The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was about much more than lunch counters, water fountains, and where people were allowed to sit on a bus.
On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday in 2012, its hard for me to grasp that we’re even having conversations with those who call themselves liberals or progressives and think we should consider the ideas of a presidential candidate who’s position is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional.
It seems a little history is in order.
When we talk about the Civil Rights era, we often refer to sit-ins at lunch counters and boycotting bus companies. We frame the Jim Crow era as being about restrictions on where Black people could/couldn’t sit, which water fountain they could/couldn’t drink out of, where they could/couldn’t go to school, etc. That was certainly where many of the lines were drawn. But it isn’t the real story.
Perhaps the most poignant reminder of what Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement were all about was written recently by a Daily Kos diarist, Hamden Rice.
At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.
My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”
Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don’t know what my father was talking about.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.
He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south….
It wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.
You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement decided to use to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.
It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.
This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.
Perhaps we need to remind ourselves what that looked like.
I’m sorry if that is harsh or disturbing. But its the reality of what we’re talking about.
Since Rice describes what was happening with a word that now has some meaning for the rest of us in this country … terror, it reminds me of something Tim Wise wrote a few years ago during the Jeremiah Wright controversy.
What Jeremiah Wright knows, and told his flock–though make no mistake, they already knew it–is that 9/11 was neither the first, nor worst act of terrorism on American soil. The history of this nation for folks of color, was for generations, nothing less than an intergenerational hate crime, one in which 9/11s were woven into the fabric of everyday life: hundreds of thousands of the enslaved who died from the conditions of their bondage; thousands more who were lynched (as many as 10,000 in the first few years after the Civil War, according to testimony in the Congressional Record at the time); millions of indigenous persons wiped off the face of the Earth. No, to some, the horror of 9/11 was not new. To some it was not on that day that “everything changed.” To some, everything changed four hundred years ago, when that first ship landed at what would become Jamestown. To some, everything changed when their ancestors were forced into the hulls of slave ships at Goree Island and brought to a strange land as chattel. To some, everything changed when they were run out of Northern Mexico, only to watch it become the Southwest United States, thanks to a war of annihilation initiated by the U.S. government. To some, being on the receiving end of terrorism has been a way of life. Until recently it was absolutely normal in fact.
But white folks have a hard time hearing these simple truths. We find it almost impossible to listen to an alternative version of reality. Indeed, what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the recent episode, or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not, by and large, see the world like we do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it. We are, in fact, shocked that this should be so, having come to believe, apparently, that the falsehoods to which we cling like a kidney patient clings to a dialysis machine, are equally shared by our darker-skinned compatriots.
This is what James Baldwin was talking about in his classic 1972 work, No Name in the Street, wherein he noted:
White children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded–about themselves and the world they live in. White people have managed to get through their entire lifetimes in this euphoric state, but black people have not been so lucky: a black man who sees the world the way John Wayne, for example, sees it would not be an eccentric patriot, but a raving maniac.
So lets call it like it really was … the Civil Rights Act was an answer to the terrorism being practiced by white people in the Jim Crow South. That someone like Ron Paul would say it is unconstitutional is madness. To suggest that we should simply look past Ron Paul’s views about it is madness. And to “white-wash” it all as being about where someone sat at a lunch counter is part of our blindness.