Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Which Side is the Federal Government On?

I love writing about the Freedom Movement, as I've learned to call the Civil Rights Movement. I can't ever do justice to those in the movement, but I write about them anyway, because they give me so much hope.

So when Amanda made some off-hand comments about the Freedom Movement, in her response to my last post I saw a great opportunity to tangent. Not because I necessarily disagree with the points she was making, but because I like talking about the Freedom Movement. My point, in as much as I have one, is that the Freedom Movement was amazing, and its radicalism is too often ignored. It is easy for the institutions of power, like political parties, to try and recast this story as one which upholds those power structures, I believe this is wrong.

Anyway, Amanda said:

It echoes pretty neatly the way that LBJ lost the Dixiecrats by supporting civil rights, only to have Nixon come and swoop them up with his coded speeches about “law and order”.

While it's true that the Dixiecrats left the Democratic party because of LBJ's position on civil rights, calling that position 'support' is overstating it a little. There a Freedom Movement poster that said:

There's a street in Itta Bena called Freedom.

There's a town in Mississippi called Liberty.

There's a department in Washington called Justice."

Throughout the early 1960s federal justice officials stood by and watched while local law enforcement broke federal law and beat up people trying to enrol to vote. What Johnson and the federal government offered to the freedom movement was certainly not support.

At the 1964 Democratic Convention, Johnson was given a clear choice between Dixiecrats and the freedom movement and he chose the Dixiecrats. Over the summer of 1964, 90,000 people across Mississippi voted in a the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party primary, which was non-segregated. Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were murdered that summer. When the representatives of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party got to Atlantic City, Johnson wouldn't let their case to be seated as the Mississippi delegation go to a floor vote (and tried to pre-empt any coverage they might get in front of the credentials committee by having a speech of his own). He put the MFDP delegation under surveillance. Finally offered a 'compromise' where he picked two of the delegation to get general seats (64 people had come). The MFDP rejected this proposal; as Fannie Lou Hamer said "We didn't come all this way for no two seats, 'cause all of us is tired."

I think it's easy to forget that each town in the south needed to be desegregated, and the federal government wasn't the people doing it, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The people who were actually doing that work were in great personal danger and were not supported by the federal government.

Amanda again:

When you find yourself confused on how the principle of the public leading the politicians works, remember this: Martin Luther King didn’t think that withholding his vote from Kennedy would get the CRA passed. They had to take to the streets while voting for politicians that were mildly more amendable to their views than the alternatives.

I am a little bit confused here, because Kennedy didn't stand for election while a Civil Rights Act was under discussion. The 1960 Civil Rights Act was while Eisenhower was still president, and Kennedy was dead by the time the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. Also southern blacks couldn't really vote for politicians who were mildly more amendable to their views, because most southern blacks couldn't vote.

But leaving that aside, one of the things that I find so frustrating is the popular view of the Freedom movement lead by Martin Luther King, which pretty much ignores everyone else. I'm going to use this as an excuse to quote from the speech John Lewis, Chairman of SNCC,never gave. It was written for the March on Washington, but toned down due to pressure from the White House and more conservative organisations:
We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all.

In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. There's not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.

This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations: This bill will not protect the citizens in Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear in a police state. This bill will not protect the hundreds of people who have been arrested on trumpedup charges. What about the three young men in Americus, Georgia, who face the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest?

The voting section of this bill will not help thousands of black citizens who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia, who are qualified to vote but lack a sixth-grade education. "ONE MAN, ONE VOTE" is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours.

People have been forced to leave their homes because they dared to exercise their right to register to vote. What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?

For the first time in one hundred years this nation is being awakened to the fact that segregation is evil and that it must be destroyed in all forms. Your presence today proves that you have been aroused to the point of action.

We are now involved in a serious revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. What political leader here can stand up and say, "My party is the party of principles?" The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party?

In some parts of the South we work in the fields from sunup to sundown for $12 a week. In Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted not by Dixiecrats but by the federal government for peaceful protest. But what did the federal government do when Albany's deputy sheriff beat attorney C. B. King and left him half dead? What did the federal government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby?

It seems to me that the Albany indictment is part of a conspiracy on the part of the federal government and local politicians in the interest of expediency.

I want to know, which side is the federal government on?

It's a great speech, but it also makes me appreciate Mary King and Casey Hayden and the women who came after them.

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