By Ladipo Adamolekun
“There has never been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans.” – Martin Luther King Jr. (1967)
This essay is a review article of two books by African Americans who provide insightful and enlightening perspectives on the challenge of achieving racial justice in America: Walking with The Wind. A Memoir of the Movement (1998) by John Robert Lewis (JRL) and Stony the Road. Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (2019) by Henry Louis Gates, Jr (HLG).
While JRL was a redoubtable politician (a civil rights activist from his teenage years and an influential Congressman from the late 1980s until he died in July 2020), HLG is a pre-eminent scholar of African-American history and literature.
As a preamble to the review, I would like to briefly recall my first visit to the United States of America (USA) in the summer of 1966. I was one of two-dozen or so Nigerian undergraduates selected from across all of Nigeria’s five universities to participate in the 1966 Michigan State University/University of Nigeria Student Exchange (MINEX) Programme in the USA.
One of my takeaways at the end of the 55-day visit was the strong evidence that blacks in America were portrayed and treated as second class citizens. Strikingly, this finding was consistent with one of the key messages in JP Clark’s America Their America (1964) that I had read just before I travelled to the USA.
My second takeaway was the encouraging rejection of antiblack racism by young blacks that I witnessed at a Black Power rally in Detroit about half-way through our visit. The high point of the rally was the address delivered by Stokely Carmichael, one of the most prominent black youth leaders at the time.
When I gave an account of my experiences in the USA through radio interviews in Ibadan in September 1966, the problem of race relations was a dominant theme.
After an overview of the two books, I conclude with a brief discussion of the following question:Is achieving racial justice America’s Sisyphean task?
STONY THE ROAD. Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow
Regarding Reconstruction, HLG highlights the significance of three amendments of the US Constitution – the 13th, 14th, and 15th (also called Reconstruction Amendments), adopted between 1865 and 1870 – which affirmed that African Americans were legally equal to white Americans. (Black, as well as white women, were still denied the right to vote).
The story of African Americans in South Carolina Government (1868-1877) is a good illustration of the results that flowed from the constitutional empowerment of blacks after Emancipation: they constituted the majority in the General (State) Assembly and two African Americans served as Lieutenant Governor between 1870 and 1876. But the progress was short-lived because of what HLGcalls “The White Resistance to Black Reconstruction” throughout the southern states.
Strikingly, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) enabled White Resistance (and white supremacy) through decisions that reversed the gains provided by the Reconstruction Amendments. First, in 1883, SCOTUS ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional and not authorized by the 13th or 14th Amendments of the Constitution. (The Act had affirmed the “equality of all men before the law” and prohibited discrimination in public places and facilities such as restaurants and public transportation).
Second, in 1896, SCOTUS upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine thereby making segregation (separate and unequal) the law of the land. These crucial decisions constituted the bedrock of what became codified as so-called John Crow Laws: the body of laws that made segregation and discrimination legal in the southern states with the Ku Klux Klan as a notorious enforcer.
This is the backdrop for the two interrelated arguments in HLG’s book: “First is that resistance to white supremacy never ceased among African Americans, despite the unbearably hostile climate that white supremacy created…Second, black activists refused to grant that crucial events in the rise and fall of Reconstruction were endpoints to their drive for equitable race relations in America.”
The stories of the resistance of black activists, with emphasis on their institutions and leaders, and the oppressive laws and practices of white supremacist ideology that they challenged are narrated in the book.
While theNational Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, founded in 1909) is acknowledged as the leading institution of black activists, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s is credited with providing intellectual, social, and artistic perspectives on the struggle. And the most prominent leaders featured are: Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895); Booker T Washington (1856- 1915) and W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963).
In his Epilogue, HLG reflects on a so-called Old/New Negro divide (black activists of pre-and post-1900) and dismisses it as meaningless since there was no “new white man” and the oppression of the black was continuous.
Although he provides only a sketchy overview of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s – its struggles and achievements – and developments up to 2015, his overall assessment of racial justice in USA is noteworthy: “Progress that is still, in some ways, incomplete, and frighteningly vulnerable to reversal”.
Walking with The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement
JRL was only 16 when he became a youth member of NAACP and he spent the next ten years in the “crucible of the Civil Rights Movement”. In 1959, in his second year in College, he co-launched a Nashville Student Movement and became its chair in 1961, during his final year.
The following year, he became a key member of two of the Movement’s leading organisations: Board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC, founded in 1957 with Martin Luther King, MLK, as president) and a member of the executive of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, founded in 1960). Then, in 1963, he was elected chair of the SNCC and led the organisation for three years.
In Walking with the Wind, JRL provides a first-hand account of the struggles/battles of the Movement: from the sharply focused sit-ins, stand-ins, and sleep-ins to desegregate Nashville (of which he was a leading player) to the Freedom Rides and marches in the 1960s in which he participated across southern states and beyond. In a special category was the historic March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington in August 1963: he was one of the “Big Six” of the Movement that organised it. (Of course, MLK who made his “I have a Dream” speech at the event is the most famous of the organisers).
The other notable marches in which JRL participated include the first Selma to Montgomery march (in early March 1965) that he led, and the follow-up 5-day Selma to Montgomery march led by MLKin late March 1965. There are passing references in the book to some of the Movement’s activities in the 1950s that had been impactful, especially the one-year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955/1956.
JRL correctly claims that the activities of the Movement helped ensure the passage of two landmark legislations that advanced civil rights in the 1960s: Civil Rights Act, 1964 and Voting Rights Act, 1965. He proclaims the latter that prohibits racial discrimination in voting “the nation’s finest hour in terms of civil rights”. And he acknowledges the significance of three SCOTUS decisions for the Movement’s impact: a 1946 decision that made segregation on interstate buses illegal; the 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision that made racial segregation of children in public schools unconstitutional; and a 1960 decision that desegregated interstate travel facilities. Thus, from being an enabler of white supremacy and segregation during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, SCOTUS became a promoter of desegregation in the mid-twentieth century.
Strikingly, JRL expresses optimism in the last sentence of his 1998 book: “In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house – the American house, the American family.”
However, a month before he died in July 2020, his parting words for African Americans still protesting police brutality (with Black Lives Matter movement in the forefront) was an admonition that they should continue to be engaged in “Good Trouble” – “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
Achieving Racial Justice: America’s Sisyphean Task?
Based on the accounts of both JRL and HLG, it is no exaggeration to assert that achieving racial justice in USA has proved to be a Sisyphean task to date. Like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, all efforts aimed at tackling the problem of anti-black racism in the USA since Emancipation in 1865 have fallen short of ensuring racial justice and equality for African Americans; and some of the improvements recorded have been rolled back, again and again.
Voting rights is the supreme example: first granted after the Civil War and Emancipation in 1865; rolled back by a Supreme Court decision in 1896; then re-enacted in 1965.Again, some aspects of it were later rolled back; and today, a new Voting Rights Advancement Bill(2019) that seeks to eliminate a finding of repeated voting rights violations in the preceding 25 years is winding its way tortuously through Congress!
Having being an eye-witness of antiblack racism in USA at intervals over fifty-five years (1966-2020), I am familiar with the complexity of the problem: its deep historical, economic, and social roots, as well as its mixture of violent and dehumanising manifestations – George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” is the most notable recent example of the dehumanising treatment of African Americans.
Since Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation and the short-lived Reconstruction, no American leader has emerged to point up how best to untie this Gordian knot – not even African-American President Barack Obama who ruled from 2009 to 2016.
In my considered opinion, only a president with comparable leadership skills set and moral backbone of Abraham Lincoln can introduce and champion appropriate policies and programmes for achieving genuine and lasting racial justice in the country. Will president-elect Biden take on the challenge head-on (with Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris providing support)? The task is clear and straightforward: to provide the missing “solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans” that Martin Luther King Jr. had lamented in 1967.
Without question, one of the litmus tests of the success or failure of the incoming Biden presidency will be whether or not it successfully installs racial justice on the mountain top from where it can never again be rolled back.
Professor Ladipo Adamolekun writes from Iju, Akure North, Ondo State.