Putting the Civil Rights Movement into Historical Perspective
Thinking about comparative American struggles against tyranny.
Charles C. W. Cooke had a column in the National Review that is worth a read: The GOP’s Conspicuous Absence from Selma.
While the piece, as the title suggests, was inspired by the fact that the leadership in the House and Senate declined to attend the events in Selma, is it Cooke’s arguments as to why their absence was problematic that is worth some thought. Specifically he notes the way in which we Americans exalt the Founders and, further, the degree to which our national origin mythology is told as a tale of a struggle against tyranny.
However, truth be told, the struggle for full citizenship rights for African-Americans was a struggle against a tyranny far more pernicious than that which the colonist combated with the British.
That the Founders fought their war anyway was admirable. That the leading voices of their era had the presence of mind to hijack the American revolution and to codify a set of radical principles into a national charter was even more so. Indeed, we might today learn a great deal from a political culture that, per Burke, preferred to detect “ill principle” not by “actual grievance” but instead to “judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle” and to “augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” And yet our celebration of their fortitude is rendered as folly if we forget that, for all that the rebels went through, they were not facing down evil in its purest form.
That task would fall to other Americans — many of whom would pay a terrible price for their rebellions. Eventually, after a century-long struggle and a series of yo-yoing attempts, the twin horrors of slavery and segregation would indeed fall to posterity — but only after they had presented challenges that eclipsed those that were posed during the Revolution. The two eras are essentially incomparable. The crime of the British in America was to deny British conceptions of good government to a people who had become accustomed to it, and to do so capriciously. The crime of white supremacy in the South was, in the words of Ida B. Wells, to “cut off ears, toes, and fingers, strips off flesh, and distribute portions” of any person whom the majority disliked, and to do so in many cases as a matter of established public policy.
Consider what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge fifty years ago: a peaceful march of unarmed citizens (including children) set off to register to vote and were met with the coercive power of the state. The events in question ranks with any number of authoritarian crackdowns that we have seen on our television screens from other countries from the around the world. Indeed, if we saw a similar event in, say, Caracas or Moscow today we would consider it confirmation of the authoritarian nature of those governments. If you are unfamiliar, I would recommend watching this video from about the 3 minute mark (or, indeed, the entire documentary).
Peaceful marchers, walking on a sidewalk (not even walking in traffic lanes) seeking to underscore injustices linked to a fundamental democratic right were met with tear gas and baton-wielding police on horseback.
I don’t want to get over the top in descriptions of the land of the free and the home of the brave, but anyone who has ever thought of the United States of America as an exemplar of democratic values, or an example worthy of emulation in any way, has to look back on the past and come to at least two conclusions. The first is that despite many positive contributions to democratic governance, the US has some serious sins in its past of a decidedly undemocratic nature (and this is a past that is not that distant and that should not be forgotten or sanitized). Second, those who led the fight for civil rights were heroes and deserve to be regarded as such. As Cooke notes in his piece, they were fighting true tyranny and deserve recognition for so doing.