What We Can Learn from History About the Advancement of Civil Rights

It probably isn’t a coincidence that, after the events of last week, I found solace in the words of Robert Kennedy the day after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968. One of the reasons his words resonate so well is that there are some strong parallels between what was happening then and now. I’m not the only one to notice. Comparing/contrasting our current situation to what was going on that year is a topic that has been covered by Jonathan Chait, Josh Marshall, Ross Douthat and Julian Zelizer.

Marshall points out one thing that is important to keep in mind about the lead-up to that year.

Many younger Americans have vivid memories of the LA Riots of 1992 in which 55 people died and some 2,000 were injured. But the late 1960s witnessed a series of comparable riots across the country. Indeed, in a number of cases in cities which simply never truly recovered. Watts 1965, 34 dead, over 1000 injured. Detroit 1967, 43 dead, over 1000 injured. Newark 1967, 26 dead, almost 1000 injured.

It’s also worth remembering that just two months after Kennedy talked about the Mindless Menace of Violence in this country, he himself was assassinated. In addition to his brother JFK, national figures like Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers met the same end. Marshall goes on to sum things up.

As you’ll note, these examples were all before calendar 1968 and don’t include the numerous urban riots during 1968 itself or other ‘smaller’ ones during the preceding years. Indeed, a good deal of what made 1968 ‘1968’ was the way in which a building momentum of violence, civil unrest and a seeming breakdown of the society itself, which had been escalating in the two or three previous years, built to such a pitch of intensity that it seemed the entire society might be overturned, that there might never be a going back.

Almost all of that happened AFTER Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that ended Jim Crow laws. Those major advances were followed by a period of significant unrest and backlash. While historical reforms were made in the areas of public accommodation, education, employment and voting rights, one area that wasn’t addressed was law enforcement and criminal justice. Julian Zeilzer points out that the unrest of that time eventually led to Richard Nixon’s “law and order” message that codified the systemic racism in those systems. It is no wonder that they are presenting the biggest threat to civil rights today. That is precisely why I am convinced that we are in need of a federal response.

There is a reason why someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that, in order to understand this country’s history, we have to pay attention to how it has dealt with racism. Doing so means that you begin to recognize the patterns. One of those that emerges is that every time we’ve made major advances, they have been met with backlash. That is what Rev. William Barber outlines when he talks about the 3rd reconstruction.

The first major advance was an end to slavery – met by the backlash of a confederate insurgency and the formation of the KKK. The second advance was to provide a legal framework for equality and the end of Jim Crow. That was met by the events described above.

The question then becomes: what are the advances that are being made today that are unleashing our current backlash. The obvious one is that this country elected our first African American president. There is also the reality of changing demographics which point to a time in the near future when white people will no longer be a majority in this country. But I also think that there is something more subtle at work. Jonathan Chait captured it well in his response to the movie 12 Years a Slave.

Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.

With the removal of the barriers of slavery and legal discrimination, African Americans have been able to advance in this country to the point of being elected president. But that kind of advancement is happening every day in smaller ways all over the country. White people are having to deal with African Americans who presume themselves to be “equal to – or, heaven forbid, better than” – them. Day after day they are witnessing that “calm, dignified competence” that shatters the prejudiced assumptions on which their world view is based.

I have often relied on something Derrick Jensen wrote in his book, The Culture of Make Believe, to understand what is happening.

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement…

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

The daily experience of “calm dignified competence” shatters the normalization of hatred on which racism is built. That is precisely why it is exploding.

An accurate reading of this history also shatters a couple of myths that we tend to hear these days. From the right we are told that it is President Obama who has ignited the racist divide. If by that they mean his mere presence in the White House coupled with his calm dignified competence, I suppose there is some truth in that. But we all know that is not what his critics mean when they blame him.

The other myth that is exposed is one we sometimes hear from the left which posits that this country really hasn’t made any progress on race relations. As we see from history, it has always been the advancement of people of color that has triggered a violent and/or chaotic backlash. To despair is to ignore what has happened and risk losing those gains.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.