By Mychal Denzel Smith
This past week we’ve commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the monumental piece of legislation aimed at outlawing discrimination based on race. A three-day-long “civil rights summit” was organized at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, where many past and present activists and politicians spoke on the legacy of the Civil Rights Act.
With the commemoration has come further discussion about the contemporary face of American racism. Over at BET, Keith Boykin wrote: Despite the progress of the past half-century, the struggle continues.
“The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
So said baseball hall of famer Hank Aaron in an interview with USA Today this week, in which he seemed to compare the racist klansmen of the 1960s with the supposedly post-racial cynics of our current generation.
You see, today’s racists don’t wear white hoods and scream the N-word.
They wear dark suits and scream about government handouts. They don’t set up racist poll taxes to deter Blacks from voting.
They set up voter ID laws to do the same thing. And they certainly don’t defend lynch mobs, which legitimize vigilante justice. Instead, they defend Stand Your Ground laws, which achieve the same purpose.
But I have trouble with this framing. It’s neat and easily digestible for anyone with only a cursory understanding of American history and racism, and therefore popular as a means of telling that history. It has broad appeal, but it’s not accurate. It flattens history and does the work of placing the onus for past bad deeds on a select few.
It reinforces the image of “the real racist” as one who expressed their hatred in demonstrably violent ways. It suggests that racists have simply become more sophisticated, changing the tactics of their hatred from burning crosses to writing legislation, from white hoods to business suits, as that Hank Aaron quote contends.
Here’s the problem with that narrative: The architects and gatekeepers of American racism have always worn neckties. They have always been a part of the American political system.
I understand the impulse in wanting to find some way to convey that what we’re dealing with currently is a system of racism that is less overt than it once was. Saying things like “we’ve gone from white hoods to business suits” is one way to seem to speak to contemporary racism’s less vocal, yet still insidious nature.
But it does a disservice to the public understanding of racism, and in the process undercuts the mission of drawing attention to contemporary racism’s severity.
It wasn’t the KKK that wrote the slave codes. It wasn’t the armed vigilantes who conceived of convict leasing, post-emancipation. It wasn’t hooded men who purposefully left black people out of New Deal legislation. Redlining wasn’t conceived at a Klan meeting in rural Georgia. It wasn’t “the real racists” who bulldozed black communities in order to build America’s highway system.
The Grand Wizard didn’t run COINTELPRO in order to dismantle the Black Panthers. The men who raped black women hired to clean their homes and care for their children didn’t hide their faces.
The ones in the hoods did commit violent acts of racist terrorism that shouldn’t be overlooked, but they weren’t alone.
Everyday citizens participated in and attended lynchings as if they were state fairs, bringing their children and leaving with souvenirs. These spectacles, if not outright endorsed, were silently sanctioned by elected officials and respected members of the community.
It’s easy to focus on the most vicious and dramatic forms of racist violence faced by past generations as the site of “real” racism. If we do, we can also point out the perpetrators of that violence and rightly condemn them for their actions. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that those individuals alone didn’t write America’s racial codes.
It’s much harder to talk about how that violence was only reinforcing the system of political, economic and cultural racism that made America possible. That history indicts far more people, both past and present.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer for TheNation.com. His work on race, politics, social justice, pop culture, hip hop, mental health, feminism and black male identity has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, Ebony, theGrio, the Root, Huffington Post and GOOD.
Dr. King receives Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 (AP Photo)
by Ronda Racha Penrice – The Grio
This year is the 28th national observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, which means there is now a generation to whom the King holiday has always existed.
Still, 2014 stands out even more because it marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as Dr. King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. With Barack Obama in the second year of his second presidential term, it has been easy for some to forget the long road that has brought us all here.
At the King Center’s annual Salute to Greatness dinner held in Atlanta Saturday, January 19, four days after what would have been Dr. King’s 85th birthday, his friend and comrade, Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and one-time ambassador, reminded those of the bumps that got us here.
Today, it’s hard to think anyone would distance themselves from a Nobel Peace Prize winner of any color or not actively support the civil rights activities of the 1950s and 1960s, especially under Dr. King’s leadership. But, fifty years ago, it wasn’t so natural to a lot of people that African Americans deserved freedom and equality and even those high up feared rocking the boat.
“I went with Martin Luther King to Norway and, when we came back, we were not really welcomed at the White House,” Young reminded all gathered. Even in Atlanta, he shared, “There was a controversy over whether or not we would have a dinner here honoring Martin Luther King and Rabbi [Jacob] Rothschild of The Temple and Ivan Allen, the mayor, stood up for a dinner honoring Martin Luther King.”
Like Young, who had been there, some others in the room understood that there were white business and other opposition to honoring the achievements of a black man specifically in interracial company in the South. “And then [J.] Paul Austin, the CEO of Coca-Cola said ‘wait a minute: Coca-Cola cannot be in a city that refuses to honor a Nobel Peace Prize winner,” Young continued. “You all need to decide whether you need Coca-Cola because Coca-Cola doesn’t need Atlanta. That’s the kind of leadership that brought us here.”
Perhaps even more telling is the reaction from President Lyndon B. Johnson when Dr. King returned from Oslo. “Coming out of an hour and a half long meeting with President Johnson , President Johnson had an hour and a half of excuses but he also he had a record on which to run,” Young schooled. “He had delivered the 1964 Civil Rights Act and so he thought it was really a little ungrateful of us to come and ask him to come right back in 1965 with a Voting Rights Act and he made a very strong case until we ended up agreeing ‘Thank you very much Mr. President for meeting with us.’
“As I walked out of the White House with Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy and Walter Fauntroy, I said to Dr. King, because the president had kept saying over and over again ‘I don’t really have the power. You think I have more power than I have.’ And, as we walked down that dark road, there was no press. They waited until late at night to invite us in and I said to Dr. King: ‘what do you think?’
“Here was a five-foot-seven-inch giant who said ‘I think we got to figure out a way to get this President some power.’ I say this to you,” Young continued, “because he wasn’t counting on himself and it was only three or four days after we got back that Amelia Boynton [Robinson, the civil rights leader in Selma, Alabama who met Dr. King and Coretta Scott King when he pastored the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church a year before the Montgomery Bus Boycott] came over from Selma and we agreed to go to Selma on January the second, 1965,” he said, adding emphasis. “By the end of March, 1965, this same president who did not have the power was standing before a joint session of Congress and introducing voting rights legislation which transformed the South and the world.”
And though, today, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a more popular conversation point, the importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Johnson signed into law July 2, 1964, cannot be downplayed. The landmark legislation, which President John F. Kennedy called for in his historic June 11, 1963 delivered the evening after Gov. George Wallace was forced, due to Kennedy federalizing the Alabama National Guard, to accept the integration of the University of Alabama by Vivian Malone (Attorney General Eric Holder’s sister-in-law) and James A. Hood. Sadly, Medgar Evers was murdered that evening in the wee hours of June 12.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made certain discriminatory voting practices illegal, opened public accommodations to all, supported school desegregation efforts, prohibited racial discrimination among schools, hospitals and other entities that received federal taxpayer dollars, racial, religious and sex discrimination in employment was banned plus “whites only” everything became illegal. This gateway legislation, the first major civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875, paved the way for subsequent legislation that has granted many freedoms that most of us take for granted today.
December 10, 1964, Dr. King did not forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was not for him alone. He knew that while he, in that moment, lived, so many others like Evers had died and they all had made great sacrifices. “I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice,” he said early in his address.
“I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation.”
Reiterating his unwavering faith in and commitment to nonviolence as the key for moral and social deliverance, he said “[N]onviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, who hopes to become Georgia’s next governor, a position his grandfather once held, told theGrio the morning after stopping by the dinner, “My personal heritage, I’ve always felt, my grandfather has always felt, is bound up in King’s legacy. Because when my grandfather received the Nobel Prize of his own, he stood up and said that he was only there because of Dr. King. And no one would have taken my grandfather seriously as a world leader, as a white person from the South, had it not been for King’s legacy and the legacy of the civil rights movement . . . . I think he’s Georgia’s greatest leader. The impact that he’s had on the world set the stage for Georgia to be so much more than it ever would have.”
In the 50th anniversary of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Dr. King being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; on the heels of the jubilee of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 2013, as well as the heart-wrenching loss of the four little girls in Birmingham; and in anticipation of the jubilee celebration of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dr. King’s work continues to inspire and challenge.
“We still have a ways to go to achieve the dreams of my brother,” the 86-year-old Christine King Farris, who was in Oslo when Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, told theGrio. “We still have a lot of do but we are moving along.”