50 Years Later: Why We Must Remember

This has been a summer of half-century commemorations, wonderful and gruesome.

Last week we celebrated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the greatest and most important advance in civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.  The week before we marked the horrible murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi, as part of a remembrance of the 1964 Freedom Summer.

We have to remember all of it.  So many American children growing up today – even college and graduate students – know nothing of it.  They have probably heard of Dr. King, but that’s about it.

We have to remember the murders and the lynchings just as we have to remember the Holocaust.  History does repeat itself.  There is no certain immunization against going backwards, but the best chance of preventing retrogression is to remember, to be vigilant, and to be ready to act when we see signs of it appearing.

And we have to remember the achievements.  Now is a time when many people despair of continuing progress toward justice in all of its forms – racial, economic, and social.

We need to remember the courage – of the people of Mississippi and residents of other Jim Crow states, and also those who came from elsewhere to fight for change.  These are people who put their lives on the line to confront awful injustice that seemed to be permanently entrenched. (And everyone should watch Stanley Nelson’s brilliant film, Freedom Summer, now showing on PBS.)

We need to remember the power of movements that expressed the power of many – really the only kind of power that can fight the power of money and bigotry today.

We need to remember that progressive politics made into law by elected officials can truly be the art of the possible, not merely a continuing exercise in futility.  We need to remember that deep and corrosive injustice need not take the explicit form of state-mandated segregation.  Mass incarceration, predatory lending and other strategies of residential segregation, horrible public schools, and more – these are the structural and institutional forms of racism in the 21st century.

I went to Mississippi with Robert Kennedy in 1967, where we saw extreme malnutrition that bordered on starvation – the ultimate result of which was the food stamp program we have today.  The near-starvation is gone but severe and persistent poverty persists.  The political class in Mississippi has discovered that – even with the right to vote and the fact of numerous African-American elected officials – assuring the continuance of deep poverty helps to keep the real power equation as it is.

To a great degree in Mississippi and elsewhere, the racism of the 21st century is one laced with a new apartheid of poverty and exclusion – one that also encompasses the people of Appalachia, of Indian reservations, and of towns like Port Clinton, Ohio where deindustrialization has engendered the same loss of hope and social disintegration.

One powerful point that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his must-read Atlantic article, ‘The Case for Reparations,’ is that 18th century rebellions against slavery included both slaves and white indentured servants, until the white power structure figured out how to pry the whites away from their interracial alliance.

The civil rights movement was, among other things, an endeavor of black and white together – a bonding based on a joint fight against evil even though the partners were not similarly situated in their suffering.

We need to once again find that kind of politics: one that cuts across racial, ethnic, and class lines to pursue those issues directly affecting the daily struggles of the people at the heart of the movement; and one that simultaneously maintains and articulates the identities and unique histories of people of color.  Neither will suffice by itself.

This, too, is part of the proper commemoration of the events of half a century ago.

Peter Edelman is a Professor of Law at the Georgetown Law Center, and the Faculty Director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Editor’s Note: WATCH “Passing the Baton: The Next 50 Years of Civil Rights and Economic Justice,” live at the Center for American Progress, today, 10:00am ET – 11:00am ET.

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