From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter

by Chris DeRiggs

The brutal murder of George Floyd has woken up the entire world to the carnage that is being carried out against black people in America.

From the 4 corners of the world righteous indignation is raining. This rain has now become a flood of condemnation. People of diverse ethnic groups and social backgrounds joined Americans in all 50 states and Washington DC in the march against the slaughter of young black men by the police.

The undeclared but systemic policy of genocide that has persisted after slavery and through the American Civil War, Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement is once more fully bared for all who have eyes to see. Will Smith, actor and comedian, reminds us that this violence is not new, ‘It is simply being filmed.’ The awesome strength of the protest has triggered speculation about its real significance. Former Secretary of State, General Collin Powell, sees it as a tipping point or a point of inflection. So does Joseph Biden, the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party 2020. Hopes are high that change finally is ‘gonna come.’

Like other persons across the Caribbean I feel emotionally connected to these unfolding events. Naturally so. After all, the USA accounts for a large part of the Caribbean Diaspora. I was once told by Roy Hastick, former head of the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CACCI), that the Grenadian population in Brooklyn alone exceeded 100,000. Significantly, this figure almost accounts for the present population on island.

I have asked myself what is new or different about the current protest movement. What is it that distinguishes this period from the 1960s; and as a student of history I have found myself wondering if I am lucky enough to be living in a time of a tectonic shift in race relations in the USA, the coming of real transformation. To help me achieve a sense of perspective I have stepped back a bit and taken a look at the very genesis of the American Civil Rights Movement, as well as its progression towards the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) that has become such a vibrant force in driving the protest action in nearly 600 American cities, and across the globe.

Just a small clarification before I begin. I have used the expressions, ‘Blacks,’ ‘Black People,’ ‘Black Americans’ and ‘African Americans, referring to the same ethnic group. The term, ‘African American’ was made popular by Reverend Jesse Jackson in the late 1980s and gained acceptance by Civil Rights leaders as a dignified way of referring to Black People in America.

Background to The Civil Rights Movement

The American Civil War (1861-1865) dismantled the Confederacy and brought an end to slavery. Unfortunately, the ideology of White Supremacy was so deeply embedded in the mindset and culture of the routed Southerners that it did not take them long to regroup and undermine the Civil Rights gains of the former slaves. During the years between the end of the Civil War and 1877, otherwise known as The Reconstruction Period, the US Congress tried to remove the remnants of Segregation in the former Confederate States. The freed slaves were ostensibly elevated to citizens status with all the rights of freed men, guaranteed by the newly enacted 13th Constitutional Amendment.

This spectre of equally free black citizens was an affront to White Supremacy. In response the former Confederate States rolled out a comprehensive series of vile Segregationist or ‘Jim Crow Laws.’ Though they were no longer chattel slaves, Black People were simply denied every access to a decent existence. They were deprived of equal access to employment, education, health care, housing and even public transport. In some states Miscegenation Laws (laws against interbreeding between the races) were effected, but none of this was enough to abate the rage of these former slave owners and their succeeding generations.

According to one study, there were 3,959 victims of ‘racial terror lynchings’ in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950. Other studies put the figure at more than 4,000. The main vehicle for carrying out these acts of depravity, the Ku Klux Klan, was founded in 1865, the very year the Civil War ended and the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. This group, which targeted Blacks, Jews, immigrants and even Catholics, consisted of a coalition of racist xenophobic types, some of whom wore a cloak of respectability in the day, but donned their hoods at nights. Their record is stained with the blood that was shed in the Tulsa Massacre in 1921 and their longevity was such that they became particularly active during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The openly racist rants of George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, emboldened the misguided souls who filled the ranks of the KKK. In later life, Wallace experienced a so-called Damascus moment and recanted his racism, but the damage was already done.

Black Empowerment Struggle before the Civil Rights Movement

The 1950s and 60s are regarded as decades of The Civil Rights Movement. Due recognition must, however, be given to the contribution of a certain forerunner, the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, first national hero of Jamaica. Garvey founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), in Jamaica in 1912 and established a branch in Harlem as early as 1916. He promoted Black Empowerment. His message of social, political and economic freedom for blacks was spread through his widely distributed newspaper, Negro World. He founded the shipping line, Black Star Line, to facilitate trade and travel between the black diaspora and Africa. A high point in Garvey’s career was his rally in Madison Square Garden in New York in 1920, which was attended by 25000 persons. He caused the federal authorities some concern, but his message of repatriation to Africa did not resonate with some known black leaders at the time. His incarceration, deportation and the collapse of his shipping line are believed to have been actively engineered by the FBI. Garvey’s example became a source of inspiration to the Civil Rights Movement following his death in 1940 and his ideas inspired the Rastafarian Movement.

The 1950s and 1960s

The struggles of the 1950s and 1960s are well chronicled. By sitting down, Rosa Parks was standing up. She was standing up against the vulgar and dehumanising separation of black and white passengers on buses in Alabama. This led to the 382 days bus boycott in Montgomery which brought an end to this practice. Medgar Evers challenged segregated education in Mississippi after the historic Brown vs the Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954. This ruling outlawed racial segregation in public schools, explicitly stating that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’ Evers devoted his life to the struggle for civil rights and was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963 for all his troubles. He too, has passed into American folklore as a hero and an important figure in the long and ongoing march to the freedom of Back People in America.

Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. changed America forever. Like Gandhi he taught the world the power of non-violent protest. The campaign of advocacy and mass protest waged by King and the likes of Reverend Ralph Abernathy culminated in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. Among the calls made by the quarter of a million people who assembled at the Lincoln memorial was for an end to be put to police brutality. Fifty years later it is police brutality that has brought the people back into the streets. The police lynching of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis seems to be the straw that has broken the camel’s back. Sadly, like Medgar Evers, the life of the great Martin Luther King Jr. was snuffed out by a racist bullet, but his twin legacies were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Reverend Dr King was beyond any doubt the most visible spokesperson and leader of the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968.

The other towering figure in the US Civil Rights movement in the 1960s was none other than Malcolm Little otherwise known as Malcolm X, and later Malik Shabazz. He was born in Nebraska on 19 May, 1925 to a Grenadian mother from the village of La Digue. Louise Helen Norton Little was her name. Malcolm X emerged as the spokesperson for the Nation of Islam before relinquishing his ties with its leader, the legendary Elijah Mohammad. He offered African Americans a more militant platform of resistance than the peaceful Civil Disobedience advocated by King and his associates. He is said to have dismissed King’s March on Washington as an inaccurate, sanitised pageant of racial harmony. The message of racial harmony and nonviolence did not appeal to him until his life changing trip to Mecca. He left a legacy of militant resistance and became even more popular after his assassination in 1965.

At least one other individual with Caribbean roots is worthy of mention. Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, was born in Trinidad. Despite being chairman of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he embraced the more radical approach associated with Malcolm X and was arrested twenty seven times. He became the face of what was called the Black Power movement and is credited with having popularised the use of the expression, ‘Black Power.’ His Black Power agenda included racial pride, economic empowerment, as well as the creation of black cultural and political institutions. Stokely Carmichael gained national prominence as a leader of the Black Panther Party and later global recognition for his role in the formation of the Pan-African Movement. Like other Civil Rights leaders of the time he attracted the attention of FBI Director, J Edgar Hoover, who had developed the habit of labelling prominent Civil Rights leaders as communists and targeting them for investigation. Carmichael was harassed by the FBI to the point where he decided to relocate to Ghana in 1968. He moved to Guinea in 1969.

The Achievements of the Civil Rights Movement

Undoubtedly the Civil Rights Movement scored important victories. The Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965 dismantled Jim Crow Segregation. The significance of the right of African Americans to vote is better understood if we remind ourselves that Universal Adult Suffrage was already enjoyed by the Caribbean since the 1940s and 1950s. The outlawing of racial discrimination by federal legislation accompanied by the understanding that this gain was a direct result of their struggles, gave African Americans a new sense of empowerment. This was manifested in the successful runs for public office by African Americans up and down the USA in congressional and mayorial races and in the way they came to dominate sports like NBA and NFL, as well as entertainment. Despite these great gains by Black Americans, full social, economic and political equality was yet to be achieved. The flaws in the criminal justice system became painfully obvious in the disproportionate rate of incarceration of African Americans and the severity of punishment handed down to Blacks as compared to Whites. Blacks were far and away the most frequent victims of police brutality. Higher poverty rates persisted among the black population and the systemic inequalities in education, housing, health care and social services remained glaring realities.

A Black Man in the White House

Barack Obama, the son of a black man and a white woman, became president in the year 2008. He was the first ‘African American’ president. For many this was the end of history. America had finally entered its post-racial era. For others the presence of this black man in the White House was the ultimate affront to their sacredly held notions of race and power. Obama’s outstanding leadership in bringing back America from the brink of its worst recession since the Great Depression was of no consequence to the latter group.

The Neo-Conservative backlash followed. The so-called Tea Party movement infested the womb of the Republican Party and despite their initial differences with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, they joined him in a policy of obstructionism and sabotage. His undisguised goal was to delegitimise the Obama presidency and ensure that Obama did not get a second term. He fought and lost the battle to stop the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in March 2010. Meanwhile, Donald Trump continued peddling his conspiracy theory that Obama was not an American. When Obama gained reelection and sought to act in accordance with the powers of his office, he had to come to grips with the reality that the Republican controlled Senate had already constructively dismissed him. This reached ridiculous proportions when his third Supreme Court nominee, Justice Merrick Garland, was not even granted the customary Senate Hearing. Adjacent to his gladiatorial struggle with the Republicans in Congress, Obama’s presidency was plagued by racially motivated mass shootings and the increasing social media exposure of police murders of young unarmed black men. In this regard the slaying of a black teenager by the name of Trayvon Martin on 26 February 2012 by the unrepentant George Zimmerman, turned out to be a significant development. History might well regard this development as a watershed moment in the post 1960s Civil Rights struggle, as it prompted the formation of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Black Lives Matter – BLM

As a direct response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer on the ‘stand your ground defence’ in July 2013, three radical black female organisers, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullers and Opal Tometi, created Black Lives Matter-BLM. In the beginning it was a mere hashtag. It is now a global network. Their expressed goal is to eradicate white supremacy and empower black communities. They have called for an end to violence against Black People by white vigilante groups and the police. They turned the last words of Eric Garner ‘I Can’t Breathe’ into a rallying call for the movement. They have organised protests in places like Ferguson and New York where police have murdered unarmed black men. Their activism has caused the world to sit up and take note of the deeply disturbing picture of systemic racism that still resides in the soul of America.

At the heart of the ‘Matter’ is the callous disregard for black lives by the police. In 2015 more than 100 unarmed black persons were brutally killed by police in America. Only 13 officers were charged and only 4 resulted in convictions. When Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on the neck of George Floyd in sadistic, triumphant posture for all of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the world watched on and something snapped in the conscience of America. It was only the latest in the long string of police killings and came at a time when Black People in America had become ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ The George Floyd protests became the confluence of Black America’s many streams of discontent.

The Tipping Point

I now come back to where I started. Are we witnessing a tipping point? What distinguishes the current protest movement from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s? Here are 5 observations:

  1. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s the Black Lives Matter inspired protests do not have a single visible leader the way Dr King was recognised. The movement consists of a largely decentralised network of activists with a set of guiding principles.
  2. The current protest action has swept all 50 US states and Washington DC and became global in a matter of weeks. These protests are happening in a technologically different information environment. The atrocities carried out by the police are being recorded and disseminated by smart phones in real time, faster than the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. It gives billions of people a virtual presence at the crime scene and debunks the lying narrative of the police.
  3. The ethnic diversity of the participants in the ongoing protests is unprecedented. In many instances the majority of the demonstrators are white and young. Added to that is the fact that the polls are showing that close to eighty percent of Americans feel that systemic racism is a problem.
  4. High profile figures from the military and security establishments have publicly supported the call for police reform. Some of them have even added their voices to the call for the renaming of the 12 military bases which still bear the names of Confederate generals and other officers.
  5. Even NASCAR and other sporting giants have added their voices to the call for an end to systemic racism in America by banning the use of the Confederate flag at their events. The reason why Kaepernick knelt has finally become clear to many who first responded in outrage to his silent protest.

These are only some of the facts that describe the new situation. But of what consequence? Do they constitute critical mass for change? Beyond state and federal authorities ensuring that the ‘killer-police’ suffer just retribution for snuffing out the lives of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry, George Floyd and now Rayshard Brooks, will there be Police Reform?

In some cities and states quick changes are being rolled out. How far and lasting will be anybody’s guess. The world is looking at America and its president for the Federal response. Cosmetic changes will not meet the challenge of history.

But while the world is looking at America, America needs to look at itself. This country of Lincoln needs to take a hard, inward look and confront the racist demon that possesses it soul. It is a demon that needs to be exorcised. It is high time for America to live up to its 14th Amendment promise adopted as far back as July 1868: ‘nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’

In the words of Barack Obama, ‘America can do better, America deserves Better.’

God Bless America!

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