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  • Introduction to Focus:Civil Rights Today
  • Beverly C. Tomek (bio)

Scholars and activists have long emphasized the effectiveness of the non-violent, direct-action tactics of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. By breaking unjust laws, activists of the time, generally college age youth sometimes led by older figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ella Baker, forced the repeal of those laws. Through their grassroots activism, they forced recalcitrant states, and the South in general, to come in line with federal mandates to desegregate. They won in lunch counters across the region. They won on city buses. They won on interstate transportation. After a long, hard fight, they eventually won in schools and universities.

No sooner had the ink dried on Lyndon Johnson’s signature on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, did the opposition initiate a battle of its own to “take America back.” So began a tug of war that has resulted in the criminalization of almost anything associated with “black culture” or any sort of protest. This has, in turn, fueled the rise of the world’s largest carceral state. Concomitant with that has been the emergence of militarized police forces throughout the United States; an “us” versus “them” attitude that pits police against civilians, particularly in black neighborhoods; and a staggering number of police shootings of unarmed Americans, especially unarmed young black American males. (I hesitate to say “men” here, considering the age of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 16-year-old Kimani Gray, as well as other young victims.) Today, police kill black Americans nearly as frequently as white Americans lynched black Americans in the early decades of the last century. And this is in an era that too many Americans like to refer to as “post-racial.”

What happened? What about the gains made during the civil rights movement? To begin with, those gains sparked a backlash among resentful conservatives who did not appreciate their perceived loss of power. For people of this mindset, any gain of rights by members of the black community must come at the expense of rights taken from the white community. Politicians who believed this articulated it in veiled terms to their constituents, who then internalized the notion, convinced themselves that whites were victims of “reverse discrimination,” and initiated a counter-movement that is manifesting in its ugliest form currently in the Donald Trump presidential campaign. Another important factor to consider is that civil rights gains of the 1960s came as a result of non-violent direct action, which often required protesters to break unjust laws in an effort to force their eventual overturning. This gave conservatives a powerful argument—that protestors were lawbreakers. They were able to use this oversimplified argument to tighten the police state in ways that continue to threaten black lives and quash dissent today.

As the counter-movement grew, leaders created conservative think tanks and social and political engineering efforts like White Citizens’ Councils, the John Birch Society, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—groups dedicated to undoing progress toward equality and ensuring that the “right” people remain in charge of the government and the “wrong” people are kept under political, economic, and social control. Take, for example, ALEC’s efforts to impose “stand your ground” laws across the United States. These laws play upon fears of criminals and various “others” in making the argument for armed action that goes beyond defense of one’s hearth and home and allows people the right to chase those they suspect of wrongdoing, while still maintaining the ability to argue that their actions were in self defense. As in the case of Trayvon Martin, this allows self-appointed watchmen, or vigilantes, to take the law into their own hands with impunity.

In addition to such vigilante action, control is maintained through official legal means in jails and prisons, where almost five percent of the adult black male population was incarcerated in 2009. (This contrasts with .7 percent of adult white men and 1.8 percent of adult Hispanic men incarcerated at that time.) As Michelle Alexander has pointed out in The New Jim Crow and elsewhere, there...


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