The Global African: Selma, Jim Crow, and Urban Development

In this episode of Telesur’s The Global African, host Bill Fletcher, Jr. discusses the racism in the U.S. since 1965 and the real motivation behind the designation of Venezuela as a national security threat to the United States

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BILL FLETCHER: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about the legacy of the Selma marches 50 years ago, the United States designating Venezuela a national security threat, and the relationship between capitalism and racism in creating a modern-day housing market.

That’s today on The Global African. And I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us. And don’t go anywhere.

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FLETCHER: On March 7, 2015, the city of Selma, Alabama, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the renowned Selma marches that fought for voting rights in a state that had systematically disenfranchised African Americans. The commemoration included civil rights activists involved in the ’65 march, like current representative John Lewis, Andrew Young, and Amelia Boynton Robinson. President Barack Obama was also in attendance, giving a speech and marching alongside tens of thousands of people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The original Selma march had consisted of three marches that covered 54 miles from the city of Selma to the Alabama capital of Montgomery. Nonviolent protesters were met with tear gas and police batons in a bloody showdown that would later be referred to as Bloody Sunday. Led by local activists, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the march was instrumental in getting the Voting Rights Act passed, dramatically increasing the number of African Americans registered to vote. Fifty years later, however, the Voting Rights Act has been under attack, as 395 voting restrictions have been introduced in 49 states just in the last four years. And in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court undermined the Voting Rights Act by gutting a key provision that would substantially protect voting.

And what about the town of Selma? In the county that Selma finds itself in, 40 percent of families and 67 percent of children currently live below the poverty line, with much of the impoverishment concentrated among African Americans.

Within sight of the commemoration, a billboard was erected that paid homage to Nathaniel [Nathan] Bedford Forest, Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan.

How much progress have we really made in the United States since the Selma march 50 years ago? How do we fight the same forces today that have historically suppressed black political participation?

Joining us for our panel are Dr. Julianne Malveaux and Dr. Raymond Winbush.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a labor economist, noted author, and president emeritus of Bennett College for Women. Currently Dr. Malveaux serves on the boards of the Economic Policy Institute, as well as the Recreation Wish List Committee of Washington, D.C.

Also joining us: Dr. Raymond Winbush is the director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the former Benjamin Hooks Professor of Social Justice at Fisk University and director of the university’s Race Relations Institute.

Thank you for joining us.

DR. JULIANNE MALVEAUX: [crosstalk]

DR. RAYMOND WINBUSH: Good to be here, Bill.

FLETCHER: So we have a lot to cover. I want to start with Selma and the commemorative events. What was the significance of the Selma commemorations? I mean, I hate to editorialize, but I’ve just been feeling–we [were] talking some about this before the show started–that over the last several years, the social justice movements have spent an immense amount of time commemorating and very little time looking forward.

WINBUSH: Yeah. Well, you know, we’ve seen a bunch of 50s, as I called them, in the past few years–the March on Washington, Selma, of course, Birmingham. I think commemoration is fine, but I think part of commemoration is that you’ve got to look forward, you’ve got to say, as we were talking about, and–and I think the and part is missing right now. I don’t think a lot of people–it’s almost like a feel-good moment. I was in Selma this past weekend, and I felt good, probably about some of the things that others didn’t feel good about, but primarily the young people. And they’re there, the young people that I saw there, many of them part of the Ferguson movement, they’re talking about the future. The older folk were talking about the past.

MALVEAUX: [incompr.] the twenty–2000–whatever, 2015, 2014 anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, etc., we’re going to see these commemorations. But, for example, the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, are we really commemorating what happened when the Supreme Court knocked a huge piece of it out? And as you’re sitting at Selma, Selma essentially moved us to voting and to a number of other things. And yet again, the president mentioned it in passing, but it should have been mentioned a lot more.

Bill, the thing that concerns me the most is the commercialization and the expropriation of these civil rights holidays. And so they become a see and be seen, you know, who’s there, who’s in the front and who’s in the back. You know, you notice Reverend Sharpton in the front, who was not at Selma; Reverend Jackson, somewhere where you couldn’t see him on television, who was at Selma. You know what I mean? So what–what’s that about? So you really had–to me, a lot of it was very self-serving. Some of the other things that happened, Kim Crenshaw and her group did some things around women in the movement, which I think was very important. We don’t ever see–although you have the Diane Nashes another people, you don’t ever see a conversation about women. And so I think that was important as well.

But, finally, you look at President Obama’s speech, and it was one of the better speeches that he’s given on race. But did we really break the aristocracy? I mean, did we really, as he said in the clip?

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BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline but endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.

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MALVEAUX: You know, when we have a 1 percent, when the Constitution excluded people of African descent and, quite frankly, in the beginning, women as voters, when you see these concentrations of wealth, it’s very myopic to suggest that we broke some aristocracy.

FLETCHER: We’ve had the film Selma, and now we’ve had the commemorations. I’m just curious how the two of you look at both of those and the relative significance of the film, the political messages, and also the ultimate political message of the commemorations.

WINBUSH: Wow. Well, you know, film to me is always–should be like a Cliff’s notes to whatever the event was. I mean, you know, I mean, I saw the film, and I don’t want to give a critique of it, but there were parts of it that were very good.

I think–you know, I don’t know what this whole phrase “humanizing Dr. King” is all about. I think a lot of my students at Morgan were–they didn’t know some of this stuff. And so that was a good introduction to it, some of whom–of my students went down to Selma for the commemoration. I mean, I think that these moments, the film, they should be, as we said earlier, moments to say, now what do we do next? And if the film did that and if this commemoration did that, then they were–they’re–it’s good. If it doesn’t do that, it’s just–you know, it’s a lost moment.

FLETCHER: Before we go into the issue of Venezuela, I mean, I–just listening to the two of you, this issue of humanizing Dr. King, I’ll tell you how I interpret it and one of the things that I thought was powerful about the film and I wish we would see more is precisely the fact that King was a human being and not–and not a saint, not a demigod, and that what has happened all too often is that our leaders are elevated to this other plain, where, in effect, the message, the subtle message is you can never be like them.

WINBUSH: That’s right.

FLETCHER: Right?

And so what I liked about the film was in large part that, and that there was a sense of a social movement.

But there was this other piece that I appreciated, which was that when you looked at the pictures of the march in the beginning, it wasn’t like the entire black community was there. And it reminds you that social movements don’t just start off, like, a million people, but that they have to–

MALVEAUX: Be built.

FLETCHER: –be built, right?

WINBUSH: That’s right.

FLETCHER: And so I appreciated that the film. And I wasn’t at the Selma commemorations, but I would have hoped that that theme of social movements would have been emphasized.

MALVEAUX: And that’s why the young peoples’ response to Ferguson is important. They don’t have a Martin Luther King. They don’t have a Malcolm X. They’ve been rotating the leadership, up to a point, so that no one can go after a Bill Fletcher and say, well, this is what’s wrong with you. And you’ve seen them go after young people and say, well, they have an arrest record (we know how easy it is to get one of those) or, you know, they dropped out of college or something like that. They don’t mind it if it’s Scott Walker. But if it’s a young black person, then suddenly this is a, you know, ding on their character. But by moving the leadership around, essentially it moves the criticism around. So I love what they’re doing.

FLETCHER: Yeah, absolutely.

I’m your host, Bill Fletcher, and we’ll be back in a moment.

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FLETCHER: Much has been made of Jim Crow and the racism that dominated national and state policy through much of the 20th century with respect to housing. However, what about the ways in which race and class intersect to enshrine white supremacy at the expense of poor whites, as well as African Americans? And what about a corrupt black leadership class that is oftentimes complicit in this system?

A new book entitled A World More Concrete examines these fundamental issues. I sat down with the author, Professor N. D. B. Connolly. Here’s the first part of that discussion.

We joined with Professor N. D. B. Connolly, who is an assistant professor of history and a codirector of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the recent book A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, published by the University of Chicago Press. And it’s the issues contained in that book that we’re going to be discussion discussing today.

Thank you very much for joining us.

N. D. B. CONNOLLY: Thanks.

FLETCHER: Miami, South Florida. First of all, why did you pick that? I mean, of the different places, what was it that caught your attention?

CONNOLLY: South Florida was a place that I knew well as a child growing up and disliked greatly. I had gone away to the Midwest for graduate school, Chicago and then in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And the things that I didn’t like about it as an adolescent became extraordinarily interesting to me as a researcher as I got older.

So when I went away to do work in graduate study and was looking for a project to be a doctoral student, it became clear that I wanted to talk about suburban sprawl, I wanted to talk about Caribbean immigration, and I wanted to talk about a place that felt like it was not quite America, whatever that meant.

FLETCHER: Just let’s take a piece of that. The 1940s Miami, the early 2000s Miami– what were the differences, for people that are more familiar with the contemporary Miami? It sounds like the mid 1940s was dramatically different.

CONNOLLY: In some ways it was different, and in some ways it was actually quite familiar and similar.

To understand Miami in the ’40s, you have to appreciate that it’s a space that is still very Caribbean. It has a large West Indian population, a large population of Spanish-speaking migrants, many of whom are business people coming in from Cuba and the Dominican Republic and elsewhere. The Miami Chamber of Commerce through the 1940s is very clear about marketing itself as a destination for travelers from Latin America and the wider hemisphere. And so you have people who are coming and spending their money in Miami and trying to find ways to enjoy the environment, enjoy kind of American cuisine, enjoy American culture, but also folks from the North who are migrating into Miami during the ’40s to enjoy what they perceive to be as a kind of stepping stone into Caribbean. So it’s already a crossroads of the Americas at that point in time.

There is, however, formal Jim Crow. You have colored-only water fountains, whites-only bus depots and the like. And so what happens in the ’40s is you have to find ways to allow this very diverse population to be organized along the principles of Jim Crow. You actually had, for instance, Spanish-language segregation signs saying that, you know, whites only here, but in Spanish. You had publications in black school newspapers or black yearbooks that were written in three languages because the black population in Miami, even though it’s under Jim Crow, was extraordinarily diverse.

FLETCHER: What was the attitude of the black business community in Miami in the Jim Crow era? And to what extent did it challenge segregation? To what extent did it collaborate in it?

CONNOLLY: What I do in the book is try to track the origins of black politics to the importance of property rights. The U.S. Constitution does not actually protect people’s civil rights, particularly in the late 19th century. That’s why you needed the Civil Rights Act, right, 1964. It doesn’t protect voting rights. Voting is given as a negative right in the Constitution, not as a positive right, right, which leads to all kinds of loopholes [crosstalk]

FLETCHER: Explain what that means.

CONNOLLY: Meaning that the Constitution says that the states cannot take away the right to vote, but it doesn’t give you the right to vote as a positive right. The Constitution does not say anywhere that all American citizens have the right to vote. It only says that states shall not abridge or Congress shall not abridge the right of people to vote. And so, because there’s no positive right there, all these other mechanisms for disenfranchisement are then possible.

So in that kind of a regime, in that moment, property rights, which are very firmly protected, are the kind of bedrock of black citizenship. And the ways in which African Americans and West Indians are understanding that possibility is by first, basically, acquiring a piece of land, and in many cases acquiring a gun, right, protecting your stake in the territory with some way of defending yourself. And so you begin to see, from the late 19th century well into the 1960s and ’70s, a consistent political tradition within black circles where property owners are presumed to be those who are going to speak for the race. They actually use physical documents as proof of their property ownership in compromises in conflicts with whites. And you have a need to kind of highlight the payment of property taxes as being an entitlement or proof of your entitlement to other kinds of citizenship or amenities.

Like, I’ll give you one example. In the mid 1940s, a collection of African Americans in South Florida got together and decided that it was time to finally end the segregation of the beaches in Miami. Segregation really meant total exclusion from the coastline in the Atlantic–no swimming at all was allowed for African Americans through most of the early 20th century. You had a collection of activists–labor organizers, longshoremen, NAACP attorneys, and the like–who go to Baker’s Haulover beach in South Florida, and they get into the water as a way of inciting a conflict with white law enforcement and white city planners.

Now, when they get in the water and they proceed to have what’s called a wade-in, essentially, they make the argument that they don’t want to integrate the white beach, necessarily. What they want is a formal designation for a colored-only beach. And in making the argument, they produce from their pockets property tax receipts that show that they in fact have already paid into the community chest that is paying for all the beaches in South Florida. So where’s their beach?

So as a result of this compromise, white fathers decide, city fathers decide that they’re going to create the only colored-only beach in South Florida, a place called Virginia Key Beach. They provide a security card to keep whites off of the black beach. It’s called, you know, colored-only, with a sign. And it creates the first kind of tourist infrastructure for black Miami in the better part part of 50 years there, ’cause, again, in the late 19th century, there was very little regulation on this.

The point is that the ability of these black property owners to elevate themselves politically and prove that they, by virtue of being taxpayers, had a certain kind of entitlement then opened up the space for all African Americans to basically benefit from. They make the same argument about black police force. They eventually make the same argument in the mid 1960s when formal desegregation becomes the politic of the day, and they say, now we want to segregation at all, here come the property tax receipts yet again, and they prove that they are entitled to these kinds of benefits.

The converse of that is important to keep in mind, which is that when you have property owners serving as the spokespeople of Afro-America or the Negro community as such, it becomes very difficult for working-class and grassroots kind of political organizing to ever really see the light of day. These same people who are advocating for the creation of a black-only infrastructure–Negro days on the golf course or black seating in the stadiums–are also the folks who are landlords in South Florida and actually marginalizing black renters from organizing into tenants unions or having stronger regulation protecting them from shoddy construction and such. And so there’s actually a kind of coalition that develops between black landlords and white landlords in order to keep their profit margins as high as possible and keep working class black people from being organized.

FLETCHER: Professor Connolly, we’ll have you back for a strategy discussion. Thank you very much.

CONNOLLY: Thank you.

FLETCHER: Very much.

And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher.

And stick with us. We’ll be back in a moment.

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FLETCHER: It’s no secret that the United States and Venezuela are not friends. The United States has long opposed Venezuela and its social and political agenda, particularly since the election of the late Hugo Chávez in 1998.

In 2002, the United States helped organize a coup that ousted President Chávez for a mere 47 hours before he was put back in power by loyal supporters of his.

Questions abound regarding the real motivation in designating Venezuela a threat to national security. The United States cites potential human rights violations in Venezuela, yet has no problem dealing with regimes that commit serious human rights violations, such as Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Colombia, and Israel. Is the move rooted in a concern for justice? Or is it yet another in a long string of cynical attempts by the United States to undermine the Venezuelan government?

I’m not sure I could say I was shocked, but I was certainly pissed when I’m going online and all of a sudden, by accident, I stumble across this story that says that the Obama administration decided to declare Venezuela a threat to national security. And–and I’m saying to myself, wait a minute, let me get this right. Venezuela’s right next door to Columbia that has death squads, there’s racial and ethnic cleansing going on on a regular basis, you have these narcotics gangs, and Venezuela’s accused of being a threat to national security. I mean, what’s up?

WINBUSH: Well, part of it is President Maduro, he peeped the United States on their attempt–or I should say support–of a coup against his government. The Venezuelan nationals that were found in New York clearly were plotting to overthrow the current government. They got peeped. And so if you look at that list of–what was it?–five or six that they’ve got, one of them is the woman who was prosecuting the head of this proposed coup. And so you’ve got–it’s almost like the United States got caught with its pants down. And so, as a result, it’s saying that, look, what we’re going to do now is declare this as a terrorist state to cover up what was really going on. And as you know, whenever the United States declares a country the way it did this past week, the next step is to put sanctions in place,–

FLETCHER: Right.

WINBUSH: –like they did with Iran. And you know. You know. But see,–

MALVEAUX: But, see, Venezuela is hardly Iran. And that’s–that’s really the issue is that–I mean, it’s a capricious move, as you say, to cover up, you know, involvement in an attempted coup.

WINBUSH: Absolutely.

MALVEAUX: And it’s also very deceptive, because on one hand you’re celebrating our supposed raising of sanctions in Cuba. On the other hand, one of Venezuela’s strongest allies is Cuba.

FLETCHER: That’s right.

MALVEAUX: So this is a backhanded slap against Cuba at the same time that we’re saying, oh, we want to do trade with Cuba.

Third thing, of course, is that when we’re looking at the possibility, you know, of economic sanctions, you’re really talking about starving the country. And if you talk about human rights violation, what’s the biggest violation? I mean, starvation is a human rights violation. And so it’s really an attempt by the United States to push Maduro out. And it’s unacceptable.

And I’m with you. I wasn’t surprised. I was disappointed, ’cause it just came out of nowhere and it doesn’t make any sense. And I was past pissed. You know, as you know, we went to Venezuela some years ago,–

FLETCHER: That’s right, 11 years ago.

MALVEAUX: –and we had the opportunity to meet with some government officials. And as we did that, you know, we saw the human side of Venezuela. We went and we saw the stores that Hugo Chávez had started which made food more accessible for people. We saw the schools. We saw the changing complexion of the university where people of African descent in Brazil had really been excluded from education.

The bottom line here is the middle class, the Venezuelan middle class, hated Chávez. They hate Maduro because they hate socialism, because they have to give something up in socialism.

The people essentially love it. If you did a class analysis, the people in the bottom at least, you know, three-fifths, and maybe the bottom four-fifths, would be very enthusiastic about what’s happened. Now the drop in oil prices has limited, you know, what can happen, but people will be very excited. At the same time, when you look at the middle class, you’ve–have a lot of unhappy people.

WINBUSH: I think the most important story about this whole Venezuelan thing has been buried in the news at so many levels. You should read–if you want to read something funny, read the transcript of the State Department’s press secretary about this whole thing. I mean, she was like–she actually said–and I gasped when I heard–she actually said that the United States has never been involved with the overthrow of a government. I mean, I said, I thought my television was on–.

MALVEAUX: How old was she? Eleven? I mean,–.

WINBUSH: And the reporter, to his credit, said, what? And she said, well, how far back are you going? And then she tried to go–they went back and forth. But it’s clear I think the big issue is the why now to me is saying, is basically saying, we do not want the American people to find out that we were going to help overthrow the government of Venezuela.

FLETCHER: Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Dr. Raymond Winbush, thank you both very much for joining us on The Global African.

WINBUSH: Thank you, Bill.

MALVEAUX: Yeah. Thank you. Keep up the good work.

FLETCHER: Thank you.

WINBUSH: Absolutely.

FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. We’ll see you next time. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher.

End

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