By Peniel E. Joseph
America’s latest incident of racial violence, the massacre of nine people at historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, echoes some of the horrific scenes out of the civil-rights era. A young white shooter allegedly committed mass murder at a sacred space of black activism, spiritual renewal and educational commitment. The slaughter provides a stark reminder of the way in which racial violence has been used to limit the hopes and aspirations of the black freedom struggle.
Following a white North Charleston police officer’s killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American, which was captured on a cellphone camera, the Charleston killings look to be the second act this year of lethal anti-black violence to emerge out of South Carolina, a state that proudly flies the Confederate flag over the State Capitol building.
The nation’s contemporary racial climate evokes images that, shorn of social media’s ubiquitous presence, would not seem out of place 50 years ago, during Selma’s roiling voting-rights protests or, indeed, a century before that in the aftermath of the Civil War and the end of antebellum slavery.
In 1964, music legend Sam Cooke released A Change Is Gonna Come, one of the most important songs recorded during the civil-rights era. The song’s genius lay in its ability to capture in miniature racial oppression’s personal intimacy, political impact and policy reverberations.
Cooke’s passionate narrative of Jim Crow’s unforgiving assault on black bodies contained the dual recognition that racial segregation also harmed the American body politic. “It’s been a long time, a long time coming,” he lamented, “But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”
For many, President Barack Obama’s watershed election in 2008, and re-election in 2012, ushered in audacious change on a scale that Cooke and the generation of civil- rights activists who battled Jim Crow could have scarcely dreamed of. The euphoria accompanying Obama’s inauguration included open, often self-congratulatory discussion that the United States had finally achieved a new “post-racial” age in which race mattered less than it ever had.
The age of Obama made the sight of a black first lady and attorney general and the presence of powerful African-American civic, business, and cultural leaders seem ordinary. In 2012, for the first time in history, the percentage of the black-voter turnout exceeded that of whites. Racial progress, as manifested through Obama’s political and personal biography, became the dominant narrative of American race relations.
But hidden beneath the pageantry of the first family’s extraordinary achievements was another country, one in which millions of African-Americans resided far away from the spotlight of mainstream narratives of success or myths of post-racialism.
The rise of mass incarceration, proliferating rates of poverty, public school segregation and high unemployment remained defiantly persistent in too many black communities. Residential segregation, scant job opportunities and failing public schools were, in our post-civil-rights era, passed down ways of life that were exacerbated, not relieved, by public-policy choices that reinforced urban and suburban ghettoes.
The roiling #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, urban uprisings in Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Missouri, anti-black police violence in McKinney, Texas, and now a mass shooting in South Carolina echo the racial turmoil, political protests and community organising of the civil-rights era. Then, as now, African-Americans lived under a regime of racial oppression that constrained their life chances.
On June 11, 1963, President John F Kennedy characterised civil rights as a “moral issue” and told the nation, “Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognising right as well as reality.”
Perhaps none acted as boldly as Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer. Malcolm, the Harlem-based black nationalist and Muslim preacher spoke truth to power in bone-rattling sermons that exposed American democracy’s contradictions even as he empowered African-Americans by re-imagining the expansiveness of black identity. Baker, a feminist and radical labour activist, organised the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a group that breathed new life into American society by bleeding for democracy alongside poor black folk in the South.
King found his clearest voice in championing the poor, speaking out against the Vietnam War and calling out the United States as an imperialist power, the world’s foremost purveyor of violence and an unapologetically racist nation.
Hamer, who remains less well known than she should, represented the organic intellectual. She was a sharecropper from Ruleville, Mississippi, who defied the politics of white supremacy at the 1964 Democratic National Convention by exposing racial violence, threats and harassment directed at people, like herself, who wanted dignity and equal citizenship. “Is this America?” she asked the nation.
More than half a century later, the answer to Hamer’s question is a resounding yes. This is America, a nation where 28 per cent of black people live below the poverty line, 40 per cent of black children live in poverty and 46 per cent of black children attend high-poverty schools. African-Americans, while only 12 per cent of the US population, make up 28 per cent of all arrests and now make up 38 per cent of prisoners in local jails and 39 percent in federal prisons.
As sociologist Monique W Morris’s important book Black Stats (from which I have drawn these figures) illuminates in panoramic scope, African-Americans reside on the margins of society regarding health, justice, employment, education, wealth and income. And yes, a nation in which the African-American church, the resounding symbol of freedom and progress during and after slavery, remains a primary target of racial terror in a supposedly post-racial age.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, America continues to embrace denial as a cure to the persistence – and at times growth – of national racial inequality. America’s tortured legacy of slavery, racial segregation and violence against people of colour continues to shape society’s institutions, political philosophies and public policies.
The nation is, it seems, caught in a perpetual feedback loop – destined to repeat the tragic, unheeded lessons of a racial past that we refuse to acknowledge exists in our present.
Peniel E. Joseph is professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. His most recent book is Stokely: A Life