By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
When tennis superstar Serena Williams took to Facebook to speak out against police brutality, she joined hundreds of celebrities including Beyonce, Kevin Hart, Pharrell, and Rihanna– who appear in Alicia Keyes’ video where 26 stars detail “23 Ways You Could Be Killed If You Are Black in America .” Specifically, Williams wrote in a Sept. 27 Facebook post that has been shared over 16,000 times, “I won’t be silent.” Sparked by the sight of a police car by the roadside during a car trip with her teenage nephew, the post that the 22-time grand slam champion shared in Facebook read, “I quickly checked to see if he was obliging by the speed limit. . .Then I remembered that horrible video of the woman in the car when a cop shot her boyfriend.”
Williams continued, “All of this went through my mind in a matter of seconds. I even regretted not driving myself. I would never forgive myself if something happened to my nephew. He’s so innocent. So were all ‘the others.’” Later, actress Kerry Washington tweeted, “It‘s too much.” Meanwhile, NBA superstar LeBron James said the thought of his own son starting to drive in four years is scary.
“It’s a scary thought right now to think if my son gets pulled over, and you tell your kids if you just [comply] and you just listen to the police that they will be respectful and things will work itself out,” James told ABC News. But James said, he is “not that confident that things are going to go well and that my son is going to return home.” It’s not the first time widespread public disapproval has pushed the nation to turn the page on a troubling reality. Whether it was slavery, lynching, or Jim Crow, the nation slowly turned the page on all three; but only because widespread public outcry changed the law.
In plain terms, scores of well-known abolitionists spoke out long before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery as a legal institution in 1865. “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know,” said William Wilberforce, an English politician and philanthropist who led the abolitionist movement which included many high-profile people including journalist William Lloyd Garrison, and Benjamin Franklin who called slavery, “an atrocious debasement of human nature.” Adding his voice to the mounting public pressure to end slavery, Abraham Lincoln said,
“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” Other well-known abolitionists were women’s suffrage movement leader Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglas, who said he loathed the hypocrisy of pious-sounding slave owners. “We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members,” Douglas wrote. “The man who wields the blood-clotted cow skin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus.” This means that while an increasing number of celebrities are speaking out against police brutality in 2016, it brings history sharply into focus. Will the chain-of-events that abolished slavery launch laws that will end police brutality?
The problem is a troubling reality surfaced after slavery was outlawed. Beginning in the 1880s, many Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws, which restricted the freedom and movement of African-Americans. Moreover, Jim Crow laws launched segregation and a curious type of terrorism. Specifically from 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Blacks accounted for 72.7 percent of the people lynched, according to records. But a 2015 report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit headquartered in Alabama, said the number was higher. “Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture … and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. These lynchings were terrorism.”
The 2015 report continued, “To be an effective mechanism for social control, lynchings had to be visible, with the killing being publicly known, especially to the target population.” Still, the new report says the number of lynchings was higher because previous studies were conducted at a time when lynching was comparable to police brutality in 2016. This means lynching (like police brutality) was an ongoing phenomenon. For this reason, the new report says the total number of lynchings during the Jim Crow era includes 700 people who were not named in previous works.
This is the point. Like stridently vocal abolitionists helped to enact laws that made slavery or lynching slowly fade – but only because public outcry mixed with legislative efforts – will public outcry launch new laws that will end police brutality? The answer surfaces in some anti-lynching legislation. One example is the 1921 Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which was sponsored by Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer. His bill classified lynching as a federal felony and carried a maximum five-year prison term and $5,000 fine. While Congress passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922, its passage was halted by a Southern Democratic filibuster in the U.S. Senate. So this is the point. Is history repeating itself as more celebrities of color speak out against police brutality?
Take a look at what ended slavery, lynching, and segregation. Specifically, the 1964 Civil Rights Act came into existence as entertainers such as Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and Nina Simone publicly protested Jim Crow laws. Lunch counter demonstrations and marches only echoed what was already being said in public by prominent people of color including Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks and Medger Evers.
Since laws carry penalties, which aim to penalize specific forms of behavior, the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission became the enforcement arm of the law. Or think of it in simple terms. The EEOC, which is the agency that the United States Government uses to enforce federal employment discrimination laws, collected $111 million in financial benefits for people who filed claims of discrimination in fiscal year 1997, according to the EEOC website. (This was 33 years after the Civil Rights Act ended Jim Crow).
In 2000, the price for bullying, terrorizing, and mistreating employees of color increased. The EEOC obtained monetary benefits of $292.6 million for victims of employment discrimination “through the enforcement process,” according to the EEOC website. During fiscal year 2015, the EEOC secured more than $525 million for victims of discrimination in private, state and local government, and federal workplaces.
The EEOC website noted, “This included $356.6 million for victims of employment discrimination in private sector and state and local government workplaces through mediation, conciliation, and settlements; $65.3 million for charging parties through litigation; and $105.7 million for federal employees and applicants. Importantly, in each of these categories, the agency obtained substantial changes to discriminatory practices to remedy violations of equal employment opportunity laws and prevent future discriminatory conduct in the workplace.” This means the Civil Rights Act, which launched the EEOC, shows the impact that laws have on behavior.
But will widespread public outcry work again? Will public disapproval launch new legislation that will stop police brutality? Will new laws stop scenes that are becoming increasingly common? An officer fatally shoots a person of color for a minor or questionable violation. Frequently the officer is not charged. Or he walks out the courthouse cleared of all wrongdoing. Will new laws end police brutality?
Portsmouth NAACP President James Boyd said, “Not only do I see it on the horizon. To stop it, we must put the topic on the forefront. I think legislation has always been a way to fight the civil rights battle of the day, which is why in all of the political debates, we have to fight to make sure our values are being included in the conversation.” Boyd added, “I mean it is good to say prejudice exists; but without legislation to fix it, it is only hot air especially now when we are seeing our people shot down in the streets. We have to couple it (protests) with legislation.”
Boyd pointed to a trademark quote by the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. “He said a social movement that only moves people is a revolt,” Boyd said. “But a social movement that changes people and institutions is a revolution. And I think we need a revolutionary mindset. This means we are not only trying to change people’s consciousness. We must also change institutions with legislation.”
Senator Mamie Locke said widespread public outcry and new laws will not impact indifference, the greatest obstacle. “We have so many people who are indifferent to what’s going on,” Locke said. “That is when it keeps happening – when people don’t speak out.” Locke added, “This silence, some of us have, may exist because we may think we have arrived not realizing that those in power often see us all the same way. None of us have arrived until all of us have arrived.”
To illustrate her point, Locke said suppose two people of color are driving a Mercedes. Soon, that person’s 16-year-old son slides behind the wheel of the Mercedes. “He has the same possibility of being stopped and shot as the child living in a lower-income neighborhood. (To some) there is no difference between these two people. And until we understand that, this is going to keep being perpetuated.” Pointing to how public outcry is coming from an increasing number of celebrities of color, Locke said, “I am glad. It means they are coming to the realization that they are no different and their children are no different.”
Next Week-Part Two – Is History Repeating Itself?