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Peace and Race:

How History has Prevented a Peaceful Transition to Equality.

Jocelyn Faul

Radford University

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One persisting issue that this nation has failed to adequately address, is that of racial

inequality. In particular, the impact of race relations on the American criminal justice system,

and the over representation of African American males within the prison system. Injustice exists

across the globe, and often the fight comes at a cost. African Americans have been peacefully

demanding equality for centuries. History shows that these demands have been met with hatred

and violence. In a world parallel to the real suffering of the racially oppressed, there is this

narrative that claims “not only is there no discrimination in the criminal justice system towards

African Americans—but they are in fact, afforded more breaks. Police, prosecutors, and judges

bend over backwards to avoid the appearance of bias” (Merton, 2006). This is simply a more

elaborate way of ignoring the issue by essentially saying it no longer exists because it has been

solved, invalidating the circumstances that minorities face, and promoting a culture of blaming

the victim. How can a nation, so deeply entrenched in racial bias, with such a violent history of

abusing their power against African Americans and other minorities, deny that this history has

impacted their perceptions and policies now? Examining history post Civil War, it is evident that

they have faced great opposition which has contributed to current perceptions.

The thirteenth amendment was ratified in December of 1865. This amendment declared

that slavery was unconstitutional, except in the case of slave labor as a punishment for crime.

After the abolishment of Slavery, African Americans were not simply handed their freedoms. It

was only the beginning of an arduous battle that remains to be fought and won. With the

abolishment of slavery, there was a changing social order. Many European Americans were not

in favor of this amendment, particularly in the south. They reacted to maintain control. The

creation of vagrancy laws mandated that anyone without proof of employment by a certain date

could be arrested and thrown in jail. As European American plantation owners had control over

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the available jobs, they could control whether African Americans could find work. Additionally,

many would not work for them, considering they had been just released from being their slaves.

This meant incarceration for many African Americans, who were then required to do slave labor

to pay off the debts of their “crime.” Thus maintaining a form of slavery.

In 1870, the fifteenth amendment was ratified giving African Americans the right to vote.

This new, deserved freedom was again met with opposition from European Americans. A group

of white supremacists had formed the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. The KKK terrorized

African Americans. They burned their houses and killed innocent people. They threatened any

African American who “tried to act like a white man.” This alone kept many from even

attempting to vote. Additionally, states passed poll taxes, created literacy tests, and placed

property and residency requirements on the vote, specifically designed to prevent African

Americans from being able to vote.

In 1896, the court case, Plessy vs. Ferguson rules that racial segregation is constitutional

as long as the facilities were equal to one another. This allowed for European Americans to

create segregated schools, residential areas, restaurants, baseball fields, train cars, prison cells,

entrances to any venue, and even hearses under Jim Crow laws. They outlawed interracial

marriage and any integrated activity that would allow the races to get close to one another. The

reality was that these spaces were not equal. In every situation, the spaces reserved for African

Americans were far worse off than the spaces reserved for European Americans. Further more,

the Jim Crow laws created a social code for how the races were to interact. They revolved around

the superiority of Whites (European Americans). They continued the tradition of treating African

Americans like they were subhuman (Pilgrim, 2000).

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Lynching is just one more example of a historical disparity within the criminal justice

system. Generally, it conjures a rare image of a backwoods mob hanging an African American

for a crime, because they didn’t want to wait for the courts to deliver “justice”. In actuality, these

were frequent occurrences, the total number of victims exceeding 4000, from The Civil War until

World War II. The reality of these lynchings were “large crowds of white people, often

numbering in the thousands and including elected officials and prominent citizens, gathered to

witness pre-planned, heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation,

dismemberment, and/or burning of the victim. White press justified and promoted these carnival-

like events, with vendors selling food, printers producing postcards featuring photographs of the

lynching and corpse, and the victim’s body parts collected as souvenirs. These killings were

bold, public acts that implicated the entire community and sent a message that African

Americans were sub-human, their subjugation was to be achieved through any means necessary

and whites who carried out lynchings would face no legal repercussions” (Equal Justice

Initiative, 2017). "In most of the places where these lynchings took place — in fact in all of them

— there was a functioning criminal justice system that was deemed too good for African-

Americans." These “racial terror lynching[s] [ were tools] used to enforce Jim Crow laws and

racial segregation—a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African

American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime.” They hung

innocent men for crimes they created themselves. They hung them because they saw the

changing status quo, in particular, the legal interacting between European American women and

African American men, as criminal (Equal Justice Initiative, 2017).

It was not until 1954, after years of litigation, that Brown v. Board of Education of

Topeka, Kans. declared that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. This did not mean

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an immediate desegregation of schools, or addressing of the lower quality of African American

schools. Only a few students tried to desegregate following the initial court ruling. Those who

showed the courage to try and enter a white school, “were greeted by angry white mobs who

screamed obscenities and racial slurs at the African American students.” The African Americans

had to remain peaceful even when they were being taunted. Many states were in opposition of

this court ruling, and spent years appealing the decision. Virginia in particular showed great

hostility toward the desegregation of schools. Instead of obeying the law, they created their own

laws on the basis that the Supreme Court ruling was encroaching on states’ rights. “In the fall of

1958, Governor Lindsay Almond adhered to the new laws reinforcing Massive Resistance-

closed schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County--locales where federal judges had

ordered the desegregation of white public schools. Over 10,000 white students were left without

schools, and parent scrambled to provide makeshift education in their homes, churches, and

community centers.” This reflects the level of opposition within the European American

communities and the lengths they were willing to go to in order to keep African Americans

separate from themselves, and continue denying their rights. Even six years following the

Supreme Court decision, “in September 1960, just 170 out of 204,000 black students in Virginia

were enrolled in white schools.” Students needed protection to even enter school. Children faced

hatred and discrimination and in certain cases, violence (Virginia, n.d.).

In 1960, a group of African American students peacefully protested segregation. They sat

and asked to be served at a segregated lunch counter, meant for whites only. When they were

refused service they simply sat peacefully until closing. By their fourth day of protesting, 300

people had gathered in support. Their example spread their protest to other cities. Their peaceful

protest for equality was once again met with opposition and violence. Mobs formed within the

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stores and attacked supporters. Those supporting desegregation were slapped, thrown around,

pulled by the hair, and beaten. The police offered them no protection.

Another group sought to end segregation in public transportation. The “Freedom Riders

were groups of white and African American civil rights activists who participated in Freedom

Rides, bus trips through the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals.

Freedom Riders tried to use “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters at bus stations in

Alabama, South Carolina and other Southern states. The groups were confronted by arresting

police officers—as well as horrific violence from white protestors—along their routes, but also

drew international attention to their cause.” The first bus arrived in Anniston, Alabama and could

not stop at the station due to a mob of 200 white people blocking it. The mob proceeded to

pursue the bus until the tires blew and then threw a bomb into the bus. “The Freedom Riders

escaped the bus as it burst into flames, only to be brutally beaten by members of the surrounding

mob.” “The second bus, a Trailways vehicle, traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, and those riders

were also beaten by an angry white mob, many of whom brandished metal pipes.” The third bus

was finally given a police escort but the “police abandoned the Greyhound bus just before it

arrived at the Montgomery, Alabama, terminal, where a white mob attacked the riders with

baseball bats and clubs as they disembarked.” These activists were participating in peaceful

protests, in order to gain attention and change the segregation that discriminated against them.

They weren’t creating groups to join up and fight against white people and impart on them the

same injustices, they were only looking to gain the equality they so richly deserved (History,

2010).

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On September 15th, 1963, a large “bomb exploded before Sunday morning services at the

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama—a church with a predominantly black

congregation that also served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders. Four young girls were

killed and many other people injured.” It was the third bombing in 11 days, after a federal court

order had come down mandating the integration of Alabama’s school system. This was direct

violence in response to the courts granting more equality for African Americans. (History, 2010,

Birmingham).

“From May 2 to May 10, 1963, the nation bore witness as police in Birmingham, Ala.,

aimed high-powered hoses and sicced snarling dogs on black men, women and even children

who wanted just one thing — to be treated the same as white Americans” (Siemaszko, 2012).

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supposed to be the victory awarded after decades of

violence in response to peaceful protest. All their efforts were supposed to mean something, their

patience to be commended. The immediate impact took form in riots and mass violence against

the Civil Rights Act. In the years following, racism become subtler and legalized. The War on

Drugs painted African Americans as criminals and allowed for their mass incarceration,

destroying families and communities in the process. Housing was designed in such a way that

continues to segregate against people of color and low-income families. This has then led to

schools being even more segregated now, and like in the times of Jim Crow, the schools that are

predominately African American are underfunded and lack the resources to help their students

reach their potential. There is evidence of bias within police departments and Inspite of academic

research, and a large increase in media coverage, these issues are still being denied. Police are

not being held accountable for their actions. The public attitude seeks to criminalize victims

instead of empathizing with their families. Our nation still has a long way to go in achieving

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peace between the races. There must be a change in the system to correct years of inequality and

reverse the system of mass incarceration.

Resources

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Equal Justice Initiative. (n.d.). LYNCHING IN AMERICA: CONFRONTING THE LEGACY

OF RACIAL TERROR. Retrieved from https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/

History.com Staff. (2010). Birmingham Church Bombing. Retrieved from

https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/birmingham-church-bombing

History.com Staff. (2010). Freedom Riders. Retrieved from

https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/freedom-rides

Mann, Coramae Richey and Majorie S. Zatz (2006) Images of Color: Images of

Crime. Roxbury Publishing

Pilgrim, D. (2000, September). What was Jim Crow. Retrieved from

https://ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/

Siemaszko, C. (2012, May 03). Birmingham erupted into chaos in 1963 as battle for civil rights

exploded in South. Retrieved from

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/birmingham-erupted-chaos-1963-battle-

civil-rights-exploded-south-article-1.1071793

Virginia's "Massive Resistance" to School Desegregation. (n.d.). Retrieved from

http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/xslt/servlet/XSLTServlet?xml=/xml_docs/solguide/Essays

/essay13a.xml&xsl=/xml_docs/solguide/sol_new.xsl§ion=essay