Mourning the Loss of a Democracy That Never Was

If there was one thing I took away from my high school civics class was that America was a democracy, brilliantly constructed by men who were determined that under no circumstances could this country become an autocracy or a monarchy.

The system of checks and balances was perfect in my mind. The three branches of government would check each other to keep the power on the highest level evenly distributed and applied. Given what I had read about monarchies and Nazism and Fascism and about tyrannical rulers, I was comforted. Even though I as an African American had real and specific concerns and complaints about this government, at least it had the blueprint to be fair to all of its people.

But if we define a democracy as a government which is ruled by the people, something has been wrong from the beginning. A formal definition of democracy is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” A democracy, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “government by the people, especially the rule of the majority.” That’s what I learned in high school; that’s what I thought I was being taught.

And I was …except that it was an erroneous lesson from the beginning. The Founding Fathers didn’t intend for this government to really  be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” They wanted this to be a government where a few people – notably, white, wealthy, male, Protestant landowners, to rule the many. They didn’t include in their formation of this government any intention of ever including everyone. Some people were more worthy of governing and some’s place was to “be governed.”

The right to vote – I thought the right of all Americans to vote – was at the heart of what made this government different. One person, one vote became the ideal for fledgling democracies all over the world. But from the beginning of our existence as a nation, the right to vote has been compromised, messed with and messed over. The recent mid-term elections, with wide-spread voter suppression, is not a new thing – which says to me that while some of us are alarmed at what is going on in our federal government, the cry (my cry, specifically) that our democracy is in danger of failing, is not true.

We have celebrated a “democracy” that never was.

From our beginning, people in power – most specifically white men – have done all they could to keep the masses from voting. Ari Berman, in his excellent book, Give Us the Ballot, describes the brouhaha that developed after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It seems that many white folks were appalled at the notion that black people should have the same right to vote as did white people and they did all they could to keep that from happening – in spite of the VRA. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who pushed for the passage of the VRA in spite of the huge price he paid politically, said that “the vote is the most powerful instrument devised for breaking down injustice.” But if my reading of history is correct, a large contingency of white people in general, and white politicians in particular, had little to no interest in breaking down injustice, and in spite of claiming that they lived in a democracy, and in spite of taking oaths to defend, preserve and protect the United States Constitution, they had no intention of doing so.

I was always appalled at the tricks devised and carried out to keep black people from voting, but as I have learned more about the efforts to keep America’s power in the hands of white people, my anger has only increased. In Berman’s book, he describes black people going to the polls to vote – people who had previously voted – only to be told that they were no longer eligible. There were no more jars with jelly beans to count, and no more literacy tests, but the schemes to keep black people out of the “I am an American and I vote” club were there. In his chapter entitled “The Counterrevolution (II),” Berman recounts several of these instances, including that of one Willie Steen, an African American who was a Navy vet who served in Operation Desert Storm. He took his 10-year-old son with him, but when he got to his polling place to vote, he was told he could not vote because he was a convicted felon.

He was no such thing.

He tried to clear up the confusion to no avail. He left the polling place that day angry and embarrassed, concerned about how he would explain all of this to his son. It turns out that somehow, he had been confused with a convict named “Willie Osteen,” who committed a felony at the same time Willie Steen was serving in the Persian Gulf. Berman says that same type of thing was happening to African American voters throughout the state of Florida.

We all saw what happened in the midterms; we have all heard the charges of voter fraud levied against Democrats by some members of the GOP, in spite of there being no evidence of the same, while at the same time there is massive evidence of voter fraud in several locations, including North Carolina. (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/07/north-carolina-early-voting-midterms-a-diabolical-new-republican-ploy-to-suppress-black-turnout.html)  Those who believe that African Americans and other members of other ethnic groups are not worthy of voting have continued to do all they can to make sure they keep things like they want them – which does not include people of color.

That being said, in a country where all its citizens are not encouraged or even permitted to vote, democracy has to be called a sham.

We have all been duped.

Some kind of way, however, we have to right the wrongs and try to make this country live into the words penned by the Founding Fathers – words which, ironically, not even they intended to apply to everyone.

We are in mourning some of us, for a democracy that never was.

A candid observation …

Desecration of Black Lives is Not a New Phenomenon

I read a piece in the New York Times where some white politicians offered stern rebuke for the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that “Dr. King would be appalled” at the fact that the color of people being disproportionately shot and killed by police officers is being lifted. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/opinion/the-truth-of-black-lives-matter.html?mwrsm=Facebook).

Their remarks show their arrogance, ignorance and complete lack of understanding about what this fight is about.

Black lives have never mattered to white America. From the time of slavery, black bodies were merely property, valuable only in their ability to make money for the ruling class, the landowners who needed them to plant, plow and harvest their fields.

The Civil War was about slavery; white people (in the North and the South) did not care about black people as human beings; in fact, the going belief was that black people were not fully human. Though some who need to hide from history say that the War Between the States was about states’ rights, the “right” that states were fighting for was the “right” to own and use black people as they needed and wanted.

The lack of respect for black lives was shown not only in the fact of slavery, but also in the fact that black slave women were raped at will by white men (though they lynched black men with abandon because they said it was black men raping white women that was the most serious social issue of the day.) Black lives mattered so little that whites made it a crime for blacks to learn to read and write; the most minimal time was allowed for black children to attend school. Black lives mattered so little that the schools they did have were substandard,with few to no books, or with old books, the worst teachers, and the fewest supplies any child needs to have a positive school experience.

Black lives mattered so little that black people were lynched by whites for even the hint of a supposed crime; black people were never tried by “juries of their peers,” but most often by white men. Black lives mattered so little that black people were beaten and/or killed for even trying to register to vote. Law enforcement didn’t protect black lives; law enforcement officers either ignored, participated in, or initiated much of the violence meted out to innocent black people.

When Dr. King arrived in Memphis for the last time he would speak, he went in support of black men who were sanitation workers and who were treated …as subhuman, not making enough money to live, and being subjected to all kinds of horrific treatment as they tried to do their work. Remember, they carried signs that said, “I am a man!”  They carried those signs with those words because they knew their lives were not important, nor were their needs or concerns. The black men, picking up the garbage for Memphis’ citizens, were treated horribly and wanted to unionize. The city balked. Taylor Branch wrote, in At Canaan’s Edge that things were bad. The situation came to a head when two men were crushed in a compressor truck. The horrific deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It seemed that their deaths brought home the reality that black lives really did not matter. Branch wrote that city policy “left the families of unclassified workers with no death or survivors’ benefits.” (p. 685) Thus, the families of these men, who had worked for pittance, were left with little to next to nothing after they died …working for the city. The mayor gave each family $500. That was it. The men got fed up, tired of hosting and supporting their own discrimination, and took to the streets. They had to stand up for themselves, and say that they were men, human beings …and that their lives mattered.

It is this historical maltreatment of black people that the Black Lives Matter movement is about. It is disingenuous and dishonest, in addition to being arrogant and ignorant, for these politicians to call on the name of Dr. King, who died as he marched in solidarity with the garbage workers in Memphis to say, “black lives matter” as justification for their disdain for the ongoing struggle for dignity and justice for white black people must still fight.

No, Gov. Huckabee, Gov. Barbour, Rand Paul, Republican Party …Dr. King would not be appalled. He fought for the cause of black lives …and the fight continues.

Don’t insult the work. Don’t continue the insult to black people who have suffered immeasurably at the hands of white people who do not think black lives matter.  Don’t speak of that about which you know so little, and seemingly, care so little.

Dr. King might be appalled at your lack of understanding of what this movement is all about.

A candid observation …