The lyrics of Marvin Gaye’s”What’s Goin’ On”, written, incredibly, 50 years ago, could have been written last week. You will hear the music as you read, so strong its imprint on your memory, words powerful still.
“Mother, mother . . . there’s too many of you crying . . .
Brother, brother, brother . . . there’s far too many of you dying . . .
You know we’ve got to find a way . . . to bring some lovin’ here today . . .
Father, father . . . we don’t need to escalate . . .
You see, war is not the answer . . . for only love can conquer hate . . .
You know we’ve got to find a way . . . to bring some lovin’ here today . . .
Picket lines and picket signs . . . don’t punish me with brutality . . .
Talk to me, so you can see . . . oh, what’s going on . . .
What’s going on . . . yeah, what’s going on . . . ah, what’s going on . . . “
A half-century later we still can’t seem to answer the question. So what made George Floyd’s killing spark a mass national revolt against police brutality against African-Americans? Street protests have been at a scale not seen since 1968 after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. What is it that has caused +/- 85% of all Americans to support strong reform of police culture and practices that lead to this mistreatment? It may have been the last straw in a series of horrific incidents caught on video the past 20 years. But I tend to think it was something else – the extended, utter dispassion of the police officer doing it, and that of his co-workers observing him passively, seeming almost disinterested, as if this were routine, and all while fully aware they were being filmed on the spot. The whole country has watched this video replayed over and over, shocked, transfixed – sickened – as an African-American man, suspected of a petty crime he did not commit, was accosted, subdued and executed in the street by a law enforcement officer as he begged to breathe – then begged for his life – then begged for his mother – and then dying before our very eyes.
But if it was the dispassion of this killing that cut through all our built-up modern cynicism in our over-videotaped, information-bombarded, filmed-violence-saturated worlds, and caused this video to sear into our consciences – why? The reason, I think, is that it reflected back to us our own dispassion at the lack of real progress in America’s race relations in the half century since passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960’s. A lack of progress that everyone seems quietly aware of, but prefer not to think or talk about.
Everyone knows we fought a civil war, destroyed several of our own cities, killed three-quarters of a million of our own people, and enshrined the Emancipation Proclamation in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Most Americans have vague memory and understanding of major political events leading to the Civil War – the Three-Fifths Compromise; the Missouri Compromise of 1820; the Compromise of 1850; the Kansas/Missouri wars. Some may even know that since the Civil War, the country has passed additional Constitutional Amendments (two) and Federal Voting Rights Laws (17), not counting numerous various amendments and extensions, and including three (1870, 1871, 1871) entitled the First, Second and Third “Ku Klux Klan Acts”, all intended to insure the right of all American citizens to participate on an equal basis in its courts, in its political processes, and in its society generally, rights professed by the ideals expressed in the Constitution itself, but somehow requiring continuing reinforcement via multiple additional codifications, legal reminders really, all attempting to overcome an equal number of subsequently imposed manipulative legal and administrative regimes, each designed to obstruct the intent of those laws. And still, in the weeks following George Floyd’s death, we watched people in African-American neighborhoods in Atlanta, waiting in line for hours and hours to exercise those voting rights, while key national and state politicians and election officials continue ignoring the impact of a national pandemic that is interfering with the voting process, surely a sign of much greater problems to come.
Lyndon Johnson, after finishing college at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, took his first job working with young Mexican-American students, children of sharecroppers, along the border areas of southern Texas, and never forgot the grinding poverty in which these children were raised, and the limitations these conditions would impose on them lifelong, impressions that stayed with Johnson his whole life. Much later, as a U.S. Congressman and then junior Senator, Johnson drove back and forth to Washington seasonally with his long term aide-de-camp, an African-American woman. One trip, unable to use facilities at multiple restaurants and gas stations along the way through the south, she was forced to relieve herself in a field alongside the road. This really stuck in Johnson’s craw, as he related the story years later, and he became determined, when he could, to do something about it.
Johnson served as Democratic Senate Majority Leader, perhaps the most powerful in the history of that body, “Master of the Senate”, then became John Kennedy’s Vice President, and then, completely unexpected, became President upon Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson thought he could take advantage of the nation’s sympathies for the deceased President to complete Kennedy’s unfulfilled aspiration to pass comprehensive civil rights legislation, which had failed in Congress when Kennedy sponsored the bill in 1963.
Following extensive national publicity of televised police brutality against Martin Luther King’s civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, Johnson saw the political opportunity, and proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would end all legal segregation in public accommodations nationwide. Johnson’s speech to the Joint Session of Congress proposing the bill invoked Kennedy’s memory, concluding “No memorial, oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Extensive parliamentary maneuvering, and compromised language engineered by Hubert Humphrey and Mike Mansfield, overcame a two-month filibuster by southern Democrats, and the bill finally passed July, 1964.
After being elected in his own right that fall with overwhelming popular and electoral college votes, Johnson proposed even more ambitious legislation, a Federal law to insure unobstructed access to the polls by all Americans, especially African-Americans subjected to interminable “Jim Crow” administrative obstructions (poll taxes, literacy tests, property ownership requirements, nit-picked registration forms, etc.), and to exercise their right to participate in the core democratic process, that of choosing their own elected representatives – the right of all citizens to vote. Johnson knew the bill, like the public accommodations law the year before, would have to overcome strong objections of southern Democrats who represented a substantial voting bloc, especially in the United States Senate.
Waiting for the right political moment, Johnson seized the opportunity after the televised violent police attack on Martin Luther King and his civil rights protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, March, 1965, along the march from Selma to Montgomery, where one supporter, a white minister from Boston, was beaten to death within full view of numerous state and local policemen, and an African American man, future U.S. Congressman John Lewis, had his skull fractured with a policeman’s billy club. Using his usual combination of cajoling, pestering, demanding, intimidating, and old-fashioned political log-rolling, refusing to take “no” for an answer, Johnson, eight days later, on March 15, 1965, addressed another Joint Session of Congress, proposing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, invoking white Americans’ consciences, and using the borrowed words of the Civil Rights movement itself, pounding his fist on the lectern for emphasis at the end, for benefit of those Senators who might doubt his determination, who might underestimate the sheer weight of the power of a President, newly elected with overwhelming electoral support, wielding his consequential mandate, and with strong public support for change in the country’s race relations, and concluded:
“ . . . their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes (sic), but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And . . . We . . . Shall . . . Overcome.”
The 2016 documentary “Thirteenth” presents the perspective of several African-American scholars, politicians and activists about the long path from passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution; through Reconstruction; through 75 years of domestic terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan; then through 50 more years of “Jim Crow”; and to the modern era of mass incarceration of African American men. Interviewed are Angela Davis, (yes, that one); Bryan Stevenson; Van Jones; Cory Booker; Henry Louis Gates (the Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own house); and includes shockingly candid – and cynical – recorded comments of Newt Gingrich, John Ehrlichman and Lee Atwater. “Thirteenth” is a very impressive documentary; if you are tempted to avoid it; or think you know the subject matter already; all the more reason to watch it. Former University of Connecticut, now Columbia University Professor Jelani Cobb states at the end, “I think most white Americans simply do not know the true history of America . . .”.
I think Professor Cobb is being polite. I think white Americans do know the brutal history of race relations in America. I think they prefer not to think about it. Based on our history, as described above, in order for change to occur in America’s race relations, current strong public support must lead to major electoral changes. And if it does, then compelling white Americans to watch – and to think about it – to face the demons of our history – will be the lasting legacy of George Floyd.