By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Although America is recognized as the oldest democracy, its record in ensuring racial equality has been embarrassingly poor. Though governments had legislated in the right direction since 1862, the efforts had been half-hearted and piecemeal. A holistic approach, taking into account the basic issues, was missing. And most importantly, the White majority had consistently scuttled affirmative action in favor of Blacks, through both covert and overt means.
Admittedly, there is a marked change now. After George Floyd’s murder by a White cop in full public view, the issue of racial inequality has come to the fore again with multi-racial demonstrations, both peaceful and violent, taking place all over the US. There is even a move to “defund” the police department, which in effect, means cutting funds and diverting these to bridging the yawning socio-economic Black-White gap. In many Southern States statues of 19 th. Century Confederate (secessionist) leaders are being pulled down.
However, the nagging question is: Will progress towards equality be holistic and sustained? Donald Trump’s White majoritarian constituency cannot be wished away especially as the Presidential election is only five months away.
In 1808 President Thomas Jefferson officially ended the African slave trade, but domestic American slave trade was allowed. In 1822, steps to send freed slaves to Liberia in Africa was instituted instead of absorbing them in America itself. But repatriation was only partial. In 1862, President Lincoln passed the Emancipation Law, formally ending slavery while fighting a bloody war against the Southern Confederate States which were against the abolition of slavery. In 1865, after the defeat of the Southern States, the 13th Constitutional Amendment was passed to formally abolish slavery. In 1870, the 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote, but the Southern States began to pass segregation laws to counter it.
Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, and was succeeded by the pro-slavery Andrew Jackson. But Lincoln himself was confused about what to do with the freed Black slaves. His favored option was to renew repatriating them to Liberia but he acknowledged that was not a practical proposition. At the same time, he found keeping freed Black slaves in the US equally problematical as it meant giving them equal rights, which he and the Whites at large, were averse to.
However, Prof. Eric Foner author of “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” says that in the twelve years following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the former slaves made meaningful political, social and economic gains. Black men voted and even held public office across the South. Biracial experiments in governance flowered. Black literacy surged, surpassing those of whites in some cities. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, was the first US federal law to affirm that all citizens are equally protected by the law. The 14th constitutional Amendment of 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the US, including former slaves, and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.”
But progress in the Blacks’ position these acts brought about, were short-lived. By the early 1900s, nearly every Southern State had barred Blacks from voting and from serving in public office, on juries and in the administration of the justice system. The justice system tended to send Blacks to jail even on petty grounds like roaming around employed (under the Vagrancy Law). These convicts would then be “leased” out to White-owned farms and factories where the conditions of employment were no different from the days of slavery.
Successive US governments failed to give any material assistance to the freed Blacks to do business or farm. Martin Luther King told a TV interviewer in the 1960s, that no land was given to the former slaves while millions of acres were given to immigrants from Europe.
In the decades that followed, tough crime laws with racist undertones kept hitting the Blacks hard. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws were applied in racially discriminatory ways. Even today, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.2 million behind bars, even though crime has decreased significantly since the early 1990s. And while black Americans make up only 13% of the US population, they are 37% of the incarcerated population. 40% of police killings of unarmed people involve Black men, who make up merely 6% of the population, according to a 2015 Washington Post report. George Floyd was killed on a Minneapolis street brazenly in public view for trying to buy a packet of cigarettes with a 20 dollar fake note. Any complaint of a “suspicious” movement of a Black or a Brown man (even if he is grandfather going for a walk) can lead to the police killing him on the spot and the jury and the courts would go with the police version.
Issue of Segregation
In the 1950s and 1960s, racial segregation was a major issue in the Southern States. Buses and public utilities were separate for the Blacks. There was advancement on the legal front, but implementation was poor. In 1948, President Truman issued an Executive Order to end segregation in the armed services. In 1954, the Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public schools. But still, many schools remained segregated. In 1955: Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Nine black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” were blocked from integrating into Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. President Eisenhower eventually sent federal troops to escort the students. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to help protect voter rights. The law allowed federal prosecution of those who suppressed another’s right to vote.
Throughout 1961, Black and White activists, known as Freedom Riders, took bus trips through the Southern States to protest segregated bus terminals and attempted to use “Whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters. The Freedom Rides were attacked by White protestors, which drew international attention. In 1963, Governor George Wallace personally blocked the doorway at the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from registering. The Alabama standoff continued until President Kennedy sent the National Guard to the campus.
On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people Blacks and Whites took part in “The March on Washington” for Jobs and Freedom in which Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He said: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” In 1964: President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, preventing discrimination due to race, color, sex, religion or national origin in employment. The same year, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prevent the use of literacy tests as a voting requirement. It also allowed federal examiners to review voter qualifications and federal observers to monitor polling places.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated Memphis, Tennessee. A White man, James Earl Ray, was convicted of the murder. A few days later, on April 11, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the Fair Housing Act) providing equal housing opportunity regardless of race, religion or national origin.
Despite the Civil Rights Movement and progressive governmental measures, the Blacks’ socio-economic conditions did not improve and the Black-White gap remained wide, for want of effective implementation, the absence of a holistic approach and entrenched biases against the Blacks.
(Photo at the top shows a demonstration in Germany for the rights of US Blacks. Courtesy AP)