Mississippi Freedom Summer — Fifty Years Later, Part Three
by the Editorial Board
From the Spring, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents. Photos, unless otherwise indicated, by Mark Levy, from the Queens College/CUNY Civil Rights Archive. To read narratives by the volunteers, click here and here.
Much did change, of course, in Mississippi and the rest of the Deep South, and in the U.S. as a whole, as a result of the courageous deeds of these civil rights workers. They held American society accountable in the name of its very own ideals, and ultimately proved the country to be capable of distancing itself from its racist history without armed revolution. “Distancing,” however, is a far cry from “atoning.” Today, the most obvious trappings of American apartheid are mostly gone, yet white flight from public schools and neighborhoods has produced a great deal of de facto segregation in education and housing. Political citizenship has been extended to people of color, but renewed efforts to limit the volume of voting by people of color through voter I.D. laws, in combination with legislative gerrymandering that neutralizes their voting power, are in full bloom — with Supreme Court approval.
Even the meager compensations proferred to African-American citizens after two centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow — affirmative action, federal minority hiring quotas, Head Start, and anti-poverty programs — are only begrudgingly funded and face constant challenges in the courts. Unemployment rates in the black community have meanwhile been consistently double the rates for whites, average black family wealth is less than a tenth that of white families, and poverty rates are as high as 50 percent for some black urban communities.
Lyndon Johnson is said to have murmured, “There goes the South for a generation” when he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Certainly, the deep allegiance to conservative Republicanism found in Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and other slave states of the 19th century’s Confederacy — all of which were solidly Democratic and segregationist until Johnson signed that bill — can be traced to white resentment of the civil rights revolution and the federal laws that gave it legal clout. As Martin Luther King, Jr. learned, however, in his attempt to bring the movement north to Chicago and other urban centers, American racism is not only a Southern phenomenon. True equal opportunity for black Americans has been fought over in bitter political struggles everywhere in the country, especially since Johnson’s “Great Society” ambitions yielded to the “government-is-the-problem” ideology of the Reagan Administration (1981-1989), and far-right, fringe conservatism began filtering into mainstream Republican politics. Blaming African Americans (and other poor people) for their low status is a beloved trope of that conservative culture — but liberals are hardly immune to it.
Al Vorspan noted this back in 1965, chastising Jews for the “weary refrain” from their “segregated [suburban] flesh-pots . . . ‘why can’t they pull themselves up by their bootstraps the way we did,’” and “‘Why don’t they thank us?’” A “generalized anxiety seeps through the Jewish consciousness, distorting and confusing reality,” Vorspan added, whenever issues of “Negro evil-doing,” i.e., black criminal activity, or black anti-Semitism, are raised.
That “generalized anxiety” must now be dealt with anew if the Jewish community is again to be mobilized in solidarity with the African-American community, especially on one of its leading issues: the mass imprisonment of black men. In the decades since President Richard Nixon launched the “War on Drugs” in 1971, the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. has shot up to 2.2 million, which dwarfs that of any other developed country both in sheer numbers and in percentage of the population — and between 50 and 60 percent of those felons are people of color. When it comes to drug-related crime, in particular, although government statistics show the rates of illegal drug use among white and black Americans to be equal, non-whites constitute fully two-thirds of those jailed.
Let it be noted that the formerly segregated states of Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mississippi have the highest incarceration rates in the county. In Mississippi, of the nearly 183,000 citizens denied the vote because of felony convictions, nearly 108,000 are black, some 14 percent of the state’s total African-American population. All told, state voting policies now disenfranchise one in thirteen African Americans, according to Bill Keller, who recently resigned his position at the New York Times to start up The Marshall Project (named after Thurgood Marshall), a journalistic venture dedicated to what Keller calls “the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system.”
This mass incarceration of people of color is not a matter of “punishment to fit the crime” — especially insofar as crime rates have dramatically fallen for the past two decades while the imprisonment of black men remains grotesquely common. Instead, it is a new form of racial control that civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander has aptly named “The New Jim Crow.” In her 2010 book of that title, Alexander describes how the entire criminal justice system functions to bring the weight of the law down on black and brown heads much more heavily than on whites — and how once a person is labeled a felon, “the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunities, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living . . . at the height of Jim Crow.”
The New Jim Crow, she argues, is thus a caste system, and its “genius” and distinguishing feature “is that it appears voluntary.”
People choose to commit crimes,and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the [prison] system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. . . . All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.
“Arguably,” Alexander continues, “the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America. . . . Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.”
This reputation for criminality has been used as an excuse for white-on-black violence ever since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Blacks had to be kept down, lynched and terrorized lest they riot, rape, and pillage; blacks had to be gunned down by police as a matter of self-defense. It is a reputation cultivated by white supremacists, yes, but also by television, by police officials, and even by the “gangsta” aspirations of some black youth. Black = criminal explains why police stop-and-frisk methods, although they obviously target thousands of innocent young men, are acceptable to many whites, and why “Stand Your Ground” defenses seem credible to juries even in cases in which unarmed young black men have been shot in the back (or in the back seats of cars). The stereotype of black criminality is deeply rooted in America’s racialized class system, and is also a key ingredient of America’s gun culture and “law-and-order” mentality. The New Jim Crow can therefore be enforced, as Michelle Alexander puts it, in “new race-neutral language” and has been “accompanied by a political movement that succeeded in putting the vast majority of blacks back in their place. Proponents of racial hierarchy found they could install a new racial caste system without violating law or the new limits of acceptable political discourse, by demanding ‘law and order’ rather than ‘segregation forever.’”
Reckoning with the fear of crime, and recognizing that our criminal justice system is enforcing a new form of Jim Crow, are as central to today’s struggle for civil rights as the campaign to win voting rights and stand up to racist terror was in Mississippi half a century ago. Back then, the symbols of oppression were nooses, “white only” signs, and burning crosses; today, the key symbol is handcuffs. Just as Robert Kennedy reacted to his 1967 tour of the Mississippi Delta — “My God, I did not know this kind of thing existed. How can a country like this allow it?” — so must we, fifty years after Mississippi Freedom Summer, open our eyes to the ongoing realities of racism in America, and be outraged and mobilized by what we see.