All black progress in the United States has begun with confrontation and resistance. This is a basic fact of American life and the only way to understand the current protest focused on police violence. As the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it in 1857, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress…. Power concedes nothing without demand.” Abraham Lincoln reluctantly abolished southern slavery to pressure the Confederacy at the height of the Civil War. The war itself- inevitable in my view of history leading up to it – resulted in a progressive, though limited and quickly destroyed, black empowerment in the South. It took almost 100 years to regain some of that lost ground, and constant struggle filled those one hundred years. President Lyndon Johnson and the U. S. Congress did not wake up one morning in 1964 and suddenly decide to outlaw segregation in public accommodations, or in 1965 to grant long-denied voting rights to black southerners. Johnson’s administration and the Congress were under pressure. Black protest in the streets and community organizations at the grassroots formed the largest part of that pressure.
Two entwined aspects of this history are relevant to any discussion of the anger and protests that have taken place on the streets of Baltimore and in other U.S. cities. Fear of black people and the manner in which this fear is embedded in U. S. culture is one aspect. This is not something new. Slave revolts accompanied slavery, and slaveholders lived in constant fear of them. Alongside the fear of the economic consequences if the slave system – the slaveocracy – was overthrown, there was fear that the rebellious slave would seek murderous revenge. Gun control laws were first born out of the fear of slave revolts (and Native American resistance to the seizure of their lands.)
Right at the beginning days of this nation, the idea of the dangerous Negro, the Negro with weapons, began shaping the culture of the country, manifesting concretely in various systemic ways – slave patrols and other forms of policing black people; law – federal law that made it illegal to assist runaway slaves, and after abolition, vagrancy laws that provided convict labor for farms and plantations. As part of that system, there was until the middle of the 20th century coordination between terrorists groups like the Ku Klu Klan, and sate and local government, especially coordination with “law enforcement” – county sheriff’s departments, state highway patrols and local police. The federal government deliberately chose to ignore this.
Crucially important to this systemic design was keeping black people out of the political process. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brook Taney made this clear ruling in 1857 that Dred Scott, an enslaved man who sued for his freedom after being taken by his “owner” to a free sate, must remain enslaved: If constitutional rights were given to black people, “it would give to persons of the negro race … the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects [the right] to hold public meetings upon political affairs and to keep and carry arms wherever they went … endangering the peace and safety of the state. Above all, to summarize the obvious, white power had to be protected. Black men, Taney went on to declare, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
This leads directly to the other aspect found in the history and culture of black-white relations needing emphasis here; the blinkered view so many in the white majority have of black people and black life. In the South, where I worked in the 1960s as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) many whites thought blacks were satisfied with their status as second class citizens; that they were being stirred up into protest by “outside agitators.” The student sit-in movement is now celebrated as heroic, even noble in its nonviolent dignity, as are the Freedom Rides; but most of the country opposed them when they erupted and spread across the South. Nonviolent protest was often defined as assault and many saw these actions as part of a Communist conspiracy. If I had not worked in the South as a SNCC field secretary, I would be surprised at how rioting by a few in comparison to the number of protesters in the streets has come to define what took place in Baltimore.
And, finally, even in 1960s Mississippi where I worked, many whites felt as Thomas Jefferson did 200 years earlier, that black people were inferior to white people – their supposed inferiority the real reason they had been enslaved – that they therefore needed the guidance of white people.
There is a detail that I am not presenting here for lack of space. There are issues of class as well as issues of race at play. Police culture as it has evolved in the United States permits police violence with little penalty on police officers who choose to engage in it. The New York Daily News reported in December that of 179 people killed by on-duty police since 1999, just three officers were indicted; 86 percent of the victims were black or Hispanic. From June 2012 through April 2015, the Baltimore City Detention Center refused admittance to more the 2,600 people in police custody because of a variety of injuries, including fractured bones, facial trauma and hypertension. Of the detainees denied entry, 123 had visible head injuries.
And in some respects police brutality transcends race as is evident in the six officers charged with killing Freddie Gray. Race, however, is central in the national culture; always has been; why Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy are romanticized; “Dixie” is most often referred to affectionately; and why Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and slave rebellions are ignored for the most part, or send shivers down the backs of whites who even know these names. There is no Spartacus in the romance of U. S. history. It is this legacy that we find ourselves confronted with in American life today.
Some of this has changed, of course. In law for the most part; we have a black president – progress directly related to southern struggle. My children and grandchildren have no experience with segregation and white supremacist terrorism as I experienced it. There are black faces in Hollywood and on television portraying more than stereotypes. Nonetheless, it is culture that in the final analysis defines a society and culture does not change as quickly as law and politics. Slavery was abolished, but white supremacy and white privilege continued to define the United States. It does so today.
What drove southern struggle a half century ago was a rough consensus around certain issues: gaining voting rights, ending segregation in public accommodations. Today in black communities much more divided by class there is clearly a rough consensus around the issue of police violence. This violence does not respect social status. Black parents educate their male children to this ugly reality: that one wrong move, one intonation questioning police authority, can get you killed. And the presumption will be that whatever happened was your fault. Author James Baldwin once pronounced, “To be a Negro and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
So, although there has been a tremendous expansion of the black middle class, for what I estimate is the bottom quarter of the black community there is even more rage than when Baldwin uttered those words. And, more distance between those claiming black leadership and the people they purportedly lead. This huge question of meaningful leadership hovers over black life today in Baltimore and elsewhere.
In the final analysis, this raises the organizing question. The tradition that defines black struggle is the organizing tradition, a tradition much older than mass protest in public spaces. And it is this tradition that has always thrust forward the most effective black leadership, often an unexpected leadership. SNCC, the organization of which I was part in the 1960s emerged from protest but evolved into an organization of grass roots organizers. New groups, like #Black Lives Matter, that have emerged in protest against police violence face this same questions. The great lesson that emerges from the southern freedom movement that I was part of centers on a very specific challenge as relevant today as it was a half century ago or two centuries ago: As important as the challenges to white supremacy are, more important and what makes challenging white supremacy possible, are the challenges black people make to one another within the black community.
This post was written by Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Chair of MPCPMP‘s Advisory Board, journalist, and author. His latest book published in June 2014 is This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.