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Racial Justice and Political Activism

...the insistence of Black Lives Matter on the value of all black lives, especially the most marginalized and oppressed, is nothing less than a challenge to all of us to rethink, reimagine, and reconstruct the entire society we live in. And what a daunting and beautiful challenge that is.

“Although few know it, the anniversary of one of the world['s] great human rights milestones occur[ed]…on March 1, 1780, [when] the government of Pennsylvania became the first in the world to pass a law against slavery, affirming that no child born after that date could be permanently enslaved.


The legislative authority of the people of Pennsylvania, a sovereign state before the creation of the U.S. Constitution, struck down [the] institution...The American Revolution...provided the impetus for America’s first antislavery movement. The tension generated by demanding liberty yet tolerating human bondage provoked an avalanche of words…The successes of these measures removed the incubus of slavery from Northerners and left white Southerners with a “peculiar institution”…Reintegrating the South into the Union [after the Civil War] came at the cost of any serious study of its peculiar institution. 

When historians in recent years turned their attention to the North’s experiment with abolition, the virulence of anti-black hostility and the gradualness of the process of emancipation loomed larger than the legislative measures themselves. 

When all of us finally agree that citizenship should have not have a color, we’ll be ready to commemorate March 1, 1780.


-Joyce Appleby

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“Founded in 1854, the Republican Party promoted African-American equality for its first two decades. Abraham Lincoln and the "Radical Republicans" in Congress fought to end slavery and to give black men full citizenship.

But as early as 1876…GOP leaders began to abandon black Americans. In that year's presidential election, Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South in exchange for southern Democratic support. Democrats seized power in the South and ushered in legalized segregation.

As African-Americans fled the South to northern cities, the Democrats' political machines eagerly absorbed the newcomers. Republican machines, by contrast, reacted coolly when black leaders sought to join
their ranks.

The black shift to the Democratic Party crystallized under President Franklin Roosevelt. Though FDR won just 23 percent of the black vote in 1932, he subsequently expanded that support with his relief policies. The Depression affected black Americans disproportionately, and programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration gave them much-needed aid.

By the 1950s, the Republicans' "party of Lincoln" moniker was all but meaningless. The GOP's leader, President Dwight Eisenhower, had testified before Congress against integrating the military and belittled the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools.”


David Greenberg

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“Perhaps the most troubling unattained goal of the civil rights movement is ending police brutality and use of deadly force. The desire to be free from disproportionate police violence is as old as the civil rights movement itself. It has been a core part of the agenda of rights groups and leaders from the NAACP to Black Lives Matter.


…The U.S. government took little interest in protecting African-Americans until the Civil War. In Reconstruction-era legislation, Congress planted the seeds of federal protection that would lie dormant for decades until the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration determined to cultivate them after all…Yet police brutality persisted, sparking riots in desperately impoverished communities throughout the 1970s and 1980s.”

-Sarah Brady Siff
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“The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s dismantled some of the more egregious laws that sanctioned racial violence, discrimination, and segregation, especially with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), as well as the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).


Yet, many attitudes and customs remain unchanged.


The assumption of black criminality is a common thread connecting [Emmett] Till’s death and the acquittal of his murderers with so many other unprosecuted and unpunished killings of African Americans by whites both yesterday and today.”

-Hasan Kwame Jeffries
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“Although not the only white terrorist organization—there are an estimated 917 hate groups currently active in the U.S.—the Ku Klux Klan holds an iconic place in America. The Klan, formed immediately after the Civil War, began as a means to undermine former slaves’ freedom through acts of racial terror and intimidation. It declined during the late 19th century, but its ideas lingered on in the Jim Crow system of discrimination. The modern Klan re-emerged in 1915 at Stone Mountain, GA and grew into a national organization in the 1920s. During the Civil Rights Movement, the Klan bombed activists’ homes and churches and murdered those sympathetic to civil rights. Klan activity waned in the 1970s but the events in Charlottesville remind us that they have not gone away.”

-Jessica Viñas-Nelson
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"In 2013, three female Black organizers — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — created a Black-centered political will and movement building project called Black Lives Matter.  Black Lives Matter began with a social media hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin back in 2012.  The movement grew nationally in 2014 after the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York.  Since then it has established itself as a worldwide movement, particularly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, MN.”

-Howard University Law Library
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“the DOJ found that the circumstances surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, who in April 2015 was chased by officers and suffered a severe spinal injury while in police custody, were among the routine practices of Baltimore police. Gray’s death sparked days of protests. None of the six officers involved were held criminally responsible for his death, which was ruled a homicide. But the incident also led to the broader federal investigation into the police department’s practices.


Baltimore had adopted so-called “Broken Windows” policing — the idea that focusing on low-level offenses prevents or reduces crime. But in practice, the theory has most often led to harassment of minority residents, in particular African-Americans, and done little to reduce overall crime. In Baltimore, the rate of violent crime has remained relatively higher than most other large cities.”


-Sarah Childress
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"Despite the fact that [Bayard] Rustin was one of the main organizers responsible for the most important protest in American history, he was wary of the tendency for protest to become “an end in itself and not a means toward social change.” In a 1979 interview, Rustin said, “Protest is no substitute for the ballot box, which we have now.” While many view protesting as an indispensable form of political engagement, Rustin often counterposed the two: “What began as a protest movement,” he said in reference to the fight for civil rights, “is being challenged to translate itself into a political movement"…When social movements succeed in gaining power, they’re often forced to forge coalitions, strike deals, and appeal to larger constituencies. When they lack power, they’re more vulnerable to the corruptions of groupthink, ideological zealotry, and utopian thinking.”

-Matt Johnson

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Want more?

Picturing Black History
(Photographs and Stories that Changed The World)

OSU Origins and Getty Images

Black Lives Matter: From Hashtag to Movement

Anti-Defamation League

Black Lives Matter at School

National Education Association

A History of Black Rebellion in America

Kimberly Atkins Stohr, On Point 
(PBS, Boston University, WBUR)

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