• Tamarah Webb

The Road to Change

Within this essay, I will move through time analyzing and connecting various climaxes in African American affairs. Starting in 1865 with a petition written by seven African Americans to President Andrew Johnson from Virginia during the Reconstruction period, to boycotting streetcars during the renegotiation of African American life in the New South 1904-05, then relating ideas of Maggie Walker as she voices her opinions about racial responsibility during 1906, and finally into the challenges of John Lewis against the Federal Government during the civil rights movement. 

During the Reconstruction period of 1865, seven African Americans in Richmond, Virginia brought attention to current struggles of colored people after generations of oppression. They had nowhere to go for protection and justice but to the power that gave them their freedom. However, the freedom they were granted drags with it disappointment due to present conditions, which in many respects is worse than when they were slaves and living under slave law.

Some would say colored people were similar to prisoners suddenly released after decades of imprisonment. They were crippled by an ignorance weaved into their community by those who wished to manipulate and maintain control over their lives. They had to learn how to make a living and establish themselves in a society that was supposed to see them as equal but instead thought they were primitive and in need of direction because they couldn’t do anything but what they were told. Citizens of color had to prove themselves worthy of rights and equality. They had to prove they were human beings capable of wisdom and understanding. They had to prove their humanity to people who had no God-given right to judge them. Which side is the Federal Government on?

Freedom was not given for their good, but to be a loophole for the government, allowing repression to prevail, camouflaged in the idea of the greater good being executed. Camouflaged in artificial tolerance. Forty years later, and Negro-Americans are fighting for health, upright judges, common education, and the inclusion of black boys in military and navy training schools (Refer: “The Niagara Med Pledge Themselves to Persistent Agitation, 1905” doc. 4 pp. 162). In 1904 colored people were still looking for amelioration for their condition.

In 1863 ex-slaves thought freedom would immediately accompany emancipation. They expected life to be different, but two years later, colored people still face many social injustices specifically with those who they should be able to depend on, the executors and maintainers of justice and law, the police. The freedom granted to citizens of color still gave White the upper hand. Nevertheless, African Americans in Richmond, Virginia were hopeful. They believed there would come a change to the current state of their affairs by way of the Commander in Chief, President Andrew Johnson.

Attacks on the colored persons’ day-to-day life by the Virginia Passenger and Power Co. or “Jim Crow” Street Car Company during 1904-05 activated new legislation that allowed transit companies to set aside and designate certain seats for members of either race. The authority to change the number of seats allocated to either race as the racial makeup of the streetcar changed was given to the conductor. This makeup would constantly change as the streetcar moved back and forth through the various sections of the city, thereby empowering the conductor to have a passenger change seats as often as he thought necessary. A history of mistrust and violence already existed between the Negro community and the streetcar conductors, especially after a near lynching in 1902. The newly granted police powers for the conductors did nothing to ease the minds of the African American community. (virginiamemory.com)

After four decades, Negro manhood and womanhood face further degradation. After a peaceful plea for equal treatment, they are excluded from free society and remain stripped of their respect as human beings. Combatting this oppression and injustice nonviolently showed the strength of streetcar boycotters in Richmond, Manchester, and Petersburg Virginia. “Show to this corporation that independence and liberty are sweet and the day of the time-server is past…. Walking is good now. Stay off the street-cars!” (Richmond Planet doc. 6 pp. 98)

John Mitchell, Jr. and Maggie Lena Walker advocated for a boycott of the streetcars in their respective newspapers, the Richmond Planet and the St. Luke Herald. Both urged African Americans to avoid streetcars and walk instead. John Mitchell, Jr., and the Richmond Planet addressed and attacked the ugly realities of race relations both regionally and nationally. Images of the Ku Klux Klan and public lynchings, scathing political cartoons, chilling lists of those killed by unruly mobs, and politically charged essays were the stuff that made up the contents of this weekly paper. It is the Project's intention that the exhibit on John Mitchell, Jr., and the Richmond Planet will encourage people to use newspapers as a primary source in researching cultural, political or social history, and to reintroduce people to the potential of newspapers as sources for scholarship. (lva.virginia.gov)

During 1960 Walker warns and brings to the attention of Negro men, the dangers of setting foot into "the Lion’s den" that is the white man’s prejudice. She speaks of building up the black community and doing so by staying away from white affiliations. STOP the white man who is not of your flesh and blood from growing stronger and stronger. Walker encourages Negro manhood to wake up, recognize and pay attention to who they are and where they come from. “…Listen to me, my friends, the only way we can kill the lion of race prejudice is to stop feeding him.” (Walker doc. 5 pp. 163)

This is a call to activation, a call to Negro men to pay patronage to Black liberation. Stop paying the white man and start Negro stores and banks. Not to wait for the Lion to snap its teeth and lock its jaws in denial of equal opportunities, iniquitous laws, peonage, and virtual slavery. Stand united against the curtailment of civil rights! Once you comprehend the threat an educated black man poses to the global system of white supremacy you can understand why the educational system as an institution is designed to suppress and even annihilate the mental elevation of the African American child.  

In 1963, at the age of 23, civil rights leader and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Chairman; John Robert Lewis challenged the Federal Government. It’s been almost 100 years since African Americans in Richmond, Virginia, sent a petition to President Andrew Johnson. Lewis brings a cry with force and foundation similar to Maggie Walker but with a political swing and uproar to crush the entire legacy of the Lion. Lewis pointers an ultimatum that some would say adheres to concepts of the “New Negro” and the Black image from Booker T. Washington to Alain Locke.

Turning away from the “Old Negro” and slavery, the term “New Negro” recreates the black race by renaming it the “New Negro.” The “New Negro” is a metaphor that combines a concern with time, antecedents, and heritage with a concern for a cleared space and the public face of the race. It asserts a self-willed beginning whose “success” depends fundamentally upon self-negation, a turning away from the “Old Negro,” and the labyrinthine memory of black enslavement toward the “New Negro”… an irresistible, spontaneously generated Black and sufficient self. It is a bold and audacious act of language, signifying the will to power, to dare to recreate a race by renaming it, despite the dubiousness of the venture. (nationalhumanitiescenter.org)

It seems Negro men took on the responsibility of race as Walker advocated 57 years prior. Lewis presents emphatically and continually against the curtailment of political rights for Negro manhood. Everywhere, American prejudice, often facilitated by iniquitous laws, made it more difficult for Negro-Americans to earn a decent living. Maggie Walker spoke on these same issues: “the destruction of all kinds of Negro enterprises” and “the loss of citizenship.”

Both she and Lewis declare the evolution of a new age. Some would say their words of activism declare: It’s time to rise; it’s time to walk the road of freedom. It’s time to throw off the yoke of oppression, break from the chains and regain control of our destinies. It’s time for a revolution! “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter…If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either,” (Langston Hughes: “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" 1926). 

A century-long span of time separates the period of Reconstruction to that of the Civil Rights Movement; and, through this time, “peace” is a recycled approach by African Americans. Police brutality, economic and social exploitations, cheap political leaders and immoral compromises live on, but so does the desire for peace. From petitions to the president, to peaceful protests, to promotions towards patronage of Black Towns and declaring a final ultimatum to the Federal Government to choose which side it’s on, the Negro voice has grown stronger. “…must seek more than civil rights…community of love, peace, and true brotherhood…freedom and justice exist for all the people” (Lewis doc. 6 pp. 291).

However, peace was opposite the recycled approach towards black citizens throughout American history. Some would agree, the only way to “fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy” (Lewis doc. 6) would be through adopting ideas of 1950s American civil rights leader Rob Franklin Williams. Williams is quoted in saying, “I advocated violent self-defense because I don’t really think you can have a defense against violent racists and against terrorists unless you are prepared to meet violence with violence, and my policy was to meet violence with violence.” (pbs.org)

It’s been 52 years since Lewis challenged the government and declared an end to “Jim Crow.” It’s been 150 years since African Americans wrote to President Andrew Johnson asking for protection and equality. Today, the United States has black enterprises, black billionaires, and a black president. America has achieved so much and continues to reach new heights. African Americans have earned respect and equality. African Americans have civil rights and can attend schools in any state. African Americans can publicly exude pride, marry or date whomever they want, and take legal action to receive justice. However, many would agree that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is when America takes a brief moment to pretend it truly cares about integration, nonviolence, and racial harmony. According to the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, between 2003 and 2009 black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than Whites. Within the last two years, the news has reported multiple killings of innocent African Americans by law enforcement. So, will America ever truly stop seeing in Black and White?

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