Subscribe via RSS Feed

Tag: "civil rights"

How the Conservative King Was Created

[ 52 ] January 16, 2017 |

b6eb476d917d00c541b44e6e356ba41f

Today is our annual reminder that the conservative cooptation of Martin Luther King continues in its grotesque march forward away from the truth into a fascist candyland of “colorblindness” to serve the purposes of white supremacy. How did this begin? I am always skeptical of monocausal explanations, but its pretty clear that Grandpa Caligula played a pretty big role. Reagan of course hated King, rode white supremacy into the White House, and then resisted creating the MLK holiday with support from his good friend Jesse Helms. Why did he change his mind and sign the bill? Pure politics and realizing that he could message King into meaninglessness.

However, in a dramatically about-face, Reagan capitulated in the final months of 1983. The month following his news conference—and fifteen years after Michigan congressman John Conyers first introduced legislation for the King observance—Reagan sat on the White House lawn and signed a bill establishing a federal holiday for a man he had spent the previous two decades opposing, whilst several hundred attendees sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Yet even after he publicly changed his position, Reagan wrote a letter of apology to Meldrim Thomson, Jr., the Republican governor of New Hampshire, who had begged the president not to support the holiday. His new position, Reagan explained in the letter, was based “on an image [of King], not reality.” Reagan’s support for the federal King holiday, in other words, had nothing to do with his personal views of the civil rights leader. Instead the holiday provided Reagan with political pretext to silence the mounting criticism of his positions on civil rights. By 1983 Reagan faced an onslaught of criticism from groups such as the NAACP and the Urban League for his aggressive assaults on affirmative action and court-ordered busing. With a reelection bid on the horizon, he began to make more concerted efforts to pacify his critics and soften public opinion over his open hostility to civil rights. The King holiday was the primary component of this effort.

Reagan’s pivot on the King holiday provided a two-pronged benefit. On the one hand it would pacify critics of his positions on civil rights, but on the other it enabled Reagan to position himself as the inheritor of King’s colorblind “dream”—a society in which “all men are created equal” and should be judged “not . . . by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”—in order to advance the anti-black crusade he had waged since the 1960s, now under the alluring mantle of colorblindness.

The notion of a “colorblind” approach to U.S. law originated in 1896, when Justice John Marshall Harlan argued in his dissent to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision—which established the legal precedent for racial segregation—that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional because “our Constitution in color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Nearly sixty years later, Justice Harlan was vindicated when the Warren Court invalidated Plessy in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Yet Harlan and Reagan understood colorblindness in profoundly different ways. For Harlan, colorblind law safeguarded non-whites from the institutionalization of white supremacy in state and local governments under Jim Crow. For Reagan, who opposed both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, colorblindness offered an effective ideology through which to roll back the victories of the civil rights movement.

Reagan’s efforts to align himself as the inheritor of King’s colorblind “Dream” picked up considerably during his second term in the White House. Reagan’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, William Bradford Reynolds, began defending the president’s opposition to civil rights programs by insisting that Reagan’s actions were informed by King’s colorblind philosophy. Throughout his second term, Reagan would frequently turn to the colorblind rhetoric, and only the colorblind rhetoric, of the civil rights movement to justify his continued assault on civil rights as a realization of King’s dream.

The most revealing example of Reagan’s second-term King strategy occurred on January 17, 1986. Three days before the inaugural Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Coretta Scott King unveiled a three-foot solid bronze bust of her slain husband in the Capitol rotunda (later moved to Statuary Hall). After the ceremony Reagan met with King and other civil rights leaders and urged them to “never, never abandon the dream” of a colorblind United States. Reagan’s rendering of King begins and ends on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is a King who said little more than a single sentence: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Absent entirely from Reagan’s representations of King are his critiques of capitalism, the war in Vietnam, nuclear weapons, or white supremacy.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

Today in the Post-Racial Society

[ 34 ] October 26, 2016 |

emmett_till

I interrupt my avalanche of work to bring you this delightful story from the post-racial paradise of Mississippi.

Along a secluded gravel road that runs between a riverbank and cotton fields in the Mississippi Delta region, a purple sign marks the area where Emmett Till’s mutilated body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in the summer of 1955.

For eight years, the sign has been riddled with bullet holes.

The 14-year-old from Chicago was visiting the South when he was accused of whistling at a white woman and murdered. His death became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement, but several signs meant to memorialize the killing — including the one on the riverbank between the towns of Glendora, Miss., and Webb, Miss. — have been vandalized by spray paint and bullet holes. Others have been stolen.

It took a visiting filmmaker, Kevin Wilson Jr., to rally support for replacing the sign by the Tallahatchie River when he shared a photo of it on his Facebook page this month.

“I’m at the exact site where Emmett Till’s body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River 61 years ago,” Mr. Wilson wrote on Oct. 15. “The site marker is filled with bullet holes. Clear evidence that we’ve still got a long way to go.”

The King Children: Show Me the Money

[ 139 ] September 13, 2016 |

index

The children of Martin Luther King care about one thing: money. That’s why the new African-American history museum at the Smithsonian has no important artifacts from King.

When the museum opens Sept. 24, no major artifacts from the civil rights icon will be on display.

“It’s outrageous,” said Clarence Jones, the former King attorney who filed the copyright for his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. “This is the Smithsonian. This is not just another party. This is one of the most important institutions now in the 21st century. And this is probably the greatest civil rights leader in the 20th century. I find it shameful and I’m sad.”

Jones doesn’t blame the museum’s curators, instead focusing on the widely known obstacle historians, filmmakers and others have faced for years: King’s children, Bernice, Martin III and Dexter.

For years, the siblings have blocked media outlets from using King’s words or image without paying what some have described as exorbitant licensing fees. The nonprofit foundation that built the monument to King on the Mall, finished in 2011, paid $800,000. The estate also has sued when they think they are not being sufficiently compensated. That included going after King’s close friend Harry Belafonte when the actor and singer wanted to sell letters and other papers given him by King for charity. Belafonte eventually sued the King estate and won the right to bring the items to auction. In 2013, the King estate, as part of a lawsuit, demanded that Andrew Young, another King confidant and the former mayor of Atlanta, be removed from the board of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change after his foundation used material featuring King in a documentary. The case was dismissed.

The children have taken each other to court repeatedly. Bernice and Martin III once sued Dexter. Dexter sued them back. Most recently, Martin and Dexter sued Bernice over who has the authority to sell the Nobel Peace Prize and Bible. Former President Jimmy Carter was brought in to help mediate an agreement. Last month, a judge settled it instead, clearing the way for the brothers to sell the Nobel Prize and Bible.

Sordid. And not new. When I worked at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta, which occupies the same land as the King Center, my colleagues were replete with tales of the sheer venal greed of the King children. It’s sad.

Black Protest and Transportation

[ 21 ] July 17, 2016 |

Lincoln-Center-urban-renewal

Interesting essay on the connections between recent Black Lives Matter protests that block freeways and the long-term relationship between transportation networks and race.

Transportation, however, has long been central to the black civil rights movement, with the Selma march, the Freedom Rides, and Rosa Parks’s appeal to equal rights on public buses. Fifty years ago this summer, the March Against Fear inspired by James Meredith walked 220 miles of Southern roads from Memphis to Jackson, Miss.

If anything is new, what’s different today may be the occupation of urban interstates for the purpose of bringing them to a standstill. Protesters in Selma, Moss argues, wanted to use the Edmund Pettus Bridge — on their way to Montgomery — not block it.

Reed, who angered many activists with his comments in Atlanta, later defended them on Facebook by saying that King prepared for weeks and worked with Selma officials to ensure public safety, rather than flooding the bridge in a spontaneous and “dangerous” way.

To the extent that activists today are committed to a more urgent kind of disruption, planning ahead with police would defeat some of the purpose of bringing daily life to an abrupt halt, calling attention to the fundamental structures of inequality. And it’s hard to imagine officials assenting ahead of time to closing an entire highway.

Highways also carry a particular resonance for the grievances today of black civil rights activists, given that many deadly encounters with police, such as Castile’s, began with traffic stops (this patten has also prompted a new cry from transportation planners: “not in our name!”).

Historically, the same thing that happened in St. Paul — where the black Rondo neighborhood was destroyed — happened in Minneapolis, and Baltimore, and Oakland, and Atlanta, and in Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s childhood home of Charlotte.

Planner Robert Moses used highways to clear slums through poor and minority neighborhoods in New York. Mayor Richard J. Daley used the new Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago to wall off the old Irish white neighborhoods on the city’s South Side from the black neighborhoods to the east where the city built blocks and blocks of high-rise public housing.

Black neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s had little political power to block these engineering behemoths. And cities that wanted to redevelop poor neighborhoods — another government goal of the same era — got more federal money by building highways through them than by appealing for “urban renewal” funds.

“If your goal was to clear slums,” Connolly, the historian, said, “the best way to get bang for your buck was to use the highway as a slum clearance instrument.”

The resulting highways were then meant to speed whites who’d moved to the suburbs back and forth to jobs and attractions downtown, leapfrogging minority communities along the way. As Connolly suggested, they still serve this function today. And often, highways that passed through black communities weren’t planned with on- and off-ramps to them.

“They’re not designed for, nor do they serve, low-income communities who are actually already close to downtown,” said Brown University historian Robert Self. “If you live in West Oakland, you don’t need a freeway to get to downtown Oakland.”

This infrastructure that destroyed black communities then helped build white ones, in the form of far-flung bedroom communities that boomed once these roads made longer-distance commuting feasible. “Fremont exists before the freeway is built,” Self said of the town 25 miles south of Oakland. “But once you build it, then Fremont becomes this massive possibility. Or San Mateo, or Redwood City.”

Good stuff, quoting several of the best historians working in the United States today.

This Day in Labor History: July 2, 1964

[ 7 ] July 2, 2016 |

Lyndon_Johnson_signing_Civil_Rights_Act,_July_2,_1964

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Today’s post evaluates the impact of Title VII of the law. Title VII prohibited discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, with an exception for members of the Communist Party who employers could continue to discriminate against. For the first time, they had the right to a job regardless of their race and gender. This transformed employment law and the lives of millions of American workers.

Title VII came out of a long history of employment discrimination. A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement had targeted this directly and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had not only aimed to get the bill that became the Civil Rights Act passed but also sought economic remedies like Title VII. Civil rights and economic rights can not be separated, as much as Republicans would like to think civil rights is about one line out of one speech Martin Luther King gave and absolutely nothing more.

Title VII targeted private employers, excluding the federal government. Many feared Title VII would be toothless. The law created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but it originally had little power. Said the chair of the EEOC from 1967-1969, Clifford Alexander, “We sort of gummed them to death if we could, but we had no enforcement powers.” But when LBJ issued Executive Order 11246 in 1965 that required federal agencies to establish nondiscrimination clauses and private contractors practice nondiscrimination, Title VII slowly took on life. Requiring govenrment contractors to comply meant that the government’s significant power of the purse as it became an ever larger sector of the economy was a powerful tool that sent reverberations through the labor market.

In the long-run, Title VII had the farthest reaching impact of any clauses in the law. Civil rights groups began finding the EEOC a useful tool and assisted people who had been discriminated against in filing suit to use it. In its first year, people filed 9000 complaints to the EEOC. By 1975, there were 77,000 complaints. They could also use class action lawsuits for a much larger tool against systemic employment discrimination. More than 1200 such lawsuits were filed between 1965 and 1971. In 1972, Congress granted the EEOC the power to sue in federal court, vastly expanding its reach. Major companies sought to create consent decrees with the EEOC rather than face trial. Many of those companies agreed to major settlements with female workers and workers of color. The success of many of them gave employers the push they needed to solve their employment discrimination problems themselves.

The inclusion of Title VII contained a vitally important principle rarely recognized in the Untied States—that civil rights preempted property rights, which is why racists like Rand Paul still rail against the law today. As Barry Goldwater said when voting against the law, “Our right of property is perhaps our most sacred right.” Human rights surpassed property rights, arguably for only the second time in American history, and the first took a civil war to accomplish.

The inclusion of women in Title VII was at first seen as something of a joke, although it turns out the issue was more complicated than it first appeared. When Virginia Rep. Howard Smith, a staunch segregationist, added the category of sex to the law, he did intend to undermine it. But Smith had worked closely with Alice Paul in the past. Paul and the National Women’s Party had long opposed any liberal legislation, especially labor law, and often worked with conservatives who were interested in a broad Equal Rights Amendment. Smith was one of them. So Smith introduced the word “sex” both because he wanted to see the bill die but also because if it did pass, he wanted women to have a right under it, especially if they were competing against black men for jobs.

One of the most frustrating thing about studying justice issues is that white women are among the biggest beneficiaries from affirmative action programs, yet so many do not see themselves as benefiting or in solidarity with people of color. Title VII was arguably the biggest political victory for women’s rights since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The EEOC’s initial reluctance to fight for women’s rights on the job helped lead to the creation of the National Organization of Women in 1966. While we might not remember NOW as a leader in the fight for employment equality, NOW frequently worked closely with civil rights groups to fight both racial and sexual discrimination.

Title VII also allowed the Supreme Court to ban sexual harassment at the workplace under the law, including same-sex sexual harassment, as decided in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. Of course the use of Title VII to drastically change employment arrangements came under attack from the conservative movement and the Reagan administration underfunded the EEOC as it did the EPA, OSHA, and any other agency that sought to create a more equal America. Today, we are still far away from equal pay for equal work or an end to employment discrimination, despite real gains that we have made.

Some complain that the rise of a workplace fairness doctrine like Title VII has helped undermine the broader call for economic justice that the civil rights movement fought for. And there’s some real truth there. A. Philip Randolph was worried at the time that the law would ultimately do little for African-Americans because automation would throw many black workers out of a job and thus a jobs program was needed as well. But, between the 1960s and 1990s, the number of black policemen double, the number of black electricians tripled, and the number of black professionals quadrupled. The numbers of female professionals increased from 5 percent of the workforce to more than 30 percent in the same years. On the other hand, economic inequality is a major problem in society, it falls heavily by race and gender, and nothing in the Civil Rights Act even begins to solve this problem. Of course, the answer is new federal legislation to start solving it, but that’s probably far away.

I borrowed heavily from the forum on Title VII in the Fall 2014 issue of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas for this post.

This is the 183rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Stein’s History

[ 14 ] June 21, 2016 |

Dr.-Martin-Luther-King-Jr.-with-Walter-Reuther-before-speaking-at-historic-march-on-Washingrton2

Judith Stein is one of the finest historians working today. Her book, Pivotal Decade, is a superb discussion of the 1970s and the economic shift away from manufacturing to financialization. Critical work. You should read it.

Stein has a long interview with Jacobin that is also worth your time. I don’t agree with her on every point–she does underplay the central role of racism in southern politics to make the case that there were alternatives for the region, both during the Populist years and after the civil rights movement. And some of the questions are a bit eyerolling as they make cheap attempts to connect the “Democratic Party elites” of the 1890s killing Populists in the South and “Democratic Party elites” today, as if they were remotely the same people. But as a whole, this is good stuff. One excerpt:

First of all, both the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement were diverse. But I can make some generalizations. Let’s start with the AFL-CIO and its leader, George Meany.

Unlike Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Meany did not support the March on Washington in 1963. Nevertheless, he was the muscle behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including the very important Title 7, banning employment discrimination.

The Civil Rights Movement, and blacks in general, did not have much weight in Congress, so labor played a crucial role in getting legislation passed. And where labor was weak, the churches stepped in.

One of the reasons that Meany was so insistent on Title 7 was that the law had evolved so that unions, but not employers, were liable for employment discrimination. Making employment discrimination illegal would place the blame on employers, whom labor leaders believed were the cause of discrimination.

In addition, it wasn’t just Reuther who gave money to Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, the United Steelworkers in Birmingham gave $40,000 so that jailed demonstrators could be released. Claude Ramsay, head of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, worked very closely with Medgar Evers, the main civil rights leader in the state.

Having said that, it is also true that the hurricane of racism that enveloped the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s included many unionized white workers. This period halted some of the postwar progress that had been made and replaced the populists, who stressed economic issues, with the racists in state and local government.

Nonetheless, most union leaders in the South tried the best they could to promote black rights because they saw black voting as crucial to union success, as well as to their own liberalism.

There is no doubt that there were conflicts, generally over methods and the speed of black advancement. The conflicts escalated when the number of jobs was falling.

And some unions were better than others. The craft unions were less willing to change than the CIO industrial unions, which especially in the North had eliminated many of the discriminations of the pre-union era.

Even so, the unionized construction companies [strongholds of craft unionism] had better records on training blacks for skilled work than the nonunionized companies.

Textbooks and the Civil Rights Movement

[ 23 ] June 20, 2016 |
Rev. Ben Chavis, right, raises his fist as fellow protesters are taken to jail at the Warren County PCB landfill near Afton, North Carolina on Thursday, Sept. 16, 1982. Chavis is one of the members of the Wilmington 10. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

Rev. Ben Chavis, right, raises his fist as fellow protesters are taken to jail at the Warren County PCB landfill near Afton, North Carolina on Thursday, Sept. 16, 1982. Chavis is one of the members of the Wilmington 10. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

As I discussed in the Black Power post from a couple of days ago, the civil rights movement has no real start or end. It’s an ongoing series of struggles. The Civil Rights Movement we think of as having primarily existed between 1954 and 1965 is really just a moment where the black freedom struggle coincided with a peak of white liberalism that opened political space to change some of the laws oppressing African-Americans. It’s unfortunate that we so often think of the movement in this way because doing so erases the long-term systemic racism that oppressed black people before, during, and after this period. It’s also unfortunate that this periodization dominates American history textbooks, where other than mentions of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, the civil rights struggle after 1965 is scarcely mentioned, if at all. Adam Sanchez calls for the teaching of the “long civil rights movement,” focusing on the post-1965 struggles, as well as the 1954-65 period.

Far from being the end of the Civil Rights Movement, 1965 marked a legislative milestone and provided activists with another tool. But the new legislation was not a solution to the problems people had been organizing against for many years. In the North and the South, activists continued to confront poverty, unemployment, lack of health care, poor housing, inadequate education, and police and sheriff brutality.

U.S. history textbooks fail to look deeply at the urban rebellions, Martin Luther King’s campaigns against war and poverty, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and the rise of the Black Panther Party. And there are countless other post-1965 events that should be brought into the classroom: the Memphis Sanitation workers’ strike and the subsequent workers’ struggles of the 1970s, the Orangeburg Massacre, the fight for Ethnic Studies programs, the national campaign for welfare rights, the Attica Prison Uprising, the battle over segregated schools in Boston and community control in New York, the fight in the South to ensure the Voting Rights Act was put into practice, and many more.

The shallow understanding of the Civil Rights Movement that my students brought to class goes beyond not knowing post-1965 events. As historian Jeanne Theoharis has noted, before the Watts Rebellion there was more than two decades of nonviolent activism against legalized segregation in Los Angeles. And in 1963, after what is widely taught as a successful nonviolent struggle to desegregate downtown Birmingham, Alabama, 2,000 African Americans, fed up after segregationists bombed hotels that housed movement leaders, turned to violence. They threw rocks and bricks, looted stores, and set fire to a nearby grocery. Despite the fact that this precipitated Kennedy’s endorsement of the Civil Rights Act, this violence is often left out of the story of Birmingham, just as nonviolent activism is left out of the story of Watts.

What this example reveals and what a growing work of scholarship argues, is that we have been sold a narrative of the movement that ignores enormous parts of Civil Rights history. By mythologizing a successful, exclusively nonviolent struggle against racial segregation in the South that becomes a polarizing call for Black Power as it moves North after 1965, we leave out struggles across the country that don’t fit this stereotype.

We should replace this limited narrative, these scholars argue, with one of “The Long Civil Rights Movement,” a national Black freedom struggle rooted in struggles of the 1930s and extended through the 1970s, that used self-defense and nonviolent direct action, that dealt with issues of race and class, that developed international solidarity, and participated in countless local struggles in the North and South.

In classrooms across the country, guided by the official textbooks and curricula, students learn a version of the Civil Rights Movement that leaves its lessons in the past. School districts across the country should provide time for teachers to produce a people’s curriculum of the movement in order to teach the local histories that are left out of the official narrative. This way our students who we hope will join and shape today’s social movements can do so with knowledge and insight about what came before.

That last paragraph is really important because not only did the legal victories of civil rights start disappearing in the racist white backlash that began manifesting itself by 1965, but stopping our teaching of civil rights in that increasingly distant past is an overt political decision to downplay racism today. This is the sort of thing that allows conservatives to claim Martin Luther King as their own because of a couple of lines in one speech completely disconnected from context. Even King’s turn to democratic socialism, his opposition to Vietnam, his Chicago housing campaign, and his move to organizing a poor people’s movement is significantly downplayed in our historical narrative, and King’s the most celebrated figure in American civil rights. Dealing with racism today requires understanding racism of the past. Understanding Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15 today requires placing these movements in context of the black freedom struggles not only of 60 and 50 years ago but of 20, 30, and 40 years ago.

Fifty Years of Black Power

[ 51 ] June 18, 2016 |

07

Fifty years ago this month, the term “Black Power” became known to Americans as the participants in the March Against Fear picked it up as their slogan. N.D.B. Connolly, whose book you should read, discusses both its implications for today and then goes onto criticize how historians of radical African-Americans have gone far to undermine the potency of radical Black Power scholarship by focusing their attention on popular figures like Stokley Carmichael, promoting trade books and liberal notions of inclusive diversity instead of what Black Power activists actually fought for themselves. The whole thing is a must read. But I want to focus on his discussion of how Black Power never really ended.

This year will no doubt see plenty of fitting and necessary commemorations of Black Power’s importance in American history. Still, 50th anniversaries seem as good a time as any to clear up enduring confusions. “Black Power” is not some dusty or even hallowed slogan trapped in the past. It resides in the here-and-now as a set of living political and civic commitments. It includes a healthy suspicion of white-run institutions and an enduring desire for black ownership and other forms of self-determination. It also includes a hope that an unapologetic love of black people can, indeed, become a site of interracial political consensus. Chicago’s Black Youth Project 100, Baltimore’s Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and scores of #BlackLivesMatter activists and their affiliates around the country represent but a handful of the groups that sharply echo the most militant political practices of the last half-century.

Not unlike Meredith’s marchers, courageous men and women over the last 50 years have also kept alive a certain intellectual fearlessness, advancing what one could fittingly call a Black Power method. A Black Power method remains both anti-racist and, often, anti-liberal in its interpretive and archival practice. Interpretively, it refuses to caricature black radicalism as doomed for failure. It also remains attentive to racism’s class and gendered dimensions, even if, like historical Black Power, it is not uniformly, or even necessarily, “progressive” on either. Projections of black unity, as Elsa Barkley Brown recently reminded, often require silencing. Thus, it still takes real intellectual work to prioritize the stories of working-class people, queer people, and women who might otherwise be erased from the historical record, either by white supremacist history-making or black bourgeois responses to it.

I consistently tell my students that the civil rights movement has no start or end. If it has a starting point, it’s the moment the first African slave entered Virginia in 1619 and it continues to the present. We just talk about the Civil Rights Movement as a thing (with capital letters) because it’s one of only two times in U.S. history that enough white people cared about the oppression of African-Americans to pass legislation to do something about it (the other time of course being during Congressional Reconstruction). Black Power is not a thing of the past. As we see in Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, the anti-Confederate flag movement, and many other places, the issues driving black activism in 2016 are in many ways not that different than in 1965 or even 1865. And some of that activism has and does today reject white-dominated liberalism and unchallenging notions of diversity. That’s certainly Connolly’s position, as the rest of this essay makes clear and even if it makes white people uncomfortable, it’s a perfectly legitimate position that if anything makes actual acceptance of black people in American life more possible.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 20

[ 36 ] February 21, 2016 |

This is the grave of Martin Luther King, Jr.

2016-01-09 16.18.21

Martin Luther King is a man who gave one speech in his life. In that speech he talked about dreams in such a vague way that he actually meant to give support to whatever conservative talking point happens to be in vogue today. King had no interest in economic justice, opposing the war in Vietnam, building an inclusive society, desegregating housing and schools except in the most formal legal way, or fighting against white supremacy. Nope, he was just a man with a vague dream.

Martin Luther King, Jr and Coretta Scott King are buried at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, Atlanta, Georgia.

How the Wagner Act Laid the Groundwork for Affirmative Action

[ 5 ] January 31, 2016 |

Bayard_Rustin_NYWTS_3

Very interesting Touré Reed analysis at Jacobin:

The case for affirmative action — like unionization before it — proceeded from the view that anti-discrimination policy was in the public interest. Though the history of federal workplace anti-discrimination initiatives dates back to the New Deal, President Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order 10925 — which authorized the federal government to cancel contracts with vendors who failed to take “affirmative action” to redress employment disparities — is generally understood as the start of the modern era of anti-discrimination policy.

The Kennedy and later the Johnson administrations argued that workplace discrimination was a drag on the national economy, viewing racism as an irrational encumbrance on productivity. The Kennedy administration’s case for a fair employment practices bill — what would eventually become Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — thus centered on the Commerce Clause, placing workplace discrimination in the purview of the federal government.

Those who imagine that market-oriented programs offer the best route to racial equality today should recall that opponents of Title VII, like Republican senator Barry Goldwater, argued that fair employment practices legislation violated “freedom of contract.”

But while anti-discrimination legislation necessarily infringed on an employer’s right to hire, fire, promote, or demote whomever they wished, the Wagner Act had already abridged this right — as proponents of anti-discrimination law understood at the time — thus establishing a precedent for affirmative action.

In fact, the phrase “affirmative action” first appeared in a Wagner Act provision that directed judges to impose financial penalties on employers who discriminated against union organizers.

The eventual implementation of affirmative action in the workplace likewise drew on precedent stemming from the Wagner Act. As study after study has shown, few if any employers use quotas — which are not mandated by Title VII. Instead, employers hoping to avoid costly lawsuits established offices of equal employment to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination law.

These new equal employment offices were modeled on the labor relations departments union and non-union firms established in the wake of the Wagner Act. Moreover, many of the policies implemented by equal employment offices to ensure fair employment practices — including in-house grievance procedures, formal job descriptions, published guidelines for promotion and termination, salary classifications, and open bidding— were already in use by labor relations departments partly because unions had demanded them.

The Wagner Act and the labor movement it helped spawn are perhaps the clearest expression of the social-democratic impulses informing the old New Deal Democratic coalition. As such, the links between the right to collective bargaining and anti-discrimination legislation draw attention to the historic importance of social democracy to so-called civil rights issues.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine on what basis black civil rights leaders — who lobbied on behalf of a group that accounted for just 10 percent of the nation’s population — would have demanded a fair employment practices act in the 1960s, if the Wagner Act had not already established a precedent, in the name of the public good, for abridging the right to freedom of contract.

Simply put, the civil rights movement’s victories required an interventionist state — as was understood by all of the principal players, on both sides, at the time. And while the New Deal had significant limitations, its efforts to enhance the purchasing power of working people — centered on fostering a more stable form of capitalism — established a framework for a rights discourse that would prove indispensable to African-American civil rights.

Civil Rights Footage from Portland

[ 15 ] January 25, 2016 |

For Martin Luther King Day, The Oregonian complied some footage of the civil rights movement in Portland. This is powerful stuff. The two most riveting segments are of the racial tensions at the high school, including a meeting where the kids are yelling at each other, and a story about a black family who integrated a neighborhood in Beaverton, a Portland suburb, and then were forced out because of racial harassment, deciding to abandon Oregon entirely and move back to Washington, DC.

This footage is especially important given that not only is Portland today White Paradise, but Oregon has always functioned as a White Paradise and most residents of the state are not remotely aware of this.

There are longer pieces of footage at the link.

This Day in Labor History: August 28, 1963

[ 16 ] August 28, 2015 |

On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington, DC. This famous event is of course most often remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or more specifically the 3 lines of it that conservatives have decided justify their own positions. But even among liberals and civil rights activists what is often forgotten or downplayed in the memory of this event is the central role economic issues played in it. Most of the economic agenda of the 1960s civil rights movement in fact is barely remembered. That’s a huge problem because not only were African-Americans fighting for the opportunity for economic advancement as well as to end segregation and for the vote but also because it presents an incomplete history which takes away part of the reason this movement so challenged American life.

First, it’s worth noting that the original idea for the March on Washington came from a union. In 1941, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president A. Philip Randolph called for a march on Washington to protest hiring discrimination in defense plants as the nation was gearing up for World War II. Like most issues concerning minorities, FDR didn’t really care but he didn’t want the bad publicity so he caved and ordered the end of hiring discrimination on government defense contracts. This opened up a lot of jobs to African-Americans during World War II and helped build the black middle class that would do much to push forward the freedom struggle after the war.

Randolph was still active in the movement in 1963, although more as a senior figure than a major player. But he, Bayard Rustin, and others revived the idea of the march to push John F. Kennedy to do something on civil rights, which he had been frustratingly reluctant to do. Rustin was hired to organize the event. Rustin had been a communist in the past and that greatly worried anti-communists like the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins (who did not even want to make a statement about the death of W.E.B. DuBois at the March because he hated him for his communism but who did when he realized Randolph would do it and it would be favorable), but he had played a role in the planning for the 1941 march and he had Randolph’s trust. Of course Strom Thurmond used Rustin’s role to paint the entire march as a communist front and J. Edgar Hoover rejected a report showing no significant communist infiltration into the civil rights movement, but this was just standard fare from the white supremacist American power structure.

The NAACP and most importantly Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference agreed to the idea while the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were happy to use the opportunity to take on Kennedy publicly and directly for his inaction. The civil rights movement was a diverse movement with a lot of different groups and aims. That meant some careful alliance building was needed. But the different groups did come up with specific goals to fight for which included not only the passage of civil rights legislation, but a $2 minimum wage ($15.60 today), federal employment law banning discrimination in public or private hiring, and the expansion of the Fair Labor Standards Act to include agricultural workers, domestic workers, and the rest of the workers excluded when the law passed in 1938.

March_on_Washington_for_Jobs_and_Freedom,_Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Joachim_Prinz_1963

During the March itself, Bayard Rustin read all these demands on live television, which may be the only time a list of labor demands has received that kind of coverage. A. Philip Randolph led off the speeches by saying, “We are the advanced guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom” and that “the sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of a human personality” in arguing for housing reform.

Playing a key role in the March on Washington was United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. Organized labor often has a bad reputation on civil rights during this era, mostly for a good reason. Reuther is an important exception. This doesn’t mean he could instantly turn UAW locals into beacons of racial harmony. Turns out that racial solidarity has a lot more power with a lot more people than class solidarity and UAW officials found that out the hard way when they tried to push civil rights on the shop floor. But that’s an issue for another entry in this series. Reuther provided key labor support for the event. The AFL-CIO paid for a lot of the infrastructure of making this event happen, including the buses to get people to Washington and the UAW paid for the sound system that would blast King’s speech into history. This all happened over the opposition of George Meany, who did not care much about civil rights before this and who opposed an official federation endorsement of the march. But the AFL-CIO did officially support the Kennedy civil rights bill. It is said that Meany however was so moved by Randolph’s speech at the March that he created the A. Philip Randolph Institute to promote African-Americans in the labor movement.

index

Reuther stated in his speech, “And the job question is crucial because we will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of American Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs.” Reuther knew that he had a friend in King because even as a lot of internationals and locals resisted the civil rights movement, King consistently supported the progressive causes of labor and frequently spoke to labor audiences. And of course as King went on, he became more and more focused on economic justice as a centerpiece of the larger freedom struggle, to the point of dying while supporting the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968.

While it’s difficult to measure the precise impact of the march on the political process so soon before Kennedy’s death, we can pretty clearly say it led to the inclusion of the Fair Employment Practices clause into what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Also please notice how little a role Martin Luther King has played in this post. The March on Washington was not all about MLK, although that in no ways diminishes his importance to the movement or the “I Have a Dream” speech. But it was a lot more than one man giving one speech.

This is the 156th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Page 1 of 812345...Last »