This morning The Atlantic published an article about the transfer of millions of acres of land from African-Americans to corporations in Mississippi. It comes on the heels of a story published in the New Yorker by ProPublica writer Lizzie Presser about black families in eastern North Carolina losing their land. The stories follow a similar pattern of land stolen legally from the descendants of slaves and billions of dollars in assets taken from the black community.
These stories are coming to light just as we, as a society, are re-evaluating our monuments to the Confederacy and the role our leaders had in perpetuating white supremacy. Black Lives Matter demands that we look at the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of authorities or white people claiming self-defense. Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me laid bare the difference in expectations and experiences between being black and white in America. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement ended with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., we’re experiencing a reckoning in the country. It’s what Reverend William Barber calls the Third Reconstruction.
While we passed laws in the 1960s that ended Jim Crow, we never fully acknowledged our history or paid for our crimes. Instead, we continued to bury the past, holding no one accountable and telling black Americans that they were now free to pursue their dreams, ignoring the massive obstacles in their way. State-imposed poverty dogged families in both inner cities and the rural South. Laws, like the ones exposed in The Atlantic and New Yorker articles, allowed people without resources to be bilked by people who had every advantage.
Our history books never taught us about the struggles of black America. They glossed over the damage that Jim Crow really caused. They celebrated Confederate leaders as misguided heroes and, while they acknowledged lynching, they never explained the scope or underlying reasons. The goal of Jim Crow was to keep black Americans subservient, poor and ignorant through the use of fear and tyranny. The tools were murder and brutality. In other words, state-sanctioned terrorism denied African-Americans their basic rights for a century after the official end of slavery.
In a recent column, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson declares, “Racism is the fire that left our country horribly disfigured.” He recalls the story of a man lynched in Valdosta, Georgia in 1918, just over one hundred years ago. When his grieving and angry widow, who was eight months pregnant, threatened to have the leaders of the mob arrested, the sheriff instead turned her over to them and they hung her by her ankles, cut the child from her womb, stomped the baby to death and burned her alive.
What Gerson doesn’t tell us is the circumstances of the lynching. At that time in Georgia, white landowners paid fines for black men arrested and locked up for petty crimes. To repay the debt, the former prisoners were required to work for free for the white men. The landowners frequently mistreated their black workers. In Valdosta, one of those white landowners was shot and killed by one of the men whose labor he had purchased. In response, white vigilantes rounded up and lynched thirteen black people to make sure that African-Americans knew their place. No one was held accountable.
A hundred years later, the grandchildren of the lynch mob and the victims are still alive. One set moved on, denying their culpability as the indiscretions of their ancestors. The other learned that they couldn’t trust the government, the legal authorities or their neighbors. The descendants of the lynch mob remain largely oblivious to the financial and economic windfall they received from free labor while denying much of the population access to capital and using the legal system to steal their land.
Today, fifty years after the success of the Civil Rights Movement, an educated and more prosperous black community is demanding a day of reckoning. Some want reparations, but all want an acknowledgement that the horrors of slavery didn’t end with emancipation. They want our history known.
The state used terrorism to create an underclass by systematically denying African-Americans the fruits of their labor and access to justice. The legal system was rigged, as is laid out in The Atlantic and New Yorker articles, to prevent the accumulation of wealth. The roots of racism that Gerson described are economic. Jim Crow may have been defeated, but remnants of that system still exist today and the legacy of intentionally creating an underclass that lived in fear will haunt us for generations.
We can’t continue to gloss over the horrors of slavery or the Jim Crow South as we teach the history of the country. We also can’t bend to the backlash from reactionaries who use victimization as an excuse for violence. We need to address the structural barriers to opportunity that are far less visible than the laws that enforced segregation. Fixing the damage our government caused to an entire segment of our society will take more than just fifty years. We can start by being more honest with ourselves and with future generations.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >