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There are a litany of events in the 1950s that gave rise to the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. Most of these events could be summed up in the quest of African-Americans to be granted all the rights afforded citizens under the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments
If we scanned across the pages, most would stop at the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas of 1954, but seared in the memory of African-Americans was the death of Emmett Till and the open-casket funeral circulated by a picture of Till with his head several times larger than normal published by Jet magazine.
Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi, by two white men who beat him to death with chains, tied a weighted cotton gin fan to him and cast him in the Tallahatchie River. These men were found not guilty by an all-white jury. Few African-Americans followed the Brown decision, but most were familiar with the Emmett Till case. Black lives did not matter then, and equal education was an unattainable American dream.
The deaths of Emmett Till, James Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and the beating of Rodney King have a central theme. The massacre at Emanuel Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was connected to the same theme, but had a different outcome. The Charleston perpetrator was tried and convicted by a jury of his peers.
There is existing a body of literature, published in the past two decades, which informs us of a huge culture of fear. Most recent is Chris Hayes’ “Colony in a Nation.” Then there is Joy Reed’s “Fractured.” A third is Melissa Harris’ “New Jim Crow.” This literature is extensive with explanations and examples of fear and how it affects the individual, the community and society.
Till’s murderers were frighten by the goodbye spoken to a white woman by a black youth. Darren Wilson was fearful of Michael Brown, who had punched him in the face and was walking away. George Zimmerman was fearful of Trayvon Martin, who had slammed his head to the concrete walkway.
The four Los Angeles police officers, using the same video the nation had viewed multiple times of them clubbing King repeatedly, showed how King was threatening them, thus had to be beaten into submission. An all-white jury outside of Los Angeles found them not guilty.
Roof’s fear, connecting to the white supremacists and the Confederacy, was ultimately transformed to hate. Fearing the African-Americans were taking over, he committed an egregious act that he reasoned would start a race war. The mass shootings of the Dallas police officers are examples of the transformation of fear into hate that moves one to commit an atrocity upon society.
The loss of these lives will never be mitigated and the government in power does consider most of them to be important. Conservatism was at one time subtle, but has come of age and out in the open. Conservatism grew out of a major backlash to the ‘60s civil rights gains toward an egalitarian society. At issue was the right to vote, educational equality and justice in the courts. On the other side was the fear of civil rights going too far and the desire to conserve the governmental authority control over how society would progress.
In that atmosphere, the 11 Southern states that had seceded from the Union transformed themselves into majority Republican, joining the ranks of the Republican Party and fulfilling the prophecy of Lyndon B. Johnson that the passage of the Voting Rights Act handed the South over to the Republican Party. The fear and hate in the nation have bought out the worst in us.
With all this power and majority, all the unfair sentencing in the courts, all the withdrawal of financial support for egalitarian programs, all the extreme far-right, alt-right ideology and control of the House, the Senate, the White House and a majority Republican Supreme Court, legislative action and governing is in peril.
The conservative reaction has been to stress law and order, build more prisons, restrict the right to vote, gerrymander the voting districts to stay in power, cut taxes for the wealthy while imposing use and service taxes on the poor, walk away from universal health care, rebuke public education, abandon a clean, safe environment for the next generations and leave the world stage of leadership.
Finally, where do we draw the line? How much conservatism is too much?
George Leach is a Wilson resident and former teacher with a keen interest in local, state and national politics who serves as political action chairman of the NAACP’s Wilson branch.