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Marching Backwards on Civil Rights

The Cold Hard Truth

by J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr.

It is difficult to converse with people who oppose what they call quotas, reverse discrimination and preferential treatment. Such people usually say they are not opposed to anti-discrimination laws but they downplay the ugly fact that much of the racist past remains with us. They also are ambivalent about most claims that arise from black America.

For example, I have debated against college educated people, black and white, who argue heatedly that reparations are undesirable and unnecessary for ruling out the racist abominations that have haunted America since 1619. They say they do not believe the racial present is anywhere near as bad as the racial past or that mainstream white people still perceive a darker skin color as materially different than their own and derive comfort from that difference.

There’s a comfort level for white people when they deal with black people. Generally, this comfort level is born of illusion, inspires its own notions of white supremacy and then rationalizes it as necessary and proper. The late New York Senator Daniel Moyniham once said that whites have castrated blacks for so long that the blacks now do it to themselves. That castration occurs in many different forms.

I watched one example of this social castration first hand and up close in the nation’s capitol during the heated federal courtroom arguments and disagreements in the black farmers’ case. I was fascinated and disgusted by the openly patronizing, racist attitude of many white government functionaries toward my poor black farmer clients and worse the acquiescence in all this degrading racist nonsense by black government functionaries.

On the other hand, I have witnessed even blacks who try to be Republican and white sometimes yield to a deeply instinctive human impulse and fight back. They might pick the wrong targets, but they sometimes lash out in unexpected bitterness and hatred. I was startled by one example in another federal courthouse, this time in Montgomery. We had completed the arraignment of Jamil Abdullah Alamin alias H. Rap Brown and I stopped in the hallway to answer questions from Alvin Benn, a reporter. A black man dressed in Muslim garb stood to the side and listened intently.

Jamil was already under sentence of life without parole for murder in Georgia and that sentence was on appeal. I merely repeated to Benn what I had said in court, i.e. the government brought Jamil back to Montgomery only because officials view him as a dangerous black radical and wanted to tack a few more years on to his sentence in case he won his appeal in Georgia. The charge in Alabama of shooting at federal officers in Lowndes County, Alabama was hardly worth the trip from Georgia. Naturally, the government denied my claim and said Jamil was being tried in Alabama because, "If you shoot at one of ours, you will be prosecuted!"

After Benn left, the Muslim brother and several other blacks angrily called the government vile names and another Muslim brother said in an agitated voice said, "You see, these damn government people view all people of color differently and as the enemy. Today is the first time in history that the government has tried to add some years on to some one already serving life without parole. They would only do that to a person of color. This white government has always hated black people. It is government for, by and of white people! " A dignified but very pregnant black woman said amen and called the black prosecutor assigned to the case, "a college educated Tom, a black misfit who sold his damn soul for a second class government job."

Among other negatives, racism distorts our belief system, and to varying degrees we are all held hostage by racism. A fundamental difference between blacks and whites is that most blacks would effectively address the problem of racism while many whites deny there is much of a problem. I hear white people in Selma self-righteously blame one of my attorney colleagues and activist Rose Sanders for racially segregated schools and damn near everything else that is wrong in this town. For the record, local schools were created segregated in the 1860s and remained so until I filed suit to integrate them more than a hundred years later in the 1970s.

Along the same fraudulent lines, I reject the racist pretension that we blacks have a greater propensity for crime than whites; that poverty has little or nothing to do with criminals or criminality; that subsistence welfare payments are routinely abused to produce welfare kings and queens; that race and class are necessary to preserve the nation and that blacks who don’t bow to white manipulation are dangerous and even un-American. There is not a scintilla of evidence that proves any of that nonsense.

As long as Americans place a value on skin color, regardless of how ridiculous, white supremacy will reign if only in secret. Indeed, white supremacy has reigned all these centuries because it is American to the core, and it is inseparable from American history. As I look around today in 2006, it is almost as if the civil rights movement was a mistake. Many who battled at Ground Zero in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia in the 1960s have now lived to witness the really reactionary mood of the country today and the government’s unceasing efforts to undo much, if not all, we achieved with great sacrifice in race relations and civil rights.

The march backwards really began with George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of "Black in Selma" with Julia Cass (1989 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and writes a weekly column called the "Hard Cold Truth". He can be reached at tmarshall@csspca.com.