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The Un-Making of Civil Rights in the USA

In 1892, Homer Plessy sat in a “white car” of a segregated East Louisiana Railroad passenger train, and was promptly arrested. Released on $500 bond, Plessy and his group, Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens), initiated court proceedings against the arresting officer. The Plessy case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that the 14th Amendment justified full integration with the words, “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, and property, without due process of law.” Louisiana Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled that the company could maintain segregation, and the Supreme Court agreed, stating that “a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to the either” would not benefit society as a whole, thus enshrining the “separate but equal doctrine” of Jim Crow.

For Mark Golub of Scripps College, this judgment can be seen as “a symbol of American racial Apartheid.” And why not? It rolled back many of the gains made through Reconstruction, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and established in rapid order the steps toward the disenfranchisement of Black voters.

The ruling against Plessy was a roadblock against a much broader movement. Galvanized by multiracial leadership emerging from churches, labor organizations, and social groups, the growing People’s Party would find support and shelter through strategic alliances with the Republican Party in the post-Reconstruction South. The political clout accrued through grassroots organizing among agrarian workers and disenfranchised social groups brought the Republican Party a tremendous deal of wins throughout the 1880s and early 1890s—particularly in North Carolina, where what was then the largest city in the state, Wilmington, was also predominantly Black.

After the Plessy v. Ferguson verdict, however, the tides began to shift. Not only were lynchings increasing throughout the South, as the Ku Klux Klan assembled along with the notorious Red Shirts of the violently racist Democratic Party, but the Republicans gradually relinquished their solidarity with Black voters. Not five years after Plessy lost in the Supreme Court, the People’s Party determined to join the Democratic Party’s failed bid for presidency under William Jennings Bryant, abandoning their Black supporters and organizers to the extent that the leader of the People’s Party would begin raving against Black people and encouraging lynchings.

Two years later, the city of Wilmington erupted in a “race riot” carried out by Red Shirts tied to a plot by Southern Democrat leaders—in actual fact, it was a putsch to force the Republican leadership to resign. Much of the city’s Black neighborhood of Brooklyn would be razed, and as many as a hundred Black people slain, as the governor called in the Wilmington Light Infantry to control the “riot,” which was immediately blamed on Black violence.

While the situation of Jim Crow would be challenged throughout the early 20th Century, “Separate but Equal” would not be transformed until Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. It was symbolically significant, then, that after the foreclosure crisis gutted the US homeowner, the rate of homeownership among Black people in the US fell to its lowest point since 1965. As de facto segregation continues to push people of color out of urban areas through the wake of the housing market crisis, “Urban Renewal” programs, and other forms of “spacial deconcentration,” Ferguson has become a symbol not only of the ongoing dispossession of people of color (from the cities and the suburbs to the exurbs and the rural), but of the degeneration of Civil Rights in the US.

Even while reaching its apparent apex through the achievement of the position of Presidency, it would appear that Civil Rights and integration remains a popular desire, not a reality for most people. Obama’s lack of genuine response to the phenomenon happening in Ferguson is symptomatic of his general irresponsiveness to the ongoing dispossession of people of color in the US. It is, in a way, the Democratic Party’s latest “Sister Souljah moment” (named after Bill Clinton’s denunciation of Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition for inviting the radical hip hop artist and intellectual to speak). By playing down or denouncing the radical response to police brutality clearly coordinated in efforts to remove Black people from the fast-gentrifying city of Ferguson, Obama is seen as playing pragmatic politics as opposed to the “angry populism” that characterized some of his earlier speeches.

It is true that his administration’s partners (Rahm Emmanuel, for instance) celebrated and attempted to harness the insecurity and anger of the suburbs through populist techniques in order to win the 2008 election. In avoiding Ferguson, Obama is performing the ultimatum of populist leadership: abandoning the “extremes” that comprised the core of the movement’s radicalism and attraction for resignation to aristocracy. The stoking of “angry populism” in the suburbs and the subsequent abandonment of self-defense faced with police brutality actuates a familiar model of populism seen also when the People’s Party’s (aka the Populist Party) abandonment of Black organizers and activists in favor of an exigent, though unsuccessful, compact with the Democratic Party, which led to the disaster of the Wilmington Putsch and the disenfranchisement of roughly 40,000 Black voters in North Carolina, alone, through the Democratic Party’s regime of poll taxes and literacy tests for voter registration after 1898. With the police behavior in Ferguson—assaulting crowds, killing people, spreading misinformation, and making false arrests—as well as the response from hate groups like the KKK, the riots in Ferguson, which began with peaceful protests until the police reacted with brutality, threatens to become another putsch; a historic victory for the revanchist right wing and the undoing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, just as Wilmington was part of the undoing of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that found its keystone in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). This article is also being published at earthfirstjournal.org/newswire.

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Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

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