This paper examined the nature of civil liberties and African Americans struggle to have civil liberties extended to them. It emphasized the politics of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and argues that for all intents and purposes the civil war really ended in 1964, not 1864! It says that despite the election of the first African- American President of the United States that the struggle for civil rights must go on.
Civil Liberties, Civil Rights And African American Politics
Civl Rights And African American Politics
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
If you want to understand people study
them. If you study people you will find out that apart from struggling to
obtain what they need to survive, such as food, medications, clothes and
shelter that probably the most important thing for them is their freedom.
People want to be free. Even animals want to be free; if in doubt then catch a
bird, cage it and keep it in your house for a very long time then open the cage
and see what happens: it will fly away.
Human beings do not want to be caged; they want freedom to do their
things (and not do what other people told them to do).
Civil liberties have to do with freedom
within the constraints of organized society.
Organized society by definition means the reduction of freedom. As we noted the other day while talking about
the origin of organized society and examining Thomas Hobbes conjectures, folks
understand that there is such a thing as natural freedom, a freedom that could
exist only in the wild but when they live in organized society they understand
that they have necessarily reduced their natural freedom. In the wild you may
do whatever you want to do and get away with it but in the context of organized
society your freedom ends where the other person’s rights begins.
If you do what detracts from other
people’s freedom, what negates their self-interests you have attacked them.
Those attacked, physically or psychologically, know that they are attacked and
become defensive; they defend their rights and that means that they would
attack you. You attack others and in
self-defense they attack you and both of you are now at a state of war and the
more powerful wins until those who can gang up on the powerful defeat him.
As Hobbes pointed out, in the state of
nature we were at war with each other and life was nasty, brutish and
short. Seeking security we entered into
civil society. If we desire to live, we
cannot afford to risk the insecurity of the state of nature. In organized society we must pass laws that
protect all of us. The laws that give us social security limit our natural
freedom. In society we can only have so
much civil liberties not total freedom to do as we wish.
Living in organized human society means
living in the context of laws (laws made by the collective people or their
representatives, the government). We cannot have absolute freedom in organized
society but we can have some liberties within the law. Civil liberties are those freedoms that are
possible within the context of organized human society.
In nature we have the freedom to talk
and say whatever we want. In organized
society, in case you have not learned that fact yet, our freedom to say
whatever we want is constrained by the consequences of our speech. Thus, civil
society curtails our freedom of speech.
In nature you can yell fire. However, if you go into a packed theater and
yell fire folks would think that there is actual fire and rush to get out. In
rushing to get out some may be trampled to death (and many sustain
injuries). If therefore you yell fire in
a packed audience your freedom of speech has caused injury and death to other
people and they would come after you (in self-defense). The relatives of those trampled to death will
literally try to kill you. In our
society the police will arrest you, the judges will try you and you would
probably be sent to jail.
The point is that your freedom of
speech in nature is constrained in civil society. The fact that people have to live together
means that their natural behaviors that could hurt other people have to be
Civil liberties looks at the nature of
human freedoms, aka liberty in nature and in organized society. The struggle to
retain for the people maximum permissible liberties is an ongoing phenomenon;
it never ceases. In times of national emergency society is ready and always
reduces people’s civil liberties but when the emergency is over the struggle to
increase people’s civil liberties resume.
On September 11, 2001 Arab Muslim
terrorists attacked America. The
terrorists did what terrorists always do. Terrorists are merchants of fear.
They are fearful human beings who understand that human beings are fearful
animals. People are biological animals and want to survive at all cost. Nature
built into them fear response mechanism that alerts them to threats to their
lives. They have fight-flight response to fear. The goal is to survive.
Terrorists realizing that people are
fearful randomly kill some persons with the goal of arousing fear of death in
the many. When folks fear is aroused they want to survive and will do anything
to survive including reducing their civil liberties. Thus Arab Muslim terrorists aroused fear in
Americans. To survive Americans allowed their government to pass laws, such as
the Patriots Act, that curtailed their civil liberties. These days folks submit
to humiliating searches at airports (they would rather somebody searched their
entire bodies and they lived than have a terrorist sneak into the plane and
blow it up and they die). These days
government is permitted to randomly listen to people’s telephones, read their
emails, letters, and examine the books they checked out of libraries etc.
If you are suspected of trafficking in
terrorism the police swoop down on you, pick you up and incarcerate you without
due process of law (you may be held for years without consulting your
attorney). People who are afraid for
their lives do away with their civil liberties.
Yet the people want some freedom for
without it living becomes a chore. So how much freedom should organized society
permit its citizens? The debate continues;
such debate and consequent laws inform civil liberties.
In the 1400s Portuguese sailors for the
first time began sailing to the Coast of West Africa. By the 1460s they had pretty much made calls
on most West African coasts. Around 1488 they reached South Africa (Cape of
Good Hope) and in the 1490s they reached India.
The relevant point is that in the fifteenth hundreds Europeans reached
Africa and began continuously interacting with Africans; that interaction has
had dire consequences for Africans.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus leading the
Spanish reached what is now called America. The Portuguese reached Brazil in
1500. Upon reaching Brazil the
Portuguese tried to use the native Indians to do plantation work and mine work.
The Indians either died or fled into the jungle and therefore were not good
source of labor.
The Portuguese realized that on their
way to India they had seen Arabs with African slaves working for them at their
various Indian Ocean island plantations and on the East coast of Africa. They got to go get for them African
slaves. And not wanting to get into a
fight with Arabs who controlled slavery on the East coast of Africa, they left
East Africa to Arab slavery and came to West Africa. Thus, somewhere in the
1500s the Portuguese began obtaining slaves from West Africa and transporting
them to the new world.
Soon, other European nations entered
the slave trade and thereafter Africans were routinely captured by their fellow
Africans and marched to the coast and sold to the Europeans at the coast
(Africans also captured their people and sold them to Arabs...some were marched
across the Sahara desert and sold in the slave markets of the middle East, to
as far away as Iran).
In 1607 The British settled at
Jamestown, Virginia. In 1619 they imported the first African slaves into
Virginia. African slaves have been in
these United States of America since the early 1600s.
Whereas the organized society of white
Americans struggled to define civil liberties for themselves, as all societies
must, they made the assumption that those civil liberties did to extend to
persons of African origin. African slaves were not given any kind of civil
liberties; they were the properties of other people and that was all there was
Naturally, Africans like all people want
freedom; even birds do. There were
slaves that fought for their freedom.
We can study history to tell us about
the various slave insurrections in America but we really do not have to go to
the past to find out how human beings behave. All we need to do is go into any
black part of town in North America today.
You will find that the many are adjusted to their second class citizenship
status and that a few resist social oppression and fight it. Extrapolating from
that we can unequivocally say that right from the day Africans arrived at
Jamestown that a few of them were fighting for their freedom.
Many Africans ran away; some ran into
the wilderness and perhaps formed unions with Indians. Many Indians are really mixture of African
and Indian (as are many whites, of course...James Watson, remember him, the guy
who along with Francis Crick discovered the DNA; he was mouthing off on how
Africans are a dumb people until someone did his DNA and found out that he had
African genes in him! It is difficult to find a pure white or a pure black or a
We know about Nat Turner’s slave
rebellion, the exploits of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and Frederick
Douglas; however, we shall not detain ourselves with the examination of those
efforts to end slavery in the land; suffice it to say that many black folk
struggled for their freedom.
The struggle to end slavery led to a
civil war between 1860 and 1864. We can
review the events that led to the civil war but the salient point is that the
slave holders refused to give their slaves freedom and equality. Some folks, especially those in the Northern
states wanted slavery ended (John Brown was called a mad man for trying to end
slavery at Harpers Ferry, Virginia; I would like to have his brand of madness).
Please note that whereas white men
fought to end slavery they still did not believe that Africans were their
equals. Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and the other stalwarts of the effort
to end slavery in America believed that Africans were an inferior people. You really do not have to go to the past to
understand this phenomenon, I mean how folks could fight to end slavery yet believe
that Africans are an inferior people. All you have to do is go to any white
suburb of America, go to the schools, elementary, secondary etc. You would find that most of the kids are
opposed to slavery. Now ask them if they
think that Africans are equal to white folks. Are you ready for this? Most of
them would tell you that Africans are an inferior people! Yes they do not want
slavery but they see black folks as inferior to them. Many white folks cannot
visualize a black person as smart as they are.
If you understand the point I have just
made you would understand the nature of American racism. Deep down white folks
see black folks as inferior to them; in polite society they would not say it
but when they are angry at you they tell you or treat you as they really see
you as, a nigger. As they see it
Africans have not contributed anything to science and technology or built any
worthwhile civilization; they must be less intelligent not to have contributed
to physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and applied science or built
civilizations like Greece, Rome, Western Europe and North America (was ancient
Egypt a black civilization...many Africans say yes but many white folks say
The civil war was fought and won.
Northern states (union states) defeated southern states (confederates). The union was saved. But nature always
contrives to complicate things for us human beings; it is as if the gods always
arrange things so as to laugh at our expense. Thus Abraham Lincoln was killed
by John Wilkes Booth.
Lincoln’s vice president, a Southerner
from the state of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson took over. Mr. Johnson was a Democrat (Lincoln was
Republican, the party that fought slavery).
Johnson was from a slave state and was himself an ardent believer that
black folks were inferior to white folk (apparently Lincoln had selected him, a
man from a different party and from the South to try building bipartisan
relationships with the opposition Southern democrats).
Johnson immediately tried to reverse the
little gains made for blacks during the civil war. But Republicans had the majority in Congress
and fought to checkmate what Johnson did. In March of 1864 Congress was
adjoined and did not return until November and during that time Johnson had
free reign to institute practices that undermined the freedmen’s gains.
Perhaps the best way to present this
situation is to discuss the politics of the Reconstruction era in some
detail. The Reconstruction era was the
era immediately after the civil war; it is generally believed to have begun in
1864 and ended in 1877 (when the Redeemers of the South, those fighting to
relegate blacks to slavery and redeem whites from what they saw as Yankee
oppression, won; blacks were practically re-enslaved).
As noted, the civil war was championed by
the North (northerners who like southerners still believed in the racial
superiority of white men but who did not like slavery). The war ended and certain measures were
implemented to protect the freed slaves. Congress established what was called
the Freedmen Bureau to seek ways to help the freed slaves. Remember that the
slaves were hitherto the property of their white masters and had no property.
When freed they had no property and no money. They could starve to death. So what do you do to help them?
In the 1860s there were no big cities
in America that southern slaves could migrate to...America was then a rural
society with towns of a few hundred persons.
There were semblances of big cities in the North, such as New York,
Boston and Philadelphia. Now get this:
white Northerners did not want freed slaves to flock to the north; they feared
the presence of blacks in their areas. As they saw it, inferior black folks
should be contained in the South where they belonged. They discouraged blacks from going up
north. Much of reconstruction politics
was really efforts to keep blacks in the south and prevent them from going up
The victorious north reestablished civil
order in the south. Initially, they appointed military administrators to
administer the defeated southern states.
These administrators were largely Northerners and they instituted
reconstruction projects such as feeding freed slaves, establishing schools to
educate them and generally trying to help them become independent citizens. But
as we all know, the military are not equipped to rule society and could bring
about order for a few months but civil rule had to be reestablished. Thus, efforts were made to reestablish civil
rule in the South. Elections were held.
Guess who won the elections? You got it right if you said racist white
southerners. That is correct; those that the North just fought and defeated at
war returned to government in the many southern states (although efforts were
made to prevent the leaders of the rebellion from participating in politics but
their surrogates did).
The resurgent southerners immediately
started dismantling the programs instituted by Northern military
administrators, shut down schools (for educated niggers were dangerous, they
said). In situations where the plantations of rebel leaders were appropriated
and given to freed slaves by both Generals Sherman and Grant those lands were
taken back from the freed slaves and returned to their owners.
Johnson in Washington kept quiet, if
indeed he did not actively cooperate with his fellow Southerners as they
dismantled what the Northerners had done to enable freed slaves survive.
These events were not acceptable to
Northerners who saw their work undone. Thus, when Congress returned in the fall
of 1864 the Republican controlled Congress tried to undo what President Johnson
and his fellow Southern racists did. The
civil war was about to resume and be refought.
As these things always work out, folks
get tired of fighting the same war all over. Northern anti-slavery forces were
exhausted and needed rest. As it were, they took a rest and somehow permitted
Southern racists to do their things. The
emergent governments in the southern states systemically undid what the North
did to help freed slaves.
Those Northerners (carpet baggers) who
had come south to help freed slaves (such as teachers etc.) were driven out.
Even the scalawags (southern whites who sympathized with Africans) were
silenced when told by their brother whites that the worst thing that could
happen in America is to elect black senators, congressmen etc., to have black
men rule America (we have seen this story repeat itself lately...Barack Obama
was elected the president of the United States and whites went into shock
because whereas they are ready to help blacks they do not want blacks to rule
them, hence the emergence of the Tea Party Republicans).
Above all white southerners engaged in
outright terrorism. Whereas the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments
had freed black folks and given them the right to vote they were literally
killed if they tried to go exercise the right of voting. On election days white
folks would station themselves at strategic points and literally kill blacks
who tried to go vote. This is terrorism and as expected intimidated black folks
and prevented them from voting.
In 1865, in Pulaski, Tennessee, six ex
confederate soldiers formed the Ku Klaus Klan (KKK); this was a white terrorist
organization that adorned white robes and hoods and rode on horses to the
houses of black folks known to desire racial equality and killed them (in the
late twentieth century Arab Janjaweed terrorists did the same in Southern
Sudan). White militias sprung up
everywhere and rifle clubs were organized all with the intention of
intimidating black folks, arousing fear of death in them and to live they
desisted from challenging white folks.
By 1877 the South pretty much had
reverted to white racist control. In
1896 the United States Supreme Court entered the fray and in the Ferguson
ruling ruled that racial separation was constitutional. That ruling, along with the 1857 Dred Scott
ruling that black men have no civil rights that white men should respect,
literally divided America to white and black; it initiated the reign of Jim
Crow in the land of Christians.
Jim crow lasted to 1964 when Congress
under another President Johnson passed the civil rights bill.
The gains made by black folk during
the Reconstruction era are often exaggerated. Only two black men briefly served
in the US Senate and a few in the House of Representative; there were no black
governors. Simply stated not much had changed
in the land.
It is true that men of goodwill from
the North established schools and colleges for black folks (General O. O Howard
who headed the Freedman Bureau helped established Howard University in
Washington DC to provide college education for blacks...even he would be
horrified to see black folks go to the same schools with white folks); Tuskegee
University, Fisk University, Lincoln University, Spellman College and other
colleges were started for black folks by white Northerners.
Such reconstruction era arrangements as
sharecropping, however, lasted into the twentieth century (in sharecropping
freed slaves worked for their ex-slave masters but not as slaves but as free
men; they farmed the land and upon harvest were given half of what they
harvested and the master took the other half, hence shared crops...this did not
always work out so for the white masters found ways to take most of the crops
that the freedmen were supposed to have, they deducted the cost of feeding and
housing the ex-slaves).
Laws were passed against vagrancy
meaning that blacks without jobs could be arrested, thus leaving them no option
but to stay on the farm and work for their ex masters as serfs.
In the meantime America was becoming
industrialized. Industrialization began in Britain in the mid-1700s and in the
mid-1800s America and Germany struggled to become industrialized. This meant
the establishment of factories and the congregation of workers in one place of
work. Instead of workers working alone in their cottages they were brought to
By the 1860s America was on its way to
becoming industrialized. By 1940 America was completely industrialized. What
this meant in real terms was that rural farm folk left the land and went to
live in the cities where they worked in factories. White farmers migrated to
urban areas in search of factory work. Black folks did the same.
Black folk migrated to the northern
cities where factories were located (Detroit, Chicago, New York, Petersburg,
Harrisburg, Columbus, Toledo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Seattle and Los
Angeles). The North had used all kinds of measures to prevent black migration
to them but now that they needed workers in their factories they welcomed
blacks (and European peasants who flocked to America in search of work).
Black folks became an urban folk. As
would be expected they were shunted into the inner cities, the ghettos where
they still live.
Urban folks have different attitudes
than rural folks so the migration to northern urban areas drastically changed
black America. It led to blacks making
enormous contributions to America’s urban cultures: think of the Harlem
renaissance and the flood of writing it produced (think Langston Hughes, James
Weldon Johnson); think of innovations in music such as Jazz, Blues, and Rhythm
and Blues, Soul music. America’s pop culture to the present is really a black
In the early twentieth century some
black folks had college education and started what is now called the civil
rights movement. Booker T Washington was
sufficiently educated to ask whites to help him educate other Negroes. The man
said that he was not going to challenge whites by providing intellectual
education to Negros but instead would have them train in the trades (carpentry,
mechanics and so on) so that they would have jobs and not challenge white
supremacy. White folks loved the idea and gave him the funds with which he
carried out his mission.
In 1909 W.E.B Dubois and a few other
Negros challenged Booker’s approach to the Negro issue and called for Negros to
be given liberal arts education. The
following year Dubois and others with the help of white liberals started the
NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). With folk’s contributions to its legal
defense fund, the NAACP hired lawyers who challenged the various laws that
Southern states had enacted to relegate Negros to second class citizenship.
Folk like Thurgood Marshall led in this
legal war. The war took may twists and
turns but culminated in the landmark 1954 Warren Court ruling in the Brown
versus Topeka, Kansas Board of Education that segregation of schools is
unconstitutional (in that suit a black child, Brown, was prevented from going
to the school in her white neighborhood and had to go to school in the black
President Eisenhower, himself a racist
dilly dallied in implementing the Supreme Court’s ruling (he reportedly told an
aide that he was afraid that big black Negros would rape fragile white girls so
he was afraid to integrate schools). It
took President John Kennedy in the early 1960s to start trying to implement the
Warren court ruling.
In 1955 a black woman, Rosa Park refused
to get up and give her bus seat to a white man; she was arrested; the arrest
led to the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycotts led by a twenty-something year old
Baptist minister, Martin Luther King.
The boycott sparked the civil rights movement. Malcolm X was all over
the country giving fiery speeches. In
the San Francisco-Oakland area of California Hughie Newton, Bobby Seal and
Eldridge Cleaver formed the Black Panther Party to challenge police brutality
towards black folk. Julian Bond, Stockly
Carmichael and his student nonviolent coordinating committee worked the college
angle of the struggle. These struggles
culminated in the 1964 civil rights Act and the 1965 Fair Housing Act (that
outlawed restrictive covenants...real estate folks used to steer black house
buyers to black neighborhoods).
The 1960s finally ended the civil war.
The 1970s was an era of already changed America, an America where blacks could
now go to schools of their choice and struggle to secure jobs on merit.
Civil rights are the name given to the
mighty struggle by black Americans to obtain their civil liberties in
America. I will not dwell on specific
laws in the legal struggle. For our present purposes what is salient is that
black folks were originally slaves in America and struggled to be given the
rights all free men should have in organized society. As noted, in organized
society there can be no perfect freedom, rights must be circumscribed for one
man’s right is another man’s harm; civil society can only have attenuated
liberties for all people.
As America eventually becomes a color
blind society the notion of civil rights would end and the debate returns to
where it should be: civil liberties, the eternal struggle to give men some
freedom while they are bound by the laws of civil societies they live in.
The election of the first black President
of America, his way paved by Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson’s earlier runs,
would seem to have ended the civil rights battle in America. But as we have seen despite Barack Obama’s
stay in the White House many Republican controlled states have enacted
legislation restricting black voting rights (such as requiring government
issued identification cards, such as driver’s licenses which many black folk do
The struggle for civil rights, the right
to vote and have relative freedom in the land, must still go on. Those who
ignore the struggle wake up one day to find their civil rights and civil
liberties destroyed by a political system that cannot seem to have some things
settled and taken for granted and stop monkeying with them (such things as
provision of public education to students from kindergarten to university,
health insurance to all people, social security for older persons by now ought to be accepted as legitimate
function of government, but those issues are always re-contested as Republican
politicians always desire to gut them).
So far, African-American politics has
largely centered on the struggle for civil rights; that struggle was made
necessary by deliberate efforts by those in political power, white folks, to
deny them basic civil liberties. In normal political systems what we have is
the eternal struggle for civil liberties, the quest to retain as much freedom
as is feasible for human beings living in organized society where their freedom
cannot be absolute.
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
April 25, 2012