Race

In 1963 on the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an essay titled "Why We Can't Wait." The essay, later published in the Saturday Review, uses descriptions of the lives of a "young Negro boy" in Harlem and of a "young Negro girl" in Birmingham to assess how far our country had progressed toward racial equality in the century since Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. King wrote that in 1963, this northern boy and southern girl
. . . were seeing on television, hearing from the radio, and reading in the newspapers that this was the 100th birthday of their freedom.

But freedom had a dull ring, a mocking emptiness when in their time--in the short life spans of this boy and girl--buses had stopped rolling in Montgomery; sit-inners were jailed and beaten; freedom riders were brutalized and murdered; dog's fangs were bared in Birmingham; and in Brooklyn, New York, there were certain kinds of construction jobs for whites only.

It was the summer of 1963. Was emancipation a fact? Was freedom a force?

King ends his compelling and eloquent essay by concluding that for the Negro, emancipation was in 1963 a proclamation rather than a fact. If King were alive today and could offer us the benefit of his insight, how do you suppose he would evaluate our progress toward the principles articulated in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments?

Questions such as this are central to the scholarship of the following four Indiana University Bloomington scholars. Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, an associate professor of speech communication, focuses her research on the influence of black oratory-- including that of King--as a shaping force in African Americans' responses to their intellectual and social environment. Akwasi B. Assensoh, an associate professor of Afro-American studies, explores the similarities between the American civil rights movement and African sociopolitical movements for decolonialization. Coramae Richey Mann, professor of criminal justice, addresses questions about racial equity within the arena of our courts and does research in the area of women and crime. Finally, the scholarship of Kevin Brown, professor of law, provides some insight into the nature of racial jurisprudence and the affirmative action debate. These four Indiana University professors, highly regarded for their scholarly work in the area of race and civil rights, offer the following analyses of the movement and its goals and their respective prognoses for the future.

Carolyn Calloway-Thomas's recent scholarly efforts to contribute to the existing civil rights scholarship have resulted in the publication of the 1993 book, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Sermonic Power of Public Discourse, which she coedited with her colleague John Louis Lucaites, also an associate professor of speech communication at Indiana University Bloomington. Her research agenda regarding the relationship between blacks' rhetorical/historical legacy and the civil rights movement of the 1960s includes an interest in King's lucid oratorical articulation of the tenets, goals, and aspirations of that movement. Calloway-Thomas also serves as an associate dean of the faculties and Director of the Groups Students Support Program.

Calloway-Thomas says she sees the 1960s civil rights movement as a continuance of an old story whose "roots are firmly planted in nineteenth-century protest rhetoric with its emphasis on moral persuasion, appeals to white Americans' guilt, reliance on Old Testament Prophets, and appeals to the gulf between North Americans' creed and their deeds." She laments the fact that in 1995--132 years after the issuance of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation--black Americans are "still addressing the issue of full acceptance by white America." Considering the distance between the promise and the fulfillment of the American Dream for most black Americans, Calloway-Thomas believes that "the current debate over affirmative action is at bottom a struggle for a foothold in America." She argues that the civil rights movement as a whole has "focused on the quest for the good life for African Americans." She sees this focus, however, to be no different from the desires of other Americans. "While the black middle class has reaped significant benefits," Calloway-Thomas says, "the masses of black people have yet to realize the so-called good life of good education, decent housing, and economic advancement."

According to Calloway-Thomas, three factors have seriously impeded the momentum of the civil rights movement: the economic globalization, the unsympathetic attitudes of white Americans, and the failure of civil rights leaders to realize that strategies used during the 1960s are not the most appropriate for today's struggle. "Whites believe that they have given blacks every conceivable opportunity to achieve, whether this is borne out by the facts is irrelevant, since the perception is still there. The old lines of argument and appeals to empathy and guilt are basically gone. Black organizations must now come up with new strategies for [doing] much of the work that remains to be done in the areas of fair housing, economic opportunity, and advancement."

Toward that end, Calloway-Thomas directs an innovative academic program geared toward the interests of minorities applying to enter Indiana University to begin their college careers. Her efforts in this direction contribute to a new phase in the civil rights movement, as she plays a role in equipping first-generation college goers and low-income students with the educational skills they need to succeed in today's society.

Akwasi B. Assensoh, an associate professor of Afro-American studies at IU Bloomington, shares with Calloway-Thomas an interest in King's leadership of the American civil rights movement. At Stanford University and at the King Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, Assensoh served as an associate editor and director of research on the King Papers Project. The King Center is producing thirteen volumes of King's papers for publication. Assensoh's publications include a book on the American civil rights movement: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and America's Quest for Racial Integration.

Assensoh, who also specializes in history, stresses the similarities between the American civil rights movement and those of colonized African countries that have fought for self-determination. His work includes an examination of the successful struggle of blacks in South Africa for their civil and other rights. He suggests a comparison: "Both movements have had either ethnic or racial continuities, as their struggles were about what was affecting racial or ethnic groups."

Assensoh believes that, to a large extent, the civil rights movement in America, which dates to the 1800s, has done much to bring American minorities into the mainstream of all aspects of life in this country, especially in the critical arenas of the nation's political and economic systems. Echoing King's views, Assensoh notes that all disadvantaged minority groups were part of the American civil rights movement because injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.

But also Assensoh laments the current state of the movement. "From my ongoing research in the area of civil rights, I wholeheartedly agree with other scholars that the strategies of the 1800s, the mid-1960s, and the 1970s, similar to those African nationalist movements used in their pre-independent and decolonization struggles, cannot be potent in the current phases of their struggles," he says. "Therefore, something drastic must be done as blacks in America and Africans on the continent struggle to come up with new strategies and continue to belong to the old civil rights or liberation organizations. Most of these groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League, must overhaul their modi operandi, if they seriously want to be effective and helpful to their members."

In terms of specific strategies, Assensoh, who is completing a book tentatively titled Martin Luther King's Dream: Deferred or Realized? urges leaders of the various American civil rights groups to end their disunity, petty squabbles and individual or group undermining tactics, problems that are reminiscent of faults of leaders of civil rights movements in South Africa, Angola, and other African nations. Assensoh asserts that civil rights leaders should marshal or pool their resources for the betterment of the political and socioeconomic circumstances of the people they serve. Above all, Assensoh lauds the recently promoted AfricanŠAfrican American Summit organized by the Rev. Leon Sullivan of Pennsylvania and African leaders. "Through these summits, with earlier ones already held in the African Republics of Gabon and Senegal, respectively, the leaders of Africa and their African American counterparts can exchange mutually beneficial ideas for the welfare of their race."

Coramae Richey Mann, a professor of criminal justice on the IU Bloomington campus, also views the issue of race and civil rights not merely as a topic of scholarly interest, but as a personal and collective struggle. She is a lifetime member of the NAACP and the National Urban League, but her involvement in American civil rights activities extends far beyond merely holding memberships in established and prestigious civil rights organizations. She was an early participant in Operation Bread Basket, the organization that served as a precursor to Operation PUSH, which was founded in Chicago, Illinois by Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights stalwarts. At Operation Bread Basket, she worked with Jackson and a handful of other volunteers to demonstrate against societal injustice and to develop strategies for bringing more economic development to Chicago's black community.

Although Mann has a great deal of respect for the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the leader of the modern version of America's civil rights movement, she is quick to describe herself as more aligned with such so-called "radical elements" of the civil rights movement as the late Malcolm X, Kwame Ture (the former Stokely Carmichael), and others. Mann worked to raise money in the Chicago area for the Black Panther Party as part of the party's initial program of feeding minority children and extending aid to the elderly. Despite Mann's overall assessment of the current phase of the civil rights movement as both unstable and degenerating, she sees a glimmer of hope in the efforts of Minister Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam organization, especially in it's involvement with African American youth and its emphasis on self-determination and economic development.

Working as a court psychologist for some years before obtaining a Ph.D. in sociology, Mann says she observed serious discrimination against people of color, especially those who were involved with the criminal justice process. One of her books, Unequal Justice: A Question of Color, asserts that Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans, and, to a lesser extent Asian Americans, were discriminated against in every phase of the criminal justice system: at the time of arrest, during trial, in incarceration, in prison job assignments, in community surveillance, in brutality, and in capital punishment issues. Additionally, her book reveals that while the Uniform Crime Reports show that police disproportionately arrest African Americans, because of lack of evidence, the arrests do not necessarily lead to convictions. Also of importance is her published finding that criminality, especially as it pertains to involvement in such crimes as murder, robbery, and aggravated rape, is similar across racial and ethnic groups. Her research, therefore, debunks the common perceptions that people of color, especially blacks, are more criminal than other groups.

Mann's interests extend to another of society's oppressed groups: women. In her book When Women Kill, to be published next year, she articulates her concern that while scores of books and papers have been written about homicide by black males, researchers have devoted only scant attention to women murderers. Her research analyzes homicide rates in six sampled cities, reputed to have had the highest incidents of homicide. Her results show that homicide by women is not necessarily a result of the "battered woman syndrome." Instead, she concludes that many women who kill are much more likely to be unemployed, members of racial minorities, chronically impoverished, and single mothers.

In assessing the extent to which America's civil rights movement has addressed issues of racial inequities in the criminal justice system, Mann points to the preponderance of splintered leadership. "On the one hand, are middle-class blacks, who want to take a passive route, and on the other hand, are the more activist-type blacks, like myself, who believe in radical change. The lack of organized, motivating, and committed leadership has been a major stumbling block in any civil rights efforts to address the problems of racism in the criminal justice system."

Mann argues for tough and often unpopular solutions, including legalizing drugs, employment training with emphasis on youth, and revisiting the entire War on Poverty, to deal with the disproportionate number of racial minorities in the criminal justice system. She asserts that legalizing drugs would involve drug treatment and rehabilitation, both of which are necessary in minority communities. She believes that employment training and job assistance could help otherwise alienated and hopeless minorities to gain an economic stake in the system. However, she is not optimistic about the implementation of such job-related programs, especially considering the current conservative, political atmosphere in America.

Perceptions of our political climate are of particular interest to Kevin Brown, a professor of law at the School of Law--Bloomington, who teaches and does research in the area of race and civil rights. This field of research is especially timely as the United States Supreme Court's most recent decisions harken the inauguration of a new era of racial jurisprudence. "American society has just about finished fighting its civil rights war," Brown says. "We will not see any more significant government programs directed toward uplifting minorities in my lifetime. While there will always be a percentage of the black community that will do well, we will not see significant strides in closing the enormous social, educational, political, and economic gap between African Americans and Caucasians." Paradoxically, however, Brown also notes that the African American community in the United States is wealthier, better educated, has better access to medical care, and lives longer than any other community of blacks in the world or any that has existed in the last 400 years.

Brown's research agenda is rooted in the belief that "racial phenomena can be understood in a number of different ways." Brown, who is currently working on a book tentatively titled A Multicultural Analysis of Race in American Society, notes that negative understandings of the roles and conditions of blacks in American society always coexist with positive ones. His research describes different systems of ideas that we use to interpret racial phenomena. He argues that the comprehension of racial phenomenon is actually controlled by larger patterns of ideas that function as a sort of background that both limits and structures the comprehension of any racial phenomena. For example, Brown asserts that African American culture is rooted in an attempt to eradicate racial subordination. Thus this African American culture views society in terms of struggles among various racial and ethnic groups. In contrast, legal culture focuses on society as a collection of individuals. Brown concludes that you get a completely different understanding of a given racial situation if you view it from an assumption of individuals. And to further complicate the problem, those two different views are irreconcilable.

In assessing the merits and failings of the American civil rights movement, Brown believes that blacks have reaped some very important benefits. However, he contends that a central underlying tenant of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which made school segregation unlawful, implies the following: "the court said that if you tell us how much you are being victimized, then we might be able to do something for you." Therefore, it was incumbent upon blacks to harp on themes of victimization in employment, education, and housing. The most recent Supreme Court rulings dealing with race--including City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson (1989), Shaw v. Reno (1993), and Adarand Contractors, Inc. v. Transportation Department (1995)--implicitly state that the court is not concerned with the victimization of African Americans.

This seeming about-face in racial jurisprudence, according to Brown, now creates the opportunity for blacks--who were previously bound by the discourse of victimization--to celebrate the positive aspects of being black without worrying about the negative political or legal consequences. "For the last thirty years," he says, "we could not celebrate our culture because it was inconsistent with the thrust of the civil rights movement. The end of this phase of the movement opens the intellectual space for us to examine the positive attributes of being black."

Furthermore, Brown professes blacks have the advantage of always being able to draw upon multiple systems of ideas in helping them to interpret life. They do not have to completely reject all aspects of American culture to accept black culture. "In a way," he explains, "they can celebrate both. One significant advantage of being black is the reality that you are part of a group of people and thus you never face the world as a solitary individual. In effect, you always have a connection to a group of people who will be concerned about your welfare."

All four scholars concurred that the group of people carrying on the struggle for civil rights must include all poverty-stricken and racially subjugated minorities whose civil rights continue to be in jeopardy. As Roy Innis, an activist in the movement and the national chairperson of the Congress of Racial Equality notes in the preface to The Private Diary of an O.J. Juror, civil rights in America is a multi-faceted issue: "the great success of the civil rights movement [had a] liberating effects on blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans . . . . The civil rights revolution, while awakening America to racial injustice, has oversensitized it to race."

Certainly, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian Americans have benefitted from the use of racial appeals. All of these groups have used civil rights legislation to obtain better housing and to undermine barriers to employment and educational opportunities. In making the transition from protest politics to electoral politics, Native American, Hispanics, and Asian American congressional representatives have followed the lead of the Black Congressional Caucus in establishing their own caucuses to lobby for beneficial legislation and federally-sponsored programs. Most recently, Americans of Asian and Latin American descent in Texas and California have benefitted from redistricting efforts, which have allowed them to elect representatives of their choice.

Racial minorities across the United States are realizing the wisdom in Lyndon B. Johnson's 1968 statement, "We can achieve nothing by lawlessness and divisiveness among the American people. It's only by joining together and only by working together that we can continue to move toward equality and fulfillment for all of our people."

--Yvette Alex-Assensoh