DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Looking at Movement Milestones

This year, 2 of the most significant events in the long history of the American struggle for freedom are marking major anniversaries. It has been 100 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the memorial that honors Lincoln.

Last week, 5 distinguished Black scholars participated in a panel discussion at the National Archives entitled One Hundred Years: From the Emancipation Proclamation to the March on Washington. John Franklin of the now-under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture served as moderator. He directed questions at panel members:

  • C.R. Gibbs, historian and author
  • Clarence Lusane, professor of political science at American University
  • Roger Davidson, professor of history at Coppin State University and
  • Frank Smith, director of the DC African American Civil War Memorial and Museum 
As you might expect from the time frame, the discussion started with the Civil War. At the beginning of that conflict, there were 3.9 million Black slaves in the United States, the majority of them located in the 11 southern states which left the Union and formed the Confederacy.

"Neither side could win the conflict without the help of slaves," Smith contended. "Whichever side freed the slaves would win the war." Of course, Lincoln made that move. "He was a little slow on the uptake but once he got his mind made up, he was really tough," Smith added.

By the end of the war, more than 200,000 African-Americans had fought for the North, 3/4 of whom were slaves when the war started in 1860. "This is a phenomenal story we're just really starting to learn about," Smith said. 

Following the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln, the reunited America entered a period called the Reconstruction. "The fulcrum of the Reconstruction was so important even though it was crushed in 10 years," Lusane said.

"There was a true offer of freedom during the Reconstruction," Davidson added. "There were 1,000 of (Black) local and state officials, with 16 more going to Congress, 4 of whom were Senators." However, after  about 10 years of progress, economic conditions led the Republican party of Lincoln "to turn its back on its African-American base in the South," Davidson said. "People were saying 'we've helped the Negro enough. It is time the Negro helps himself.' Southern Democrats began to take over."

During the 100 years explored in  the discussion, there were many important decisions concerning discrimination cases. In 1896, the Supreme Court in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case ruled that states could legally segregate its citizens by color. "Even though separate is not equal, the court found that it was social rights, not civil rights, that were being violated," Davidson said. 

That decision ushered in the time of the Jim Crow laws. However, in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed course and ruled in the historic Brown vs. the Board of Education that segregation of students (and by extension, all ages) was unconstitutional. "Brown vs. the Board is the death knell for Jim Crow segregation in the South," Davidson maintained.

However, the discriminatory practices in both the South and the North continued. "We're still dealing with the effects in many ways even today in the 21st Century," Gibbs said. 

In the 1950's and 1960's, the Civil Rights Movement came into being to combat discrimination. One of the high points of that movement was the August, 1963 March on Washington. Smith participated in that historic day, which brought 250,000 protesters to DC. "To see that number of people, many of whom were white, was the 1st time I ever thought we might just win this fight. It was a tremendous morale boost," Smith said. 

The panel concurred that from the time of the Emancipation Proclamation until today, much progress has occurred, but much work remains. "We have unyielding racial attitudes in how some people see the country that go back generations," Lusane said. To reinforce his point, Lusane produced 3 separate U.S. maps - one showing slave areas in 1859, one of racial desegregation in the 1950's, and one showing the states that supported Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 election. All 3 maps showed virtually identical breakdowns.

However, changing demographics indicate that the days of a white majority are coming to an end. With such a future, it would appear that attitudes supporting dual levels of citizenship based on ethnicity will be ending. Lusane has even given the last days of this outgoing period a name. He calls it "the cognitive dissonance of the demographically doomed."

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During the question and answer portion of the session, the panel was asked if it feared that the current legal challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the Supreme Court could be a setback to the hard-won Civil Rights victories in voting rights. "No matter what happens in the court, we will still be fighting around voting rights," Lusane said. "There are people who feel this (voting protection) should have been nationalized, not just focused on the South. A decision could open up a debate of national and federal laws. Now, we can keep Mississippi under jurisdiction, but it doesn't keep Ohio under (federal) jurisdiction.

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