BOOKS: Breaking the Wall of Resistance
By Anne Braden
Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000, pp. 22-24
In 1954, Anne and Carl Braden purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, on behalf of a black couple, Andrew and Charlotte Wade. The Wall Between is Anne Braden’s first-hand account of the consequences of that simple, bold action-mob violence against the Wades and the bombing of their house and Carl’s imprisonment on charges of sedition. A finalist for the 1958 National Book Award, The Wall Between was republished by the University of Tennessee Press in 1999. In an epilogue to the new edition, Braden brings the story up to the present. Below in an excerpt from that epilogue, Braden raises the challenge to today’s social justice movement.
I came into social justice movements at the height of the repression of the Cold War. The labor movement was being decimated by anti-Communist hysteria: the CIO’s “Operation Dixie” to organize the South, lay shipwrecked on this division. Organizations seeking civil rights, peace, and justice had been crushed everywhere. People were being told that social change groups were subversive. Communists, and then many others, were fired from their jobs, careers were destroyed, many people went to jail, and some committed suicide. Most people became afraid to speak, to meet, to organize; the “Silent ’50s” descended. Social problems festered that still plague us today….
Suddenly, in the depth of this repression, in Montgomery, Alabama, a new movement arose. From there, the movement ignited the South, and the flames fanned out across the country. The movement of African Americans in the South, ultimately joined by an increasing number of white people, won victories that many would have said were impossible. It also broke the pall of the 1950s, opened up everything in our society to question, and made it possible for all people seeking justice to be heard. It brought longstanding struggles of Latinos and Native Americans to the nation’s center stage. And it set in motion the mass antiwar movement of the 1960s, the new women’s movement, new openings for workers to organize in the South–and later movements of other oppressed people: the disabled, lesbians and gays, environmentalists.
Bob Moses, one of the architects of the voting rights movement that shook the country from Mississippi, made a profound comment in 1964:
“The Negro seeks his own place within the existing institutional framework, but to accommodate him society will have to modify its institutions–and in many cases make far-reaching fundamental changes…. The struggle for jobs for Negroes forces questions about the ability of the economy to provide jobs for everyone within our present socio-economic structure: lack of legal counsel for Negroes brings into focus the general lack of legal counsel for the poor. . . . The function of the white American is not so much to prepare the Negro for entrance into the larger society–but to prepare society for the changes it must make to include Negroes.”
As African Americans moved for freedom , it was as if the foundation stone of a building shifted, and the whole structure shook. That movement never achieved political power in the 1960s, but for a few shining years it set the agenda of the country–and it was a humane agenda.
Some years ago, I interviewed the Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of Martin Luther King’s top aides. C.T. put his analysis of the 1960s in theological terms. “You know it is really true,” he said, “what it says in the Bible, that a person must repent of his sins before he can be saved. That’s true of a nation, too. In the 1960s this nation took just the first step toward admitting it had been wrong on race. As a result,
creativity burst forth everywhere.”
People in power who felt threatened by these new upsurges became frightened. And they knew that the root of their problem lay in the African-American freedom movement, and in similar movements among Latinos and Native Americans. They acted to destroy those movements. During that intense period of repression, the late 1960s–ignored by too many white people at the time, and today ignored by many historians–Black Panthers were murdered all over the country; organizations were destroyed by COINTELPRO operations, and activists were framed on a wide assortment of contrived charges. I was traveling the region then for The Southern Patriot, and could visit hardly any community where the Black organizers were not either in jail, on their way, or just out by dint of much local struggle. The attack was massive.
No people’s movement is ever totally destroyed. But the African-American movement was blunted at a critical moment–just as it was launching major offensives for economic justice, which remains today the unfinished business of the 1960s revolution.
Meantime, there was a tremendous propaganda assault on the minds of white people. More and more in the late 1960s, we began to read in the mainstream media about the “white backlash,” although public opinion polls were showing that a greatly increased number of white people favored measures to ensure equal justice and opportunity (including affirmative action) for people of color.
Soon white people were hearing–from the media, from academics and later from the government itself–that what African Americans had gained had taken something away from them. The exact opposite was true. Everything Blacks had won had benefited most of the people in the country. For example, job programs were set up, and young unemployed whites got jobs too. Blacks demanded access to education, and scholarship programs opened college doors to masses of young whites too.
But the dominant propaganda said otherwise, and soon whites were hearing they were victims of “reverse discrimination.” The most pernicious danger our country faces today is the widespread acceptance of this myth. And over the decade of the 1970s, as so many whites were led to feel threatened, a total reversal in the country’s mood occurred–from one that encouraged the solving of social problems by collective efforts that would benefit everyone, to an atmosphere that encouraged each man and woman to turn inward and seek to solve problems for self alone, in private backyards, far from the arena of public issues.
Some civil rights advocates blame the administration of Ronald Reagan for the drive to reverse the gains of the 1960s. I think it worked the other way. The attack on the African-American movement that began in the late 1960s and the campaign for the minds of this nation’s white people that permeated the 1970s created the base that put the Reagan administration in power and dictated that the 1980s would be a time when everyone would be encouraged to “get what you can for yourself alone.”
New movements erupted in the 1980s, antiracist action against new hate groups, the mass movements around the two Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns, new stirrings of organizing within the labor movement. But as we moved into the 1990s the visions of a just society that had fired the 1960s had been narrowed so far that even the most minor reforms–for example the addition of more Head Start programs, important but a far cry from the needed massive overhaul and expansion of our educational system–seemed like great victories.
So we stand on the verge of the twenty-first century with a significant new black middle class produced by the decades of struggle–but with the great masses of African Americans living in poverty, with hopelessness destroying a generation of youth, and the poor being told they are the cause of their own problems. The truth is that this society has not yet done what Bob Moses said in 1964 it must do–make the changes necessary to make room for African Americans. According to every statistical table, people of color have only half as much of the good things of life as whites (housing, health care, jobs, educational opportunity, income) and twice or three times as much of the bad things (infant mortality, slums, unemployment, and prison cells). In effect, it is as if our society has decided that a person of color is only 50 percent of a human being.
Because this society has never made room for African Americans, it is moving toward a situation in which it does not have room for people of any color. The new global economy is being built on the cheap labor of people of
color around the world, with fewer and fewer opportunities for masses of people at home. Today, statistics tell us that 1 percent of American households own the same amount of wealth as the total owned by 92 percent. Between 1979 and 1997, the real income of the poorest one-fifth of U.S. families declined by 7 percent, while the income of the top 20 percent increased by 34 percent and the top 1 percent by 106 percent. The average U. S. corporate executive now earns 326 times that of the average factory worker, and 728 times the annual income of a minimum wage earner. In other industrialized countries, this ratio of executive to factory worker is about 21 to 1; in this country in 1970, it was 41 to 1. “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer” is a cliche, but it describes our society today. This disparity has led to the collapse of many societies.
A new massive thrust toward racial justice will not by itself solve all the problems that face us. But as long as people of color can be written off as expendable, and therefore acceptable victims of the most extreme inequities, the basic injustices in our society will only get worse.
Until a huge new crusade for racial justice develops, the white people who today are asking, “What can I do?”–and there are many of them–can help hasten that day by taking visible stands against specific manifestations of racism in their communities. In so doing, they create a break in what sometimes seems to be a solid wall of white resistance to justice–and often even a refusal to admit that a problem still exists. It helps to create a pole to which other whites can gravitate when the time comes that they realize they must act. We need to create in our communities what I call an “antiracist majority.”
Unfortunately, it is not likely that white people in significant numbers will take such action on their own initiative. They will do it as they began to do it in the 1960s when organized mass movements of people of color force them to face unpleasant truths. I have hope today because I see arising at the grassroots in myriad local communities new movements of people of color demanding justice.
Right now, there is no cohesive force bringing these localized movements together in a united crusade. Mass movements always come as the product of years of mundane work by unsung heroes, and no one can predict when the upsurge will crystallize. I am not at all sure I will live to see it. But I am convinced that it will happen. And when it does, a huge question will be how many white people will understand that this upsurge holds hope for their lives too, and will therefore go through the personal metamorphosis needed to join this new movement.
Anne Braden is the co-chair of the board of directors of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice in Louisville, Kentucky.