The police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing demonstrations across the country are crying out for an understanding of how we got here. It is a long, grim road down which too many Americans have been loath to venture.
With so many books on the subject, it’s hard to be original, but imagine how deep and profitable societal racism must have been for the 241 years slave ships delivered their human cargo. Beyond the actual kidnappers who chained hundreds of terrified, naked humans at a time into a fetid ship hull, there were the investors who expected a successful 80% survival rate across the Atlantic, the buyers who enjoyed a trip to the auction block to rip apart screaming mothers and children and fathers, and the slave drivers who whipped the enslaved to work or just on a whim.
Five of our first seven presidents were slave owners, who possessed over 1,300 enslaved human beings among them. Even Francis Scott Key, writer of the Star Spangled Banner, owned slaves and, as attorney general of Washington D.C., he argued repeatedly in federal court that, not only were blacks inferior, but that defendants caught with abolitionist literature were to be hanged, not in effigy, literally hanged for words in their possession. The First Amendment meant nothing to him if it advocated any humanity for people of color. At the very moment in 1814 he was penning “land of the free,” hundreds of enslaved people were clamoring to get on board British Man o’ Wars knowing that any hope of freedom for them was not here. The view that freedom of speech did not extend to speaking against this peak of inhumanity was so mainstream that in 1836 the House of Representatives actually passed a gag order disallowing any Congressman from raising the issue of slavery, a prohibition former president John Quincy Adams exposed as the hypocritical joke it was, refusing to ever stop discussing slavery on the floor. So on the road to Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd that must be our starting point.
While we certainly weren’t the only country exploiting the slave trade — and yes, that was a long time ago — consider these 2020 numbers as anger disrupts our streets:
- More blacks today have been incarcerated than were slaves in the 1850s.
- Black men make up 6.2% of the U.S. population but 40.2% of the prison population.
- The US has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
- The number of incarcerated Americans went up 700% between 1972 and 2011. (Since then, rates have fallen but are still staggeringly high.)
How we interpret these horrific numbers probably depends on how we see U.S. racial history since slavery was abolished. When the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended chattel slavery with no white southern input (still reestablishing their citizenship after secession), freed slaves were quickly at the mercy of southern courts because of the amendment’s loophole that “punishment for a crime...duly convicted” was justification for involuntary labor. If an entire economic system for the previous 241 years had been based on involuntary labor, would true freedom for black Americans suddenly become real? Naturally, where they had been called slaves, they could now be called prisoners after show trials for racist juries that included plantation owners and new Ku Klux Klan members, but no blacks. If an alleged victim was white, a black person was not allowed to testify as a witness. Prisons were quickly filled with African Americans convicted of loitering and vagrancy, and whose guilt must have been questionable to even the most mainstream, hate-filled racist then in control.
While southern courts were travesties of justice, thousands of times, white mobs didn’t even go through that formality. Instead, they would put an ad in the local newspaper inviting all to a lynching. They could take the black “accused” awaiting trial from a jail cell or from the street, drag him through the jeering crowds including children and hang him from a tree amid community cheers. Of the thousands of times this occurred throughout the U.S., there was never one trial for lynching, let alone a guilty verdict, all through these years. It was open season on Black Americans, and it was mainstream.
Unspeakable brutality against blacks got so bad, that in 1901, new President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner to discuss remedies. Dinner was fine, but having a former slave sit at the White House dining room table inspired such vitriol among white southerners that they hired a hitmen to kill Washington (unsuccessful) and penned vulgar cartoons depicting him with Mrs. Roosevelt. It was not an invitation her husband would repeat.
The portrayal of black men as menacing criminals that white society needed to keep their wives and daughters safe from took a huge leap in intensity with the motion picture in 1916, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It is hard to imagine this hideous film being popular at any time. Its plot is a black man trying to rape a white girl of about 14, whose purity is only protected by KKK legions burning crosses (which the KKK had never done before) and riding in on horses, killing the antagonist (played by a white man in black face). Not only were there lines to see this monstrosity across the country but racist president Woodrow Wilson loved it and showed it to his guests repeatedly at the White House. The film was responsible for a huge resurgence of the KKK so that in 1921 the worst race massacre ever, even to this day, took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in which the entire black neighborhood was bombed and burned from the air and about 300 people (authorities lost count) were killed. By 1924, 350 delegates at the Democratic convention were open members of the KKK. Hatred of Blacks had been totally mainstreamed with parades of 25,000 members at a time marching down the Mall in front of the US Capitol with white pointy hoods and flags waving everywhere. KKK lynchings continued up to 1981, when a Klansman, after randomly kidnapping and hanging young Michael Donald, was executed, the only such conviction. The wrongful death lawsuit Donald’s mother filed finally bankrupted the “white knights.”
World War II, fought in segregated units to stop Nazism, put American hypocrisy and racism in full view for the world to see, and the Communist Soviet Union used Jim Crow as a Cold War coup in public relations. To black soldiers with new experiences overseas, it was clear that advocacy for civil rights had become advocacy for human rights and it could hardly be peaceful. When 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten to death for allegedly whistling at a white girl in 1955, the era of protest had begun and it was not popular even among kinder white people. Closing down Highway 101 in Santa Rosa is tiny compared to the disruptions after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus that same year, and Martin Luther King descended on Montgomery while black children tried to go to school with white children. The images of hatred and violence are well known — from four little girls at church being blown up to buses being burned for carrying students working to get southerners to register to vote (only 3% of blacks were registered in Mississippi) to killing three young men investigating a church burning.
Lest we think this was only in the South, we can’t forget that even the greatest baseball player of all time, Willie Mays, in 1958 couldn’t buy a house in liberal San Francisco because his neighbors worried about their property values going down with a black family nearby. Imagine the real estate practices toward people less well known than Willie Mays, who finally got the house in St. Francis Wood but sold it after two years when a racist note in a bottle was thrown through his window. The fact is African Americans were limited to neighborhoods whose property values could not possibly appreciate in value like white neighborhoods. Urban poverty was codified by law, excluding blacks from profits in real estate, along with so many other economic sectors, because segregation and violence were mainstreamed.
Onto this stage came Richard Nixon whose demand for law and order dropped the racist epithets but kept the racist policies by referring to “chaos of cities,” associating hippies with pot and blacks with heroin and later crack cocaine, now criminalizing drugs specifically to put more black men in prison and win southern votes, the infamous “Southern Strategy.” Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman later was recorded saying, “Our enemies were the anti-(Vietnam) war left and black people. We couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or black. But by criminalizing drugs heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
So the war on drugs, a manufactured issue, became a devastating, mainstream government weapon against African Americans.
After previous black leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had been killed, the FBI went to work on the Black Panthers, whom J. Edgar Hoover called “the single worst threat to national security.” Really? With Soviet nuclear bombs menacing the US and the Vietnam War still raging, this Black self-defense organization started by college students in the late sixties was the biggest threat?
Most Americans see no-knock warrants as needed to stop domestic violence or other crimes at home but against the Panthers, under constant Cointelpro surveillance, the FBI used one to gun down 21-year-old leader Freddie Hampton at 4 a.m. in his bed by FBI agents while his girlfriend, eight months pregnant with their child, looked on in horror. Clearly murder, there was never a conviction but the grand jury did say the raid was “ill-conceived.” These kinds of raids on black leaders played out again and again. Is it any wonder rap music has a song called “No Knock,” about the resulting knocking on their heads after smashing doors down with warrants?
The war on drugs intensified under Reagan, along with attacks on welfare, health care and other direct aid government programs because, after all, Reagan said, “Government is the problem.”
Mandatory sentencing, no parole, and huge punishments for crack cocaine all served to separate black fathers from their families during the era of mass incarceration that continues today. Many of us remember George Bush winning the 1988 election using pictures of black rapist/murderer Willie Horton to portray his opponent as soft on crime. Private prisons for profit gave perverse incentives to imprison over 2 million people during the Clinton years. And 97% of those incarcerated were intimidated into a plea bargain so never went to trial. We know many people have pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit because the sentence sought if convicted by a likely all-white jury could be ten times what the plea deal offered. Today, a white man has a one in 17 chance of going to jail. A black man has a one in three chance. And once labeled a felon a man likely can’t vote or get a job and becomes more likely to return to prison. Could a more brutal pattern be designed to rip apart families and engender frustration?
Riots, from Harlem to Watts, Detroit to Newark and on to Rodney King have all been sparked by police brutality on people of color. (Latino issues and dehumanization of immigrants is another whole column.) George Floyd now joins a grim list of victims whose names are too familiar: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Kajieme Powell, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland, Kalief Broder, Michael Brown. It is too much. It is too mainstream. We hear about making America great again, but at what point in American history has America been great for black Americans? At what point have they been safe from brutality in law enforcement, business practice and societal prejudice? Real, fundamental change will only come with grass roots movements. History clearly shows that. All of us need to speak out.
John Grech teaches history and journalism at El Molino High School.