Americans generally tell their civil rights history along the following lines: At one time, racist white southerners created laws to keep blacks in separate and inferior schools, relegated them to the lowest-paying jobs, denied them the vote and humiliated them with an array of petty and demeaning social customs.
Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., African-Americans nonviolently protested this treatment, the injustice of which seemed clear to those outside the South. After a few ugly incidents, Congress ultimately passed two landmark pieces of legislation — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These laws removed the obstacles to equality, and African-Americans now enjoy the same opportunities as everyone else.
This neatly celebratory narrative found expression again in the popular movie Selma. Yet it is myth, not history.
It is a grossly truncated and distorted depiction of America’s “race problem,” as well as an overly optimistic assessment of its “solutions.”
On a practical level, it colors the lenses through which we look at contemporary racial disparities. For if the quest for racial equality accomplished its goals in 1964 and ’65, what right have black Americans to complain? Who, other than they themselves, now bear responsibility for their failures and sufferings? In recent days, commentators and ordinary Americans have been stuck in just these kinds of questions.
Civil rights history offers a better framework for understanding Baltimore’s troubles. It trains its lens on the North as well as the South, including events and circumstances in America’s cities, swollen in the mid-20th century by the Great Migration of black southerners into the urban upper South, North and West.Black migrants hoped to find expanded opportunities, but often encountered new forms of economic marginalization, artificially restricted housing opportunities and deeply entrenched school segregation.
Much of this took shape without the sanction of the law and, in fact, in spite of statutes on the books designed to stop such practices. Ohio, for example, could tout decades-old legislation that forbade discrimination in public accommodations. Yet, businesses nonetheless routinely denied service to blacks in restaurants, segregated them in theaters, and served them only on designated days in hospitals and amusement parks.
Ironically, during the late 1950s and ’60s, southern blacks secured the promise of the Brown v. Board of Education decision by gaining entry into formerly all-white schools, while school segregation in northern urban areas increased.
Between 1963 and 1965, a committee of religious leaders visited many of the country’s most distressed urban areas. In Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Oakland, Chicago and Baltimore, this group documented deep structural racial disparities.
The report from Baltimore made the following observations: “Corruption in law enforcement is great police brutality is common.” The report went on to describe how this information, well-known by African Americans, often failed to reach the wider public: “Stories are written by reporters but are changed or killed by the editors or owners of the newspapers.” As to the attitude of local whites, the report explained that most remained “opposed to any kind of action. All can give you reasons why something should not be done at this time.”
Though in myth we remember a non-violent struggle, civil rights history reveals that violence always danced around the movement’s fringe. Leaders struggled to stay the path of peace, but undisciplined youth often sabotaged movement aims by breaking ranks and venting their frustration.
Indeed, during King’s final campaign in Memphis, unruly elements threw rocks, broke store windows and looted. Careful observers understood and distinguished between the valid goals black Americans sought and the violence that they could not control, but critics nonetheless used these outbursts to cast doubts over the entire civil rights endeavor. Many conservative whites regarded King as a troublemaker, agitator and rabble-rouser.
In civil rights history, the great legislative achievements of 1964 and ’65 take their rightful place, not as unqualified triumphal endpoints, but as partial solutions to some of the factors in a larger problem. The deep structural issues of race-based urban poverty, residential confinement and unequal schooling remained largely untouched.
Many whites, having never grasped the deep structural dimensions of America’s race problems, scratched their heads when, in 1968 alone, major rioting broke out in 110 American cities. Had not the country laid the axe to the root of injustice?
Thus began the great counter-narrative: America had acted decisively to guarantee equal rights, so surely these problems all ensued from the weakness and character flaws of blacks themselves.
The problems worsened in subsequent decades with the decline and departure of major manufacturing from these areas. And the addition of yet another new and profoundly discriminatory institution — the War on Drugs — piled the obstacles to new heights.
Even though whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rates (studies show slightly higher use for whites in certain demographics), the mis-policing of black communities has disproportionately penalized black men, saddling them with police records, prison sentences and legal fees that exact a debilitating toll.How does civil rights history help us think about Baltimore? Above all, it should frame recent events in an unfolding, ongoing and still incomplete narrative of struggle. When looking at Baltimore, we should cast off the mythological lens of a post-racial America.
Without those glasses, we might achieve the same clear-sighted moral vision about the injustice of disparate treatment under the law — and its multiplying effects — that we exercise retrospectively regarding the historic denial of voting rights.
We might ask hard questions about the causes and consequences of economic inequality. We might reject school segregation, whether achieved by white flight or any other means.
Above all, we might recognize that in urban America, conditions remain that would suck the life out of the most hearty and robust of any race.