I recently finished reading ”Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary,” by Juan Williams. It was published in 1998 and I probably bought and read it then. I pulled it from my library for several reasons. The protests over the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police was constantly in the news. Current events made me reflect on my experience with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Also I wanted to read about a leader. In 2020 we seem to lack any political or moral leadership.
During the week I read about Thurgood, I watched Spike Lee’s “Malcolm x.” Another different type of leader. Thurgood, Malcolm or Malcom X, Martin Luther King — none were perfect. All made mistakes; all had personal failings. But they articulated values and motivated followers to action, each achieving some positive change.
In my teacher education classes at Holy Family University, I talked about Thurgood Marshall. We considered the historic Brown decision. Although by the 1990 there was greater segregation in American public schools due to residential segregation based on poverty (and color). I liked to ask students if they had every heard of Charles Houston (some didn’t even know Marshall; none knew Houston). I explained the Houston was Marshall’s law professor/ mentor at Howard University. Houston had taught a small group of African American to be lawyers encouraging them to challenge the 1876 Supreme Court decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson that institutionalized legal segregation (in schools and elsewhere) as long as it could be considered “separate but equal.” The Brown decision overturned Plessey. Marshall working for the NAACP was the lead lawyer. The case placed him in the national spotlight and he emerged as one of the leading advocates for civil rights.
Marshall grew up in Baltimore in the early 20th century. I was actually surprised to read about an 1875 incident where a mulatto, Daniel Brown was murdered by a policeman. Officer McDonald was convicted of manslaughter. Thurgood’s Uncle Isaiah Williams was involved in the trial. I was surprised to be reading about the all white police force and complaints about commonplace police brutality. I associated the time with discrimination, Jim Crow and lynchings, north and south. But I hadn’t remembered reading about systemic police brutality. Now in 2020, almost 150 years after the Baltimore incident the nation is in turmoil about police brutality toward the black community.
The protests over the choking death of George Floyd began in Minneapolis in late May. In the following weeks they spread to cities and eventually small towns around the country. Initially peaceful protests exploded into violence, car burning, looting, confrontations between police and protesters. President Trump seemed to fan the flames calling for national guards, the military, crack downs. In Washington D.C. in Lafayette Square in front of the White House peaceful protesters were dispersed with rubber bullets and tear gas to clear a path for the President’s photo op (with a Bible) in front of a church. Locally in Philadelphia the downtown area was burned and looted, days later police used tear gas to clear protesters from Interstate 676. Armed locals with pipes and guns turned out to defend Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood; police fraternized with them. Rumors and social media theories claimed that the violence was due to infiltration by left wing anarchists or right wing fanatics. Trump blamed Antifa. Little evidence supported any of this.
My personal analysis was that the George Floyd spark ignited a simmering fear and hatred about decades of police brutality toward blacks, a continued, if at times, quiet racism in America, the President’s history of racist sentiment and support of white supremacist’s attitudes, and the two month “at home” lock down due to Coronavirus.
The nighty news reminded me of the 1960s. There were sit-ins, Selma, Birmingham, the March on Washington. There were summer riots in the late 1960s and riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King. As in 2020 Philadelphia burned. I was home from college in Bristol in the Spring of 1968 and I remember rumors that blacks from Bristol Township’s Terrace development were going to march and loot Mill Street. My family boarded up the appliance store and we waited. Nothing happened. This year marches in Bristol and even in downtown Yardley were completely peaceful. In fact around the country as police and government became less confrontational, violence and looting disappeared in most places.
I did wonder, where was the leadership? Where were the organizers? What were the demands? Although it didn’t apply to the summer riots in 1967 or post King riots in most civil rights and anti-Vietnam demonstrations in the 1960s and early 70s, there were known leaders, organizations and demands.
As the protests continued into June, some of my questions were answered. Black Lives Matter (BLM) was a lead organization and there were others. Demands began to make the nightly news, defund police, establish standards for anti-racist training, bar choke holds . . . one difference was I didn’t find any Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Thurgood Marshall. Leadership seemed more grass roots, driven by social media. 2020 protests were overwhelming young people. Interestingly there were as many or more whites as blacks in many cities.
Thurgood Marshall was an integrationist. He was willing to bend to White America to achieve equality, even partial equality. Some called him an Uncle Tom. He disagreed with King’s activism and protest strategies. And he was appalled at the stridency of Black Panthers and Black Muslims like Malcolm X.
Malcolm was from the street. Harlem. The early scenes of Denzel Washington and Spike Lee in zoos suits, large hat with feather strutting from club to club, alcohol, drugs and women is unforgettable. Malcolm was cool. But in prison he converted to Islam and becomes a follower of Elijah Mohammed. What a transformation. He shouts out Black power, Black liberation. Black is Beautiful replaces integration. Of course like King, Malcolm is eventually assassinated. Spike Lee’s movie is still relevant and powerful today.
In 1967, Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. He joined a majority of liberal justices. He continued to fight for peaceful integration. The elimination of the death penalty becomes another issue for him. But as the years pass, the court becomes increasingly conservative. Marshall becomes increasingly irrelevant. But he held on hoping to have a liberal justice replace him. He retired in 1991.
Reflecting on, comparing the civil rights movement of the 1950-60s with today unfortunately brings us face to face with the pervasiveness of racism in the United States. As I watched the young, both black and white today, I wondered how many of their grandparents had been involved in or supported the movement seventy years ago. Unfortunately many of the issues remain the same. Too many white Americans see themselves as superior to their black neighbors. They’ve witnessed the integration of blacks in many institutions. Overt racism, Jim Crow was no longer unacceptable, it was illegal. But some whites feared the rise of people of color. Imagine a black man was elected President, for two terms. Trump’s election was a result of that changed landscape. Trump has fanned racial flames — not all his followers are racists, but he courts and gets support from the KKK, and white supremacists.
The protests have brought about some reforms. There has also been demands to remove statues of confederates and others, including Columbus, who have contributed to the oppression of blacks and others. It’s become less acceptable for a sports team to be called redskins. I admit that there can be an excess of political correctness and I don’t condone looting-rioting but most of the demands are legitimate arising from four hundred years of oppression.
It’s too early to evaluate any long term changes to American society. As in the past the new movement has brought about a backlash. The election in November will be an indicator. My greatest hope is that large number of young people seem more committed to racial harmony.
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
If only today; not a long tomorrow.