On Saturday, August 26, three African Americans were murdered by a 21-year-old white gunman at the Dollar General Store in Jacksonville, Florida, who then shot himself. The murderer was motivated, Jacksonville Sheriff T K Waters reported, by an “ideology of hate.” The shooting took place 15 months after 10 African Americans were murdered in another racially motivated shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo.
Racial violence against Blacks has scarred America since the first slaves were forcibly shipped to America. The Jacksonville murders, for example, took place one day after the 63d anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, where 200 Ku Klux Klan members armed with ax handles attacked Blacks holding a peaceful sit-in to protest segregation in Jacksonville.
Sadly, the Jacksonville shooting occurred on the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King summoned Americans to his “dream” of a society of equal justice under the law, in which children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
This history – of hate and hope –continues to this day. Each movement toward racial equality in this country has been met with a fierce and violent reaction. After the bloody Civil War, the 13th Amendment was passed abolishing slavery, and America began a brief period of reconstruction for the defeated Confederate states. Against great resistance, African Americans gained not only their freedom, but the right to vote, to serve on juries, to own property and to retain their families. In some Southern states, multi-racial reform coalitions took power, redrafting state constitutions, providing for public education, and launching efforts to rebuild the economy.
That progress was met with a reign of racial terror, including literally thousands of lynchings. The Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups, often led by the plantation elite, murdered with impunity. White sheriffs helped cover up the crimes; white juries and judges ensured that any accused would go free.
When the federal government withdrew even the limited protection that had been offered the freed slaves, the holocaust spread. The Black vote was suppressed by violence, destroying the reform coalitions. Millions of Blacks fled north in a mass migration. The terror lynchings and violence enforced the imposition of segregation across the South. The reaction culminated in a reactionary Supreme Court ruling that segregation was constitutional, inventing the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
It took almost a century before the nonviolent civil rights movement roused the conscience of the country. Nonviolent demonstrators kept going, even in the face of beatings, murders, and police riots. Under Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, the federal government stepped in, passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, providing federal guarantees of equal rights. The Supreme Court ruled that American apartheid – segregation – was unconstitutional. Once more progress was met by a fierce reaction. Republicans revived their party by appealing to the racial backlash and grounding their party in the white South. Ronald Reagan opened his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the infamous site of the 1964 murders of three civil rights organizers – Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. Race-bait politics have been combined with systematic efforts to limit the right to vote, making voting harder in urban areas, purging voter lists, limiting early voting and banning same-day registration and more. A reactionary majority on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, opened the floodgates to secret corporate money in politics, and gave political gerrymandering a green light.
Once more, the reaction has been accompanied by violence – racially motivated killings, often reinforced by racially biased policing. In Ron DeSantis’ Florida among others, politicians feed the hatred, fanning fears of “critical race theory,” censoring history courses, banning books, loosening gun control laws even as mass murders spread.
Yet when reaction seems on the march, remember that it is always darkest before the dawn. In 1955, 68 years before the Jacksonville shootings, a 14-year-old boy – Emmett Till – was abducted, tortured and lynched in Mississippi. Despite a national outcry, his murderers went free. Yet in December of that same year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the civil rights movement that transformed America. Today’s reaction is brutal and ugly, but a new, more diverse generation promises a new time of organizing, movement and progress. History,” Maya Angelou wrote, “with its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”