voting rights. Alabama Governor George Wallace immediately declared that such a march would not take place. The planning proceeded anyway.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, about 600 marchers left the Brown Chapel African Methodist Church in Selma. When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the end of the town, the marchers saw, at the other end, a horde of armed officers wearing gas masks. News people lined the bridge awaiting the confrontation between the long column of marchers and the police.
The sheriff, Jim Clark, gave the command to attack. The horsemen charged and the gas grenades were tossed. Police set upon the marchers with chains and billy clubs and cattle prods. Even bystanders were attacked. John Lewis of SNCC had his skull fractured. Sixteen marchers ended up hospitalized, and another 50 received emergency treatment. The savagery of "Bloody Sunday" was filmed and broadcast into homes as a special report. The national conscience stirred.
Scores of people who had witnessed the brutality on their TV screens descended upon Selma. King announced another march, which set out on March 9. Again, when the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met with armed officers. The marchers fell on their knees and began to pray. Rather than risk more violence, King turned around and returned to the church, to the dismay of some SNCC leaders.
In Selma that evening, three ministers were attacked as they left a restaurant. One, James Reeb, a welfare worker in Boston's slums, died two days later from his injuries. A national outcry again went up. The nation had, in the past few weeks, witnessed a level of violence that challenged its idea of what kind of country America was. Demonstrations all over the country ensued. Taking the cue, President Lyndon Johnson announced a Voting Rights bill.
"Their cause must be our cause too," Johnson proclaimed in a televised address to the nation. "It is not just Negroes, but all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice....We shall overcome!" 4
The Selma to Montgomery march was to take place a third time. A federal judge gave a green light to the march, but Governor Wallace still refused to provide police protection. President Johnson then federalized nearly two thousand members of the Alabama National Guard. He also dispatched army troops, the FBI and federal marshals, all to ensure that finally this march would be successful.
More than three thousand people, Black and white, again left Brown's Chapel. This time, on the fourth day of their march, they arrived in Montgomery. Before the state capitol building, just down the road from his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. King, triumphant, addressed the nation:
"I know some of you are asking today, 'How long will it take?' I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long...because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." 5
That very evening, Klansmen, in whose car sat an FBI informer, shot and killed a white woman from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, who was transporting marchers from Montgomery back to Selma. Her death gave the Voting Rights Act the impetus it needed to be passed by Congress. In Selma the National Voting Rights Museum bears eloquent witness to the role that the town played in its passage.
The Voting Rights Act meant that the door to democracy was opened wider for Black Americans. Black people were elected to public offices, as they had been in the period of Reconstruction. The grip segregationists exerted over state politics loosened as the power of the Black vote was felt. The federal government appointed African Americans to positions of power. Thurgood Marshall, who later went on to become the first Black justice on the US Supreme Court, was selected to be President Johnson's solicitor general.
1966: the Black Power phase of the struggle
By 1965, many activists were beginning to pay heed to Malcolm X's call for self-defense, and were prepared to turn away from nonviolent direct action. They began to think that it wasn't enough to take down the "whites only" signs. It wasn't enough just to "dream" about an integrated, color-blind society. No sooner had the Voting Rights Act been signed into law, than an era was born which shared Malcolm X's impatience with the slow pace of change and the violence aimed at Black people. The August 1965 uprising in the Watts area of Los Angeles, sparked by a confrontation between African-American youths and white police, was a sign of things to come.
Meanwhile, the concept of "Black Power," a phrase used by Richard Wright as the title for a book, and by the activist, singer and actor Paul Robeson in the 1950s, was being discussed in SNCC offices. It would first capture national media attention at a Mississippi rally in June 1966.
SNCC tried to use the new Voting Rights Act to bring democracy and Black political power to Lowndes County, Alabama, through which the Selma-Montgomery march had passed. Over 80 percent of the county's population was Black, and not a single Black person had been registered to vote before the passage of the Voting Rights Act. SNCC activists set up an independent party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, using a Black Panther as its symbol. All seven of their candidates for local offices were defeated. Open intimidation and threats of economic reprisals by the several dozen prominent families that owned 90 percent of the land showed that it would take more than the Voting Rights Act to bring about substantial change.
The Black Panther symbol would soon be adopted by the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California. It was officially launched in October, 1966.
Looking back, SNCC veteran James Forman, who briefly was a member of the Black Panther Party, described the transformation of the Movement in these terms:
"Voting discrimination and segregation of public facilities had generally disappeared after years of protest -- that protest which produced the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At the same time, the newly established political rights of black people in the South were being undermined by whites in many ways: deliberate miscounting of votes, bribery, economic intimidation of voters. The South was becoming more and more like the North. The fundamentals of racism inadequate housing, lack of jobs, insufficient medical attention, inferior education remained basically unchanged throughout black communities, whether in New York or Mississippi. Thus the call for Black Power drew substance from the realities of the lives of black people across the nation. With the equalizing of our problems in the North and South, the concept evoked a national response. It had emerged from the Southern experience, but had meaning for black people everywhere." 6
"Black Power" meant a new emphasis on self-defense, racial pride, African heritage, and grassroots organizing for Black cultural and economic advancement. Many civil rights activists thought it took the struggle to a higher level, and ensured some concrete gains for Black people.
1967: the cities burn
Horrified by the violence, Dr. King was determined to demonstrate that nonviolent methods could be used effectively in the fight for political power and economic justice. In the last year of his life he told the US Senate that "the great challenge facing the civil rights movement is to organize and gain identity with ghetto dwellers." America as a nation has never yet, he declared, "committed itself to solving the problems of its Negro citizens" and now time was running out.
To focus the nation's attention on economic inequality, Dr. King planned to mobilize African Americans, poor whites, Hispanics, and Native Americans in a "Poor People's Campaign." He wanted to bring them to Washington DC, where they would live in shanties and take part in demonstrations demanding that the government confront the problems of poverty in the nation's cities and rural areas.
Meanwhile, King was angering those in power by condemning the Vietnam War. Instead of using resources to fight poverty at home, he declared, the US had built a military machine to kill millions of Vietnamese in a futile and unjust war:
"It became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population....So we have repeatedly been faced with the cruel irony of watching negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit." 7
The struggle for economic equality took Dr. King to Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968. He intended to lead a march of striking sanitation workers, who were demanding union recognition and decent wages. On April 4th he died on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, killed by a sniper's bullet.
In the wake of his death, more than a hundred cities went up in flames. The nation's television screens were dominated by images of the National Guard and army in full battle gear patrolling our own burning streets, while other US soldiers burned villages in Vietnam.
The Kerner Commission report on the 1967 burning of cities was published a month before Dr. King's assassination. Written when 11.9 percent of the nation's whites and 40.6 percent of African Americans and other racial minorities were living below the poverty line, it made several urgent recommendations to President Johnson's government. These included the need to integrate schools, improve housing, open up the existing job structure, create two million new jobs for urban areas, provide new federal funds for welfare, set up civilian review boards to oversee the police, and recruit more African Americans into the police force and media. "Our nation," the Commission warned, "is moving toward two societies, one black, one white separate and unequal." 8
It could be argued, of course, that this was nothing new. There had always been two societies in the nation. What the Kerner Commission succeeded in highlighting was how relatively little had changed in the country since the "white's only" signs came down. The Movement had brought about important changes, but there was much more that needed to be done.
The Movement's unfinished business
Beginning in the late 1970s, well-funded pressure groups and opinion-makers insisted that "racism is over." The civil rights movement, they said, had abolished the forms of legal discrimination that had kept members of different races from competing on a "level playing field." White supremacy, in their view, simply collapsed, leaving individuals free to compete as equals for a "color-blind" society's rewards. Future generations should not have to pay for the mistakes of racial oppression since it was now over and anyway, it wasn't all that bad. History is being re-written to reflect these views. Jim Crow segregation, one of their writers stated, was "in part" an effort of the Southern ruling elite "to protect blacks." 9
Today, the nation looks different as well. Immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Central and Latin America and the Caribbean, have made the "minority" population increasingly diverse. Their presence has given the country an extraordinary linguistic and cultural wealth. But it has also stimulated anti-immigrant fears and outright xenophobia (fear of foreigners). Many Americans of European descent fear being overwhelmed by immigrants who do not look or sound like them.
W.E.B. DuBois had written in 1903 that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." A century later, the "color line" has been blurred by the increasingly varied population, but it has not been dissolved. The racial hierarchy, with "white" on top, has not been totally dismantled. Racial stereotypes about "nonwhite" groups abound, and drive anti-immigrant legislation. The politics of divide and rule set one group against another, and encourage them to fight for the ever smaller pieces of the American pie reserved for people who are neither white, nor well off.
Opening the door to economic opportunity
For years after 1964, there was little sign of change, since there were so many subtle ways short of open bigotry to exclude people of color or keep them in low status positions. For instance, they could be told that they didn't have enough seniority to be promoted. Or they were not hired because they had not scored high enough on certain exams. These exams were often as unrelated to job performance as the Jim Crow tests for voter registration were unrelated to good citizenship.
Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon had issued executive orders requiring federal employers to increase the numbers of African Americans in the workplace. What became known as "affirmative action" opening up jobs and institutions that had long been closed to minorities and women was not a coherent government policy. At first, it was a timid and piecemeal attempt to change recruitment in public employment. It was gradually adopted on a voluntary basis by large private employers and universities.
Affirmative action was never about "special privileges," and seldom imposed concrete numerical "quotas." Instead, it was an attempt to deal with a history and institutions that had systematically dehumanized African Americans and members of other minority groups, and excluded them as well as women of all races from desirable opportunities. It was intended to remedy past and present discrimination, and to make jobs available to qualified people regardless of race or gender.
And to certain extent, it worked. After twenty years of affirmative action in hiring and promotion, the number of African-American police officers had tripled, the number of African-American firemen had gone up fivefold, and there were significant gains in other professions and university enrollment. White women reaped even more substantial gains.
But we must look at the overall picture to put these results in perspective. White males account for a third of the nation's population and only 15 percent of job applicants. But by the mid 1990s, they still made up 80 percent of the US House of Representatives, 92 percent of the Senate, 92 percent of senior executives of Fortune 500 companies and 90 percent of newspaper editors. 10 The average white high school dropout in the late 1990s earned as much as an African American male with two years of college. The mainstream economy may have been opened up to new groups, but white males remained firmly in the dominant position.
For a brief moment, it also seemed like significant changes might occur in Northern schools. In April 1971, in its decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the US Supreme Court unanimously ordered school children to be bused to achieve integrated schools. The city of Charlotte, North Carolina and the surrounding suburbs in Mecklenburg County had been consolidated into a single school district in 1960, so busing between the suburbs and city was easier to achieve that if multiple school districts were involved. Still, the ruling caused such a huge outcry, and was not implemented until 1974. However, once it was enforced, other school districts in the South rapidly adopted desegregation plans.
In that same year, the Supreme Court heard the case of Milliken v. Bradley. It ruled 5-4 that students could not be bused between the (largely Black) metropolitan area of Detroit and its well-to-do suburbs. Minority students were to be confined to run-down schools in their own neighborhoods, or bused to schools in low-income white urban neighborhoods, as happened with violent consequences in Boston in the mid 1970s. Once again, white people turned to racial violence out of fear of losing what little they had.
Subsequent Supreme Court rulings have permitted the resegregation of schools, by releasing school districts from court-ordered desegregation plans before they have been carried out to completion. Today, African Americans make up a smaller percentage of the teaching force than they did in 1970. Schools are again starkly divided by race and quality in most Northern cities. In the South, the clock has been rolled back on desegregation, as whites shifted their children to private schools, many of them church-based. Many Southern states now have a private school system for white children, and a financially-starved public school system, mainly for African-American children.
Diversity in higher education has also been threatened. In 1978, the US Supreme Court in its ruling in the Bakke case restricted the way race could be used in admitting students to higher education. Subsequent court rulings and public referendums hostile to affirmative action have made some law schools and universities less diverse than they were twenty years ago.
By the late 1980s, the Supreme Court was poised to roll back some of the gains of the Movement. Since 1989, it has struck down methods used to fight racial harassment and employment discrimination. Negotiated agreements known as "consent decrees" which forced police and fire departments to hire women and minority applicants have been abolished. Many state and local government programs that set aside a certain percentage of contracts for minority-owned businesses have been shut down.
Still the politics of divide and rule
Money rules, and the nation's wealth is being redistributed upwards. The decisions made by politicians in this period have deepened poverty, ended social programs for urban areas, and training programs for the unemployed, and shredded the welfare safety net while giving the rich big tax breaks and engineering a huge transfer of wealth from everybody else to the already rich. The United States has the greatest concentration of wealth and poverty in the western industrial world. Census statistics show that the richest one percent in the country now receive as much income after taxes as the bottom 40 percent. The top 10 percent own 70 percent of all wealth in the country, up from 50 percent just 25 years ago.
The continuing existence of racism has allowed these political choices to be made. Instead of questioning the wisdom of these policies, the media focuses attention on the behavior and family structure of the poor, especially poor people of color, as the root cause of their poverty. If they were willing to work and had intact families, we are repeatedly told, they would be able to better themselves like everybody else.
Imagine if, instead of blaming the poor, the newspapers and television regularly featured statements like this one, made by a white minister working in the South Bronx:
"Of course the family structure breaks down in a place like the South Bronx! Everything breaks down in a place like this. The pipes break down. The phone breaks down. The electricity and heat break down. The spirit breaks down. The body breaks down. The immune agents of the heart break down. Why wouldn't the family break down also? If we saw the people in these neighborhoods as part of the same human family to which we belong, we'd never put them in such places to begin with. But we do NOT think of them that way." 12
Getting tough on crime
Drug use kills social activism and effective protest. The "war on drugs," fought almost exclusively in neighborhoods inhabited by people of color, has opened the way to forms of policing once associated with police states, not democracies. It has also made prisons our fastest growing industry.
African Americans make up 12 percent of the nation's population. Despite the fact that only 12 percent of African Americans have been estimated to use or sell drugs, the great majority of those arrested in drug sweeps have been Black. African Americans are twice as likely to get prison terms as young white males arrested on identical charges. Beginning in the mid 1980s, there was a mandatory five-year prison sentence for possessing five grams of crack cocaine, while possession of that much powdered cocaine the suburban drug of choice got the offender ten months' in prison.
The kind of policing and media coverage aimed at communities of color have criminalized Black youth, inflamed racial fears, and built support for new "get tough" approaches to fighting crime, no matter what the cost. The prison population has been growing at a staggering rate, and the US now leads the world in the rate at which we lock up our citizens.
Even when the nation's crime rate was falling, the number of people in prison kept rising. Over the past 20 years, prison spending grew five times as fast as spending on higher education. Twice as many African Americans in their early 30s have been to prison as have received a college degree. By mid-2004, the nation's prisons and jails held 2.1 million people, or one in every 138 US residents, according to a government report. In that year, 61 percent of prison and jail inmates were people of color. An estimated 12.6 percent of all Black men in their late 20s were in jails or prisons. So were 3.6 percent of Hispanic men and 1.7 percent of white men in that age group. 13
Now nearly five million Americans cannot vote because they are in prison or have a felony conviction which permanently disenfranchises them in some states. The voting rights achievement of the civil rights phase of the Movement is being rapidly undone.
It is not just in urban areas that people of color feel unjustly treated by the criminal justice system. In rural Mississippi, for instance, local organizers say "the hostile attitude of law enforcement personnel continues to create an atmosphere of fear in most African-American communities. In these communities many African Americans feel that very little has changed since the era of legalized segregation." 14 Community activists are troubled by the fact that since 1989 in Mississippi, some 40 African-American youths have died in highly suspicious circumstances in county jails. Their deaths have been ruled "suicide" by local officials and later by the FBI.
What if the nation's jails were being filled by mainly young white men? Would we as a people be so prepared to expand the prison system, paying more to keep a nonviolent, first-time offender incarcerated than it costs to put that person through college? Or would we become more aware of how the "war on drugs" threatens the liberties we often take for granted? The Bill of Rights, which promises people security from unreasonable searches in their homes, counts for little when a SWAT team in paramilitary gear is knocking down the door.
Moving forward again
"Our fears," Movement veteran Hollis Watkins told a group high school students, "prevent us from accepting the reality of what we are seeing. We refuse to accept the truth that we have not made as much progress as society says we have. We miss how similar things are to how they were back them. We still need to overcome the fear. We want progress to be made, and hate to accept the truth that domination and control are still here. Young people get overwhelmed, and see so many different issues, they don't know where to start. But start somewhere, and it will begin to make a positive difference." 15
1 Clayborne Carson, et. al, editors, Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990, Penguin Books, 1991, p. 155.
2 Sanford Wexler, The Civil Rights Movement: An Eyewitness History, Facts on File, p. 112.
3 Malcolm X: February 1965, The Final Speeches, Pathfinder Press, 1992, pp. 24-25.
4 Sanford Wexler, op.cit., p. 222.
5 James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harper Collins, 1991, p. 230.
6 James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, OpenHand Publishing Co., 1985, p. 457.
7 "A Time to Break the Silence," April 1967, Testament of Hope, p. 233.
8 The Riot Report: A Shortened Version of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Viking Press, 1969.
9 Dinesh D'Souza, The End of Racism, Free Press, 1995, p. 170.
10 Chester Hartman, ed., Double Exposure and Race in America, M.E. Sharpe, 1997, p. 12.
12 Quoted in Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, Harper Crown, 1995, pp. 180-81.
13 The Boston Globe, April 25, 2005.
14 The Vision, Strategy and Program of Work of Southern Echo, Inc., Jackson, MS, November 1995, p. 10.
15 Meeting with Project HIP-HOP, July 18, 1997.