Entry 5

Civil Disobedience in the Movement for Human Equality

When we are first faced with a social movement, our initial judgements are primarily surface level. Are they ethical? Are their claims legitimate? Are they making their claims in a way that is legitimate? This last question is of key importance (Ingram). Social movements such as the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and Black Lives Matter gain their momentum and power through the consent of those around them – similar to that of a government. But their success or failure is dependent on how society accepts their beliefs, and their expression of these beliefs.

The abolition movement “disobeyed” civil society in their harsh contradiction to cultural norms. Seeing black men dressed in proper attire, writing a narrative or sitting for a portrait was extremely controversial. A major hurdle these abolitionists faced was changing people’s innate perspective toward people of color. Challenging pro-slavery persons’ core morals and virtues was no small task. But those who supported the movement felt that the government had exercised power beyond its own right, forcing those of color into servitude. The Christina Riot in Christina, Pennsylvania was just one of the many displays of civil disobedience in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Blacks from all over the town came to protect a vigilance group which was housing six escaped slaves. The slaves’ former owner attempted to retrieve his slaves, but ended up being killed in the riot. The vigilance group felt that the government had stepped beyond the normal level of democracy in legalizing slave owners to recapture their escaped slaves across state lines, so they disobeyed. Protecting the fugitive slaves and rallying support among the local community, the vigilance group made a broader message.

No period in United States history is better characterized by civil disobedience than the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 70s. Sit-ins, boycotts, freedom rides, marches, school attendance, and speeches characterized the Civil Rights movement and pushed the norms of contemporary culture until they aligned with those of the movement. By peacefully protesting discriminatory laws such as required segregated seating on busses or exclusively white universities, Civil Rights activists displayed the ludicracy of the laws themselves. In the case of Rosa Parks, why should an elderly woman have to give up her seat just because she is a person of color? After years and years of abuse, activists took constructive action and raised awareness and attention through acts of civil disobedience. Once attention was drawn, they worked through their organizations and coalitions to propose new legislature, and identify those laws that should be abolished. A major change that occurred during the Civil Rights movement was the change in how people of color viewed being arrested. Before, getting arrested by the police was your worst nightmare. But displays of civil disobedience, peacefully protesting unjust laws, would often end in the arrests of countless persons of color. People started viewing arrest as noble and just, a political prisoner rather than a criminal.

Civil disobedience in the modern era rarely goes unnoticed. Media outlets such as local news channels and civilian’s social media networks ensures that even the smallest of demonstrations make national headlines. In just the past five years there have been countless protests, marches, petitions, and sit-ins demanding attention to the radical inequality between whites and people of color and their treatment by police. A strength of BLM is its emphasis on peaceful and non-violent forms of civil disobedience. A majority of their message is based on the unjust murders of black people who were committing no crime and would not have been killed if not for the color of their skin. Peaceful marches through metropolitan areas, petitions to strike down laws, and protests of court rulings are just a few of BLM’s main forms of civil disobedience.  Just like the Civil Rights movement, BLM activists have suffered a long train of racial inequality and mistreatment and are demanding a change.

The challenge of BLM is that much of their message cannot be redressed through formal means. Yes, the officers who have killed innocent people of color can be convicted and sentenced, but there is no law you can write or bureau you can create that will erase or override the inherent racial bias that has been instilled over decades. Starting back to the drafting of the constitution, persons of color were seen as just three fifths of a person, and today they are seen as dangerous criminals.

Civil disobedience has been used in social settings since the beginning of our nation, and it will continue to be a tool of social movements for decades to come. The challenge now, is the more abstract targets of protest. Early versions of the movement for Human Equality were protesting and disobeying specific laws and organizations, a clear and definitive “them” that could be redressed through tangible means. Today, BLM faces an unprecedented challenge in their civil disobedience – how do you disobey someone’s bias? How can you create an atmosphere in which people from all walks of life will recognize all the ways that our society has failed such a large portion of our beautifully diverse population?


Word Count: 885

Entry 4

Media in Social Movements

Woven through each of these three movements is the use of media. Written accounts, images, videos, movies, uniting their followers and stirring controversy among their opponents.

Gordon,_scourged_back,_NPG,_1863The abolitionist movement was at a severe disadvantage as far as the use of media compared to the Civil Rights movement and Black Lives matter; their methods were stunted by the lack of technology and infrastructure. Information was slow to spread geographically, and often was akin to a game of telephone – the message being diluted with each person it passed through. Two important examples of media during the abolitionist movement are slave narrative autobiographies and the image of Slave Gordon’s scars. Slave narratives, which were written by slaves or dictated to other authors, depicted the horrors of the slaves’ treatment during their capture, voyage, servitude, and eventual escape, whether legally or illegally, from their masters. Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth are three of the most well-known narratives. These narratives were often exaggerated and are not always viewed as unbiased sources. From this disparagement, we turn to the image “The Scourged Back.” Published in the review of “Deliver Us From Evil,” the image is one of the earliest examples of photography used as propaganda in a social movement. It was once said that “This Card Photograph should be multiplied 100,000 and scattered all over the states. It tells the story in a way that even Mrs. Stowe cannot approach, because it tells the story to the eye” (Gage, 2009).

MV5BMTY0ODIxMjc3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDI3NTU4MDE@._V1_During the Reconstruction era, there was a transition from viewing people of color as slaves, to viewing them as dangerous fugitives – as criminals. This was the time the 13th Amendment loophole first started to be used to arrest African Americans in mass and subject them to prison labor to rebuild the economy. The nation’s first blockbuster film, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, portrayed the first narrative of the “menacing negro.” Depicting scenes where white women commit suicide instead of being raped by black men, black men as the sole source of labor for the economy, and romantic depictions of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK). The effect of this film can still be seen today in the association between the KKK and the burning of crosses, a cinematic image introduced by Griffith and subsequently adopted by the KKK after the film’s success. The film’s depiction of fear between colors of peoples brought about another wave of terrorism by the KKK.

Black-lynching.pngJust as the words of slave narratives and the image of Slave Gordon shocked the nation, photographs of lynching soon rippled across the country. The abolitionist era had ended and society’s view of persons of color shifted from slaves to criminals. The Birth of a Nation rekindled support of the KKK and further emphasized this view of African-Americans. The KKK spread the idea that the integration of both races, of racial equality, would degrade the integrity of both races. People of color fled from the south to cities such as Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Oakland as refugees from Southern aggression.

Untitled pictureThe ultimate use of media in the Civil Rights movement is one of its initial organizing moments: the murder of Emmitt Till. The fourteen-year-old Chicago boy was kidnapped and brutally murdered by two white supremacists for allegedly speaking to one of the assailant’s wife. Till’s mother made the bold decision of having an open casket funeral, allowing other African-Americans to view first-hand the brutality of racism. National press, civil rights activists, and political leaders from across the country attended Emmitt’s funeral attracting widespread attention in the media. After the two assailants were acquitted of the murder, the images of Till’s wake gave marginal victims a face which civil rights activists could fight for.

willie_hortonFollowing the Civil Rights movement, the War on Drugs during the Nixon and Reagan eras differentiated racism into the criminalization of blacks. This was displayed in the media through a campaign commercial put out in 1988 by George H. W. Bush. In criticizing his opponent’s stance on crime, Bush chose the image of a black male, Willie Horton. Horton was convicted of murdering a seventeen-year-old boy and was serving a life sentence. During this time, he was granted a “weekend pass” where he could renter society for a few days. During one of these weekends, Horton kidnapped a couple, tortured and beat the fiancé of the woman who he raped. The campaign chose to showcase Horton in a commercial, displaying his mug shot and playing on the cultural fears of black crime and violence. It instilled fear in voters across the nation and caused Bush to close his losing gap against his opponent, and eventually win the presidency.


The use of media is no more apparent than in Black Lives Matter (BLM). Technological advancements over the past few decades have allowed BLM to spread information at an historically unparalleled speed. News of police brutality, unjust killings, court sentencings (or lack thereof), and memorial services across the country are available within seconds. The murders of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, and Philando Castile and the arrest of Eric Garner all caught on video and circulated within seconds. Activists around the world couldn’t sit quietly in the wake of these events, leading to the creation of #BlackLivesMatter. The speed at which and distance that information can travel works in favor of BLM. Supporters can draw immediate attention to the grievances they are occuring and can directly address their opposition. The online presence of BLM also allows participants to conserve their original message. Social Media and online forums allow the preservation of the author’s original meaning. At the same time, people are united by a sense of community through the Internet.

The importance of media in social movements has grown exponentially during the past two centuries. From autobiographies and portraits, to Facebook live-streams and chat rooms. Media is used to create, curate, and spread the ideas of social movements across the country to create widespread support and unrest among social activists. The medium of technology which social movements utilize changes depending on the current social climate and level of technology. Most importantly, visual media is used in social movements to gain support by confirming one’s experience such that a basic humanity can be recognized. Only once a grievance or injustice is recognized can it be amended.

Word Count: 1064

Entry 3

Repertoires of Contention

The movements we see and study over the course of history don’t happen by chance or accident. They are often a result of mobilized networks of people rallied through large-scale coordination, acting on political opportunities and in response to political threats. The members of the abolitionist movement of the early 1800s used repertoires of contention much different than those used in Black Lives Matter or the Civil Rights movement. This disparity between methodology is due to the evolution of society’s public culture over decades of time. The same methods that were affective in gaining attention in 1806, could be considered wholly outdated today, just as the creation of hashtags and online chatrooms is completely irrelevant to the advancement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The forms of contention are a result of the current culture, and are given meaning by those acting upon them.

Social movements gain their momentum from the interactions and social structures of their members. Relationships and networks among early abolitionists and freed slaves transformed into an emerging social movement, sustained by the growing popularity of anti-slave ideals. A century and a half later, the Civil Rights movement utilized formal networks to mobilize through the appropriation of institutions such as the NAACP and black churches. Their movement was sustained by the support of these formal organizations. Current allies of Black Lives Matter have redefined traditional networks and the mobilizing of resources by incorporating social networks online and replacing physical face-to-face meetings with online chatrooms, video calls, and live streams. It is the activity and life within each of these groups over time which “transform the potential for action into social movements” (Tarrow, 2011, 30).

These networks and organizations share a concentric focus based on the defining of “us” and “them.” But distinguishing between the two has grown increasingly vague over time. Abolitionists were able to identify a clear divide, those who were for slavery and those who were not. Being able to clearly define enemies and allies created a clear-cut movement, allowing participants to construct contention with the other side. Likewise, the distinction between “us” and “them” was easy to identify during the Civil Rights movement. Jim Crowe laws explicitly placed “us” and “them” in different seats on busses, schools, and bathrooms. But this distinction has become fairly blurred in Black Lives Matter. Explicit segregation has ceased to exist, but a new, more hidden, way of discriminating has seeped through the cracks. Protestors from all walks of life and colors of skin stand together in their search for Human Equality. While “us” is easily identifiable, people of minority race and/or ethnicity, “them” has become an unnamable enemy defined by its contentious against “us.” Black Lives Matter has used this as a strength to allow all different types of people to find their own footing in the movement. The projected images of enemies and allies have begun to mean just as much as their ideological messages. Media has played a pivotal role in the spread and rooting of BLM across the country in its ability to write the news to which society must respond.

But none of these repertoires of contention could be carried out if not for the appropriate political and social climate. Leaders of movements over time had to be attune to the timing of political opportunities and threats to spread their message and further their movement in the most effective way. These political opportunities, as defined by Sidney Tarrow, are consistent sets of clues that encourage people to engage in contentious politics. Abolitionists found these opportunities in the case of Dredd Scott or the images of Slave Gordon. Strategically using the publicity and timing of such events to gain support and to challenge “them.” Civil Rights movement activists found similar opportunities in expression through art, strikes, sit-ins, and marches. Although seemingly morbid, Black Lives Matter activists find opportunity in the unjust deaths of people of color. With each murder, activists rally around the victims’ friends and family in opposition to the authority or law under which the death occurred. Deaths of colored people across the nation provide “legitimate occasions for public gatherings” which are close to immune of authoritative control due to their goal: mourning (Tarrow, Modular, 45). Each of these waves of the movement for human equality occurred in response to what Tarrow defines as political threats, those factors that discourage contention (Tarrow, Contentious Politics, 33). Laws such as the 13th Amendment Loophole, Jim Crowe, Three Strikes You’re Out, and Stand Your Ground all serve as mufflers to the voices of the oppressed. The correct timing of the intersection of these political threats and opportunities are what create an effective and historic social movement.

Traditionally, repertoire was parochial, segmented, and particular. These characteristics best describe the abolitionist movements. Public forms of display such as tarring and feathering, burning buildings and effigies, and terrorizing authorities would not be effective, or legal, today. Each of these tactics, among many more, were used in the early 1800s to propagate the abolitionist movement. Their parochial methods were usually culturally and locally specific. Burning the houses of specific people such as slave owners and anti-abolitionists. They were segmented because they involved local interest objects and involved direct action with their local patron or authority. Abolitionists turned to their state and local governments and town hall meetings to start their movement from the ground up. Further, they were particular. Abolitionists had different repertoires of contention than did other movements of the time. These repertoires spoke to the needs of the local slaves and varied between localities depending on that locality’s culture and composition.

Over time, these repertoires began to change and evolve, as well as the movement itself. Demonstrations, strikes, rallies, and public meetings began to dominate social movement expression. These new forms are characterized as cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous. Methods used in the Civil Rights movement and Black Lives matter are best described by these new repertoires of contention. Forms of expression were cosmopolitan, attending to large-scale issues rather than specific localities. They argue against a broader sense of power and demand a larger redress of grievances. This characteristic lends itself to their ability to be modular. Their message and methods were easily transferred and applied to varying situations and circumstances. Marches on Washington for gender or racial equality could easily be duplicated in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, or Baton Rouge. Most importantly, these new forms were autonomous, resulting from the activists’ direct actions and establishing direct contact between the “us” and “them.” By specifically addressing the sources of power such as the government, movement activists are able to convey a clear and specific message.


Word Count: 1106



Entry 2

Social Movement Politics of Human Equality

Social movements are defined as a collective challenge, based on common purposes and solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authority (Ingram; Tarrow, 2011, pg 4). At first, this collective challenge was made up of slaves and those members of the country who believed servitude was wrong. Although not precisely defined by membership to a group or state, their similarity in beliefs is what defines them as a group. The Civil Rights Movement was more defined in this manner, being organized by coalitions such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), Black Panther Party, Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR), and Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) to name a few. Today’s movement, Black Lives Matter (BLM), has moved away from formal organizational styles with defined leaders and prescribed  locations. Its distributed leadership model allows for an organic structure able to withstand political, economic, and social pressures without its dissolution. Its members are brought together not only through face-to-face contact, but also through media.

The social movement that began in the early 1800s in support of the abolishment of slavery never truly ended. Their goal was to abolish slavery on the basis that all men were created equal, and thus could not be subject to servitude based on the color of their skin (Oldfield, 2006). The 1960s Civil Rights Movement served as an evolution of the original movement for equality in overturning Jim Crowe Laws and providing equal opportunity for Voting and access to public accommodations regardless of race or ethnicity. This search for human equality is still prevalent in society today. Black Lives Matter is another version of the same movement which has challenged American society since its drafting in 1789. The common purpose shared by all three of these movements is what organizes each movement, defining a common enemy to forge lasting coalitions (Ingram; McFarland, 1998, pg 11).

A sense of action and mutual support was fostered in each of these three movements, supporting the idea of solidarity to unify members. Those who opposed slavery felt a connection to each other and stood together in their beliefs. The founding members of each of the countless coalitions formed during the Civil Rights Movement formalized this imagined connection into something more tangible and official to solidify their solidarity. The connection between members of BLM has been facilitated in ways historically unprecedented using social media. These perceived connections once again become more concrete with friend requests, follows, and retweets.

Each of these waves of the movement for human equality is best characterized by their sustained interactions. Had members only rioted, marched, or rallied just once, the change they wished to see would never take form. Their repeated repertoires of contention are what ignited change in American society and defined them as a social movement – calling for widespread response (Tarrow, 2011, pg 3).


The collective action embodied by this ever-evolving social movement can be analyzed using a variety of elements of classical social movement theory. 

Collective behavior theorists focus on the “grievances responsible for mobilization” such as servitude itself, lynching, segregation, assassinations, biased sentencing, and more. These theorists would categorize the movement for human equality as an exception to normal political processes. Society contains many dysfunctions, each producing different forms of collective behavior. Some of these dysfunctions gain enough steam to form political movements and interest groups such as the NAACP and SNCC in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 70s (Tarrow, 2011, pg 22-23). But this model of social movements didn’t pay enough attention to the mobilization process how exactly these interest groups formed and how they formed a political purpose, causing a new theory to emerge.

The resource mobilization theory shifted attention toward the leadership and organization of social movements. This theory is especially important to the Civil Rights wave of the movement for Human Equality. Leaders of groups such as the Black Panther Party convinced its opponents, white supremacists and supporters of segregation, by attracting the largest amount of people behind their cause. Desegregation, equal employment opportunities, voting rights, and marriage equality all served as “selective incentives” to motivate and move the Black Panther Party’s base toward change. These theorists placed emphasis on means of movement and formal organization. The prevalence of coalitions and community action groups during the 1960s and 70s serve as perfect examples of resource mobilization. But resource mobilization theorists focused so heavily on organization, that they discounted the importance of the grievances identified in the collective behavior model.

From this, cultures of contention and collective identity best explained the prevalence of social movements in American culture. This theory claims that a movement must construct an identity around which its members can rally. The movement’s identity must understand the current political, social, and economic culture and how people use this culture to form a shared identity of common beliefs and values (Ingram). That “people do not revolt in mechanical response to grievances, but only when such grievances are empowered by a sense of injustice” (Tarrow, 2011, 25). This is clearly demonstrated in Black Lives Matter. While the deaths of countless unarmed persons of color at the hands of police is appalling, the people of BLM revolt in response to the inability of the American justice system to properly prosecute those who are at fault. The acquittal of countless of murderers create “emotion-laden ‘packages’” which convince participants that their cause is just and important (Tarrow, 2011, 26). The power which is being contested is defined through the study of the resistance itself. But again, this theory failed to answer one key question: “Why do waves of social movements occur in some periods but not others?”

To answer this pivotal question, the political process model was adopted. Political opportunities and constraints that structure contentious politics come into focus when analyzing social movements. The analysis of Essay 1 follows the political process model – studying social movements in connection with politics. Each social movement, or wave thereof, will vary in its “strategy, structure, and success” due to the current political culture. Legislation, politics, representatives, or politicians must provide an opportunity or threat to challengers, and facilitation or repression by authority. In the case of the abolition of slavery, the provision to maintain the slave trade until 1808 provided a form of repression against the movement towards liberation. Jim Crowe laws facilitated the cultural norms surrounding segregation and racism. Today, laws such as Florida’s Stand Your Ground and the recurring inability of the courts to serve justice threatens people of color across the nation. Over time, political structures such as the legislation behind each movement provided greater/lesser degrees of opportunity to those behind the movement for Human Equality. This theory is most interesting to apply to social movements in that it defines a fluid, organic relationship between contentious actors, all determined by an innumerable number of convening variables.


Word Count: 1157

Entry 1

Legal Basis of the Abolishment of Slavery, Civil Rights Movement, and Black Lives Matter

Civil equality movements throughout our nation’s history have one thing in common – they all protest a government which derives its power from documents written on ideals of John Locke. Documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and eventually, the United States Constitution are the pillars of our government and mirror ideas set forth by Locke. But a major discrepancy between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is what protagonists of these movements have cited throughout their call for equality, specifically among races.

The Declaration of Independence was written in protest of British rule over the American colonies. Its famous words outline a laundry list of unalienable rights and introduce a fluid relationship between state and federal government, and the people which they govern. One of the Declaration’s biggest strengths is also biggest weakness: vague and ambiguous language. The revolutionaries who drafted this document embraced this ambiguity. Scholars and activists now use the ambiguous language in the movement for racial equality, as in the document’s most important and commonly cited passage:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (US, 1776, pg 1)

This assertion is critical to the abolition of slavery, Civil Rights Movement, and Black Lives Matter movement . The right to life implies the ability to live a full life and to die on your own terms. Self-determination implies the right to liberty, of being free within a society from restrictions on your way of life – the freedom to choose. This choice is how we exercise our right to the pursuit of happiness. We, as individuals, have the right to choose our own path and seek out that which provides us happiness. But best of all, these inalienable rights are protected by a government whose power derives from the men whom it protects. This symbiotic relationship between the governed and the government is what allows for protests and social movements. A relationship that is so heavily dependent requires that when one is dissatisfied with the other, a compromise or change must be made.

The problem is that these rights were guaranteed to “all men” in the Declaration of Independence, but not in the original United States Constitution. The Constitution itself discounts the rights of certain persons – slaves were counted as three fifths of persons, fugitive slaves were considered property and had to be returned to their masters. The Constitution even went as far as to protect the slave trade for a minimum of 20 years, effectively instituting government mandated indentured servitude. These passages were upheld in countless Supreme Court cases, denying slaves the right to a fair trial (Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 1842), and even their right to citizenship and futher branding them as property (Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1856).

When these disregards for humanity were finally addressed, the legislators created one of the most glaring legal loopholes in American history:

“Article XII:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime thereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United states, Or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” (U.S. Const. Art./Amend. XII)

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution made it unconstitutional to be held as a slave, except as punishment for a crime – effectively allowing slavery to continue to exist in American society through the mass incarceration of African-Americans. As the Southern economy collapsed from the abolition of slavery, African-Americans were arrested in mass for petty crimes such as vagrancy and loitering. Once these legally freed slaves were criminalized, they were subject to slave labor – being forced to rebuild the Southern economy after the Civil War. Societies began to form one of the most influential misconceptions to date: black criminality. People started to believe the notion that the “negro” was out of control, and that they provided a threat to the white population – only to be solved through arrest and detainment.

Between 1882 and 1951 there were an estimated 3,437 lynchings of African-Americans alone (Brower, 1999). African-Americans fled from the South to areas such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, and Los Angeles not out of the hope of economic prosperity, but as refugees from an increasingly divided and violent South. Events such as the Colfax Massacre and the murder of Emmett Till acted as galvanizing moments that organized and inspired civil rights activists across the country.

As public violence and open aggression against African-Americans became socially unacceptable, society opted for a more palatable form of discrimination: segregation. Jim Crow laws legalized racial discrimination and allowed for the relegation of African-Americans as second-class citizens. For years, African-Americans struggled to be seen as full human beings with desires, wishes, and rights. Acts of civil disobedience as peaceful tactics of the Civil Rights Movements allowed blacks who were arrested to be considered noble political prisoners rather than criminals. The Civil Rights Movement culminated with the signing of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, providing what seemed to be the possibility of equality among races.

Unfortunately, this equality has still not been fully realized. Legislation introduced following the Civil Rights Movement has continued to treat African-Americans as criminals, as threats to the law and order of society. The 1970s Nixon Era introduced the “War on Drugs” and recruited southern whites to the republican party while doubling federal spending on law enforcement. Nixon began to associate the increase in crime levels with the actions of the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, Nixon unleashed a “total war” through the criminalization of drugs. Nixon subtly associated the African-American population with drug addiction, drug dependency, and drug-related crime. African-Americans were arrested in mass across the country for minor drug possession – allowing more blacks to be portrayed as criminal and threatening.

“Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities… We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

-John Ehrlichman, Nixon Advisor (Baum, 2016)

Nixon used his Southern Strategy after the Civil Rights Movement, playing on Americans’ fear of crime and the rouse of law and order to win the election. Soon after, Reagan mobilized this effort by taking the focus away from the criminality of drugs and directing it toward education behind drug abuse and dependency – a focus on the younger generation. As the country suffered massive economic contraction, the income gap began to expand and Crack Cocaine was introduced in the mid 1980s.

Reagan introduced mandatory sentencing penalties which were far harsher for crack than for powdered cocaine. Crack, being much cheaper and sold in smaller doses, was a more inter-city issue than cocaine which was more prevalent in the suburbs. This legislation has since been criticized by its original supporters including former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich who has admitted that the Reagan administration should have treated the two (powder and crack cocaine) equally, and that the disparity caused an enormous burden on the black community which “fundamentally violated a sense of core fairness” (Mondello, 2016).  Reagan’s Southern Strategy promised tax cuts to the rich and to throw crack users in jail – devastating communities of color, yet effective in getting the southern vote.

“In other words, you start out… Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say nigger, that hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced-bussing, state’s rights, and all that stuff. And, you’re getting so abstract now. You’re talking about cutting taxes and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and the by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites”

-Lee Atwater, Reagan’s campaign strategist, on the Southern Strategy (Perlstein, 2012)

By the late 1980s and early 1990s Democrats realized they had to be hard on crime to win elections – enter Bill Clinton. During his tenure as President, Clinton introduced legislative ideas that disproportionally hurt African-Americans such as truth in sentencing and three strikes you’re out. Clinton’s support of mandatory minimums took discretion away from judges and gave it to prosecutors, thus overwhelming the judicial system with criminal cases. This system overload lead to the dramatic increase in plea bargains, sending people to jail simply because they didn’t have the means to fund a jury trial or were too scared of the mandatory minimum sentence. 97% of those who are incarcerated are a product of a plea bargain (Goode, 2012). Truth in Sentencing required those convicted of a crime to serve at least 85% of your sentence – so all those locked up for minor possession of crack were incarcerated for unfair amounts of time. This law also did away with parole, crowding the prison system and preventing inmates from proving their worth in society. Clinton has now admitted that many of his actions made the problems worse: three strikes and longer sentencing lead to the use of political force, forcing people who would not otherwise be in prison into prison, breaking apart families and leaving children without their parents. This shows up disproportionally in communities of color where law enforcement was more active and overwhelmingly biased.

More recent events like the murder of Treyvon Martin was ruled as self-defense under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law –essentially legalizing murder if the defendant claims they felt “threatened.” But these feelings of threat and danger are so deeply rooted in our society and legitimized through our legal, criminal, and social proceedings.

The black community is unable to defend themselves from the repercussions of these legislative actions. Previous administrations have stripped the community of a whole generation of leadership by tearing families apart. Civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis have been killed or forced to flee to other countries. The black community had been rendered void of any and all resources to stand up for themselves, to fight back.

From this we find the beauty of today’s Black Lives Matter movement. With no clear leader, a distributed leadership model, its force is unstoppable. No one person can be killed, arrested, or exiled to end the movement. Its mission is the same as all those movements before it, because it is a permutation of the same movement that led to the Thirteenth Amendment. The participants of Black Lives Matter aim to re-humanize black as a person, and society as a people.

I could go on forever, but instead, I’ll leave you with the words of United States Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ):

“If you look at the whole problem you say, what are we doing? We have too many laws, locking too many people up for too many things, giving them sentences that are too harsh, putting them in prison, and while they’re in prison, doing very little of anything to rehabilitate them so they can re-enter civil society when they get out. And then when they get out, we shun them.”


Word Count: 1566


Works Cited

Baum, D. (2016, April). Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs. Retrieved from Harper’s Magazine: http://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/

Brower, S. (1999, January 29). Lynching Statistics. Retrieved from Classroom: The Charles Chesnutt Digtial Archive: http://www.chesnuttarchive.org/classroom/lynchingstat.html

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (U.S. Supreme Court 1856).

Goode, E. (2012, March 22). Stronger Hand for Judges in the ‘Bazaar’ of Plea Deals. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/23/us/stronger-hand-for-judges-after-rulings-on-plea-deals.html

Mondello, B. (2016, October 8). A Man And An Amendment Are Re-Examined In ‘Birth Of A Nation’ And ’13th’. Retrieved from 91.9 KVCR News: http://kvcrnews.org/post/man-and-amendment-are-re-examined-birth-nation-and-13th#stream/0

Perlstein, R. (2012, November 13). Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy. Retrieved from The Nation: https://www.thenation.com/article/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy/

Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (U.S. Supreme Court 1842).

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