Public Comment

African Americans: The Struggle for Dignity and Survival

Harry Brill
Sunday March 15, 2020 - 02:28:00 PM

The civil rights movement posed a very difficult challenge to the establishment, which forced it to make major and unprecedented concessions to African Americans. Indeed, “forced” is certainly the appropriate characterization because the resistance particularly among white southerners was strong and even violent.  

Nevertheless, President Johnson, who was a Texas southerner that always voted with his white racist colleagues, played a major role in enacting the civil rights act, which in 1964 ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race and color as well as for other groups. One year later Johnson signed the voting rights legislation.  

President Johnson as well as Congress supported civil rights mainly in response to the concerns of the business community. The courageous and militant struggle of African Americans to achieve equality and dignity became international news. For good reason, business was very concerned that the leadership in African and Asian countries was moving closer to the Soviet Union, which widely publicized the racism in the United States. Also, business was concerned about jeopardizing its business relations abroad, including losing access to important resources.  

Not least, visitors and diplomats who came to the United States also experienced the humiliation of racism. In fact, 55 representatives from Africa and Asia submitted a petition asking that the United Nations be relocated to another country where they would be treated as equal human beings. Clearly, American corporations had much to lose if it did not address the issue of racism.  

Nevertheless, business realized that movement building from the bottom up could also threaten its interests. President Johnson, both as a southerner and supporter of business, was also troubled by the black based movement. But to avoid being defined as a racist, Johnson couched his opposition to black power as a war against crime.  

In Johnson’s words, he announced to Congress his program to build a “thorough, intelligent, and effective war against crime”. His strategy was to criminalize black activists by encouraging police intervention and the incarceration of African Americans. He presented to Congress legislation that created a grant making agency within the Dept of Justice that established a direct role for the federal government in local police operations. The agency purchased bullet-proof vests, helicopters, tanks, rifles gas masks and other military-grade equipment for police departments. And incredibly, to encourage arrests and imprisonment federal grants were tied to arrest rates.  

The police was given the signal to crack down on crime which was assumed to be concentrated in black neighborhoods, So in Detroit, for example, the police department, using weapons paid for by the federal government, killed in a two year period during the early 1970’s 17 mostly unarmed African-American civilians. Not surprisingly, there were no arrests or indictments of the police.  

President Nixon, who shared Johnson’s distaste for a viable black movement proceeded to carry out Johnson’s mission. In fact, his derision of minorities is well known from his white house recordings. To make sure that he could undermine black activism, Nixon ordered a war against drugs for the purpose of subduing and imprisoning African Americans (and anti-war activists as well).  

The evidence of Nixon’s rather diabolical agenda was spelled out by John Ehrlichman, who served as one of Nixon’s top advisors. Ehrlichman's comments were printed in Harper’s Magazine (April 1994). After claiming that one of Nixon’s enemies was black people, Ehrlichman commented “You understand what I am saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know that we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”  

In fact, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that although 16 percent of those who sold drugs were blacks, they made up 49 percent of those who were arrested. Moreover, African Americans constituted 74 percent of those who went to prison just for possessing drugs. And they were much more likely to receive longer sentences.  

What Johnson and Nixon have set in motion has become routine. Over two million prisoners now fill the American prisons. The prisoners include hundreds of thousands of African Americans who are jailed for drug violations. With a nod from the establishment these drugs have been deliberately smuggled into black communities to entrap them.  

To make matters worse, President Clinton successfully persuaded Congress to enact a three-strike law, which has appreciably increased the prison population. In brief, anyone found guilty of committing three crimes must serve a life sentence without parole. Although the crimes committed are supposed to be serious, often they are not. As one critic complained, “While Wall Street crooks walk thousands sit in California prisons for life for crimes as trivial as stealing socks”.  

Clearly, a major function of the criminal justice system should be the rehabilitation of the offenders. Instead, as Clinton later on admitted, it has contributed to the overpopulation of prisoners because many who are incarcerated should not be in prison at all. This country’s criminal justice system is not only unjust. It is deliberately so. its mission has been to deprive African Americans (and others who were regarded as subversives) of their constitutional and other legal rights.  

Most prisoners rather than being incarcerated should instead be at home with their families and working at jobs that pay a living wage. And if they are African Americans as well as members of other vulnerable groups, they would be in a position to organize to improve their quality of life. Instead the establishment wants them immobilized. For nothing would be more troublesome to the establishment than allowing democracy to prevail.