After the recent grand jury verdicts in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island and the subsequent protests, all I feel is anger and frustration. Anger at the fact that people lose their lives for no good reason, which is a tragedy. Frustration from the response of people who think laying on the ground and blocking traffic will do something to change the justice system and the subtle racism that pervades our culture.
In 2014, anyone who wants to improve the racial dynamics in America are playing a different game than the men and women who led the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. Courageous leaders like Martin Luther King Jr were leading movements protesting a physically segregated and violent America. It was the first time since emancipation that people stood up and said "We've had enough." Today, we need courage and leadership, but we need different strategies. But before getting into that, it's important to look back and understand how we got here.
After slavery ended and Reconstruction fell apart, we entered the Jim Crow era - possibly the worst time for black Americans in this country. The deeply troubling book Trouble in Mind covers this period in depth. Leon Litwack writes:
When black Southerners in 1865 staked out their claims to becoming a free people, they projected a very different vision of the future. They aspired to a better life than they had known, to a life once thought impossible to contemplate. They wanted what they had seen whites enjoy - the vote, schools, churches, legal marriages, judicial equity, and the chance to not only work on their own plots of land but to retain the rewards of their laboring. During Reconstruction, they seized the opportunity to make these goals a reality, to reorder the post-bellum South. It was a time of unparalleled hope, laden with possibility, when black men and women acted to shape their own destiny.
He goes on to describe what ended Reconstruction and how Jim Crow "ruled" at the turn of the 20th century:
Neither military defeat nor the end of slavery suggested to whites the need to reexamine racial relationships and assumptions. Confronting a society "suddenly turned bottom-side up," the white South responded with massive resistance...Whites employed terror, intimidation, and violence to doom Reconstruction, not because blacks had demonstrated incompetence but because they were rapidly learning the uses of political power, not because of evidence of black failure but the far more alarming evidence of black success...What the white South lost on the battlefields of the Civil War and during reconstruction, it would largely retake in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In what has been called the "nadir" of African American history, a new generation of black Southerners shared with the survivors of enslavement a sharply proscribed and deteriorating position in a South bent on commanding black lives and black labor by any means necessary.
The Jim Crow era ranged from the late 1870's to the Great Migration when millions of African Americans left the South for northern cities. The violence of the Jim Crow era was something we can't imagine today. There was essentially no protection for blacks in the South. Beatings, Lynchings, and rape of "free" United States citizens were common place. Litwack describes the lynching of a man named Sam Hose, who was wrongly accused of rape:
Some two thousand men and women witnessed it on Sunday afternoon, April 23, 1899, near Newman, Georgia, some of them arriving from Atlanta on a special excursion train. After stripping Hose of his clothes and chaining him to a tree, the self-appointed executioners stacked kerosene-soaked wood high around him. Before saturating Hose with oil and applying the torch, they cut off his ears, fingers, and genitals, and skinned his face. While some in the crowd plunged knives into the victims flesh, others watched "with unfeigning satisfaction" (as one reporter noted) the contortions of Sam Hose's body as the flames rose, distorting his features, causing his eyes to bulge out of their sockets, and rupturing his veins. When in Hose's agony he almost managed to unloosen his bonds, the executioners quenched the flames, retied him, and applied more oil to the body before relighting the fire. "Such suffering," reported on newspaper,"has seldom been witnessed." The only sounds that came from the victim's lips, even as his blood sizzled in the fire, were "Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus!" Before Hose's body had even cooled, his heart and liver were removed and cut into several pieces and his bones were crushed into small particles. The crowd fought over these souvenirs, and the "more fortunate possessors" made some handsome profits on the sales. (Small pieces of bones went for 25 cent, a piece of the liver "crisply cooked" sold for 10 cents). Shortly after the lynching, one of the participants reportedly left for the state capitol hoping to deliver to the governor of Georgia a slice of Sam Hose's heart. No member of this crowd wore a mask, nor did anyone attempt to conceal the names of the perpetrators. Reporters noted the active participation of some of the region's most prominent citizens in the execution.
These kind of events are what led to Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties. Between 1882 and 1959 there were an estimated 4,733 lynchings in the United States. Many more occurred that were never reported. When people had sit-ins, and marched through the South, it was a big deal. When a quarter of a million people marched on Washington to demand the passage of civil rights legislation, it was truly the end of an era. These things had never been done before. They were shocking to many, and highly emotional for all who participated. The images from these events were broadcast on television and reproduced in countless newspapers and magazines. It was a time of radical change. And for the most part, it worked.
Fast forward to today. While the outcomes of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner murders have sparked rage and inspired people to take to the streets, it's hard to see what change that will bring. We may see officers sporting body cameras, and maybe we'll see some more transparency in New York grand jury proceedings, but what else?
Let's be clear, racism still exists. The difference is that it's not overt. You won't see another Sam Hose and this isn't 12 Years a Slave. You're more likely to hear the N-word in a song or from some Asian or Hispanic kid - not being used as a racial slur. With that being said, what can we do - how do you fight an enemy you feel, but can't see? You don't do it by doing what worked fifty years ago. This is a different enemy, a different game.
Unfortunately, I don't have an answer to any of these questions. I wish I did. What I do know is that in any game you must constantly change your strategy to fit your situation if you want to win. Gandhi had the right strategy for the game he was playing, the aforementioned civil rights leaders had the winning strategy for their time. What's the winning strategy today? Time will tell, but if history has taught us anything, it's that the answer will come from patient and dedicated leaders who will adapt their strategies to fit the times.