Really Becoming America

Feb 25, 2022 | Features

The tumult of the past several years is about really becoming America. It is about the struggle to create America in the image of all its citizens, one that is inclusive and guarantees equal rights for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religious belief.

Photo credit: Clay Banks, via Unsplash

By North Carolina Black Alliance staff

A NATION ON THE VERGE OF BECOMING

Increased attacks on voting rights, ramped up gerrymandering, the January 6th insurrection, and the endless stream of videos of unarmed Black and Brown men and women killed in unjustified police shootings make us question who and what America is.

A common sentiment is that these assaults are merely an unmasking of the systemic racism and oppression that has always existed beneath our nation’s surface.

The North Carolina Black Alliance views these upheavals not simply as the unmasking of the real America, but as yet another cycle in the struggle that has existed since the genesis of the movement for Black freedom and equality. It is the struggle to determine whether our nation will be one that is inclusive with the same rights applied to all its people, or one that is exclusionary with a privileged group having all the rights, and others tiered below.

This battle to determine our nation’s character is evident in that historically every advance that African Americans have made in the fight towards full and equal representation in the land of our birth, has been followed by a well-orchestrated and virulent rebuke of that advance.

Mural by Shepard Fairey on the Colby Abbot Building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo credit: Tom Barrett, via Unsplash

 

The current Congress’ failure to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (JLVRAA) and the Freedom to Vote Act (FVA) is the latest iteration in that struggle.

The JLVRAA would undo the gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that occurred under the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Decision. That decision removed key voting rights protections applied to seven southern states with a history of voting rights discrimination. 

As a result of the Shelby Decision, according to And Still I Vote, “As of July 22, 2021, state lawmakers have introduced more than 400 bills and enacted 30 laws that create barriers to voters’ freedom to vote in 48 states.”

Members of Advance North Carolina “We Count, We Vote” 2020 GOTV initiative w/ Executive Director Marcus Bass Center

The Freedom to Vote Act would legislate even further voting rights protections. It would: make Election Day a national holiday; allow all states to have early voting for two weeks before Election Day, including nights and weekends; allow ‘No Excuses needed’ voting by mail, and same day voter registration; and outlaw partisan gerrymandering.

A VICIOUS CYCLE

The protections afforded by both measures are what one would expect in a democracy. Failure to pass them reinforces the belief that our nation will never advance beyond its legacy of slavery, inequity, and discrimination. The cumulative weight of these obstructions is disheartening, but the North Carolina Black Alliance is mindful of the fact that the wave of white nationalism sweeping the country, and the efforts to dismantle voting rights, like previous discriminatory measures, can, and will be, defeated. 

March on Washington, August 28, 1963, Photo credit: Library of Congress, via Unsplash

For before the current proposed voting rights legislations and the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act there was the 15th Amendment of 1870 that gave African American men the right to vote—though very few were able to exercise it given the racism of the times—and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that prohibited discrimination in public places. (Women did not yet have the vote.)

These laws—passed during a brief period (1865-1877) following slavery when African Americans were afforded some measure of protection under federal law—were soon subject to a forceful pushback. For just as African Americans began to make inroads
into American society a wave of Jim Crow laws swept the country, with the rapid implementation of practices designed to intimidate and prevent them from exercising their rights as citizens.

Laws like the October 1883 U.S. Supreme Court ruling decreed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, while 1896’s Plessy versus Ferguson established the practice of ‘Separate but Equal.”

Photo Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Civil Rights Activists at the March on Washington, August, 1963, Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

These Jim Crow-isms would continue their surge well into the 1960s and the birth of the Civil Rights movement. And with their growth, so too did the Civil Rights Movement become more vocal, and its use of mass protest more visible. (Jim Crow was a racial slur applied to Blacks and its laws segregated Blacks from Whites. The Jim Crow period lasted from 1877-1968.)

CIVIL RIGHTS & THE 1960s

The Sixties produced landmark civil rights legislation—namely the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968—but it is also responsible for mass agitation on a scale previously unseen, and some of the bloodiest moments in America. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers in 1963; the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young African American girls; the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in New York; and the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, some two months apart, mark this period.

March on Washington view from Lincoln Memorial to Washington Monument, Photo credit: Unseen Histories, via Unsplash

The CRA outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; the VRA expanded the voting rights protections of the 15th Amendment and prohibited racially discriminatory voting practices like the poll tax and literacy tests; and the FHA made it “unlawful to refuse to sell, rent, or negotiate with any person because of that person’s background.” 

These acts opened the doors of equality, but their passage was preceded by massive nonviolent social protest, including marches, sit-ins, and boycotts. The protests were in turn met by violent Jim Crow terror tactics bent on subjugating African Americans.

MASS AGITATION AND RESULTS

What has linked every civil right gain through the years, and enabled us to overcome racist practices and discrimination, has been strategic, organized movement led by African Americans and formed through collaborations of community activists, interdenominational faith leaders, and ordinary Americans of every race and background. This extends from the early Civil Rights Movement with Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and the Abolitionists, to Dr. King, Fannie Lou Hamer, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

BLACK LIVES MATTER

Photo Credit: Colin Lloyd, via Unsplash

The most recent example of this is in the impact of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement on building global awareness of police brutality against Black and Brown people and the disparate treatment accorded White Americans and People of Color. 

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rashard Brooks, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Jordan Edwards, Botham Jean, Adam Toledo, Daunte Wright. 

These names form a tapestry of death and would register as anonymous individuals had it not been for the Black Lives Matter Movement creating massive social protests demanding police accountability.  

BLM engaged individuals of all races, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds. As television had broadcast the attack dogs, fire hoses, and baton wielding police to the world during the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties, so BLM used social media and images from cell phone videos and police cams to highlight the reality of Black lives.

Photo credit: BP Miller, via Unsplash

The result? More police officers have been held accountable for the shooting and killing of unarmed individuals of color

THE NORTH CAROLINA BLACK ALLIANCE

The North Carolina Black Alliance is grounded in this history. We recognize that the cycle of progress and regress has been here for as long as the fight for African American equality has existed. We know, too, that the barriers to justice can be overcome with the strategic organization of resources, partnerships, and community.  

North Carolina Black Alliance member speaks with future activists at Protect Our Vote Rally

Our Alliance was formed 22 years ago by a coalition of Black state legislators, county commissioners, school board members, and municipal elected officials working to address inequity and injustice and empower communities of color. Our mission is to create systemic change by strengthening the network of elected officials representing communities of color throughout the state and collaborating with progressive, grassroot networks on intersecting issues. These issues include voting rights, gerrymandering, criminal justice reform, environmental justice, health and wellness, economic development, and education. 

Led by Executive Director Courtney Crowder, NCBA exists to combat systemic violence against communities of color, whether that violence takes the form of police brutality, the suppression of voting rights, or the disproportionate location of environmentally hazardous facilities in low-income areas and communities of color. Advance North Carolina, led by Executive Director Marcus Bass, is our voter education and mobilization arm.

OUR PRIORITIES RIGHT NOW

COVID-19 – A PERFECT STORM OF OPPRESSION

COVID-19 laid bare the deep inequities in our nation. Early on the pandemic revealed the glaring disparities in healthcare, education, wages, and access to technology. Black and Brown people got sicker and died at higher rates than our White neighbors. More children of color lacked access to the internet, high speed connections, and other educational supports; and individuals of color were over-represented in high-exposure service industry jobs, more prone to getting ill, and more likely to suffer income and employment losses. It is what we refer to as a perfect storm of oppression.  

Gen Z: Young Advance North Carolina members staying safe with COVID-19 masks while getting our the vote in 2020.

Since March 2020, NCBA has taken proactive steps to educate our community about vaccine safety, testing locations, and overall safety measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

COVID-19 has shown that we cannot afford any more losses of our political power. In real world terms, lack of representation leaves us defenseless, making us the last to get access to vaccinations, proper healthcare, sufficient doctors, and hospital beds.

RACIAL GERRYMANDERING AND THE ELIMINATION OF BLACK DISTRICTS

Earlier this month, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the latest congressional maps unconstitutional. The ruling required the state legislature to redraw and submit new maps by February 18th, 2022. NCBA has been active in calling for a redrawing and will continue to work with our partners to ensure that the final maps are truly representative of North Carolina’s Black and Brown communities.

Analysis has shown that the maps were racially gerrymandered to eliminate retiring Rep. G.K. Butterfield’s district and dilute the voting power of North Carolina’s Black and Brown communities. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, using the discredited map Republicans could have captured 11 of the 14 existing seats, leaving Democrats with only three. Republicans currently have 8 seats to Democrats 5.

A January 2022 report by the Center, titled Redistricting: A Mid-Cycle Assessment, found that “The map, moreover, achieves its partisan skew with a shocking targeting of Black political power, making the seat of one of the two Black members of the state’s congressional delegation much less likely to elect a minority-preferred candidate. As a result, a state that is one-fifth Black could have only a single Black member of the U.S. House come next January.”

Young members of North Carolina Black Alliance and Advance North Carolina getting out the vote in 2020.

With the approaching mid-term election the stakes are extraordinarily high. An additional congressional district would create an opportunity to expand representation and combat the increasing threat posed by a Republican party that is ultra-conservative, racially motivated and committed to manipulating voting maps to obstruct the electoral power of a growing Black and Brown populous.

THE URGENCY OF THIS MOMENT

NCBA recognizes the urgent need in this moment to prevent the dismantling of Representative Butterfield’s district and protect Black and Brown political power. 

We have answered this challenge. Through our Code Red Redistricting program, in addition to voter education, we are employing our resources to attack this threat from multiple angles, including providing our communities with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for voting, encouraging absentee balloting, and assisting students at North Carolina’s ten Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to register and vote. 

INJUSTICE IN OUR WATER

Environmental Justice is a priority issue for NCBA and earlier this month, joining with five other organizations, we resumed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requiring that more testing be done on the health effects of PFAs (Per -and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) that have been dumped in the Cape Fear River for decades. The river provides drinking water to the homes of two hundred fifty thousand North Carolinians, many of them Black, Brown, and low-income, and there is concern about how they may have been affected. Environmental justice is fundamental to good health, the ability to work, and the capacity to learn and grow. Despite this we know that often our communities are exhausted from fighting too many battles individually. The cumulative weight of oppression is one of its most effective tools for preventing change. NCBA understands this. And it is why we know that the collective strength of our collaborations is where our community’s power lies. Working together with our partner networks we will continue the fight to protect our community and ensure it has clean water. 

2018 NC Black Summit. Left to right: Senator Natalie Murdock, NC District 20; L.T. McCrimmon, Director of Legislative Affairs, NC Office of the Governor; Marcus Bass, Executive Director, Advance North Carolina; Courtney Crowder, Executive Director, North Carolina Black Alliance; and Justin Clayton, Vice President of External Affairs at UnitedHealth Group

NCBA is on the ground in our communities 365 days a year. We know how they are being impacted. It is because of this that we utilize policy and activism to ensure the protection of fundamental rights, but we also help individuals access resources through our network of attorneys, elected officials, and community and faith leaders.

‘OTHERING’ – ‘AND AIN’T I AMERICAN?’

 “The concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, African American
voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”

 — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)


Alleged lapses in speech and other attempts at ‘othering’ African Americans cannot separate us from our citizenship. Stigmatizing Mexican immigrants as rapists and Black and Brown skin as innately threatening does not erase the history of our contribution to building this country. Our blood, sweat and tears have been laid in the foundation of this nation. It traverses its railroads, highways, and interstates. Our labor created the industries that power this land. It is the price we have paid for full citizenship and inclusion

A WIN FOR ONE, A WIN FOR ALL

Far right: La’Meshia “LA” Whittington-Kaminski, Deputy Director of Programs for Advance Carolina and the Campaigns Director for the North Carolina Black Alliance with young activists

The advancement of equality and justice for Black and Brown people is not a zero-sum game. When communities of color advance, it does not mean that someone else loses. Throughout the history of the Civil Rights movement, legislation that has strengthened equal rights and fought discrimination in education, housing, employment, criminal justice, and healthcare, has benefitted all Americans. 

Many of the issues confronting African Americans and other People of Color are economic and affect low-income White Americans as well. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to this commonality of interest shortly before his death during his planning for the Poor People’s Campaign. During sessions with the SCLC, he spoke of “the beginning of a new cooperation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” 

The efforts aimed at cementing racial animus and furthering divisions among Black, Brown, and White Americans are calculated to prevent the recognition of our common interests and the collective power that could result from joining forces. 

It is why the North Carolina Black Alliance remains committed to doing the work necessary to move our community and our nation forward. The tumult of the past several years is about really becoming America. It is about the struggle to create America in the image of all its citizens, one that is inclusive, and guarantees equal rights for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religious belief.

To volunteer or get involved with NCBA, email: info@ncblackalliance.org or call: 919-891-9788.  North Carolina Black Alliance is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Click on the following links to learn more about the North Carolina Black Alliance and Advance North Carolina

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