This post is part of our Social Impact Summer Series. Initiated by The Institute for Social Justice Inquiry and Praxis and the Faculty Blog editorial team, the Series is meant to facilitate timely reflections and commentaries on unfolding events and to provide space for our faculty colleagues to strategize and coordinate efforts as we work toward freedom for ourselves, our students, and our communities.
Protesters marched through the streets of downtown Atlanta in response to police brutality. Property damage led state and local law enforcement to escalate its response. Students got arrested and demonstrations were met with tear gas. And the helicopters—the helicopters flew overhead and droned on nonstop. This was June 2020. And this was April 1992. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others and the subsequent protests have sparked reflections on the connections between 1992 and 2020, on my own intellectual journey, and the eerie links between the past and the present.
In my first term in graduate school, I took a course titled “The History of the Civil Rights Movement” with Sterling Stuckey. He required graduate students to write a research paper, and in consultation with him I chose to write an essay on the Los Angeles police shooting of seven members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) in April of 1962. Still with fresh memories of the student protests in Atlanta and the teargassing of the AUC and having done research on the NOI while a student at Morehouse and during a summer program at Duke, I was primed for the task. The research project uncovered systematic local, state, and national surveillance of the NOI. Local police and the FBI suspected the NOI of being violent subversives, which established the ideological context for the 1962 Los Angeles police raid that wounded seven including Ronald Stokes, who died from a gunshot wound through the heart. Stokes, a Korean War veteran and friend of Malcolm X, had his hands up when a policeman shot him. The survivors, and not the police, ended up on trial and were ultimately acquitted. While a local event, the case caught national and international attention, and it had broad implications. Because of the case, Malcolm X became much more politically active, drifting from the NOI because of its apolitical posture. Furthermore, local and national civil rights leaders tried to coalesce around the problem of police brutality, but class and ideological conflicts fractured their efforts. They proved to be no match to the inertia of the system. Others would try again, but the slow pace of change on police reform lands us where we are today, which is tied to a much longer history of anti-black violence in America.
The anti-black violence of our current age has deep roots in American history. After a short period of uneasy negotiation in early colonial Virginia, violence was the principal instrument of British colonial land seizure from American Indians, the historians Edmund and Marie Morgan write. This strategy constituted part of a larger British colonial project that divided their territories into two geographical zones, north and south—the former governed by law and the latter governed by violence. Within this legal and geographical framework, the Atlantic slave trade and the core slaveholding colonies subjected black labor to all manner of public and private violence. For example, the Virginia slave code of 1705, which built on decades of laws that created the system of racial slavery and marginalized free blacks, spelled out the parameters of who could legitimately use violence. The 1705 Code gave the state and slaveholders rights to impose extreme physical punishments on fugitives while at the same time the code required that “no slave go armed with gun, sword, club, staff, or other weapon” without written permission from their owner. Colonial regulations such as this these set the basic pattern of violence and race that governed slaveholding states through the Civil War.
The violence continued during Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and beyond. The Equal Justice Initiative recently reported that vigilantes lynched nearly 2,000 black people during Reconstruction, bringing the total number of victims to 6,500. One of the most gruesome episodes of violence was the lynching of Mary Turner and her unborn child. Recounting one example of racist terror after another, one historian of the period aptly titled his chapter on lynch mobs “Hellhounds.” Leaving the South gave black people no respite. Anti-black violence erupted in response to the twentieth-century migration of black labor to the urban South, North and West. Atlanta in 1906, Springfield, Illinois in 1908, East St. Louis in 1917, Washington, DC, Chicago, and dozens of other cities in 1919 were racial battlegrounds, with black migrant labor subject to mob attacks. The most notorious massacre was in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the thriving Black Greenwood district was laid waste by white mob violence.
Racist violence, at its core, operated to fix black people into limited physical and social spaces. And it worked in tandem with other economic and political forces, which operated together to buttress the white middle class in the mid-twentieth century. Through extralegal and legal forms of exclusion, white communities built social and economic value through the real estate market. As Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor argues, real estate agents, bankers, and federal agents advanced racist polices, ideologies, and practices that pushed property values higher in white communities because they were separate from black folks. While whites increasingly fled to the suburbs after World War II in pursuit of a middle-class ideal, black people became more isolated in America’s cities. And even when they tried to integrate white neighborhoods, they too often were met with firebombs or other forms of violence. The patterns of residential segregation reinforced by local violence and enabled by government, banking, and real estate interests established racial practices that have persisted well into this century.
Will the recent wave of protests radically alter these patterns? Will the mortally wounded black bodies captured for all to see be enough to turn the tide? In answering these questions, it’s important to bear in mind that, though not reported in the headlines or television news cycle, business as usual crept alongside the protests. The engines of commerce, though slowed by Covid-19, stayed in motion. Construction cranes still operated, low-wage essential workers remained on the frontlines of the pandemic, and many worn down by months of lockdown sought a return to normal. The structures of racial inequality are still strong, and whether we are at the beginning of a new era or not is still unknown. But by continuing to listen, analyze, organize, speak out, value black lives, and foster a different vision of society, we improve our chances of breaking the patterns of old.
Dr. Frederick Knight is associate professor of history at Morehouse College, where he is also director of the Institute for Research, Civic Engagement, and Policy at the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership. Dr. Knight has published a number of book chapters and articles on black history, and he is the author of Working the Diaspora: The Impact of African Labor on the Anglo-American World, 1650-1850.