From Trayvon Martin to Obama: the Politics of Race in America

Author and Human Rights activist, Kevin Alexander Gray, is the former President of the American Civil Liberties in South Carolina. Gray is author of “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics” and “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.”

In the following interview with Dennis J Bernstein, Gray asserts that “We need a new movement, new leadership,  to challenge the empire.  We need to set up freedom schools and a different kind of mechanism to re-educate the people who are under the whip, so they realize it’s not them selves beating each other up – it’s coming from up top.”

In the interview, Gray reflects on the Tray von Martin Trial, Gun Control and the 2nd Amendment, the recent roll back of the landmark 1965 civil rights legislation, Bradley Manning, Immigration reform, and Obama’s role as a war-marker and self-proclaimed hands-on player in the US Drone Assassination program.

DB:  Let’s start with your thoughts on the Trayvon Martin case.

KG: While you want to see justice for the death of Trayvon Martin, and you want the family and society to have a measure justice, you still have to remember that as much as you despise what George Zimmerman did, trials are for the accused. The justice system exists to defend the rights of the accused.  So while we grieve the death of Trayvon Martin, and are opposed to the concept of racial profiling, and we are opposed – at least I’m opposed – to the law stand your ground, which gives a lot of people what they believe is a license to kill, we still must believe in a system that protects the rights of the accused, even those we despise.  I understood why the prosecution would try to humanize George Zimmerman and keep the term racial profiling out of the courtroom.  What you want on trial is George Zimmerman, not necessarily racial profiling.

DB:  You are a very kind man.  We are going to get a broad view here.  But there wouldn’t have been a need for a fair defense of the accused if there wasn’t massive grassroots action to make sure that he was indicted.  Many people get away with this without a trial, right?

KG:  Absolutely.  The trial is George Zimmerman’s day in court.  There is also a public response beyond the reaction to the murder of this young man.  The public and civil rights response in the aftermath should have been on “Stand Your Ground.”  Beyond the marches and knowing that racial profiling exists, people killed and oppressed because of their race, and a justice system and society that looks at black boys and men in particular as villains and threats, there is a mind set that goes back to myth of the Mandingo and slave culture.  If we wanted to do something legislatively to deal with the gun law, we would have attacked stand your ground.  Nobody has done that yet – not Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton or the NAACP.  Nobody.

DB:  Would you take a shot at attacking it right now?

KG:  I believe in the second amendment.  When you look at who own guns in the country, it’s white men, yet the people they seek to disarm are usually people of color.  I don’t own a gun.  I am a man of peace.  In my mind, the second amendment is not about hunting and fishing.  When you look at when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written, they were not talking about hunting and fishing.  They were talking about defending themselves against a tyrannical government.  To me, the second amendment, though unspoken, is about the peoples right to revolt against a tyrannical government.  Nobody wants to talk about whether to get rid of the second amendment in an open, sensible way.  I believe in the right of self-defense.  Most people who believe in the second amendment and the right to self-defense don’t believe they need stand your ground to defend the second amendment or to defend their lives.  All stand your ground does is take away the rights or abilities of the courts and police to make you explain why you shot somebody, rather than just saying I was defending myself and let it be at that.  You had to go into court and show how you were defending your life.  That’s the problem with stand your ground, and we have not tackled that.  Over the past 20 years we have seen a build up of these concealed weapon laws – now up to 15 states have open carry laws.  That’s where we are moving, and nobody is tackling that.  Everybody will get in front of the camera and say this guy shouldn’t have shot this guy.  But when the rubber meets the road, we must challenge this legislatively, and nobody is doing that.

DB:  I can remember a group of black people who wanted to express their belief in the second amendment, and that was the Black Panthers.  I don’t remember the NRA [National Rifle Association] standing up for their rights.

KG:  That is when these guns laws were tightened up – when the armed black folks were talking about their rights.  We are in a different place.  Over the last 20-30 years, there’s been a proliferation of pro-gun groups concealed carry groups – not just the NRA.  There is the Citizens for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.  Over 40 states have stand your ground laws.  The pro-gun lobby, pro-gun advocates, are not just the NRA.  There are over 350 million guns in this
country on record, the majority owned by whites. There are probably another 100 million guns not on the books.  There are a lot of guns in this country.  People want to attack the NRA, which has a large constituency base – they have members who aren’t members.  But vilifying the NRA as a way to tackle this is not the way to go.  The way to go may be the way the pro-gun lobby and advocates did it – going to the state legislatures, bit by bit, adding more gun laws at the state level,  and we have not tackled that.

DB:  Are there any major pro-gun African-American organizations?

KG:  Not that I am aware of.  Black folks own guns.  I’m in the South.  I know many people who own guns.   They go to the shooting range and get concealed carry permits. I have brothers, uncles, nephews – we were all raised with guns.  We are at war every 20 years.  I was a range officer while I was in the military.  We trained people to shoot guns.  To train people to shoot guns, send them to war to shoot guns, then all of a sudden to say guns are bad – people are not going to listen.

DB:  They are going to send 120,000 people who know guns to a new surge on the border.  Guns aren’t gong anywhere.  They are being expanded and available to the powers that be.

KG:   They will go to a southern border where there is a drug war going on.  I believe there were 50,000 people killed in Mexico in the drug war last year.  The U.S.  plans on sending 20, 30, 40 additional border troops to the southern border with Mexico and now they talk about building a wall.  The president just came back from Germany and stood at the Brandenberg gate where Ronald Reagan said “tear down this wall.”  What are we doing?   We are building a wall at the southern border, with more troops.  We’re not building a wall at the Canadian border or putting troops there.  It is blatantly racist, and nobody is talking about that.  This country is heading in a terrible direction.  Around the world people view us as Nazis.  We think we can kill, spy, and assassinate with impunity, and usually it’s aimed at  people of color, both domestically and abroad.

DB:  Coming back to the trial, do you have any doubt that Mr. Zimmerman is going to get a fair trial?

KG:  There are six women on the jury, and I don’t know how many are mothers, but they would have to feel the pain of Sabrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.  I have deep respect and admiration for those two parents when I watch them endure their loss in that courtroom scene every day, and relive or find out more information about the death of their son. I obviously have more compassion for them than I do for George Zimmerman.  I am against the death penalty.   I am glad he isn’t facing the death penalty, and I hope he can get a fair trial, but I hope he’s found guilty, serves some time and reflects on how imbecilic and monstrous what he did was, for the family, the community, and for himself.  I hope he and his family will reflect on how racist their statements sound to the rest of us -that we are animals.  Just because a kid is black, a kid is a kid, or might smoke marijuana, doesn’t make him a criminal.  Not every black male walking the earth is some punk up to no good.

DB:  Now can you talk about the Voter Rights Act?  What did the Supreme Court do?

KG:  They ruled on section 5, which is the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act.  We were concerned they would declare both section 4 and 5 unconstitutional.  Section 5 means that nine southern states must go to the Justice Department if they want to make changes to any kind of voting practice or electoral process.  It doesn’t just apply to race.  I have filed several voting rights cases, and the last one I filed was when the state legislature tried to change when third parties could select their standard bearers, and whether those third parties could endorse the candidate of the major parties.  The state was trying to set the date the third parties could have their conventions.  We challenged that in court under the Voting Rights Act and won.  I had one other case involving a predominantly black county which elected a predominantly black school board, and two legislators, from both the house and senate, both democratic, both of whom went to private schools, tried to change that mechanism by writing a state law so state legislators could pick school board members.  We challenged that in court and won.  That was in advance of voter ID issue that occurred prior to the elections.  The court also blocked that because they failed the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting RIghts Act.  The court struck that down saying what Congress did in 2009 was instead of going back and looking at things as they are now, or the not so recent past, Congress failed to go back and examine those states that were covered under pre-clearance to see if they needed to be under preclearance.  They didn’t add any states to those that were covered under section 5. The Court said back in 1965 Congress did that.  What Congress did in 2009 was lazy and only looked at what happened in 1965, and didn’t go back look at the Voting Rights Act now.  The goal of the right wing is to get rid of the Voting Rights Act all together.  They know the chances of coming to an agreement about what states should be covered under the Voting Rights Act in this Congress are slim to none.  That’s why people say the Voting Rights Act is effectively dead.  I disagree.  I think we need to do what we did in the past, which was organize around the Voting Rights Act and maybe pick up Jesse Jackson Jr.’s mission of introducing a resolution to have a statue of Rosa Parks put in the Capital.  I give Jesse Jackson, Jr. a lot of credit even though he’s about to go to jail.  He also talked in his book A More Perfect Union about a constitutional amendment that calls for a protected right to vote.  Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota is picking that up.  Maybe we need to focus on a constitutional amendment that protects the right to vote.  We must look at those impediments to voting and from a progressive perspective talk about how we broaden voting rights in this country, rather than lamenting what this court has done.

DB:  Many people don’t understand the enforcement nature of that legislation.  In 1965 and 1995, even 1996, there was still the same problem.  Even if you pass legislation, you couldn’t get federal officers to enforce it, so it was meaningless unless you brought in folks from the north to go down there to enforce it, correct?

KG:  Yes.  Things are a bit more sophisticated now.  There are all these voter ID laws put in place to slow down the pace of black and minority voting in the south.

DB:  So it continues.  You live in South Carolina.  Is the Klan shop still open?

KG:  Oh yes.

DB:  And they flew the confederate flag until when?

KG:  This is the ideological home of white supremacy.  We understand that and fight all the time.  That is why preclearance and the Voting Rights Act is a handy tool.  We have to fight to use it all the time.  It’s a procedural mechanism, and it will be interesting to see moving forward what happens when we don’t have it.

DB:  We certainly want to move forward.  I think I did a story in 1996 about the Old Boys parties organized by federal agents from the AFT and FBI.  They had racist parties with signs about watermelon eating contests – these were federal officers in 1995 in the south.  When we investigated the church burnings in 1995 and 1996, the federal officers did the same thing they did in 1965- they showed up and blamed the black people for burning down their own churches.  Now they’re accusing them of voter fraud.

KG:  That’s right.  I was involved in editing a black newspaper and organizing with the Rainbow Coalition and other groups to bring attention to the church fires.  We had congressional hearings on the fires and Clinton came, many churches were rebuilt and some people were prosecuted.  We can’t ever depend on anybody else.  The victims need to lead their own way out of oppression.

DB:  The investigation in Mississippi was conducted by Jim Ingram, who was number three in Cointelpro.  He was sued for doing illegal activities – trying to disrupt organizing by black groups.  He was in charge in 1966 to find out who was burning the black churches while lots of black people were being hung in prisons.  This was not long ago.

KG:  Every 28 hours, a black person is killed by a police officer in America.  Now they want to put a surge of border agents to the southern border of the U.S.  Trayvon Martin, the Voting Rights Act, the wealth gap between whites and blacks getting ever wider – it’s sad.  We have a black president and over 10,000 black elected officials across the country, all of whom are the direct recipients of the Voting Rights Act.  Yet it seems things keep getting worse and worse and worse.  There’s obviously something else that needs to happen in the body politic in this country.  Minority communities in particular must raise the level of political consciousness and activism to defend them selves.  I’m not talking about defending ourselves by grabbing a carbine and getting behind a barricade.  How do we move a movement back into the streets, educate people at a local level?  I asked some young folks if they knew what happened today with the Voting Rights Act.  They didn’t know what happened or even what the Voting Rights Act is. They didn’t know the courts decision on the Voting Rights Act was probably as significant as the Dred Scott decision because they didn’t know what the Dred Scott decision was.

DB:  Do they know who Jimmy Lee Jackson is?

KG:  No, they don’t.  My 10 year old grand-daughter said to me last night that she didn’t think Paula Deen was racist.  Of course I taught her about that. I said, what is racism, young sister?  This is where we are now.  Many young folk don’t seem to think it matters.  Somebody must have told them institutional racism doesn’t exist.  They have no idea what white supremacy or white privilege is.  Maybe they will know about it when they are in a crowd of white folks and somebody picks them out, but something needs to happen in our community, to re-politicize our kids to what it is they are losing, and what it will mean for their future if they have one.  That’s what’s missing in black politics in this country.  Many folk think that voting for Obama was it.  They had a hope that somebody taking on the office as the head of the empire was going to change something.

DB:  I must admit I am profoundly disappointed in some folks who were on this program regularly, and for every terrible thing Barak Obama has done, they have a beautiful, endless explanation and are willing to go public with it.  The drones – we need the surveillance.  Why didn’t they go after the white presidents doing the surveillance?  There are many excuses.  Has it helped to have a black president?  Have things substantially changed because of that?

KG:  I hear a lot of people say, “White folk did it, why can’t he do it?”  I say, “What are we for, equal injustice for all?”  It comes down to whether or not you want to run or change the system.  It used to be the black movement was about changing the system.  Now we have over 10,000 elected officials across the country, so we become part of the system.  We are running the system, are the technocrats of the system.  So the goal becomes to do the job just as good or better than the white person who had the job did it.  The surveillance – I’ve had to argue people down on Snowden.  I think what Snowden did is heroic, I’m rooting for him.  People say to me he ought to go down, go to jail, he’s a traitor.  A traitor? I tell them “The government is spying on you, me and the whole wide world.  We have an assassination program going on around the world.  You think an assassination program, a secret government, secret police, drones, constant surveillance, trial without jury and no due process is a good thing?”  “Well we have to protect ourselves from the enemy.”  Dude, who is in jail?  It’s not a bunch of Islamic fundamentalist extremists in jail. It’s [people of color] black and brown folk in jail.  Who do you think they are using the surveillance on?  Non-violent drug offenders have their phones monitored so they can be put back in jail and wreck their lives.  That’s what is going on.  You are the target here, somebody else is the target across the ocean or down below the border.  We must challenge this and right now there is no leadership to challenge this.  I watched Chris Hayes on MSNBC – I’ve even been on his show – and he criticized Snowden possibly going to Cuba – “with Castro and the Cubans.”  So now we are anti-socialist, anti-communist?  Is this where we are?   We need a new movement, new leadership,  to challenge the empire.  We need to set up freedom schools and a different kind of mechanism to re-educate the people who are under the whip, so they realize it’s not them selves beating each other up – it’s coming from up top.

DB:  The interchange between Glenn Greenwald and David Gregory demonstrates the level of ignorance we see.  Self-censorship is so deep he thinks he’s a journalist and his job, instead of monitoring the centers of power and reporting to the people, is to defend the State Department.  Black and white together – our ignorance is so deep, the educational system is so thin, people’s ability to think critically is so lacking – we are in deep trouble.

KG:  These people have been cheerleaders for empire and war mongering.  That’s where we’re at now.  It’s seeping into the heart of it all.  These communities are rooting for the war mongering and not realizing how the rest of the world is viewing us- as war mongers, as an empire that wants to exploit and bully people.  We are bullies in this country, with a bully mentality.  We must figure out a movement that connects up with the other movements that are rolling all around the world – Turkey, Brazil, France, Spain, Egypt, Tunisia.  That’s what the government fears – that it will hit here.  It needs to hit here and be led by the people who are the most affected by it – the people who are at the bottom.  We must find some mechanism to tweak their political consciousness so they know who the real enemy is.

DB:  We are closely watching a group called the Dreamers, which includes undocumented young folks and workers who do the hardest work in the fields.   They are now on a rolling hunger strike.  These dreamers and this movement are the cutting edge of civil rights, if you will, at this point.  Maybe it’s something we need to pay a lot of attention to.

KG:  When black and brown people, Latinos of America, Central and South America, blacks of African descent and Indigenous people finally realize they are better together than apart, we’ll have a movement.  Instead, a lot of black folk believe Latinos are taking jobs from them.  I always tell people they don’t call New Mexico, New Mexico for no reason.  They have to realize that workers must come together.  When that happens, we’ll have a movement.  We have black folk who say the gay rights movement has nothing to do with the civil rights movement.  Of course it does.  When all these groups get together as the gay community cheers the defeat of DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], they need to realize in their celebration that they may have won, but yesterday was a bad day for those who believe in the rights of minorities and people of color.  If they don’t understand the significance of what happened both yesterday and today, and temper their celebration with the need to go back and rejoin with this other group, they will miss a teachable moment for themselves.

DB:  How do you think Barack Obama will be thought of in the history books?

KG:  That’s his problem.   Obviously, as the first African-American president, he will be in the history books, because that’s a big deal.  He’ll have that.  The rest of us who write history will be calling him the assassination president, a failure – somebody who expanded the empire with a black face and the face of a beautiful black family.  He did nothing more than serve as a cover for the disastrous policies of this country and take one more step to ruin for this country.  I don’t think his legacy will be good at all.  Those in the mainstream will write what they write, because they are with the empire.   But for many of us, those writers at CounterPunch, The Progressive, some at The Nation – those historians – will call him the assassination president who aided in the erosion of the international rule of law.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at