Luther Adams: W. E. B. Du Bois’ One Charge

Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970, by Luther AdamsWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Luther Adams, author of Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970. In the wake of World War II, when roughly half the black population left the South seeking greater opportunity and freedom in the North and West, the same desire often anchored African Americans to the South. Adams offers a powerful reinterpretation of the modern civil rights movement and of the transformations in black urban life within the contexts of migration, work, and urban renewal. While acknowledging the destructive downside of emerging post-industrialism for African Americans in the Jim Crow South, Adams concludes that persistent patterns of economic and racial inequality did not rob black people of their capacity to act in their own interests.

In a previous post, Adams considered how African Americans have claimed the South as Home, but on their own terms. In today’s post, Adams shares a speech he gave to the newly formed Black Student Union at the University of Washington Tacoma in which he explores the history of guns and gun violence and the effects of both on the African American community.

###

Upon his death, W. E. B. Du Bois left this final message to the world:

One thing alone I charge you. As you live believe in life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader and fuller life. The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the great end comes slowly, because time is long.

At the University of Washington Tacoma there is a group of dedicated students that revived the Black Student Union. Dismissive of postracialism, they remain convinced of the need for a black student organization. They organized out of a sense of need and desire for community and family on campus, but also to have fun while making a difference in the lives of people in their neighborhoods and communities. BSU students are parents, workers, veterans, and some of the first in their families to attend college. Wherever you encounter students like those in BSU: mentor them and nurture them. They are among a growing number of people, young and old, who are acting on the beliefs expressed in W. E. B. Du Bois’ final words.

In the Spring 2014 quarter, dismayed by the violence growing in the black communities they live in and care about, BSU organized an event on gun violence called “Stop the Chalk.”  They invited me to speak with them, and below is what I said, and what I wish I had said.  I don’t pretend that this is new information, but until we heed its call, it bears repeating. BSU students and those who attended said these words were helpful. Perhaps you and your students will find them helpful too. I have included a list of websites I wish I had given those in attendance—the numbers and statistics are important, but in the end it is not a question of numbers.

*

Today we live in a culture of death. In the United States and across the globe there is violence and war. Everywhere is war and the rumor of war. The rising black murder rate is not limited to Chicago; it is a national issue for anyone concerned about violence, and violence in black communities. The violence in cities like Chicago is not an anomaly—gun violence is everywhere. In the United States there are more than 300 million guns and just under 400 million people.

Over the last twenty years gun violence declined in the United States, but for blacks, whites, and Latinos aged 25–44, gun violence is growing. While suicide represents the greatest threat of death by gun for whites, African Americans are most likely to be murdered—by another black person. For African Americans gun violence sits at the center of a larger culture of death destroying the futures of many black people and families. For African Americans aged 18–44, death by gunshot has increased 31 percent. While many focus on black males, black women are also threatened by gun violence. This is not just a youth issue, as the average African American killed by a gun is 30.1 years. Moreover, guns do not just kill their human target, but the families and communities they inhabit. Gun violence is a plague.

In the past, African Americans advocated armed self defense to protect black lives and communities from racial violence—the foundation of white supremacy. In 1848 Henry Highland Garnett implored enslaved blacks to rebel, declaring, “Let resistance be your motto!” Urged on by Frederick Douglass and their own desire for freedom, more than 200,000 blacks—mostly self-emancipated slaves—took up arms to destroy slavery during the Civil War. In the era of emancipation, blacks heeded the words of writers like Ida B. Wells, W.E. B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X, who advocated for guns as a necessary tool to preserve black life in the face of lynching, police brutality, race riots, and Jim Crow segregation. But today blacks’ primary use of guns is to promote U.S. interests in the military and against other black people—not to protect black life from white supremacists.

“Black-on-black crime” is not real. It only exists to suggest being black is the true crime, and to deflect attention away from the fact of ongoing inequality. What many have termed “black-on-black crime” tells us more about white supremacy, and the devaluation of black life, than it does about crime. Connecting crime and blackness is central to racial control, as is the link between guns and white supremacy. The true crime is that black lives have less value to society and even to other black people.

Richard Pryor’s quiet exposé of a gun(shop) is required viewing for anyone seeking to understand guns and violence. It’s deep, and powerful too.

When a black person kills another black person, two lives are lost. One life is lost to the grave, the other—once convicted—is lost to prison.  Guns are big business, to gun manufactures, gun dealers like Walmart, trade shows and the convention centers that house them, no less than those who lobby politicians on their behalf. If guns are big business, so are prisons. In Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis advocates for the abolition of prisons, showing that not only are prisons antidemocratic, they also generate enormous profits while driving down wages for workers forced to compete with cheaper prison labor. People held prisoner cannot vote, although they offer an added bonus to the white communities that often house them, producing jobs and increasing political power. These communities benefit by gaining additional representation in Congress, as largely urban poor people of color—and likely Democratic voters—are siphoned away to prison.

Once “free” from prison, they enter the system of racial control Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow. Housing, jobs, access to educational loans, and social services are all truncated as people are transformed into “felons.” In Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida more than 20 percent of blacks are deprived of the right to vote. Meanwhile, voter suppression laws and attacks on the Voting Rights Act in the courts threaten the right of people of color, the elderly, and the poor to cast a ballot. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Reykia Boyd, and Renisha McBride confirm that black life is not valued and leave many of us shaken. Even within African American communities there is the strong sense that women’s lives matter less than men’s lives, that the violence women face within their own homes is not as important—or a part of—the violence raging within and against black communities. Today poverty, substandard housing and schools, joblessness, violence, single-female-headed households, and mass incarceration are seen as signs of something wrong with black people rather than something wrong with America. It is clear that without justice there can be no peace.

As Stevie Wonder sang long ago, “Love is in need of love today.”

August Wilson, an African American playwright whose ten-play cycle documents 100 years of black life, addressed these concerns and the importance of life in his powerful and searing account of black urban life in the late twentieth century, King Hedley II. Wilson’s play reminds us that while “man can plant a seed, only God can make it grow,” and that if we are living then we should be growing. Life must be tended to grow. A freedom movement based on life demands we think of families and children, reproduction, health, safety, clean water, food, clothing, shelter, and justice. It also demands that we respect life and value the earth. It means that as individuals, families, communities, and nations we commit ourselves to the difficult task of ending violence—beginning in our own homes. Valuing life requires imagination and action animated by a belief in possibility.

Through BSU, students act on the belief that the world can be made anew.

*

More Information

On guns and gun control:

“Gun Control Facts,” by James D. Agresti and Reid K. Smith at Just Facts

On the numbers of guns in the United states:

“The Real Weapons of Mass Destruction: America’s 300 Million Guns,” by Tim Arnold at The Huffington Post

On the overall declining rate of gun violence:

“Americans Unaware of Drop in Gun Violence,” by Pew Research Center

On prison-based disfranchisement:

“The Census Count and Prisoners: The Problem, the Solutions and What the Census Can Do,” by Ben Peck at Dēmos

On felony disfranchisement:

“U.S. Felony Disfranchisement Laws by State,” by The Sentencing Project

On Stand Your Ground Laws:

“Does Strengthening Self-Defense Law Deter Crime or Escalate Violence? Evidence from Expansions to Castle Doctrine,” by Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoesktra at Journal of Human Resources.

On the need to engender our understanding of racial violence:

“In Plain Sight: Towards Engendering the Fight for Racial Justice in the 21st Century,” an event hosted by the African American Policy Forum

*

Luther Adams is associate professor of history at the University of Washington Tacoma. His book, Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970, is now available in paperback.