American Civil Rights Movement

“I can’t breathe,” a desperate George Floyd cried as he felt his life draining, under the chokehold of racism and police brutality on May 25th, 2020 in Minneapolis. The death of this 46-year old African-American has instigated the recent Black Lives Matter Movement in the United States. This article seeks to explore the rise, the fall, and the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement in the US in light of the current protests.

Introduction

The American Civil Rights Movement was an organised decades-long effort to put an end to legalised racial discrimination, segregation, and disenfranchisement in the US.[1] The movement with its roots in the Reconstruction era of the late 19th century formally took shape in the mid-1960s. The movement continues even today, addressing the less visible but equally important inequities of the society as the immigrants in the US fight to assert that “we too are American.”[2] The recent protests related to the death of Floyd has reignited the once burnt out flame of the Civil Rights Movement.

History of the American Civil Rights Movement

Though America was home to almost four million blacks in the 18th century, the Naturalisation Act of 1790 granted citizenship rights only to the whites. Only whites who owned property could vote.[3]

The slaves were given recognition and rights, for the first time and slavery was officially abolishedin the 1860s, post the American Civil War. The Reconstruction Amendments to the US Constitution conferred constitutional rights to all African Americans.[4]However, to many of the freed slaves, freedom came at a cost. America went through the largest biological crisis of the 19th century as thousands of the freed slaves were killed by starvation, cholera, smallpox and their bodies were thrown promiscuously into the trenches.[5]

Though the African Americans were granted political rights, they were still deprived of civil rights under the Jim Crow Laws and continuously subject to discrimination and violence by whites in the South. The Jim Crow Laws mandated racial segregation in public facilities of America since the 1870s.[6]In 1896, the US Supreme Court declared in Plessy v. Ferguson,[7] for African Americans to be “separate-but-equal,” upholding the validity of the Jim Crow Laws. Through the doctrine of “separate-but-equal,” racial segregation was extended to transportation, schools, workplaces, military, restrooms, restaurants and even drinking fountains.

In the landmark judgment of Brown v. Board of Education,[8] the judiciary interrupted this separation, by declaring the segregation in public schools funded by the state, as unconstitutional. This was followed by a series of non-violent protests and civil disobedience movements demanding equality. The crises thereby created, resulted in productive but futile dialogues between the activists and the authorities. 

The open-casket funeral of the brutally torturedfourteen-year-old, Emmett Till in Mississippi outraged and mobilised the African American community country-wide. He was kidnapped, injured, shot, and thrown into the river for having interacted with a white woman, in violation of the cultural norms of Mississippi.[9]This was followed by the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 where Rosa Parks emerged as the ‘Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.’[10] When fifteen years old, Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger on a public bus, Rosa Parks in protest did the same thing for whichClaudette was arrested. The arrest provoked a 381-day-long, mass boycott of buses, demanding a bus system in which every passenger would be treated equally. The boycott culminated with the repeal of the ordinance segregating African Americans and the whites on public buses.[11] In 1956, the Supreme Court ordered desegregation in Montgomery buses, putting an end to the boycott.[12]

The Montgomery incident witnessed the rise of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., under whose leadership the Civil Rights Movement took a giant leap forward. King in his seventeen-minute speech[13] at Washington shared with his friends, his American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

With King’s efforts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by the US Government which was upheld in Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States.[14] The Act prohibited all kinds of discrimination based on colour, religion, race, sex, or national origin in employment matters, at schools, and in public accommodations.

The Montgomery bus boycott was shortly followed by the Selma to Montgomery March which gathered 600 civil rights marchers protesting the black voter suppression in the US.[15]Subsequently, the Voting Rights Act, 1965, and the Fair Housing Act, 1968, were enacted, restoring and protecting voting rights of the minority and banning discrimination while selling and renting houses respectively.

Thus, the Civil Rights Movement not only broke Jim Crow but also avenged Till and his fellow African Americans who had succumbed to racial segregation, to some extent.

The death of George Floyd and its aftermath

A 911 call reported a forgery in progress to the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) on the 25th of May, 2020. Later, Floyd was arrested for paying with a counterfeit $20 bill at a grocery store. Derek Chauvin, one of the officers at the scene, pressed his knee for almost nine minutes to Floyd’s neck. In the last three minutes, Floyd had no pulse and lay motionless with no aid from the officers. The knee pressed down on Floyd’s neck even while the medical professionals attempted to treat him. Floyd had died. The cause of death was reported as medical asphyxia due to the compression of the neck restricting the flow of blood to the brain.[16]

Fifty years since the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement, a new set of Americans, commoners, students, even a few policemen have taken a knee for George Floyd. This is a historic moment, like never before, as people from all races and backgrounds take to the streets against racial segregation. In over 400 cities throughout 50 states of the US and internationally, the protests have developed.[17]

The protests were sparked by several incidents in the past of brutal and unreasonable use of force on African Americans. Of the 1,000 fatal shooting in the US by police in 2019, over 23% of the victims were African Americans though they form less than 14% of the entire population.[18] The slave patrols which began in 1704, to nip slave revolts and escapes, have morphed into the police departments, and the police still dutifully control the freed slaves.[19]

Rodney King was arrested, viciously beaten after a high-speed chase by the LAPD officers for speeding on the highway.[20] Troy Davis, believed to have been wrongfully convicted for the murder of a police officer was executed on September 21, 2011.[21] Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, was killed because a white man, Mr. Zimmerman assumed the hoodie-clad boy to be a criminal.[22]Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old, was killed by an officer for carrying a toy-gun.[23] What do they all have in common? They are all black. So on goesthe list of African Americans killed on assumptions and deductions based on the colour of their skin.

Preventing the death of more George Floyds

The protestors have captured the attention of the world in the last few weeks. But there exists a difference between gaining attention and creating a change. How can this attention gained by the protestors be converted into transformative action? The following measures are to be adopted to bring about effective change in this matter:[24]

  • End qualified immunity: The doctrine of qualified immunity is the shield protecting all police officials and the government from being held accountable for their illegal and unconstitutional actions. The doctrine was created by the Supreme Court in Pearson v. Callahan.[25]The court through this doctrine bestowed upon officials absolute immunity for violation of constitutional and civil rights unless the victim proves that such rights were clearly established.[26]Qualified immunity has served as the armour to a cop who shot a 10-year-old while trying to shoot the harmless family dog, prison officials who left an inmate locked in a sewage-flooded cell for days, county officials who kept a 14-year-old in solitary confinement for a month and many more.[27] This unrestricted, arbitrary power must be eliminated to prevent further inhuman practices under the guise of protection.
  • Demilitarise the police – Under the 1033 Program, the US military has been transferring outdated military equipment to local police departments, at no cost. Study suggests that more militarised law enforcement agencies are correlated with more civilians killed each year by the police.[28] Though curtailed by the Obama administration, the 1033 program has been reinstated by President Donald Trump. The police should no longer be insulated from consequences of violation of rights nor provided the opportunity to violate the rights of the people.
  • Prosecute these officers – The penalties for such abusive behaviour by the officials should be increased. Unlike the many officers who have walked free after blatantly abusing their power, we must ensure that the officers who killed Floyd do not go unpunished.
  • End Racial Discrimination – Floyd was not the first to be persecuted for his race nor was he the last. The evil of racial discrimination must be put to an end. All men are equal and some men are not more equal than others.[29]

Conclusion

The death of George Floyd is not an isolated event. It is a series of continuous persecutions of the minority population. A minority who is afraid to step outside, afraid of being stopped by cops and questioned because they are black. Though the manslaughter of this minority persists, the slaughterers remain free from conviction.

Garner in 2014 and now George Floyd in 2020. Two lives, two voices, but the same neck hold and the same cry, “I can’t breathe.”[30] The protests over Floyd’s death represent a long-suppressed and legitimate frustration towards a futile policing system and a segregated criminal justice system.

In the wake of the coronavirus, the much ignored racial and socio-economic divide has become more prominent. In 2016, the typical net worth of a white family was concluded as being 10 times greater than that of a black family.[31] This divide is evident from the substantially higher rate of COVID-19 deaths of African Americans as compared to white Americans.[32]

As stated by Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of UN, “Racism is abhorrence that we must all reject” The question that now remains is whether the America that never found justice for Emmett Till, will find justice for George Floyd? Will these protests end in futile dialogues or ‘real change’ as advocated by the ex-President Obama?


[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_rights_movement#Legacy

[2]https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/eyesontheprize-civil-rights-today/

[3]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jun/16/slavery-starvation-civil-war

[4]https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african-american-odyssey/reconstruction.html

[5]Supra at note 3.

[6]https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/jim-crow-laws

[7]Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

[8]Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

[9]https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/how-the-blood-of-emmett-till-still-stains-america-today/516891/

[10]https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/rosa-parks

[11]https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-boycott

[12] Browder v. Gayle

[13]https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

[14]Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241(1964).

[15]https://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement/civil-rights-movement-timeline#:~:text=The%20civil%20rights%20movement%20was,ended%20in%20the%20late%201960s.

[16]https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/us/derek-chauvin-george-floyd-worked-together.html

[17]https://www.cbsnews.com/news/minneapolis-george-floyd-protests-mayor-jacob-frey-peace/

[18]https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-george-floyds-america-in-black-white-6443062/

[19] Ibid.

[20]https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots

[21]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/21/troy-davis-10-reasons

[22]https://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts/index.html

[23]https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/11/tamir-rice-police-officer-murder-charge

[24]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_FE78X-qdY

[25]https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/qualified_immunity

[26]https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/05/30/police-george-floyd-qualified-immunity-supreme-court-column/5283349002/

[27]Ibid.

[28]https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-problem-of-policing-isnt-bad-apples-its-a-diseased-tree/2020/06/05/7f110b4c-a757-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.html

[29] Reference to Animal Farm by George Orwell.

[30]https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52904593

[31]https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap/

[32]Supra at note 30.

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