REWIND: To honor Juneteenth, five surprisingly recent civil rights advances

The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell, Ruby Bridges, Juneteenth

“The Problem We All Live With” by Norman Rockwell, depicting Ruby Bridges in 1960.

Happy belated Juneteenth!

As part of my ongoing Black History Month series, which will last until I say it’s done even if it takes more than a month, I had planned to explain to you what Juneteenth is. However, thanks to the pandering of large corporations and, if you ask him, Donald Trump, you all know all about it now. Which is good! But it also means I need a new column topic.

One note about Juneteenth though: The reason the celebration isn’t on the day Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation is because that did not end slavery. Several states ignored it. So until Texas, the last holdout, actually decided to obey the law more than two years later, there was no reason to celebrate.

Arguably, of course, there still isn’t. Segregation, poverty and prisons were and continue to be de facto slavery under other names. But bit by bit those are falling… albeit a bit more recently than you might imagine. How recently? Read on, while listening to some songs that aren’t really related but are great at setting the scene.

The Shirelles — “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”

Ruby Bridges was the first Black student at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Her first day at her new school was Nov. 14, 1960.

She was greeted with a level of rage and hatred from the white adults in the area that is, quite frankly, terrifying to watch. As U.S. marshals escorted her, grown adults—many with their own children her age—screamed and threatened 6-year-old Ruby. Someone brought a Black doll in a tiny child-sized coffin. Even once the protests died down she wasn’t able to eat food she didn’t bring to school herself for a full year for fear it would be poisoned.

This may feel like ancient history, but this happened so recently that Ruby Bridges wasn’t even old enough to be eligible for Medicare until last September. She’s 65. Many of us have parents older than she is.

The Drifters — “Under the Boardwalk”

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Civil Rights Act. Written and passed during post-Civil-War reconstruction in response to the South’s increasingly violent and discriminatory treatment of the now-free Black population, it primarily guaranteed equality in things like transportation, public accommodations, and the right to serve on juries. Because jury duty is a right and if you dodge it you’re a bad person.

“Under the Boardwalk” is not a song from 1875.

In 1883, by an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court struck the Civil Rights Act down because in its view the 14th amendment only applied to the government and has no bearing on private citizens and companies. Essentially, the court said bigotry is totally cool as long as it’s not the official position of the federal government.

In 1964, driven by the burgeoning civil rights movement, Congress essentially passed the same Civil Rights Act all over again. This one, however, had additional protections against employment discrimination (that as of last week also protect transgendered people) and, apparently unsuccessfully, protections against police brutality.

The bill passed, but was filibustered for 54 days. Robert Byrd, who spoke for 14 consecutive hours in an effort to block the bill, died only 10 years ago, in June 2010. Strom Thurmond kept his seat in the Senate for 39 years after his full-throated opposition to the Civil Rights Act and was replaced by Lindsey Graham after Thurmond’s death in 2003.

Four Tops — “It’s the Same Old Song”

The Civil Rights Act was signed in June 1964, before the election later that year. While it had some token voter protections, they were weak at best and, due to some combination of retribution and standard-issue bigotry, the opposition to voting rights for Black people was vicious. A major hot spot was in Selma, Alabama, where the local sheriff violently opposed any voter registration efforts.

After Democrats took overwhelming control of both houses of Congress and kept the Presidency, a push began to patch that loophole and fix voting rights. Part of the advocacy effort was a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery to deliver a petition to the Governor.

The first march was stopped on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police, who shot tear gas into the crowd of peaceful marchers and savagely beat them, even trampling them with horses. But TV news was a thing by then and the United States got to see the unbridled and unprovoked savagery of the police. Because history keeps repeating itself over and over and over.

Just under three weeks later, with the nation’s attention, hundreds of protesters came from across the country to make a second attempt at the march. The protest leaders asked a judge for a court order protecting them from police brutality but instead got a restraining order prohibiting the march. Rather than defy the order, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders held a short prayer at the bridge before turning around and leaving. Despite that concession, that night the KKK attacked the protestors, beating Rev. James Reeb to death.

The third march was 8,000 people strong, and permitted under a court order by the same judge that stopped them before. With international attention, greeted by a star-studded concert, the protestors delivered their petition for voting rights. That night, Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit who came to Alabama to support the cause, was shot and killed by the KKK.

Under international pressure stemming from the images of violence and multiple murders, Congress passed and the President signed the Voting Rights Act of 1975, meeting the protesters’ demands. Then in 2013, John Roberts wrote a Supreme Court opinion that essentially said it was now unconstitutional because racism is fixed and struck key provisions down. In response, Southern states like Alabama have taken steps to eliminate most polling places from primarily Black areas while leaving white areas intact, putting us more or less back where we started.

Sam & Dave — “Soul Man”

On July 11, 1958 police raided the home of Mildred Loving, a Black woman, and her husband Richard, a white man, who had recently gotten married in Washington, D.C. The raid was timed in the hopes of catching them having sex but they were not, so using their new marriage certificate on the wall as evidence they were arrested for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. They pled guilty to the crime of “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth” and were sentenced to a year in jail, which was suspended if they’d leave Virginia and not come back as a couple for 25 years.

By 1964 the Lovings wanted to visit their families in Virginia so they contacted Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, who actually replied and referred them to the ACLU. With the ACLU’s help they sued to vacate their conviction under the 14th amendment. This is an actual quote from the judge’s actual ruling: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The case was appealed up to the Supreme Court and, in a unanimous vote, they ruled that laws against interracial marriage violated both the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the 14th amendment. Because assumptions about what God meant aren’t, as it turns out, a sound basis for legal rulings.

But until that 1967 ruling, laws against interracial marriage were still on the books. That was not long ago. Barack Obama was born in 1961 to a white mother and a Black father in Hawaii, but if he were born in one of 22 other states, his existence would have been a crime. In fact, even though it was unenforceable, Alabama only repealed its law against interracial marriage in 2000.

Beyoncé — “Disappear”

Forty years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968 and the Fair Housing Act that passed days later, a Black man was elected President. But this last entry is not a celebration of continuing progress.

While strides have been made by LGBT Americans and other groups, the only civil rights advances for Black Americans have been elections to political office. But the setbacks have come one after another. Supreme Court rulings on Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education decided that students could not be assigned to schools for the purposes of racial integration. Californians passed Prop 209, banning Affirmative Action. As previously mentioned, the Supreme Court largely struck down the Voting Rights Act. The advances of the 1960s have been systematically dismantled one by one in the decades since.

On top of that, I’m not sure if you noticed but police violence is not getting better. It’s always existed, of course, but starting with Rodney King’s assault in 1992 and accelerating with the proliferation of smartphones it’s being captured on video. The old tactics of claiming there was a weapon or that it was provoked are being refuted with high-def footage, not that it’s stopping the nation’s police from filing the false reports anyway. And of course, the cops’ response to a rising opposition to their violence is… even more violence, more publicly, night after night in front of the world.

Oh, and Donald Trump is President after rising to political prominence by insisting that the first Black President is actually Kenyan.

Only a generation after the Civil Rights Movement we have to do it again, and we have to do a better job this time so our kids and grandkids don’t have to pick up the pieces all over again in the 2060s. Fortunately we don’t have to scour the history books for advice on the last successful steps toward justice and equality, it was recently enough that we can just ask the people who were there.

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