In 1955, Emmett Till was fished out of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi with a bullet in his skull, an eye gouged out and his forehead crushed on one side after the 14-year-old had said, “Bye, baby,” to a white woman in a grocery store. Everybody knew who did it. The two men admitted it afterwards. But it took an all-white jury just 67 minutes to return a verdict of not guilty. One of the jurors said they would have returned earlier if they hadn’t stopped for a soda.
Eight years later the Mississippi civil rights worker Medgar Evers was returning home just after midnight carrying white T-shirts announcing “Jim Crow Must Go”. Across the street, Byron De La Beckwith, a Klansman, was lurking in the honeysuckle bushes with a 30.06 Enfield hunting rifle. The sound of Evers slamming the car door was followed rapidly by a burst of gunfire. By the time Evers’s wife, Myrlie, got to the front door her husband was already dying. Everyone knew Beckwith had done it. But it wasn’t until 1994 he was convicted, after all-white juries twice failed to reach a verdict.
On the night in July when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, the Martin family’s lawyer sought to locate Trayvon’s plight firmly within the narrative of these heinous miscarriages of the civil rights era. “Trayvon Martin will forever remain in the annals of history next to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till as symbols for the fight for equal justice for all,” Benjamin Crump said.
Yet even for those who agreed with the sentiment, the comparison bore one crucial flaw. Back then there was a movement that could take these tragedies, channel the frustration and bitterness into concrete political demands, and take them to the streets. Today the frustration and bitterness remain but the strategic and organisational means to act on them have dissipated. When news of Zimmerman’s acquittal came in I was at a party of mostly black folk in Chicago. The mood there turned quickly from celebration to wake. Then the crying started.
It is 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech, and that should force a reckoning with how much was achieved in those tumultuous times, and how much there is still to do. America has a black president and a sizeable moneyed black middle class, which, for the last two elections, has voted more or less at the same rate as its white counterpart. But the disparity between black and white unemployment is the same as it was 50 years ago and this summer voting rights protections, a key victory of the civil rights era, have been gutted by the Supreme Court. There has also been a New York court ruling against the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, which terrorised low income black and Latino neighbourhoods.
For all that, America’s capacity for nostalgia, which borders on patriotic delusion in matters of civil rights and racial justice, should not be underestimated. When King died, he had become an increasingly marginalised figure. Twice as many Americans had an unfavourable view of him as a favourable one just two years before his assassination in 1968. Yet by 1999 a poll of the most admired public figures of the 20th century found only Mother Teresa to be more popular. And in 2011, when a memorial to King was unveiled near the National Mall in Washington, DC (where demonstrators gathered to hear him in 1963), featuring a 30-foot-high statue sited on four acres of prime cultural real estate, 91 per cent of Americans – including 89 per cent of white people – approved.
There has been the same shift in perceptions of the civil rights movement as a whole. A month before the March on Washington, 54 per cent of white Americans thought the Kennedy administration “was pushing racial integration too fast”. A few months after, 59 per cent of northern whites and 78 per cent of southern whites disapproved of “actions Negroes have taken to obtain civil rights”.
A few decades later, in 1999, a survey of leading scholars named “I have a dream” the greatest speech of the 20th century. In 2008, 68 per cent of Americans said they thought the speech was “relevant to people of your generation” – 76 per cent of blacks and 67 per cent of whites. Only 4 per cent of those surveyed were not familiar with it.
The near unanimity with which Americans now applaud the demise of formal, codified segregation belies the divisive, bloody and unpopular struggle it took to get rid of it. The nation’s ability to co-opt and rebrand resistance to past inequities as evidence of its own essential and unique genius is as impressive as it is cynical. Such sleight of hand is often exercised at the same time as attempts to correct the inequalities that made the resistance necessary in the first place are ignored or brushed aside. At the 2012 Republican National Convention some of the loudest cheers were for tales of immigrants and minorities overcoming obstacles to make great personal advances – even as the party platform sought to put new obstacles in the way of upcoming minorities and immigrants.
On the day of the 1963 march this process was already under way. Documentary filmmakers for the US Information Agency (a government body devoted to international propaganda) were hard at work on the Mall, depicting the peaceful protest as part of its broadsides in the cold war. “Smile,” they told the demonstrators. “This is going to Africa.” Michael Thelwell, a young activist at the time, later said: “So it happened that Negro students from the South, some of whom still had unhealed bruises from the electric cattle prods which Southern police used to break up demonstrations, were recorded for the screens of the world portraying ‘American Democracy at Work’.”
In his speech King claimed: “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.” It’s now clear that in terms of mass, non-racial activism against Jim Crow laws, it turned out to be the beginning of the end – a pivotal moment in the push for social justice. This, in no small part, is a testament to the achievements of that time. Within a year of the march came the Civil Rights Act; within two years there was the Voting Rights Act, which forbade discrimination in elections.
Yet these successes brought with them their own challenge – how to proceed in the struggle for racial justice. The shift from protesters’ demands to congressional bills limited the possibilities for radical transformation. Clear moral demands were replaced by horse-trading. Marchers cannot be stopped by a filibuster; legislation can. Bayard Rustin, the outstanding activist who organised the march, explained it thus: “We are moving from a period of protest to one of political responsibility . . . That is, instead of marching on the courthouse, or the restaurant, or the theatre, we now had to march to the ballot box. In protest there must never be compromise. In politics there is always compromise.”
The trouble was that, having conceded civil rights, the American political class was apparently unwilling to compromise on much else, particularly once Lyndon B Johnson left office. “A lot of people have lost faith in the establishment,” King said in 1966. “They’ve lost faith in the democratic process. They’ve lost faith in non-violence . . . [T]hose who will make this peaceful revolution impossible will make a violent revolution inevitable, and we’ve got to get this over. I need help. I need some victories, I need concessions.”
He would get precious few. Segregation may have come eventually to offend mainstream American sensibilities, but inequality per se did not. Indeed, at the heart of American mythology is the notion of class fluidity, social mobility and personal reinvention, whereby inequality in wealth is acceptable as long as equality of opportunity is available. That such equal opportunity was denied to Black citizens was not an issue with which most Americans were prepared to engage, so long as opportunity was not denied explicitly on the grounds of race.
In a much-noted essay in the February 1965 edition of Commentary magazine titled “From Protest to Power: the Future of the Civil Rights Movement”, Rustin summed up the new period thus: “From sit-ins and freedom rides we have gone into rent strikes, boycotts, community organisation, and political action. As a consequence of this natural evolution, the Negro today finds himself stymied by obstacles of far greater magnitude than the legal barriers he was attacking before: automation, urban decay, de facto school segregation. These are problems . . . deeply rooted in our socio-economic order; they are the result of the total society’s failure to meet not only the Negro’s needs, but human needs generally.”
And so it remains. In the absence of the clear and unifying goal of desegregation, the coalition of civil rights groups, trade unions and religious organisations that made the March on Washington possible splintered, and its aims were either diluted or redirected to goals much more difficult to define.
True, the signs are down and the laws have been struck from the statute book. But from the judiciary to health care and from voter suppression to education, the legacy of what those signs stood for – white supremacy and racial discrimination – remains. The statistics are stunning. Black child poverty is almost three times that of whites; life expectancy for black males in Washington, DC is lower than in the Gaza Strip; by 2004, there were more black men disenfranchised because they were felons than in 1870, when the black male franchise was secured. It’s as though Jim Crow conceived a son between the alleyways of de jure and de facto and then denied paternity.
What this means for contemporary campaigns around civil rights has become clear following George Zimmerman’s acquittal. In the immediate aftermath there were huge vigils throughout the country and interest in a new march on Washington, organised by civil rights groups and scheduled for 24 August. I spoke at a meeting in Chicago less than a week afterwards, called at very short notice, to which more than 200 people showed up. (And it wasn’t the only meeting on the issue that night.) Like the vigils it, too, was lively and impressive and yet, while the analysis was mostly coherent and on point, there was a lack of focus as to what we might demand. Some spoke of gun laws, others of stop-and-frisk and racism in the judicial system, others of the plight of black youth in general.
This says less about the participants than it does about the period, because the problem is by no means specific to race. The fragmentation was apparent during the Occupy Wall Street protests, in which any one protester could give any range of reasons for what had brought him to the streets. The systemic nature of the problem renders it both pervasive and elusive. We want something. In a sense, we want everything. But the specific route map as to how we get from here to there remains unclear, because even when the oppression we are fighting is blatant it nonetheless remains institutionally burrowed away and expresses itself in myriad ways.
Fifty years ago, most of the civil rights leadership showed little interest in a march on Washington until the protests in Birmingham, Alabama, which drew international attention to segregation in the South. The huge upswell in activism that followed – 758 demonstrations in 186 cities, resulting in 14,733 arrests – required that protesters either lead an orderly mass demonstration or follow and explain something more chaotic. Back then there were clear demands in need of a national march at which to express them; this year there is a national march in search of clear demands to cohere around.
These contradictions and challenges were already apparent in the months following the March on Washington, though it was not clear then how long they would endure. For as America congratulated itself on the end of segregation, meaningful equality did not arrive. At a meeting in Chicago in 1966, King was shaken after being booed by young black men in the crowd. He recalled: “I went home that night with an ugly feeling. Selfishly I thought of my sufferings and sacrifices over the last 12 years. Why would they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself, and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young people.
“For 12 years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream . . . They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.”