4 / “We All Killed Him”: The Limits of Formal Leadership and Civil Rights Legislationin Charles Johnson’s Dreamer
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4 / “We All Killed Him”: The Limits of Formal Leadership and Civil Rights Legislation in Charles Johnson’s Dreamer We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, “We hold these truths to be selfevident , that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But if a man does not have a job or income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility of the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists. . . . . . . It is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action. —martin luther king jr., “remaining awake during a great revolution” Published at the end of the twentieth century, Charles Johnson’s Dreamer (1998) engaged debates about civil rights, black leadership, and black politics that had persisted throughout the twentieth century. In 1903, for example, W. E. B. DuBois famously prophesied that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”1 DuBois suggested that unless white and nonwhite people could live together in a society without racial hierarchies , race relations would remain antagonistic. Despite the legislative changes that the civil rights movement achieved during phase one, white backlash against the movement, black incorporation into mainstream politics, and a move away from the “politics of protest” have left racial hierarchies, and the problem of the color line, intact. During phase two it became clearer that corrective measures, such as affirmative action, would prove necessary to address the aggregate effects of slavery and Jim and Jane Crow segregation if black people were to obtain their civil rights. 126 / exodus politics Conceptualizations of civil rights enfranchisement that foreground the importance of affirmative action programs also acknowledge the limitations of legal and legislative redress for ensuring that the goals of phase one of the civil rights movement are actualized during phase two. Because, as Ian Lopez has claimed, the law “is one of the most powerful mechanisms by which any society creates, defines, and regulates itself,” phase one of the civil rights movement necessarily emphasized legal change as a central component of civil rights attainment.2 Yet because “the operation of law does far more than merely legalize race; it defines as well the spectrum of domination and subordination that constitutes race relations,” phase two recognized that the law might not readily diminish “the spectrum of domination and subordination that constitutes race relations.”3 In the phase two shift from agitation to implementation, legal redress was recognized to be necessary but insufficient for solving civil rights crises. Throughout the long civil rights movement, bridge and formal leaders continually have requested that black political agendas demand a civil rights “package deal” rather than just an end to Jim and Jane Crow segregation . Such a deal, as chapter 2 explains, would implement specific measures to eradicate inequities in housing, employment, and education and thus would help materialize the equality that civil rights legislation alone could not achieve. While the beginning of the twentieth-century struggles for civil rights focused on transforming laws that structured inequality, in phase two leaders and everyday citizens recognized that such a focus was too narrow and would subordinate the related goals of black freedom struggles—to institutionalize legal gains and ensure that black communities achieved equality. Dreamer considers how, if at all, material equality can be achieved in light of the backlash against civil rights movements that has emerged in the “post”–civil rights era. Dreamer’s examination of civil rights and black leadership foregrounds competing theories of black political activity to demonstrate the challenges black leaders experience during phase two when they attempt to materialize equality. According to political scientist Fredrick Harris, black leaders have often found themselves trying to strike a balance between building alliances—through “coalition politics”—and encouraging black communities to be “self-reliant”—through “independent black politics”—as they seek equality. As Harris explains, coalition politics “calls on voters to build coalitions with whites and other racial and ethnic groups to develop support for issues and policies that help everyone.”4 By contrast, independent black politics “presses blacks to “we all killed him”  /  127 work...


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