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Posts Tagged ‘Segregation’

For all the hereafter

 

African American Intellectual History Society July 5, 2015

The Fourteenth Amendment is a living document, and Clarence Thomas is a terrible historian

June 26 was a pretty good day for civil rights: the Supreme Court guaranteed the right for same-sex couples to marry by a 5-4 majority in Obergefell v. Hodges.

True to form, the conservatives dissented, drawing upon arguments from strict construction and original intent. Clarence Thomas served up one particular flavor: “Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits.” The presumption being that the benefits of marriage are somehow a government give-away, like those apocryphal Obama cell phones. 

This is the same strange logic that led Andrew Johnson to veto the Civil Rights Act of 1866 on the grounds that guaranteeing equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race or former status as slaves, constituted granting African Americans “special” rights. In protecting the rights of the freedpeople, Johnson argued, the bill established “safeguards which go infinitely beyond any that the General Government has ever provided for the white race. In fact, the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.”

Of course this is not the case.  Freedom is not a government give-way, it’s a government guarantee.

Marriage has been many things over many years, but in our day it is foremost a contract that imparts particular benefits and responsibilities. The government has no compelling interest in impeding that contract, only prejudicial ones. Repeat: The case for same-sex marriage is not a reach. For the government to stand aside and let people do what they will is entirely in line with old-school liberalism, and even what passes for modern libertarianism.

It may indeed be right that, as Thomas writes, “government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.” But it sure can mess with your ability to enjoy the basic benefits of the society around you, as Thomas’s own examples (slavery, Japanese internment) deftly illustrate. (Great example of reactionary mentality masquerading as race pride.)

Oppressive policies such as segregation and internment may or may not degrade their victims in their own minds, but that is not the point. The point is that these are state-sponsoredefforts to try to make that degradation succeed. By Thomas’s warped interpretation of African American history, slavery was just fine, for even if the state practiced and championed the institution, the slaves’ sense of self could never be obliterated. It is not the consequence on the psyche of the oppressed that matters, it is the states’ intention and practice of oppressionthat requires remedy.

Antonin Scalia may not like it, but “normal” changes (sometimes remarkably rapidly), and same-sex marriage is the new normal. Thankfully, what was acceptable in 1787 or 1866 may not be acceptable now, and vice versa. The Constitution is not a stone tablet. As attests what happened in 1972, when Title IX was created to protect women’s rights, the protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment adapt to the times.

If we’re going by original intent, then the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was flexibility.  The Fourteenth Amendment was created not just to protect the rights of freed slaves, but to let the national government protect the rights of all threatened minorities, far into the future.

It’s worth a read – at least, of the critical Section I.

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.

You don’t hear anything at all about the actual rights that are protected, do you?  That’s because the intent of the amendment was much broader than that.

The amendment does specify who rights belong to, for it defines federal and state citizenship — clearly, and really for the first time.  That dealt with problem number one, for if the oppressed (in this case, freed slaves) had the rights of citizens, they themselves could invoke the full force of the law on their own behalf. Good old American individualism and small-government mentality.

But there was a second problem the framers also had to address. The original Constitution severely constrained the power of the federal government to impair the individual liberties of American citizens — that’s the Bill of Rights, and particularly the Fifth Amendment. At the time, this all fit nicely with the political ideology of the revolution: liberty was thought kept safest when distributed far from central government, in the states.

But what happened when the states themselves acted against individual liberties? In a contest between state and federal government, which would prevail? To put it another way: the Constitution (through the Bill of Rights) protects individual liberties against the unjust exercise of federal power; what, though, would protect individual rights against the unjust exercise of state power?

In asserting the primacy of federal over state authority, the 39th Congress crafted a sweeping reconceptualization of federal-state relations, making the federal government the ultimate and final arbiter in cases where individual rights are infringed upon by the power of government.

So let’s imagine going back in time (cue wavy-screen-time-machine effect), so we can be there at the birth of the thing.

An ongoing problem did indeed spark the creation of the Fourteenth Amendment. This was the plight of four million bondspersons now free, who were being subjected to virtual re-enslavement not simply by their former masters, but by the states of what had been the Confederacy. When former planters and their representatives returned to southern statehouses just after the Civil War, the states immediately passed a series of debilitating black codes, which strictly limited blacks’ political participation, their access to the political process, and their paths to economic mobility.

Events such as the Memphis Riot of 1866 demonstrated that those freed from slavery required the full protections of citizenship, which only the federal government could provide (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Events such as the Memphis Riot of 1866 demonstrated that those freed from slavery required the full protections of citizenship, which only the federal government could provide (image courtesy Wikipedia)

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 sought to remedy this by defining American natives as citizens, and extending to all in the southern states equal rights of federal citizenship.

The immediate purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to ensure the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, so that any southern-controlled Congress of the future could not repeal it. James Garfield proposed to “lift that great and good law above the reach of political strife, beyond the reach of the plots and machinations of any party, and fix it in the serene sky, in the eternal firmament of the Constitution, where no storm of passion can shake it and no cloud can obscure it.” What happened to the Fourteenth in the courts of the late 1800s mocked such high-minded hopefulness (more on this in a little), but it does signal the framers’ deep and lasting purposes. The framers viewed their work as repairing a flaw in the original Constitution.

They didn’t change the Constitution to pass a law; they passed the law because they had fixed the Constitution.

They posed their solution in broad and principled terms precisely because they realized that the specific case they confronted could come up again and again in other guises, whenever states sought to undermine liberty. Despite Andrew Johnson’s objection, the amendment did not promote the interests of one special group – what was termed “class legislation” back in the day. It was meant to clearly establish the principles that granted Congress the ability to step in and protect the rights of any group targeted by the states for unequal treatment.

To be sure, there was a cost to framing the amendment in terms of broad principles, for such general language could be interpreted in many ways, some contrary to the original spirit and purpose of the amendment. This is exactly what happened in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the next, when the Supreme Court began eviscerating the amendment’s role in protecting freedpeople’s rights. Instead, the court transformed it into a tool for corporations to resist government regulation. No conservatives at that time complained about original intent.

This process went stunningly far. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that in being compelled to sit in a segregated streetcar Homer Plessy had not had his civil rights violated. Why not? Because according to the majority opinion, the Fourteenth Amendment “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” A rather profound misreading of the amendment’s original intent, no? Again, conservatives didn’t complain.

But the very vagueness that permitted such atrocious misreadings is now serving its purpose exactly as intended. As with the framers of the original Constitution, the framers of the Fourteenth understood that they were making rules not just for their day, but to serve the following generations as well. And they knew that those who followed would likely need their creation for new purposes. They knew they were crafting a broad protection of liberty, and they did not care to specify the conditions under which it should operate, because that was the job of the generations to follow. Their job was simply to secure Congress the right to step in whenever the states impaired the rights of individuals. That’s the whole purpose of the powerful Section I.

So though they clearly sought to root out an existing evil against the freedpeople, the framers of the amendment explained it as having broad application. Foremost among these men was Ohio Congressman John Bingham, who put the question simply to Congress: “whether you will give by this amendment of the people of the United States the power, by legislative enactment, to punish officials of States for violation of the oaths enjoined upon them by their Constitution?”

The Congressmen debating the measure clearly thought about its wide application. They wondered if it might be used by married women to argue for expanded rights to property, and they anticipated (and affirmed) that the amendment would create naturalized citizens of everyone native-born, regardless of their heritage. William Pitt Fessenden of Maine went so far as to suggest that Bingham had not even proposed the measure to support the Civil Rights Act of 1866. “During all the discussion in the committee that I heard,” he stated, “nothing was ever said about the civil rights bill in connection with that. It was placed on entirely different grounds.”

When asked directly if the amendment were not intended solely to protect the rights of freed slaves, Bingham replied that “it is proposed as well to protect the thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of loyal white citizens of the United States whose property, by State legislation, has been wrested from them under confiscation, and protect them also against banishment.” (This was a reference to Confederate treatment of Union loyalists.) He also suggested that it would apply to states that violated the rights of blacks from antebellum-era racial prohibitions in nominally “free” states such as Indiana and Oregon.

Moreover, Bingham understood Congress to be undertaking a work of long-term constitutional significance. The Fourteenth Amendment constituted a redemptive effort to fix a fundamental flaw in the original plan of government. When South Carolina had sought to nullify federal law back in 1833, Bingham argued, Congress had “looked in vain for any grant of power in the Constitution” to support the civil rights of South Carolinians who dissented from their state’s policy.

In fixing this flaw, the new amendment would clarify the issue not just in the present. Forever after, it would “protect by national law the privileges and immunities of all the citizens of the Republic and the inborn rights of every person within its jurisdiction whenever the same shall be abridged or denied by the unconstitutional acts of any State.”

This long-term security was needed, Bingham believed, for the Confederacy had demonstrated just how much damage could be wrought in the name of states’ rights. The Civil War’s untold losses in lives and property had made this clear. The nation now demanded “something in the shape of a security for the future against the recurrence of the enormous evils under which the country has labored for the last four years.” This echoed the language of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, on which Bingham served, which asserted the government’s duty “to secure itself against similar wrongs in the future.”  The framers understood themselves to have provided an ongoing solution for a general problem (the states’ interference with individual liberties) that might arise at any time in the future.

Ohio Congressman John Bingham, one of the framers of the 14th Amendment, and the its most vocal champion in the House

Ohio Congressman John Bingham, one of the framers of the 14th Amendment, and its most vocal champion in the House

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the majority ruled sagely, and completely within the original intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. The rights its confers are not government give-aways or special favors. They are a bold assertion of the federal government’s responsibility to secure the liberties of minorities singled out for state-sponsored prejudice.

If, as Clarence Thomas and his strict constructionist colleagues assert, we should consider original intent, then we cannot do better than the words of the amendment’s most important framer. According to Bingham, those who wrote, championed, and passed the Fourteenth Amendment sought nothing more than “the care of the Republic, not only for the present, but for all the hereafter.”

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Confederate Flags in the Jim Crow North

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The African American  Intellectual History Society   July 1, 2015
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Photo: Opponents of local civil rights activists raise a Confederate flag in the Bronx, July 1963

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Over the years, what many people recognize as the Confederate flag, the “Stars and Bars,” which decorated several official flags that insurrectionists who fought against the United States flew during the Civil War (1861-1865), has symbolized different types of American identity.

During the 1950s, white Southerners who opposed racial integration and civil rights for black Americans used the Confederate flag as a symbol of their resistance against what they saw as a tyrannical federal government that sought to eradicate their cultures and customs. Some Southerners called these mores their “way of life.”

They were not totally wrong since their official “way of life” involved oppressing American blacks in practically every possible way.

White people could treat black citizens like dogs, or worse, outright terrorize them, at voting polls, in courts, at workplaces, in stores, at theaters, in public schools. Racial segregation even ruled cemeteries.

Racial segregation dominated the South.

So, when Supreme Court decisions and federal laws sided with citizens who fought against racist segregation, white Southerners knew their way of life’s days were numbered. They resisted the civil rights movement. They opposed equal citizenship for black Americans and equal protection of the law for black people.

They showed their defiance the same way Southern insurrectionists did during the Civil War: they flew their Stars and Bars.

Nowadays, some white Southerners (and black ones too) say that the flag serves as a symbol of their heritage. It honors their ancestors. They argue that the Confederate flag does not stand for slavery; even though that flag flew over armies that marched to create a new nation built to preserve white supremacy and racial slavery.

The Confederate political leader, Alexander Stephens, made plain why the insurrectionists fought that war and flew their flag when he explained that his new government’s, “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the (N)egro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Perhaps the cultural and political meanings that the Confederate flag represented in the 1860s and in the 1950s have changed.

Perhaps now, in the 2010s, the Confederate flag means different things – heritage and sectional pride – than it meant in the past: massive resistance against the civil rights movement and a new nation to protect white people’s ability to enslave black people.

Perhaps.

But that flag’s connection to the white nationalist terrorist’s shooting of 9 Black people in Charleston, South Carolina, proves that the Stars and Bars still have a great amount of white nationalist, racist, segregationist meaning woven within its fabric.

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During today’s raging culture wars over the Confederate flag, Americans should remember that white Southerners do not have a monopoly on the Confederate flag’s meaning, or its use.

Historians have shown how supposedly “Southern” forms of racism and terrorism, as well as activist movements against those cultural and political practices, existed throughout the nation.

For example, contrary to notions of its strictly rural Southern existence, during its resurgence in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan wielded power and influence in cities across the country.

Even during the 1960s, when some whites outside the South wanted adamantly to oppose any type of civil rights for black Americans, they used two of the strongest, clearest symbols to communicate their political views and cultural identity: KKK hoods and Confederate flags.

In the summer of 1963, black and white civil rights activists in the Allerton Avenue section of the northeast Bronx, New York, staged nonviolent protests for black people to have more jobs at local White Castle restaurants.

Some of their opponents paraded in KKK hoods, waved Confederate flags, and donned Confederate garb (see below pictures). One counter demonstrator tried to have a nine-month old pose for a picture wearing a replica of a Confederate officer’s hat.

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Bronx Confederate Flags 004

Ironically, many of the white residents of the northeast Bronx neighborhood where those protests occurred descended from Italian immigrants. They stood next to Confederate flags and a person dressed like a Klansman, but at one time the white American nationalists who used those symbols throughout the decades also violently opposed southern Europeans and Catholics immigrating into the United States.

When Bronx whites who opposed the civil rights movement in their own community wanted to express their nationalism and identity, and their political opposition against black employment at White Castle, they knew exactly what symbols to use, what flags to fly, and what chants to shout. They sang, “Dixie.” They yelled, “Go home nigger.” A taxi driver from the community told a New York Post reporter, “We aren’t going to let the colored people take over our neighborhood like they have everywhere else in the city.”

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Over the years, the Confederate flag emerged as a very American symbol of white nationalism, white identity, and opposition against any type of civil rights and civil equality for black people in the United States.

Some Southerners claim the Confederate flag as a symbol of their cultural identity and historical heritage, and the Stars and Bars may very well have such sentimental value.

But personal heritage cannot erase or replace national history.

Since the Civil War, Americans around the country have used that flag to symbolize their opposition of black civic equality, even black people’s very humanity.

As twenty first century Americans call for the flag’s removal from public buildings, especially state capitals, historians should also do more research into the ways the Confederate flag served as a powerful national symbol, not merely a regional or sectional one, for white nationalism and domestic racist terrorism.

Brian Purnell

Brian%20Purnell%200454Brian Purnell is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Bowdoin College. He is the author of Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn (Kentucky, 2013), which won the New York State Historical Association Manuscript Prize in 2012. He has worked on several public history projects with the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Bronx County Historical Society, the Brooklyn Public Library and the University of South Carolina. Before joining the faculty at Bowdoin, he worked for six years at Fordham University as Research Director of the Bronx African American History Project and as an Assistant Professor of African American Studies (2006-2010). He is currently working on two books. The first is an oral history autobiography of Jitu Weusi (Leslie Campbell), a prominent educator and Black Nationalist activist in Brooklyn, New York, during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. The second is a history of urban community development corporations since the mid-1960s tentatively entitled, “Unmaking Ghettos: The Golden Age of Community Development in America’s Black Metropolises.” Brian lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Leana Amaez, and their four children: Isabella, Gabriel, Lillian and Emilia.

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The Legacy of Malcolm X

Malcolm X died fifty years ago today, just as he was moving toward revolutionary ideas that challenged oppression in all its forms.

Jacobin  February 21, 2015

Michael Ochs Archives / Corbis

Michael Ochs Archives / Corbis

Racial segregation was not the law in the postwar North, but it was the reality. In virtually all aspects of life, Northern blacks encountered racism and segregation. Blacks who left the South found themselves forced to live in huge urban ghettos and educate their children in inferior schools. Skilled or professional jobs were reserved for whites. Blacks were constantly subject to white authority, especially police harassment.

Almost a quarter of blacks said they had been mistreated by the police, and 40 percent said they had seen others abused. Any illusions held by Southern blacks about the liberal North were not held by those already living there. And while Northern blacks were inspired by the struggles in the South, their conditions made them receptive to a movement independent of — and quite different from — the one led by Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Council.

In the first years of the civil rights struggle, the most significant organizational expression of this new movement was the Nation of Islam. By the late 1950s, the group’s membership reached an estimated one hundred thousand, with Malcolm X as its most prominent member.

In formal terms, the ideas of the Nation of Islam were profoundly conservative. The organization combined elements of orthodox Islam with ideas of its own making, preaching a doctrine of hard work, thrift, obedience, and humility. Seeing economic independence from white society as crucial, the organization also encouraged its members to “buy black.” The Nation of Islam established dozens of businesses, owned farmland, and built mosques in most major Northern cities. The organization did not condemn capitalism, only whites. Indeed, many Black Muslims looked to emulate the success of white capitalists.

Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad called for establishing an independent black state — in the United States or elsewhere. But beyond pressing for demands or defending their interests, the organization was hostile to political involvement. That such an inward-looking religious sect was capable of substantial growth is a testimony to the widespread bitterness of large numbers of urban blacks. To hundreds of young recruits, the Nation of Islam represented self-respect, self-reliance, and pride.

The bold and articulate Malcolm X quickly became a pull for more militants to join the Nation of Islam, with appeals designed to highlight the hypocrisy of white elites. In response to the charge that the Nation was racist, Malcolm said, unapologetically, “If we react to white racism with a violent reaction, to me that’s not black racism. If you come to put a rope around my neck and I hang you for it, to me that’s not racism. Yours is racism, but my reaction has nothing to do with racism.”

Malcolm X rejected the view that integration into American society was either possible or desirable and viewed the federal government and the Democratic Party not as allies, but as part of the problem. And he was sharply critical of liberals who talked about racism in the South, but had nothing to say about conditions in the North, saying, “I will pull off that liberal’s halo that he spends such efforts cultivating!”

Malcolm X was also sharply critical of the civil rights movement’s leaders. Far from leading the struggle, he saw them as containing it.

He went on to attack the whole premise of nonviolence that underlay the Southern desegregation movement. Instead, he argued for black self-defense: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts a hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion. In fact, that’s the old-time religion. . . . Preserve your life, it’s the best thing you’ve got. And if you’ve got to give it up, let it be even-steven.”

Technically, Malcolm X was only amplifying the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, and indeed always prefaced any of his speeches with the phrase “Elijah Muhammad teaches . . .” But Malcolm X had turned these ideas into an indictment of the system, increasingly breaking out of the straitjacket of the Nation of Islam.

While Muhammad shunned politics, Malcolm was becoming more political. One Muslim complained, “It was Malcolm who injected the political concept of ‘black nationalism’ into the Black Muslim movement, which was essentially religious in nature.”

Aware that the growing politicization of the movement was having an effect on the Nation of Islam, including its leading spokesperson, Elijah Muhammad had taken measures to reassert his control.

A police attack in Los Angeles in 1962 drove home the bankruptcy of the Nation of Islam’s politics. In April 1962, a Black Muslim had been killed and several wounded by the Los Angeles police department. Malcolm X immediately flew out to Los Angeles to direct the organization’s response. The Nation of Islam preached self-defense, and the police murder seemingly called for retaliatory action. But Elijah Muhammad prevented his followers from organizing a sustained self-defense campaign.

Verbal radicalism, often extreme in its denunciations of whites, was acceptable in an earlier period when members of the Nation of Islam were establishing their reputation as opponents of the system. But the explosion of anger among blacks demanded more than words; it demanded action, and that was one thing Elijah Muhammad would not countenance.

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Out of the Nation of Islam

Malcolm X’s break with the Nation of Islam finally came in December 1963. Responding to a question from the audience at a meeting in New York City, Malcolm attributed John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the hate and violence produced by a society that whites themselves had created.

Although the statement was consistent with the hostility Black Muslim ministers had expressed to the US administration in the past, Elijah Muhammad nevertheless informed Malcolm that he would be suspended for ninety days so that “Muslims everywhere can be disassociated from the blunder.” It soon became clear that the suspension was in fact an expulsion.

On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X formally announced his break with the Nation of Islam. The Black Muslim movement, he said, “had gone as far as it can because it was too sectarian and too inhibited.” He advocated greater engagement in the black struggles exploding around the country, warning that the Black Muslims could find themselves “one day suddenly separated from the Negroes’ frontline struggle.”

In order to become involved in the civil rights movement, Malcolm drew the conclusion that he needed to separate politics and religion, saying, “we don’t mix our religion with our politics and our economics and our social and civil activities — not any more . . . We become involved with anybody, anywhere, anytime and in any manner that’s designed to eliminate the evils, the political, economic and social evils that are afflicting the people in our community.”

In the same speech, he described himself as an adherent of black nationalism.

A Budding Anti-Imperialism

Soon after, Malcolm was to take the first of two trips to Africa. These trips had an important impact on his ideas. He met with several important African heads of state — including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt — and was influenced by the ideas of “third worldism.” In general terms, this was the view that the world was dominated by two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — and that the developing countries of the world represented an independent alternative.

When Malcolm X returned to New York, he announced the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), modeled after the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which brought together the different African heads of state. The OAAU was a black nationalist organization that sought to build community organizations, schools, black enterprises, and voter registration campaigns to ensure community control of black politicians.

After his visit to Africa, Malcolm began to argue that the black struggle in the United States was part of an international struggle, one that he connected to the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

He also began to argue in favor of socialism. Referring to the African states, he pointed out, “All of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning towards socialism.”

He no longer defined the struggle for black liberation as a racial conflict. “We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against the oppression and colonialism which has characterized this era,” he said. “It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black against white, or as purely an American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiters.”

Malcolm no longer believed all whites were the enemy, but he maintained the need for separate all-black organization: “Whites can help us, but they can’t join us. There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no workers solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting with others, until we have first united ourselves.”

But Malcolm’s new conception of the struggle also led him to question his previous understanding of black nationalism. In January 1965, Malcolm admitted that this previous understanding of black nationalism “was alienating people who were true revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary.”

Lost Promise

During this period Malcolm’s political ideas were evolving rapidly — a development cut short by his death. By that time, Malcolm X had already become one of the most important radical black figures in the United States, and his influence was growing, especially among younger activists.

Malcolm X was gunned down just as he was beginning to “think for himself,” as he put it, and to express a radical program for black liberation. His premature death and the subsequent suppression and decline of the black movement have made it easier for second-rate reformists to claim Malcolm as theirs. But anyone who listens to Malcolm’s speeches or reads any of his writings can be in no doubt as to his trajectory, which is summarized well in his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, given April 3, 1964, in Cleveland:

No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the twenty-two million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the twenty-two million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.

It is impossible to predict how Malcolm’s politics would have developed had he lived. He had embraced ideas that put him squarely on the left of the black nationalist movement. His hostility to the system and the twin capitalist parties, his commitment to end racism, and his identification with anti-imperialism, represented an enormous contribution to radical politics.

Ahmed Shawki is the author of Black Liberation and Socialism, from which the following is adapted.

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Getting Right with Brown

Brown vs Board team

Brown v. Board team.(Photo: NAACP Legal Defense

For over sixty years, no matter where you stand on the constitutional spectrum, you have had to get right with Brown v. Board of Education. Decided sixty-one years ago this coming May 17, Brown is one of the best-known decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, one of the Court’s most beloved – or at least well-regarded – decisions, and a key juncture in the development of American constitutional law.

There are several reasons why Brown should matter that much.

First, Brown was a watershed decision by the Supreme Court, putting an end, at least on paper, to nearly sixty years of “separate but equal” as a constitutional rule governing access to public facilities and accommodations. Ever since the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, in which the Court established the “separate but equal” rule as a guide to interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, a central goal of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (usually called the “Inc Fund”) was to end “separate but equal.” For years, Thurgood Marshall led the Inc Fund in combating “separate but equal” by applying legal ju-jitsu to the rule: if facilities were not equal, they could not be separate. If they were unequal and the state insisted on separation, the state had to create a whole new facility equal to the segregated facility for African-Americans to use. Thus, in a lawsuit requiring the University of Oklahoma to integrate its law school, the Court held that a roped-off desk in the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s library was not an equal law school for the African-American who had been admitted to the University of Oklahoma’s law school. Either the state had to create a new law school matching the existing one lecture-hall for lecture-hall, library for library, moot-court society for moot-court society, brick for brick, or it had to integrate its existing law school and admit the black student. Thurgood Marshall had tired of this incremental game, realizing that segregationists would apply legal ingenuity to create new ways of segregating so that the Inc Fund would have to fight each one, step by step. Thus, Marshall concluded, it was time to “go for the whole hog” and mount a head-on attack on segregation as inherently unequal.

Second, Brown was a triumph for public-interest lawyering. Marshall and his colleagues at the Inc Fund had won, at least on paper, an epochal victory for equality before the law. It would encourage lawyers taking on many other kinds of cases – for women’s equality, for equality of gays and lesbians, to name just two categories – and to use American constitutional law as an instrument of reform. In particular, when political processes were unresponsive to the growing demand for embracing racial equality, lawsuits seeking judicial action would prove to be an effective and versatile tool of forcing social change.

Third, Brown was a test of the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. It opened the door for a generation of litigation and appeals focusing on defining what the commands of the original Brown decision meant and should mean.Brown launched an era of judicial intervention in school governance, in public accommodations, and in other areas of law. The courts would superintend the ways that an entire society treated the black and white races. No longer could discrimination continue in schools or in other forms of public accommodations, without having to meet the scrutiny of courts and judges using the equal-protection clause as a yardstick.

Fourth, Brown was a test of the Constitution itself, and of ways to interpret it. The debate sparked by Brown (and the line of cases following and developing its holdings) focused on the Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment and its history. The Court had decided that the passing of time and the evolution of values might render a rule of constitutional interpretation no longer valid. Scholars debated whether the Court had overreached in deciding Brown as it had. Some emphasized the need for “neutral principles” of constitutional law as the only sound basis for sweeping constitutional change via courts – and disputed whether Brown was based on such principles. Some emphasized the need for judicial prudence and self-restraint in exercising judicial review – and disputed whether Brown had been consistent with or in gross violation of such judicial prudence and self-restraint. Some insisted that the Court had to be bound by the original intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, while others argued that an originalist methodology of constitutional interpretation needlessly froze the Constitution as of 1868. Many disputes still roiling the waters of American constitutional jurisprudence can trace their roots to the dispute over Brown.

At the same time, a fifth significance of Brown is that the decision found surprisingly swift acceptance by many Americans as just, symbolizing the Court’s role in American life as distilled by the inscription over the front door of the Supreme Court Building: EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW. The decision signaled a major shift in public opinion about how the nation ought to treat African-Americans and a major public reconceptualization of the Court itself, one that to some degree is still with us. One source of the anger that many Americans feel against the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on gun rights and campaign finance is the disparity that they see between such decisions and what the Court achieved in Brown.

On May 17, 1954, the announcement of the Court’s unanimous decision of Brown v. Board of Education set off a constitutional earthquake that shook all of American society and law. That earthquake still reverberates among us, as it enters its seventh decade – and we all should remember it.

About the Author

R. B. Bernstein

R. B. Bernstein teaches at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School and New York Law School; his books includeThomas Jefferson (2003), The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (2009), the forthcoming The Education of John Adams, and the forthcoming The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction, all from Oxford University Press.

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Shannon Freshwater

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — WHEN we think of the South, a host of images come to mind: slaves and masters, Klansmen and freedom riders, magnolias and cotton fields.

Americans have fewer enduring impressions of the North. It simply stands as the nation’s default region. Most Northerners behave as though they come from America writ large, rather than from a subsection of it. The North seems unremarkable. It holds no dark mystery, no agonies buried deep within. We forget that many parts of the North have an identity, culture, politics and racial history all their own.

Americans know that we cannot understand Southern history, or our nation’s history more generally, without coming to grips with slavery and Jim Crow. But we fail to apply this lesson to the North. We like to think that the struggle for racial equality is tangential to Northern history. This leads us to distort our perceptions of the North and to misinterpret American history as a whole.

Northern cities and states have long harbored movements for racial democracy, as well as for racial segregation, within the same heart and soul. Progress and regression have existed together. That duality helps to explain the mind of the North. Only a clearer understanding of the North’s mottled past can enable us to better reckon with this painful moment in our racial history, after the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer whose chokehold led to his death.

Few have written more eloquently about the North and the South than the historian C. Vann Woodward. In Woodward’s formulation, those who came up in the South shouldered the “burden of Southern history.” The past, defined by slavery and segregation, was something to overcome.

The Northern past admits to no such torment. Tales of the Pilgrims and abolitionists sketch a noble portrait. Northern history looms as a source of aspiration and inspiration. It is something to affirm.

This has been true particularly in the Northeast, which has stood as a place of possibility and a model for the country. To E. B. White, New York was the nation’s “visible symbol of aspiration”; John F. Kennedy saw the democratic institutions of Massachusetts as “beacon lights for other nations as well as our sister states.” These ideals could serve as a spur to action and at some moments, Northeasterners drew upon the region’s mystique in order to propel themselves ahead of the rest of the nation. Yet they could also deploy this mystique as a mask, a way for whites to obscure and excuse their region’s dogged racism and oppression.

The history of the Northeast contains stunning steps toward racial progress as well as vicious episodes of backlash. In 1947, many Brooklyn residents welcomed a black ballplayer and anointed Ebbets Field as the frontier of interracial democracy. At the same time, African-American families from the South were shunted into Brooklyn’s burgeoning ghettos. When Jackie and Rachel Robinson attempted to buy a home in the suburbs of Westchester County, N.Y., and Fairfield County, Conn., they encountered hostile white homeowners who did not want African-Americans as neighbors (although the couple was eventually able to buy a house in Stamford, Conn.).

The story of school segregation is even more insidious. To give one example, the School Committee in Springfield, Mass., pursued redistricting and student-transfer policies that produced virtually all-black schools. African-American parents filed a lawsuit in 1964, and the N.A.A.C.P. took up their case. While on the witness stand, members of the School Committee claimed innocence and ignorance, and denied the very existence of segregation. In 1965, the state of Massachusetts went on to pass a law that outlawed “racial imbalance” — the first such law in the nation. The following year, Massachusetts voters would become the first to popularly elect a black senator, Edward W. Brooke. Just as whites forged a breakthrough in the electoral arena, segregation increased in the schools of Springfield, not to mention Boston.

In 1970, Abraham A. Ribicoff of Connecticut stood on the Senate floor and gave public expression to the region’s open secret. “The North is guilty,” Senator Ribicoff charged, “of monumental hypocrisy” in its treatment of African-Americans. One year later, he proposed a policy that would desegregate every metropolitan school system. The plan was big and bold, and it was to take 12 years. It allowed each locality to determine the specifics. Senator Ribicoff envisioned a combination of strategically located educational malls, magnet schools and redistricting. The N.A.A.C.P. opposed his policy. Black leaders thought that the early 1980s was too long to wait for widespread school integration. Of course, we are still waiting.

Many Americans know New York City’s recent history of racial violence, which includes the killing of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst and Michael Griffith in Howard Beach. But there were many others who are all but forgotten, like Willie Turks, a black transit worker, who was beaten to death by a group of white teenagers in Gravesend in 1982.

Northeasterners do not think of this history as one that shapes our identity. But if we really grapple with the mind of the North, we will be forced to acknowledge, finally, that our region is not just a land of liberty. We will also confront a racial past that is far messier than we might like. It is neither a triumphant story of progress nor a tale of segregation without relief.

We carry the two warring stories with us still. And now we stand at a crossroads. We can summon our better angels, and act forcefully, or we can continue to live like this. Which heritage will we act on? Which story will win out?

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Invisible Empire: An ‘Imperial’ History of the KKK

Dr. Kristofer Allerfeldt
History Department, University of Exeter

Imperial & Global Fórum  July 7, 2014

invisible-empireInvisible EmpireHistorians are used to the concept of formal and informal empires. They are used to empires expanding and empires declining. Most are perhaps less familiar with a concept bandied about in the United States from the late 1860s to the mid-1930s – that of an “invisible” empire.

In reality this empire was anything but invisible. Born in the turmoil of the post-Civil War South, by the mid-1920s it had spread to all mainland states of the Union, claiming some ten million members.

It was also known as the Ku Klux Klan.

As with much of the history of the KKK, the origins of the term “Invisible Empire” are disputed. Some claim that it emerged from Confederate General Robert E Lee’s polite request to keep his support for the nascent Klan “invisible”. Others see it as a part of the secrecy surrounding the original hooded fraternity. Whichever origin is chosen, there’s no doubting it was a useful phrase.

Arguing that Lee’s Klan connection was kept “invisible” at his own request was a trump card for those dedicated to the order’s mission of “Redeeming” the South’s pre-bellum traditions. However invisible, connection to the most illustrious figure of the Confederate war effort gave the Klan prestige and legitimacy, not only during the struggles of post war reconstruction, but also when the Klan re-emerged in 1915. Claiming he had wanted his ties kept secret also made it more difficult for either the general sceptics or the KKK’s enemies to disprove his connection with the vigilante organization of Reconstruction – which they all attempted to do.

 Membership card of A.F. Handcock in the Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (1928)


Membership card of A.F. Handcock in the Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (1928)

The controversy surrounding Lee’s allegedly “invisible” connection also, of course, makes it more difficult for historians now to accurately assess his connection. Early accounts of the Klan repeat the rumour, largely because the order was seen in a generally positive light. In some measure this was the result of a negative view of the Reconstruction efforts carried out in the post-war South. These Radical Republican-led attempts at racial integration and universal education were almost universally seen as the misguided efforts of unrealistic idealists, or viewed as the actions of corrupt politicians. Further, many of the historians writing histories of the Klan from Reconstruction through until at least the 1920s were, or claimed they were related to, members of the order.

The result was that accounts like that of Susan Lawrence Davis (1924) reiterated the myth offering no hint of its origins and making no attempt to show its authenticity.[1] Merely stating the case seems frequently to be considered enough proof by the standards of the time, but Davis’ background tells us much about her real sympathies. She was the daughter of a Confederate colonel and Klansman, Lawrence Ripley Davis. What is more she draws on equally unreliable sources, like the memoirs of one of the founders, John C Lester.

However, unlike previous accounts, Davis even quotes Lee’s words. She has the general tell the deputation asking him to head the order in May 1867 that, “I would like to assist you in any plan that offers relief. I cannot be with you in person but I will follow you, but it must be invisible.” She goes on to explain, “When this message was delivered to the [Klan] convention it led to the christening of the United Ku Klux Klan, the “Invisible Empire””.

By the end of the 1920s the Klan’s position in American society was less secure. A series of sexual and financial scandals combined with revelations of its violent methods reduced both the numbers and reputation of the order. The result was that even apologists tended to veer away from associating the symbol of Southern chivalry and gentility – Lee – with a tainted order of what even its leader had referred to as violent, ill-educated “second hand Ford owners”. Consequently, most historians since the 1930s have tended to see the Invisible Empire as being an example of the order’s fascination with mysticism.

This securely ties the order back to the craze for secret brotherhoods which swept across the United States in the wake of the Civil War. The period from 1865 to 1930 saw a huge explosion in fraternities of all types, so much so it is referred to as the “Golden Age of Fraternity”. College Greek letter fraternities; fraternities associated with particular trades, ethnicities and interests; fraternities formed to achieve certain aims, as well as the more traditional varieties like the Freemasons, Oddfellows and Shriners all prospered and expanded. One estimate claimed that around 1900, one in five American adult males was a member of at least one fraternity, many belonged to several.

The Klan itself had started as a simple fraternity. Around Christmas 1865, six bored ex-Confederate veterans, recently de-mobbed, formed their own fraternity – simply for entertainment. Like many other contemporary orders secrecy was central to the new fraternity. It had elaborate oaths of secrecy threatening dire punishment for those who spread details of the order. It had weird names to disguise the identity of members, and elaborate costumes to hide their faces. When, by 1868, the order had spread across the Southern states and was terrorizing those attempting to empower and integrate the region’s four million ex-slaves, that invisibility proved vital to avoiding prosecution and counter-attack.

birth-of-nation-movie-poster-900Similarly when the Klan was reformed in 1915, secrecy remained essential, not so much for the protection of its members, but more for the frisson of excitement and exclusivity it gave its members as part of a society made even more famous with the blockbuster release of Birth of a Nation (1915) on the silver screen.

As the Klan organisation expanded in the 1920s its “invisible” nature continued to help it. It enabled recruiters to gull fee-paying members into joining an order that never had anywhere near the ten million members it claimed at its peak in 1924. It allowed the organisation to exaggerate its power, by claiming it had members – sworn to secrecy, of course – at all levels of government from the White House down. It allowed the leadership to disavow actions of members they felt were acting to damage the image of the fraternity and disguise the order’s rapid decline from the mid-1920s onwards. Its leadership apparently found the concept of an “Invisible Empire” had much more to commend it than a visible one..

Klan newspaper of the 1970s.

Klan newspaper of the 1970s.

Having said that the concept of the Invisible Empire has proved a constant headache for historians. Secrecy and exaggeration, added to the lack of records and a reluctance of many to admit their own, or relatives, association with the Klan mean that our histories of the fraternity are necessarily to some extent speculative – especially when it comes to numbers. Nevertheless, this very secrecy makes new theories, new explanations and, of course, new histories of the Klan possible.

Kristofer Allerfeldt will be working on a new history of the Klan in conjunction with his PhD student, Miguel Hernandez, in 2015.

—-

[1] Susan Lawrence Davis, The Authentic History of the Ku Klux Klan (New York, 1924).

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Who Was Jim Crow?

HNN Staff   October 31, 2011

Cover to an early edition of "Jump Jim Crow" sheet music (c 1832) -- Wikipedia -

Cover to an early edition of “Jump Jim Crow” sheet music (c 1832) — Wikipedia


Jim Crow laws, as most Americans should (hopefully) know, were the racist segregation laws which cemented white supremacy over African Americans throughout the United States from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the civil rights movement’s victories in the mid-1960s.

But who the heck was Jim Crow, and why did his name grace some of the most odious laws in American history?

Jim Crow was not actually a person—the name comes from an 1828 show by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice.  Rice, in a proto-minstrel act, would put on blackface and sing “Jump Jim Crow,” with the refrain:

Wheel about, an’ turn about, an’ do jis so;
Eb’ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.

The song was quite popular in the early half of the 1800s, and “Jim Crow” quickly became a disparaging term for blacks, but it wasn’t until toward the end of the century that the name was applied to the various post-Reconstruction “black codes” in the South (the New York Times referred to Louisiana’s “‘Jim Crow’ Law” as early as 1892).


 

The song was quite popular in the early half of the 1800s, and “Jim Crow” quickly became a disparaging term for blacks, but it wasn’t until toward the end of the century that the name was applied to the various post-Reconstruction “black codes” in the South (the New York Times referred to Louisiana’s “‘Jim Crow’ Law” as early as 1892). – See more at: http://hnn.us/article/142719#sthash.iswHNd5D.dpuf

Jim Crow laws, as most Americans should (hopefully) know, were the racist segregation laws which cemented white supremacy over African Americans throughout the United States from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the civil rights movement’s victories in the mid-1960s.

But who the heck was Jim Crow, and why did his name grace some of the most odious laws in American history?

Jim Crow was not actually a person—the name comes from an 1828 show by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice.  Rice, in a proto-minstrel act, would put on blackface and sing “Jump Jim Crow,” with the refrain:

Wheel about, an’ turn about, an’ do jis so;
Eb’ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.

The song was quite popular in the early half of the 1800s, and “Jim Crow” quickly became a disparaging term for blacks, but it wasn’t until toward the end of the century that the name was applied to the various post-Reconstruction “black codes” in the South (the New York Times referred to Louisiana’s “‘Jim Crow’ Law” as early as 1892).

– See more at: http://hnn.us/article/142719#sthash.iswHNd5D.dpuf

Cover to an early edition of “Jump Jim Crow” sheet music (c 1832) — Wikipedia

Jim Crow laws, as most Americans should (hopefully) know, were the racist segregation laws which cemented white supremacy over African Americans throughout the United States from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the civil rights movement’s victories in the mid-1960s.

But who the heck was Jim Crow, and why did his name grace some of the most odious laws in American history?

Jim Crow was not actually a person—the name comes from an 1828 show by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice.  Rice, in a proto-minstrel act, would put on blackface and sing “Jump Jim Crow,” with the refrain:

Wheel about, an’ turn about, an’ do jis so;
Eb’ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.

The song was quite popular in the early half of the 1800s, and “Jim Crow” quickly became a disparaging term for blacks, but it wasn’t until toward the end of the century that the name was applied to the various post-Reconstruction “black codes” in the South (the New York Times referred to Louisiana’s “‘Jim Crow’ Law” as early as 1892).

– See more at: http://hnn.us/article/142719#sthash.iswHNd5D.dpuf

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The Civil Rights Project    May 15, 2014

Segregation Increases after Desegregation Plans Terminated by Supreme Court

LOS ANGELES: Marking the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education, UCLA’s Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles (CRP) assessed the nation’s progress in addressing school segregation in it’s new report released today, Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future, and found that the vast transformation of the nation’s school population since the civil rights era includes an almost 30% drop in white students and close to quintupling of Latino students.

Brown at 60 shows that the nation’s two largest regions, the South and West, now have a majority of what were called “minority” students. Whites are only the second largest group in the West. The South, always the home of most black students, now has more Latinos than blacks and is a profoundly tri-racial region.

The Brown decision in 1954 challenged the legitimacy of the entire “separate but equal” educational system of the South, and initiated strides toward racial and social equality in schools across the nation. Desegregation progress was very substantial for Southern blacks, in particular, says the report, and occurred from the mid-1960s to the late l980s.

The authors state that, contrary to many claims, the South has not gone back to the level of segregation beforeBrown. It has, however, lost all of the additional progress made after l967, but is still the least segregated region for black students.

Since the 1990s, the Supreme Court has fundamentally changed desegregation law, states the report, and many major desegregation plans have ended. CRP’s statistical analysis shows that segregation increased substantially after desegregation plans were terminated in many large districts including Charlotte, NC; Pinellas County, FL; and Henrico County, VA.

“Brown was a major accomplishment and we should rightfully be proud. But a real celebration should also involve thinking seriously about why the country has turned away from the goal of Brown and accepted deepening polarization and inequality in our schools,” said Gary Orfield, co-author of the study and co-director of the Civil Rights Project. “It is time to stop celebrating a version of history that ignores our last quarter century of retreat and begin to make new history by finding ways to apply the vision of Brown in a transformed, multiracial society in another century.”

This new research affirms that the growth of segregation coincides with the demographic surge in the Latino population. Segregation has been most dramatic for Latino students, particularly in the West, where there was substantial integration in the l960s but segregation has soared since.

The report stresses that segregation occurs simultaneously across race and poverty. The report details a half-century of desegregation research showing the major costs of segregation, particularly for students of color and poor students, and, conversely, the variety of benefits offered by schools with student enrollment of all races.

Among the key findings of the research are:

  • Black and Latino students are an increasingly large percentage of suburban enrollment, particularly in larger metropolitan areas, and are moving to schools with relatively few white students.
  • Segregation for blacks is the highest in the Northeast, a region with extremely high district fragmentation.
  • Latinos are now significantly more segregated than blacks in suburban America.
  • Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, while white and Asian students typically attend middle class schools.
  • Segregation is by far the most serious in the central cities of the largest metropolitan areas; the states of New York, Illinois and California are the top three worst for isolating black students.
  • California is the state in which Latino students are most segregated.

The report concludes with recommendations about how the nation might pursue making the promise of Brown a reality in the 21st century–providing equal opportunity to all students regardless of race or economic background.

“Desegregation is not a panacea and it is not feasible in some situations,” said co-author Erica Frankenberg, assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Where it is possible–and it still is possible in many areas–desegregation properly implemented can make a very real contribution to equalizing educational opportunities and preparing young Americans to live, work and govern together in our extremely diverse society.”

Brown at 60 is being released from New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, where Orfield delivers the keynote address, on Friday, May 16, 2014, for Brown 60 and Beyond. The report includes various tables showing segregation state-by-state and can be found here.

Related Documents


About the Civil Rights Project at UCLA

Founded in 1996 by former Harvard professors Gary Orfield and Christopher Edley, Jr., The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles is now co-directed by Orfield and Patricia Gándara, professors at UCLA. Its mission is to create a new generation of research in social science and law on the critical issues of civil rights and equal opportunity for racial and ethnic groups in the United States. It has monitored the success of American schools in equalizing opportunity and has been the authoritative source of segregation statistics. CRP has commissioned more than 400 studies, published more than 15 books and issued numerous reports from authors at universities and research centers across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2003 Grutter v. Bollingerdecision upholding affirmative action, and in Justice Breyer’s dissent (joined by three other Justices) to its 2007Parents Involved decision, cited the Civil Rights Project’s research.

 

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Brown v. Board of Education

HNN

The Warren Court (1953)

This page lists articles that put into historical perspective the changes wrought by the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Click here to read the Brown decision.

Commentary on Recent Supreme Court Decisions Involving Brown

History

  • Bonnie Goodman Interview with Michael J. Klarman, Winner of the 2005 Bancroft Prize
  • Christopher W. Schmidt The Delusions Behind the Brown Decision
  • Ian Haney Lopez The Supreme Court Case that Got Right What Brown Got Wrong
  • Kansas State Historical AssociationBrown v. Board of Education: The Case of the Century”–The Kansas Bar Association created a 70-minute video,”Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: The Case of the Century,” and related teaching materials as a project for the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision. The video features a reenactment of the 1952 and 1953 oral arguments presented to the U. S. Supreme Court. The video will run continuously during the exhibit, Equal Education: The Fight, The Right May 1 – 30, 2004, at the Kansas History Center and Museum.
  • Eric Foner & Randall KennedyBrown at 50
  • Michael Klarman The Supreme Court Has Never Been in the Vanguard of Social Reform
  • Robert Jackson Symposium To commemorate and consider Brown at 50, the Robert H. Jackson Center recently hosted three special events in Jamestown, New York, and at nearby Chautauqua Institution. The symposium featured Nicholas Katzenbach, law clerks from the Supreme Court of 1954, and the sisters Linda Brown Thompson and Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughters of the late Oliver Brown of Topeka.
  • Newsweek Photo Gallery from the Era of Brown
  • Ellis Cose Why Brown Seems to Be a Bust
  • Suzanne Sataline Charles Sumner Made the Case Against Segregated Schools a Century Before Brown
  • Thomas Sowell We Are Still Paying the Price for the Faulty Reasoning in Brown
  • Sara Hebel 50 Years After Brown Inequities Remain at Universities
  • James Patterson Why It’s Right to Remember Brown
  • William Kashatus Despite Brown We Are Re-Segregating Our Schools
  • Cass SunsteinBrown Reconsidered?
  • Drew Jubera Why Wasn’t It Brown vs. Alabama or Brown vs. South Carolina?
  • Michael Klarman Why Brown Had Such an Impact
  • Chronicle of Higher Education What New Books Are Saying About the Impact of the Brown Decision
  • Justin EwersBrown V. Board of Education: 50 Years Later
  • Rick Shenkman The Panel Devoted to Brown at the 2004 OAH Convention

 

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The Ambivalent Legacy of Brown v. Board

Jelani Cobb 

The New Yorker  May 16, 2014

brown-board-legacy.jpg

Brown v. Board plaintiffs, Topeka, Kansas, 1953. Photograph by Carl Iwasaki/Time Life Pictures/Getty.

In March of 1863, a fugitive slave named Gordon found his way to the Union Army lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Exhausted from his efforts to escape his slaveholders and their dogs, he showed up in tattered rags. When doctors examined him, they saw that his back was marred by a lattice of keloid scars, evidence of the severe whippings he’d endured in bondage. He was photographed, and the image of this former slave, stripped to the waist, with lash marks inscribed on his skin like a bas-relief, was widely distributed in the North—as indisputable evidence of the evil that had brought the nation to the brink of self-destruction. Unlike the authors of slave narratives, Gordon’s ruined flesh could not be accused of hyperbole.

Gordon enlisted in the Union Army, and the image of his lacerated back came to represent an imperative in future struggles for racial equality. Merely highlighting the existence of injustice was insufficient; you had to show the brutal consequences of that injustice, as vividly as possible.

This kind of scar-bearing was an integral part of the twentieth-century movement to uproot Jim Crow, which reached its zenith sixty years ago this Saturday, with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall’s assault on the edifice of segregation had been confounded by the question of whether the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited racial segregation. The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896, had held that a putatively benign social separation could coexist with the amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. The majority opinion, in fact, went so far as to argue that efforts to overturn segregation had been motivated by blacks’ misperceptions of the practice:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

To combat the notion that the evils of segregation were so much hyperbole, Marshall and the other lawyers at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund called upon the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, whose famous “doll tests” had demonstrated that racism was damaging to the minds of black children. Beginning in 1939, the Clarks had conducted experiments showing that, when presented with two dolls identical in every way except color, black children consistently attributed favorable characteristics like beauty and intelligence to the white dolls, while reserving their most negative assessments for the dolls they most resembled. The Clarks’ work demonstrated that scars need not be visible in order to be indelible, and their data helped to bolster Marshall’s contention that racial separation violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause.

The nascent civil-rights movement drew its moral authority, in some measure, from the image of African-Americans who were psychologically “damaged” by the legacy of slavery and the ongoing travesty of segregation. But those arguments, about the extent to which racism had wounded the African-American mind, have had a far more complicated legacy than the celebration of Brown would suggest. As the historian Daryl Michael Scott argues in his 1997 book, “Contempt and Pity”:

Liberals used damage imagery to play upon the sympathies of the white middle class. Oppression was wrong, they suggested, because it damaged personalities and changes had to be made to promote the well-being of African Americans. Rather than standing on the ideals of the American creed and making reparations for the nation’s failure to live up to the separate but equal doctrine set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson, liberals capitulated to the historic tendency of posing blacks as objects of pity.

Six decades after the Supreme Court struck down de-jure segregation, vast swaths of the American education system remain separated by race—indeed, there has been a trend toward resegregation in many areas, particularly in the South. But the most telling indicator of the ambiguous legacy of Brown may be the way we perceive the kinds of arguments that led to the decision.

In 1986, the anthropologist John Ogbu conducted a study of African-American academic performance, and he concluded that many black students viewed high educational achievement as a form of “acting white.” Ogbu’s conclusions were widely disputed by other researchers, yet the term—succinct in its oversimplification—leapt from scholarly journals into public debates about race. The Clarks’ doll tests were seen as an indictment of white racism, but the notion of “acting white”—fundamentally rooted in a similar tendency to ascribe virtue to whiteness—was nonetheless deployed as a means of pointing toward African-Americans’ own self-defeating behavior.

This rhetoric was not confined to white conservatives. In 2004, at a dinner sponsored by the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their victory in the Brown case, Bill Cosby departed from his notes and launched into a tirade against the shortcomings of impoverished African-Americans. Speaking of Kenneth Clark, by then an elderly widower, Cosby said:

Kenneth Clark, somewhere in his home in upstate New York … just looking ahead. Thank God, he doesn’t know what’s going on, thank God. But these people, the ones up here in the balcony fought so hard. Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, “The cops shouldn’t have shot him.” What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?

Cosby’s remarks were applauded by many on the right, as well as by more than a few African-Americans. What was once considered “damage” had been transformed—by the passage of a few decades and by the insistence that racism was behind us now—into “pathology.” Cosby’s intemperate rhetoric tapped into a vein of frustration, seldom voiced in public, that, a half century beyond the most crucial judicial decision of the civil-rights era, the problems once attributed to legal segregation managed to persist. Despite Cosby’s invective, it was never clear where that frustration should be attributed. There are no metrics for how quickly a group should recover from legally enforced subordination, and no statistical rendering of ongoing racial inequalities could match the explanatory power of a “Colored Only” sign. If these complexities confounded people like Cosby, who’d actually lived through segregation, there was scant hope that they’d be readily perceived by many people who hadn’t.

Yet some things have remained constant. Alarmingly, versions of the Clarks’ doll test conducted in the past few years still yield results similar to those of the original experiments. In 2011, the sociologist Karolyn Tyson showed that concerns over “acting white” among black students tended to arise not in overwhelmingly black schools but precisely in settings in which black students were underrepresented. And yet, sixty years after Brown, the prevailing idea in these debates remains one that is similar to the argument presented in Plessy: that the major, and perhaps the only, problem with ongoing segregation is the way black people perceive and respond to it.

The United States may not be “post-racial,” as many claimed in the wake of Barack Obama’s election, but it clearly sees itself as post-racism, at least when it comes to explaining the color-coded disparities that still define the lives of millions of its citizens.

Jelani Cobb is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute for African American Studies at University of Connecticut.

 

 

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