The black community was forged in the crucible of slavery, but our modern political culture and identity were shaped in post-Civil War America on the anvil of Jim Crow. To understand the historical political development of the black community, you must recognize the only thing the defeat of the Confederacy changed for us was our legal status.
Though the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery throughout the United States, factors such as Black Codes, white supremacist violence, and selective enforcement of statutes continued to subject black Americans to involuntary labor and considerably less than the equal protection of the law.
As Carter G. Woodson succinctly put it, “The poverty which afflicted them for a generation after Emancipation held them down to the lowest order of society, nominally free, economically enslaved.” I would argue socially enslaved as well.
It is from this reality over the next 100 years that the modern black political identity was formed. The bonds of community formed to survive slavery would also be the bulwark of the black community’s defense in apartheid America. The response to living with nominal freedom in Jim Crow America also produced a different leadership model for the black community than the one that evolved in white America.
The American cultural ideal is the preeminence of the individual over the community. America raises reverence for the individual to a religion. The most dominant strain in American political theory is that the purpose of government is not to provide for the general welfare, but to remove any constraints on the individual, even at the expense of the common good. The 14th Amendment was drafted to insure newly emancipated blacks would be guaranteed equal protection of the law, but it has been used many more times to expand the legal rights of corporations and other commercial interests at the expense of the common good.
Despite the myth-making that passes for the teaching of American political history, the American political leadership class has always been singularly focused on supporting and sustaining economic privilege. White political leaders are generally creatures of personal ambition; the key to advancing their ambition is to be of service to the economic elites that dominate American life.
Because of how we were introduced into the North American narrative and the role we were assigned, we couldn’t and can’t assume that the way America works for white people is the way America works for us.
While white America’s model was based upon the atomized individual, the model for black America was communal. After the Civil War we were no longer chattel property, but what emancipation and slavery had in common is we were still black and oppressed. No amount of individual initiative or personal achievement could change what it meant to be black in America. As they used to say, “What do they call a brotha with a PhD in Mississippi (or, for that matter, Missouri)?”
The black leadership model was not driven by personal ambition (though these were talented, ambitious men and women), but by the need to change and uplift the condition of the entire black community. Black leadership understood that as long as we were oppressed as a group, the American notion of individual liberty was a fiction.
Even before emancipation, black leadership had a community-centric focus. Fredrick Douglass and Sojourner Truth escaped slavery, yet risked their lives and freedom in the struggle to abolish slavery. Black scholars like DuBois, Frazier, and Woodson, devoted their lives to the serious intellectual study of black life. The artist and writers of the Harlem Renaissance were singularly focused upon the legitimacy of a black aesthetic. The honor role of black patriots who pledged and risked their lives, their fortune and their scared honor on behalf of our struggle is too long to note.
While there were serious disagreements, even fissures, among black leadership on tactics and strategy, for 100 years there was never any argument about the mission. Even through the 1960s into the mid-1980s, the raison d’être of black leadership continued to be the protection and advancement of the black community.
It’s why in 2018 we still have this instinct, that we as a community can get behind a common agenda to advance our collective interests. But something has changed. The questions are: What? And why?
To be continued ....
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 weeklies by the Missouri Press Association.