As we stop to note the passing of Frankie Muse Freeman and honor an incredible life that was extraordinarily well lived, we must pay specific homage to her service to the country on behalf of our community. The historical record will forever link her name with the 36th POTUS, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson appointed Freeman to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1964, the first woman ever appointed to the commission.
LBJ changed the structural nature of American society and, with it, the course of American history. We’re all aware that he passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but the world took little note and no one has remembered his other prophetic accomplishment of that year, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act.
The reason we will have the opportunity to deliver a mortal blow to structural white privilege in November is the convergence of the historical arc of these two monumental legislative achievements.
The Voting Rights Act gave black Americans, with the support of the federal government, full and complete access to the American political system for the first time in history. This led to a sea change in the American political landscape. Though there had never been a black mayor of a major American city, in 1968 Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio and Richard Hatcher was elected mayor of Gary, Indiana. In 1965, there were six black members in the U.S. House of Representatives; currently, there are over 50.
Johnson unleashed an even more powerful change agent with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The act abolished the quota system based on national origins that had been the foundation of American immigration policy since the 1920s. American immigration policy had favored northern Europeans and discriminated against the rest of the world, often actively barring people of color. Hart-Celler would significantly, and unintentionally, alter the demographic mix of the United States.
In 1960 there were 179 million people in America; 88.6 percent were white, 10.5 percent were black, and there were not enough other people to bother categorizing. In 2016, the Census Bureau estimated there were 323 million Americans, with 61 percent white, 18 percent Latino, 13 percent black and 6 percent Asian. By 2040 it’s projected that America will be a majority minority country.
But elections are not about residents of the country, but citizens who are eligible to vote. In 2016 the Census Bureau estimated there were 243 million voting-age citizens, and 66 million were citizens of color. Consider what the numbers tell you about the future. Of the 177 million voting-age white citizens, 102 million are over 45. Of the 66 million voting-age citizens of color, 38 million are under 45. One-third third of all the voters in the United States under 45 are people of color.
In the 2008 election of Barak Obama, white America was looking at previews of coming attractions. If you are a white male supremacist or just someone who wants to continue to enjoy the privileges that come from being white in America, it’s game over. This is all you need to know to understand the virulent, racist reaction that produced the Trump presidency and the rock-solid political support he has from the “Make America White Again” Republican Party.
If you are a white American, you have been able to believe two contradictory propositions were compatible: liberal democracy and white male privilege. In fact, the entire American project was founded on this contradiction. Beginning with the November 2018 midterm elections, white Americans will have to choose between democracy or white privilege; they can no longer have both.
So if you really want to honor the life and memory of Frankie Muse Freeman, you can no longer be missing in action in the public life of your community. In the future, defining battles to come, you must be metaphorically armed, dangerous and accounted for. Frankie Freeman is now with the ancestors, but who is to say that you were not sent to this kingdom for a time such as this.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weekly by the Missouri Press Association.