Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Real Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement: Why True Democracy Will Only Come From A Mass-Based Grass Roots Struggle For Jobs, Justice, and Fundamental Social Change


What Happened to Jobs and Justice?

August 27, 2013 

New York Times

MADISON, Wis. — ON Aug. 28, 1963, nearly a quarter of a million people thronged the nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest civil rights demonstration in American history. Its impact on American politics was tremendous: in addition to building support to pass the civil rights bill that President John F. Kennedy had recently proposed, marchers succeeded in strengthening and expanding the scope of the bill far beyond what the president had envisioned.

Related in Opinion:

Op-Ed Contributor: The Global March on Washington (August 28, 2013)
Op-Ed Contributor: Mahalia Jackson, and King’s Improvisation (August 28, 2013)
Opinionator | The Great Divide: How Dr. King Shaped My Work in Economics (August 27, 2013)
Editorial: The Fight for Voting Rights, 50 Years Later (August 28, 2013)

For many, the most important addition was Title VII, which prohibited employers and unions from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin and sex. The ban on sex discrimination was itself a further amendment, introduced in January 1964 by Southern Democrats who hoped it would impede the bill’s progress through Congress. Their plan backfired: not only did they fail to scuttle the bill, but their amendment also provided a critical legal tool in the fight for women’s equality.

The message of the march still resonated in 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, key features of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s proposal to bring “an end to poverty and racial injustice.”

The march was so successful that we often forget that it occurred in a political environment not so different from our own. Kennedy’s victory over Richard M. Nixon in 1960 signaled a break from the conservatism of the 1950s. But like the election of Barack Obama in 2008, hope for a return to the liberalism of the 1930s was dampened by an administration that rejected “old slogans” like wage increases and public works in favor of tax cuts and free trade to stimulate growth.

That disillusionment gave rise to sit-ins and freedom rides against segregation in the South, but those protests proved powerless in the face of entrenched conservative power. In contrast, the grass-roots movements that gained political influence in the Kennedy years were White Citizens Councils, the John Birch Society and other forces that, much like today’s Tea Party movement, shifted the political spectrum to the right.

Given those obstacles, how did the March on Washington help drive support for such sweeping civil rights and domestic policy measures?

First, it linked the protest movements of the 1960s to institutions with longstanding roots in working-class communities. The initial call for the 1963 demonstration came from the Negro American Labor Council, an organization of black trade unionists that used local networks to plan for the march months before it was officially announced.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee played similar roles in the South, mobilizing local civil rights groups, black churches and students. Support also came from the National Council of Negro Women and other elements of the black women’s movement that had battled poverty and discrimination since the 19th century.

At the same time, organizers rallied supporters around a broad and ambitious set of demands. A. Philip Randolph, the veteran trade unionist who had first called for a march on Washington to protest employment discrimination in 1941, wanted the demonstration to focus on the shortcomings of Kennedy’s economic policies. Pointing out that black workers were restricted to entry-level jobs that were most vulnerable to the automation and offshoring of manufacturing under way in the 1960s, he warned that without measures to end discrimination and create more jobs, blacks would be condemned to struggling for survival “within the grey shadows of a hopeless hope.”

Other black leaders shared that concern, but some worried that a “march for jobs” would compete with the movement that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were leading against legalized discrimination and disfranchisement. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a prominent leader of the black women’s movement, persuaded the men to plan a demonstration that would address “both the economic problems and civil rights.”

Finally, while Randolph, King, Hedgeman and others expanded the mobilization to include a broad and multiracial coalition, they resisted pressure to moderate their tactics or demands.

Both black and white liberals worried that an angry protest would turn moderates in Congress against Kennedy’s civil rights bill, but Randolph and King convinced the leaders of the N.A.A.C.P., the United Auto Workers and the National Urban League that the demonstration would be peaceful and effective.

It was the combination of these stalwart positions and rich institutional networks with the sheer number of peaceful black and white marchers that persuaded so many Americans of the rightness of civil rights and antipoverty legislation.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march, however, its central achievements are more imperiled than ever. This summer the Supreme Court upheld the principles behind the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act while severely weakening authority to enforce them. We have a charismatic liberal president and inspiring protest movements dedicated to racial equality and economic justice — but, as in the Kennedy years, they have proved no match for well-organized conservatives.

The solution may not be another march on Washington. But real changes in policy, and the defense of previous victories, require the combination of institutional backing, coalition building and ambitious demands that brought so many people to the National Mall in 1963.

William P. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and the author of “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.”


The Fight for Voting Rights, 50 Years Later

August 27, 2013
New York Times

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the country can take pride in progress made toward the guarantee of equal rights for all. Yet it is disheartening to watch the continuing battles over the right to vote, a core goal of the civil rights movement and the foundation of any functioning democracy.

The latest fights, over harsh new voting restrictions in Texas and North Carolina, have only made the need for comprehensive and lasting protection of voting rights that much clearer. In June, the Supreme Court hobbled the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most effective civil rights laws in American history. A central element of that law required certain states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to obtain federal permission before making changes to their election laws. Finding that “things have changed dramatically,” the court struck down that part of the act.

Within hours, it became clear that things had not changed as much as the court seemed to think. Texas, one of the states covered by the act, was first out of the gate, announcing it would immediately begin enforcing a photo-identification requirement for voters that a federal court had blocked last year. Defenders of that state law — which accepts a concealed-handgun license for identification but not a student ID card — said it was necessary to prevent in-person voter fraud, even though state officials have identified only a handful of such cases. The new North Carolina voter ID law, enacted earlier this month, is similarly disconnected from reality.

These laws, supported by Republican lawmakers trying to suppress Democratic votes, may not be uniquely targeted at racial minorities — they also burden the poor, the elderly, students and others — but that does not change their racial effect. Either way, what reason is there to keep eligible citizens from voting unless you are afraid of the outcome?

Last week, the Justice Department sued Texas over the voter ID law, arguing that it discriminated against minority voters. In a separate case last month, the department joined a lawsuit seeking to place Texas back under federal oversight, because of its discriminatory state-redistricting maps. Both actions relied on surviving sections of the Voting Rights Act, and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. promised that the administration would “take action against jurisdictions that attempt to hinder access to the ballot box, no matter where it occurs.” Given a Supreme Court that appears increasingly antagonistic to claims of voting discrimination, maintaining rights in practice will require more than just aggressive and persistent lawsuits by the Justice Department or aggrieved voters.

A more robust and lasting solution would include Congress requiring states to improve the accuracy of voter registration databases. Federal laws began this process in the 1990s and early 2000s, but many states’ voting rolls remain woefully unreliable. Making registration easier — for example, by obligating states to identify and register eligible voters or by allowing voters to update their registrations online — would also make a real difference.

As the marchers who converged on Washington 50 years ago understood, it will take a people’s movement to beat back state laws that disenfranchise the most vulnerable Americans. Congress and the courts heard the voice of the people then; it is up to this generation to make sure they hear it now.