Remembering the Sacrifices of Everyday Activists

In the upcoming months, there will be countless celebrations marking the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights of 1965. Without a doubt, these laws were crowning achievements in American political history. Congress did in fact adopt two civil rights measures in 1957 and 1960. Yet, they were watered down and did little to contain racial hostilities in the Jim Crow South. Thus by the 1960s, many lawmakers and contenders for the White House were pessimistic about the prospects of passing transformative civil rights policies, especially over the objections of pro-segregationist lawmakers.

Reminding Americans of this history is important as we embark on a series of fiftieth anniversary celebrations. American political institutions (and the leaders that shaped them) had little hope that the long arm of the federal government could be used to bring down de jure segregation. Civil rights and grassroots activists, on the other hand, pushed forward and brought pressure to bear at great risk to their families, communities, and civic institutions. Most of these activists were part of an invisible segment of American political discourse—activists who are unfamiliar to mainstream media and the American public, but through the use of diverse strategies and tactics, helped to usher in major civil rights and social reforms.

In my forthcoming book After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation, I highlight the important contributions of these unfamiliar activists and groups. I focus on youth-based movements and intergenerational collaborations of the post-civil rights era such as the Free South Africa Movement, the Black Student Leadership Network, the New Haven Youth Movement, the Juvenile Justice Reform Movement, and the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer initiative. The book also highlights the work of movement formations of the 1930s/1940s and 1960s/1970s. These include the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Student Organization for Black Unity, and the African Liberation Support Committee.

By focusing on youth-based movements, I wanted to shed light on how an invisible segment of American politics helped to remedy longstanding and seemingly insurmountable inequities. At the same time, the book looks at how these movement formations wrestled with the internal challenges of movement building such as raising resources, sustaining intergenerational collaborations, surviving political repression, and embedding young activists into grassroots networks.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to remember that the civil rights victories of the 1960s were won because of the sacrifices of ordinary Americans, activists, and organizations. Though most are largely ignored in contemporary political discourse, they were central to the advancement of an emancipatory vision of racial democracy and internationalism.

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Amp Discussion Exposes Racial Fault Lines

This is my latest piece on transit justice.  The essay appeared in the Tennessean newspaper.  I am posting it with the original title (it was changed by the Tennessean).

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For the better part of a year, I was part of a North Nashville coalition that assessed the Amp’s impact on transit-dependent communities. Contrary to media reports, there was not a consensus within the North Nashville group that Charlotte Avenue was a better alternative to the West End section of the 7.1-mile east-west route.

Our main concern was that Amp advocates, backed by the mayor’s office and Metro Transit Authority officials, selectively picked winners and losers for the project. They relied on flawed data, steered federal civil rights officers away from studying North Nashville bus routes and backed zoning changes to boost the appearance of higher ridership in the West End corridor, which stands to benefit the most from the Amp.

The pro-Amp group’s East Nashville angle also has been an insincere attempt to inoculate itself from racial and civil rights scrutiny. Pro-Amp advocates claim that Amp terminals east of the river will help working-class blacks, when in reality, they are located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The project could actually accelerate the displacement of blacks who still remain in the Main Street-Five Points area.

The Amp debate also has exposed how Nashville’s leading officials exploit the politics of race while lacking any real commitment to systemic racial inequities. Similar to the debate about the Sulphur Dell ballpark, Amp supporters have brought attention to distressed communities and African-Americans, but only to bolster a stage-managed narrative of Chamber of Commerce boosterism — a narrative that is not intended to help African-Americans or distressed communities, but meant to convince urban pioneers that Nashville is the premier Southeast destination.

The irony is that the so-called distressed neighborhoods for both projects (Germantown for Sulphur Dell and Main Street-Five Points for the Amp) are places where working-class African-Americans are being pushed out in record numbers.

To be fair, Stop the Amp advocates must confront their own not-in-my-backyard biases despite their legitimate concerns about traffic, costs and planning. Much of their angst is based on the fear that so-called undesirables (poor, people of color, homeless, suspected criminals) will use the Amp to easily access their neighborhoods. To this end, pro- and anti-Amp advocates are reading from the same script of racial indifference.

The Amp project raises other questions: Is Mayor Karl Dean’s allegiance to the West End corridor related to his push for charter schools in the same community? Will the Amp’s first-tier contracts go to politically connected business leaders? And will low-income riders, including those who have no access to the Amp, subsidize the project through fare hikes or cutbacks to routes?

Unfortunately, Nashville’s leading officials are allergic to correcting the fault lines of race and class privilege underlying the Amp debate. The MTA and the mayor’s office seem committed to using the Amp to create an escapist bubble for urban pioneers so they can travel throughout Nashville’s inner core without sitting next to the undesirables. The Metro Council seems to believe that trickle-down development projects actually amount to legitimate poverty reduction initiatives. And the NIMBYites have never come to terms with their own racial and class biases. Thus, the biggest loser in the Amp debate is a healthy and much-needed discussion about transit (and racial) equity.

 

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The Long Arc of Justice

This photograph near the conclusion of Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy is an important reminder of the long arc of justice.  It is the jury that was set to try Jefferson Davis, the president of the confederacy and an ardent defender of slavery and states’ rights.  Although Davis was never tried for treason and other crimes – he was released after two years of imprisonment -  the jury of seven blacks and five whites demonstrates that, occasionally, people who have their backs against the wall do indeed win.

Wilentz, Rise of American Democracy, p. 796.
Wilentz, Rise of American Democracy, p. 796.

The previous decades of the 1840s and 1850s was the worst of times for enslaved and free blacks.  The Mexican-American War, the Fugitive Slave Clause of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Dred Scott decision gave proslavery advocates a green light to extend the peculiar institution beyond the Mason-Dixon line. U.S. presidents (Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan) also did little to challenge slavery, and even backed policies that allowed for its expansion to the West. Yet within a decade, slavery as we knew it was abolished and African Americans composed most of the jury members assigned to try the leading confederate politician.

The biracial jury provides an important lesson for 21st century resistance movements and the political forces associated with them.  They must always continue to struggle for change despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that confront them.  They must be creative, persistent, and persevere.  What may seem like a hopeless political context in one period, may be an advantageous one in the next.

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Pilgrimage Pics

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Thanks again to all those who participated in the Pilgrimage for Jobs, Equity, and Fairness.  

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These are more pictures from the Pilgrimage.

This gallery contains 4 photos.

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First Day of the Pilgrimage

This gallery contains 16 photos.

   

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Tennessean Article

The Tennessean newspaper has an upcoming Pilgrimage  event.

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The fight for transportation equity in Nashville

A decade ago, U.S. Rep. John Lewis offered valuable insight into the relationship between transportation and civil rights in the book, “Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity.” Lewis, an icon in Nashville’s civil rights movement, stated that … Continue reading

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Social Movements Targeting Urban Gun Violence

Two widely-acclaimed community intervention strategies have been adopted by cities in the last two decades: the broken windows approach developed by James Q. Wilson and popularized by Chief William Bratton in New York City; and David Kennedy’s pulling levers approach … Continue reading

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African Americans, Afro-Venezuelans, and Chávez’s Legacy

This gallery contains 2 photos.

There has been much speculation about the health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías (generally referred to as Hugo Chávez).  I’m doubtful that Chávez will return to full capacity and even more skeptical that his legacy – and the overall … Continue reading

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