A new documentary covers the infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement by the Mississippi state government in the 1950s and 1960s
The new documentary Spies of Mississippi, which airs on PBS, covers the clandestine activities of the little-known Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. During the 1950s and 60s, the group sought to subvert and destroy the Civil Rights Movement and efforts at desegregation by using espionage tactics, including employing black informants and agents provocateurs to discredit Civil Rights activism.
Here is a clip from DemocracyNow! featuring an interview with producer/director Dawn Porter and investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell:
On Twitter, the RNC implies that racism in America “ended” with Rosa Parks, fifty-eight years ago
Fifty-eight years, ago (counted back from 2013), on December 1, 1955, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, a black woman from Montgomery, Alabama, refused to step to the back of a bus to sit down in the ‘colored section,’ marking the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to end segregationist laws in the U.S.
The Civil Rights Movement according to the RNC
This year, the Republican National Committee sort of stepped in it with a tweet that suggested racism in America ended after Rosa Parks. As Politicususa reports, the tweet said:
Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.
That statement is very questionable, to say the least. The pronouncement of the end of racism in America is premature today, and would have been even more so by orders of magnitude almost sixty years ago.
Racism is alive and well
I would like to mention just a few issues to illustrate this reality: The Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman case, the level of hostility against President Obama that goes way beyond any reasonable (and deserved!) criticism of his administration’s policies, and countless stories about harassment and excessive use of force by the police, in particular against people of color.
We, ahem, misspoke
The RNC then deleted the tweet above and replaced it with this one:
Previous tweet should have read “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in fighting to end racism.”
To be fair, everyone can make mistakes in social media. But the GOP and the RNC are not just “Joe Sixpack” who happens to have a smartphone to tweet from.
Ending racism with voter ID laws?
In the past election cycles, the GOP has been actively working to make voting harder for (poor) people of color and other demographic groups who would likely support Democrats by implementing various voter ID laws (see here, here, and here). In this light, the RNC’s honoring of Rosa Parks and their very loose interpretation of civil rights history might be seen much more cynically.
You can watch a discussion of the issue from the progressive talk show Majority Report with Sam Seder here:
Fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963, the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” marked a pivotal moment in the post-World-War-Two-era of the Civil Rights Movement. During that rally joined by between 200,000 and 300,000 participants, Martin Luther King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
During the next two years, two seminal pieces of civil rights legislation were passed: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed voter discrimination and racial segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled federal oversight of elections in order to ensure black voters were not disenfranchised by various schemes. Such had been the practice since the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War, especially in the former Confederate states of the US South.
The FBI versus the Civil Rights Movement
At the same time, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who saw MLK as at least a communist sympathizer, tried to subvert the Civil Rights Movement. Hoover ordered surveillance on King and there is evidence to suggest that the FBI tried to persuade King to kill himself by blackmailing him with compromising material from King’s extramarital affairs. An FBI memo at the time characterized King as “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”
Barack Obama’s 2013 speech on Martin Luther King’s legacy
The 44th POTUS took the opportunity to commemorate the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King in a speech that highlighted the accomplishment of that era, but also acknowledged the remaining challenges.
And there are many: Higher unemployment and incarceration rates for peope of color, racial suspicion leading to unnecessary death as in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, racial profiling by police forces and ‘stop-and-frisk’ laws, or even open racist hostility against Obama himself. Racist anti-Obama signs displayed at Tea Party rallies and the Birther Movement questioning Obama’s American citizenship and legitimacy illustrate that in this regard, even at the highest level of power, there is no escape from the dynamics of society at large.
Race is over, say conservatives
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal: Why do you immigrants want to be chunks of salad? You should jump into the melting pot and become real Americans!
Some American conservatives beg to differ, of course. In a recent op-ed addressing the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R), who is Indian American, and a possible 2016 presidential contender, argues for “the end of race” in America.
But contrary to the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. et al., his solution to race-related social issues in America is not to address them, but to ignore them. Jindal claims that “too much emphasis [is put] on [Americans’] “separateness,”” and that “[w]e live in the age of hyphenated Americans.” In his opinion “we must resist the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl.” Oh those metaphors for America!
But in my opinion, Jindal sets up a strawman argument here. Judging from my personal reading of current events (and history) in America, the real issue is not that racial and/or ethnic groups care about their cultural heritage. The real issue is that the construct of race, as it has developed throughout American culture and history, has negative real-life effects on those not designated as white (plus male, heterosexual, etc.).
Furthermore, the idea of a mainstream American culture that people can melt into, as Israel Zangwill’s ‘melting pot’ metaphor suggests, is in itself not neutral. Who gets to define the mainstream culture? For a long time, the undisputed hegemon of mainstream American culture was the WASP male.
True, this has changed over time, to a certain degree, especially in the area of popular culture. Who would, for example, seriously deny the influence of African American culture on what became known as Rock’n’Roll, which conquered the world as a quintessentially American form popular music and youth rebellion. History thus suggests that in many ways, difference and a common culture have always coexisted in America on some level. As an outsider, I think that this is actually great about America.
As I see it, the subtext of Jindal’s article seems to be that in order to be one happy American family, everybody should adopt white mainstream culture. My suspicion is that Governor Jindal is pandering to old white men, who are currently the core GOP constituency, whom he wants to vote for him in 2016.
Fox News: Just ignore racism!
Also in the ‘racism is over’ camp are the usual suspects, namely the Fox ‘News’ punditariat. Recently, host Bill O’Reilly was talking about an incident whereas African American billionaire talk show host Opray Winfrey, who was travelling abroad in Switzerland, was not shown a very expensive handbag in a store because the clerk did not know who she was, and apparently thought that a random black woman could not afford such a luxurious item. O’Reilly suggested that, in general, people should just ignore racists, because there would be no use in trying to change their minds. But as I mentioned before, as opposed to Bill O’Reilly, people of color in America often do not have the white privilege of ignoring racism.
Coopting King for political parties
As Martin Luther King, Jr. is such an American icon and the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, it is no wonder that both big political parties want to coopt King’s legacy for their own political purposes. Republicans are claiming that MLK was one of them. But King did not endorse any of the two parties.
One might speculate that, were he alive today, King would side with some of the Democrats’ policies. Back in his day, King criticized the racism of the GOP (and many Southern Democrats would join the GOP). But he was also critical of the Vietnam War and might certainly have some critical words about Obama’s drone war, the totalitarian surveillance by the NSA, and the unwillingness to curb the obscene excesses of capitalism on Wall Street.