Community & Government

Violence, Change and The Law

Sherrilyn Ifill explains how Black Americans’ civil rights were curtailed through white supremacists’ reactions to the 14th Amendment. The Civil Rights Acts unraveled gains made during Reconstruction, and Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South.

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Topics include: Abandoning The 14th Amendment's Pledge • Jim Crow: An Era of Apartheid • Violence, Then Progress

Seven preeminent Black thought leaders share their insight on the reckoning with race in America in three parts: past, present, and future.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] INSTRUCTOR: If you look at the Reconstruction period and the years immediately following it, Black people were very clear about what they wanted. They believed the words of the 14th Amendment, that it was possible to create true citizenship for themselves, and to position then their children and their children's children to be full citizens in this country. Now, remember, an enormous period of violence occurs during this period, as well. The Ku Klux Klan is created during Reconstruction. But sometimes it's not even the Klan. Sometimes it's just white people engaged in concerted violence in an attempt, really, to frustrate, to turn back what has happened following the Civil War. It's a very, very serious and violent period. [MUSIC PLAYING] What then follows, of course, is a period in which, increasingly, Black people are herded into segregation by a variety of laws and practices. This is aided by the Supreme Court, which decides the civil rights cases. And the civil rights cases are a set of challenges to theaters and other public accommodations that do not want to seat Black people on an equal basis with white people. And the Supreme Court basically says that's private discrimination, and the 14th Amendment has nothing to do with that. They are already exhausted with the project of equality just 20 years after the end of the Civil War. So that's the 1880s. Then we get to 1896, Plessy versus Ferguson. This is a case involving segregated rail accommodations, in which the Supreme Court upholds the right of states to impose segregation laws and introduces the concept of separate but equal, that yes, the 14th Amendment says equality, but it doesn't say they have to be together. So long as they're equal, they can be separate. Now of course, this is a bit of sleight of hand. Everyone knows that white supremacy does not segregate because they think Black people are equal. They segregate for the purpose of articulating the inferior position of Black people. And so this then opens up the door to the Jim Crow period and to the promulgation of Jim Crow laws throughout the country, but most particularly in the South. And these Jim Crow laws prescribe the lives of Black people-- where they can go, what they can do, how they can move about the society, where they can be educated, where they can have access to. And it essentially shuts Black people out of the project of full citizenship. It ends it full stop, and creates a separate world for Black people to live in, which is precisely the opposite of the promise of the 14th Amendment. I sometimes hesitate to use the term Jim Crow because it sounds so jaunty, and not actually like a very violent form of apartheid. But that's what it was. Jim Crow laws were laws that were promulgated to keep Black people in their place. There was the grandfather clause. The grandfather clause says that you were only entitled to vote if your grandfather was eligible to vote...

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From critical race theory to the 1619 Project, Black intellectuals are reshaping conversations on race in America. Now seven of those preeminent voices share their insight on the reckoning with race in America in three parts: past, present, and future. Gain a foundational understanding of the history of white supremacy and discover a path forward through the limitless capacity and resilience of Black love.

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Angela Davis, Cornel West, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Sherrilyn Ifill, Jelani Cobb, and John McWhorter

Seven preeminent Black thought leaders share their insight on the reckoning with race in America in three parts: past, present, and future.

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