Over the past few weeks the country has simmered with the issue of race.
On June 24, in the Fisher v. Texas case the Supreme Court did not directly overturn affirmative but the Court made it virtually impossible to sustain an affirmative action program based on racial classification. The court remanded Fisher back to the Fifth Circuit and instructed the lower court to apply a standard of strict scrutiny in requiring the University of Texas to demonstrate three things: 1) how its admission criteria, which considers an applicant’s race, meets a compelling interest, 2) that race is one of many factors in selecting students, and 3) that there aren’t other, less restrictive ways to achieve diversity in the student body.
The following day, in a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court invalidated key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. for the majority. The Court’s decision affects nine states which are now free to modify their election laws—such as changing the location of a polling place or redrawing congressional districts—without seeking advance approval from the Department of Justice or from a federal court.
On Saturday evening, July 13, the jurors in the George Zimmerman trial found the defendant not-guilty of second-degree murder, and not-guilty of manslaughter in the death of Travon Martin. Zimmerman didn’t deny shooting the victim, but claimed he did so in self-defense. Many legal scholars, including Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, applauded the decision as an appropriate based on the law and the evidence presented by the prosecution at trial. The decision set off a firestorm of anger by many who believed that a white man had gotten away with the murder of an African-American teenager. President Obama inserted himself in the case twice. Early on, he said if he had a son, his son would look like Travon. After the trial, the President again commented on the case, stirring racial tensions by suggesting that race may have played a strong role in the case, “I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
These headline stories have played alongside news of 236 murders in the city of Chicago since the first of the year, 75 percent of which are black victims and almost all of these are black-on-black crime. Unemployment statistics released yesterday by the government show that 12.6 percent of black Americans were unemployed, and while that is down from a high of 16.5 percent two years ago, the current unemployment rate for African-Americans is higher than the unemployment rate of 7.4 percent for the overall population. Of great concern is the unemployment rate for black teens which stands at 41.6 percent.
All of these current race related stories sit against the backdrop of an important milestone in the history of civil rights. This month, on August 28, the country marks the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. William P. Jones, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, has written a book that looks back at the roots of that day and the seeds that it planted.
[The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights. William P. Jones. July 29, 2013; W.W. Norton and Co., pages 320; $20.21/Kindle $12.99]
Jones traces the origins of the march to trade unionist A. Philip Randolph who, back in 1941, called for equal opportunities in employment and in the armed services for African-Americans. Randolph had organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids in 1925. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the number of unemployed went from 500,000 to more than four million in less than two months. In many places, particularly in the Jim Crow South, what jobs there were went to white men before black men. Throughout the Depression years and into World War II, Randolph worked with other labor organizers and civil rights leaders to promote employment opportunities for blacks. In his work he collaborated with Socialists and Communists to stage demonstrations and to lobby members of Congress. Jones details how in 1940, 100,000 Americans had jobs in aircraft plants, but only 300 of these jobs were held by blacks. Of 100,000 officers in the Army Reserves, only 500 were black. Throughout the war, the services were segregated according to color. Randolph rebuked AFL unions for shutting black workers out of employment opportunities in defense jobs.
In response to the limits racism, prejudice and discrimination imposed on blacks, Randolph called for “a pilgrimage of 10,000 Negros” to “wake up and shock Official Washington as it has never been shocked before.” The march was set for July 1, 1941 and as many as 50,000 people were expected. President Roosevelt was concerned about the demonstration. Roosevelt met with Randolph and ordered him to call the march off. When it was apparent that the march was set to move forward, Roosevelt issued an executive order to government agencies involved with vocational and technical training defense production to insure that their programs operated without discrimination. Roosevelt also established a Fair Employment Practices Committee to future insure that people were not barred from work in defense industries on the basis of their race, creed, color or national origin.
While Roosevelt’s actions did not address every concern Randolph and the organizers of the March had, Randolph called off the March “at this time.”
The time for the March on Washington came 22 years later as blacks sought not only equality of access to jobs but social and political equality in public life in America. Jones chronicles the story of the Civil Rights movement and its leaders, including their alliances to labor organizers, Socialists, Communists, and religious leaders. He weaves in the major events of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that led up to the historic event “for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963.
Close to a quarter-million people from all over the United States gathered to march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary performed. The day-long event culminated in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” where, according to Jones, “that 100 years after Lincoln had freed the slaves their descendants were ‘still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.’”
Following the conclusion of the March, organizers went to the White House to meet with President Kennedy, Vice-President Johnson, the secretary of labor, and the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. At the end of the meeting there a press conference on the White House lawn with the President and the leaders of the March. Three month later, President Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson ascended to the White House. In addition to Civil Rights and employment legislation being signed into law by Johnson, the president would launch a war on poverty and also draw the U.S. further into the war in Vietnam.
Looking back over the race issues that have come to the fore this summer, America has come a long way from the Jim Crow era of segregation and the tumultuous time of the Civil Rights era. We have grown more aware of racism, and while we have not eliminated racial prejudice in American society, great strides have been made to make our nation—in the words of the Constitution— “a more perfect union.” But we are still struggling.
As we go forward, we must be cautious in assuming that we are still in the same place that we were 50 years ago. And we must be willing to call out those who play the race card in order to drum up race problems and animosities where there are none. Such efforts are nothing more than an attempt to divide people along race and class lines. Revisiting—without revising—history is important, especially if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
Jones’ book is a tour de force of the events that led up to the March and an interesting account of the day itself. His epilogue provides great food for thought as the nation faces race relations in the twenty-first century and asks honest questions about not just jobs and freedom, but also national debt, the size and right role of government, education, self-responsibility, and the integrity of the family unit.
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