Have you ever woken up from an amazing dream to a reality not so amazing? You know one where your deepest desires were playing out; you could feel, smell and taste it in your dream?
Well imagine that dream is freedom from slavery and attaining political power. In 1892 255 African Americans were lynched across the United States. The amount of lynchings that year were unprecedented. The lynching of three Black men in Memphis, Tennessee had a significant impact on the life and activism of Ida B. Wells. Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart and were killed because they posed an economical threat on neighboring White business owners. The success of their business, the “People’s Grocery,” breed deep resentment among White business owners. A group of White men attacked the store one night while a large group of Black men were present. Shots were fired and White men were injured. The local press went into a frenzy, slandering the reputations on the business owners. The three owners along with one hundred Blacks were charged with conspiracy. After being jailed, they were dragged out and killed. These events, as told by Paula Giddings in her book “When and Where I Enter,” (1996) were the “climax of ugly events.”
During the Reconstruction period many African Americans lived under a state of prosperity. This period brought great economical and political success. However this period was undercut by a backlash of oppressive laws in the South targeting Black people. The right to vote was systemically stripped away from Black men (women were still fighting for the vote) and there were no federal laws addressing racially motivated terrorism and murder. Segregation was not only a cultural norm, it was becoming the legal standard. The advancement of a formerly enslaved people threatened the identities and status of many Whites in America. As a result, they struck back with terrorism and legalized oppression. However, many Blacks still had faith in the legal system charged with protecting the citizens of the United States. People actually believed that the terrorism wreaked upon Black communities was not endorsed by the state, that it was instead the product of resentment by poorer Whites. For Wells, the 1892 lynchings were a “rude awakening” (Giddings, 1996). These events led her to lead a full journalism assault and expose the false vilification and mass terrorism of African people in America.
Now that we have the brief history lesson out of the way, lets get to 2011. We still live in an age where folks believe in achieving the “American Dream”. We are also now living in times of prosperity for few and hardship for many. We live in times where the wealthiest 5% of Americans control over 60% of the wealth in this country. We have a Black president in the White House and over 2.3 million people behind bars. Over 40% of Black youth are unemployed and the rights of women are being used as political bartering tools. Civil rights are once again undergoing a systemic dismantling process. This time Black folks are not the only targets; the poor, non-male, non-Christian and non-economically stable are firmly under the gun. Just last week the Texas House voted to require all eligible voters to have ID in order to vote. This measure may seem small, but it will impact low-income and voters of color severely. Masked in false claims of voter fraud, the Republicans are; as young organizer I know says, “creating wars on issues that don’t exist.”
These fairy tale narratives of voter fraud are much like those used against Black men and women post-reconstruction. Black men were depicted as hyper-sexual brutes preying on White women. Black women were once again being painted as harlots out to seduce otherwise well-behaved White men. Those perceptions were used to justifying the systemic stripping of rights, resources and humanity of people.
The gospel of prosperity for all if we work hard enough and make sacrifices is another fairy tale being sold to the middle class. What sacrifices are we asking to make while the countries largest corporation, General Electric, makes none? GE grossed $5.1 billion in US profits and paid not one cent in taxes. Something is wrong there.
To be blunt, the tactics of the political conservative are outright slick. They are launching an assault on the institutions and freedoms men and women fought for tirelessly through various social movements. It snuck up on some, but for those paying attention; it’s not a surprise. Democrats knew on November 4th 2008 that an assault was being readied. The voting machines weren’t even cooled before a plan was set in motion. We lost in 2010 and lost big. The Republicans now control the House and are working to pass legislation to demolish women’s reproductive rights instead of creating jobs for the nearly 14 million unemployed people in America.
The Memphis lynchings served as a catalyst for Ida B. Wells work as a lifelong activist and journalist. They sparked a fire that lead her to embark on an unprecedented and unmatched public education campaign to end terrorism against African Americans. Something close to home woke Wells up.
I believe many Americans are slowly waking up and realizing that the American Dream is an illusion, but we need more. The promises made by those who already attained material wealth are slowly revealing themselves as lies. Whether its the stripping of collective bargaining rights (unions) or the mass incarceration of Black and Latino people; American’s must awaken. Watching the revolutions of other countries and romanticizing over the change we want to make will get us nowhere. We have to decide what “change” and “progress” looks like and not just pay lip service. Not everyone will take to the streets, but everyone can do something.
If you are still sleeping, what would jostle you out of your sleep? What would it take to get you to act, to contribute? There is a lot at stake, my last question is, are you willing to wake up and see it?