By: David Dancy
There was a time in America when the value of Black lives was not a topic of debate. Unlike now, it seems America still needs to come to terms with fairness and equity in a criminal justice system which treats Black people more harshly than anyone else. This fosters a criminal justice system which consistently shows leniency for perpetrators when its victims are Black.
In the last two years we have been bombarded with videos of unarmed black men killed by law enforcement. Some of them were behind the wheel of a car, in the passenger seat, running away or simply standing with their hands up. In each case they were unarmed before they died and in each case the officer was acquitted.
Enter the hashtag-Black Lives Matter. For the average, contemporary American there has never been a more controversial subject. On one side we have Black and White people appalled by the treatment of Black Americans by law enforcement. On the other we have indifferent White Americans ignorant about the boots on the ground reality in the inner city for Black people and law enforcement. These people are unaware of the everyday tactics used by police to serve and protect minorities.
The value of Black life has become a topic of debate. Many White Americans became tongue tied and uncomfortable with the words ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Many countered with All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter as if these groups were under attack and being killed on camera every night like young Black men. As if each of these groups had to endure trials in American courts that set the killers free.
So, we all wonder. How did we get here? When has Black life ever mattered in America? Was it valued when Blacks were slaves, a constant reminder of a world gone mad? Did Black lives have value during Reconstruction; the momentary lapse in racial terror against Black people that was short lived?
Maybe during the Civil Rights Movement, when Blacks enjoyed a relaxation of private and public policies aimed directly at their ability to prosper.
African Americans have been able to make incredible strides in a hostile society. Much of this has been due to Black Exceptionalism, not to broad societal gains. Think Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Harvey. So, it seemed Black lives had value in America.
A question that persists though, is why White people continue to show indifference to injustice against Black people? It is an indifference that morphs into aggression when peaceful protest begins. Could it be our sordid past, “a past” that has historically put one group on top of the other in our social order?
In the past, the value of a Black life was an economic issue. America, from the early 1600’s to the late 1800’s, chose to stand on the Papal Bull and the Doctrine of Discovery that any people not Christians were subject to any and all conquest. Black Lives Mattered, as much as a skyrocketing bank account. Black People were integral to the massive labor intensive Southern economy. They had value and were sold thusly.
This policy of economic exploitation was implemented through the institution of slavery. The demand for Black bodies in the form of agricultural workers and skilled artisans and tradesman was insatiable and the slave trade persisted for centuries. Despite the moral implications, Christian society successfully justified the practice by devaluing Black lives.
The common (poor) White man, who had much more in common with the slave than he did the planter, he often found himself abetting the planter as a willing participant in a brutal institution. It is well noted that a small percentage of Southerners actually owned slaves. Newspapers, preachers and the educated elite passed on a message of superiority to the commoner. “At least you’re not a nigger slave.” A successful tactic used to separate poor Whites from the exploited Black and Indian populations.
Just like today, poor Whites often vote against their interests because they see a candidate that not only looks like them but makes unrealistic promises, in coded language, to lift them out of poverty and establish the old hierarchy based on racial preference.
Slaves had to be fed in order to work. But that didn’t mean the planter had to provide food. Any fluctuation in the price of grain, wheat or corn could mean starvation for many slaves on plantations throughout the South. The value of their lives was pitted against the bottom line of profit margins. Thus, revolts and insurrections were common. The brutal methods employed to control the slaves throughout the Ante Bellum south were direct response to successful revolts in Suriname, Jamaica and Haiti.
The Black slaves in Haiti and Jamaica had endured centuries of the most brutal treatment known to man on the sugar plantations. A healthy adult averaged three years in the cane fields before succumbing to death. They died from the lash of the whip as often as health problems from malnutrition and disease.
They knew their lives had little value to their oppressors; the enslaved population chose the risk of death over another day of captivity and valiantly won their independence through revolt.
The success of these revolts sent shockwaves of paranoia throughout the southern United States. Planters feared for their safety and the safety of their families. Surely these ‘black brutes’ would rise up one day and exact revenge upon their oppressors. The only way to prevent that from happening was to program fear and uncertainty into the lives of all the slaves.
Food and water could not be taken for granted. The security of one’s wife and children were out of reach for the Black man. Every aspect of daily life was lived under the control of an overseer and the trusty whip. Thus, Black life took another precipitous dip with the implementation of the Willie Lynch and his tactical mastery of terror.
Under Lynch directives a man would have each of four limbs tied to a separate horse and would be pulled apart in front of the rest of the slaves. There were human beings that had hot tar poured on them. These were fellow men forced to wear crude iron collars on their necks for months at a time, unable to really sleep and skin rubbed raw from the weight. Men and women would be fitted with spiked helmets around their heads adjusted to draw blood but not kill them. This was and always will be a painful reminder that life could be a living hell for anyone seeking freedom.
The children of the planters and overseers, anyone associated with the plantation saw this too. The White children were taught early on that Black people weren’t human. White people actually believed that Black people were not capable of experiencing pain as they were. Black people were more closely associated with pack animals than human beings. This twisted view still persists in some social circles.
By the time The Civil War ended and Emancipation was implemented a dozen generations of Whites had lived under the scope of plantation economics. A society built upon the backs of free slave labor. It was justified by the notion of White racial superiority.
In a short amount of time, under the protective eye of Federal Troops, the newly freed ex-slaves known as Freedman charted a steep trajectory to equality by learning to read, running for office and competing in the free market.
The successful rise of the newly freed Blacks enraged the defeated Confederates. They blamed the Republican Party and politicians from the North, known as Carpetbaggers, for the meteoric rise of the former slaves.
Southern Democrats throughout the south organized and started a group called the ‘Redeemers’ to restore the old social order through any means necessary.
The value of Black life was in freefall, the poor Whites and planters, still recovering from the lost cause of the Civil War, plotted to take back the South and return it to its previous state. Their intent was to make it a White ethno-state, dominated by men. This movement was known as the Redemption.
Reconstruction officially ended March 4, 1877 when President Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the capitals of all the states still under Reconstruction. This act was a signal to the ‘Redeemers’ that the south would soon be theirs again.
The Red Shirts and The White League were two paramilitary organizations that took a direct role changing the social structure of the South. The two groups were financed by wealthy planters and businessmen.
They were made up of men who fought in the Civil War and saw a way, through legislation, to return the South to its former glory of economic dominance and White supremacy. They supported democratic causes and focused most of their ‘work’ on politicians and those eligible to vote. Their two main stated goals was Black voter suppression and the end of Republican rule.
In 1874 the violence peaked during what became known as the Coushatta Massacre. The well-armed group advanced on Republican counties throughout the State of Louisiana demanding the departure of Republican officeholders. In the Red River Parish, The White League killed them and up to twenty witnesses instead.
This type of violence was not limited to politicians or people in office. Murders, rapes and assaults against Black people were common. The perpetrators of these acts were rarely brought to trial and never convicted. Political violence became common and the intimidation at the polls and capitals grew worse every year.
The social achievements made by the Freedman in the south quickly eroded with the departure of federal troops. No more political office, no more property ownership. No more rights to bear arms.
There was no question, Black Lives Did not matter. They used a number of laws based on literacy, residency and other factors to disenfranchise the Black vote. Those laws along with a robust campaign of terror diminished eligible voters from close to 800,000 people throughout the south to about 20,000 by 1881.
So much time and energy was spent killing Black people, it’s amazing it is not taught in schools. The period of Reconstruction and the social revenge of The Redemption explain a lot about ‘Southern pride’ and the traditions valued by those who claim the Confederate flag is a symbol of heritage. This is a disturbing heritage and it is soaked in blood.
Journalist and author Douglas Blackmon won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.” It is a detailed account of the brutal methods devised to maintain the economic use of free Black labor during a little known period of American history.
Opposing sides will always clash based on these ‘traditional values’ espoused by the Confederate flag waving Americans which litter society. The details of their bloody heritage have always been overlooked and instead the world is redirected to respect their glorious past.
So, the notion that Black Lives Matter was ludicrous under the shadow of Robert E. Lee.
This is where we are as a society. We have a large group of proud, fragile White Americans totally unaware of the bloody details that define their prosperity and social status. White Americans who are descendants of the people who used any means necessary to regain control of a free society that was supposed to reward people on their merits.
Ancestors carrying on a fight they didn’t start and unwilling to even understand. This was the catalyst that gave people the ability to hide their racism behind a patriotic veneer and religious zealotry, unable to tie their society’s crimes of the past to the injustices of today.
So, we are left with the millions who know in their heart of hearts that, yes, Black Lives Matter and we need to reform our criminal justice system, just like millions knew slavery was wrong but let it persist. As in Germany where one third of the population stood by and watched one third of the people kill the remaining third.
We need strong leadership in times like these and it may take another three years to see any type of progress. In the meantime, take a knee and unite with Kaepernick.