The 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr will take place on August 24.
In 1963, a quarter of a million people marched for jobs and freedom. They gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial where King got up to deliver his “I have a dream” speech.
A year later, in 1964, the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. It outlawed racial segregation in public places, introduced equal employment opportunities, and guaranteed the right to vote regardless of colour.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. It addressed the discrimination experienced by African Americans, who were prevented from voting across the Southern states by requirements such as literacy tests for voter registration, and other measures.
Fifty years later, these gains are under attack by a conservative-dominated Supreme Court and right-wing state legislatures. The acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old Black man, has polarised the nation. It has exposed the deep-seated racism still inherent in the US criminal justice system.
In June, the US Supreme Court, by a vote of five-to-four, struck down crucial sections of the Voting Rights Act, which in effect will allow nine states (mainly in the South) to once more make changes to their voting arrangements, including voter identification requirements, without seeking federal approval.
Shortly after the decision was announced, the state of Texas indicated that it would change its laws to require voters to present photo ID in order to vote, a move which critics say will discriminate against poor voters and members of minority groups.
On July 13, a jury acquitted neighbourhood watch commander Zimmerman over charges relating to killing Martin, who was on his way home from a shop. In the judge's instructions to the jurors, he told them they could consider Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law as a justifiable use of deadly force.
Recently, I spoke with activist Sharon Smith, a member of the steering committee of the US International Socialist Organisation (ISO), about the reaction to the Zimmerman verdict, the renewed attacks on civil rights, Obama’s response and the upcoming march on Washington.
Smith told Green Left Weekly: “The biggest protest was in New York City, which started out with 1000 and grew to 10,000 in a matter of a couple of hours, marching all around the city. Most places have seen multiple demonstrations.
“Some [have been] neighbourhood protests. I heard about one protest in Chicago that started out in an African American neighbourhood … with about 100 people and tripled in size. There has been a proliferation of smaller protests that are really in a lot of ways only the beginning of a response.”
On July 20, a series of “Justice for Trayvon” protests were held at Federal Buildings across the country. They were called by the National Action Network, led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, a long-standing activist in the civil rights movement in the US.
“Both Sharpton and Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, have called for the Justice Department to file federal civil rights charges [against Zimmerman], which they did at the height of the civil rights movement against white racists in Jim Crow states,” Smith said.
“Trayvon Martin’s family still has the right to pursue a civil suit against Zimmerman. However, Zimmerman is protected against a second criminal trial [because] the double jeopardy protections in the US mean that you can’t be tried twice for the same crime.
“In the meantime, a lot of people are still in shock over this travesty of justice, I mean, where there is no question that Zimmerman killed an unarmed, 17-year-old boy and basically the green light [has now been given] to any kind of racist vigilante.
“It is a very polarised country right now. So it is going to have a boomerang or a reverberating effect which will embolden racists [but] it is also going to embolden resistance.”
Smith told GLW: “One of the sparks of resistance” since the Zimmerman verdict was an occupation by 75 young African Americans and other young people of colour of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office.
“The group, called the Dream Defenders, originally demanded that Scott call a special session of the Florida legislature to address the problems with the Stand Your Ground legislation. The occupation has now been going for two weeks.”
Smith explained the racist underpinnings of the Stand Your Ground law, which has now been adopted in 16 US states, including Florida and Texas.
Smith told GLW: “In Stand Your Ground states, white people who kill black people are 354% more likely to not be charged or convicted of killing someone than white people who kill another white person.”
“In Florida right now there is a young African American woman, Marissa Alexander, with an abusive husband, who in self defence fired a warning shot that didn’t hit anyone, hitting only the wall.
“She tried to use Stand Your Ground because her life and that of her children were immediately threatened. She was denied the right to use Stand Your Ground as part of her defence.
“She is now serving a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison for that. And there is also a groundswell of anger over this gross double standard.
“The thing about Stand Your Ground in Florida … is that your life doesn’t actually have to be threatened, you can even say 'well I was afraid that somebody was going to commit a felony or a serious crime'. In Zimmerman’s case, he claimed that he felt his life was threatened.
“You would have thought, listening to the testimony, that it was Zimmerman who had been attacked, rather than a young 17-year-old black teen buying candy and an iced tea, just attempting to get back to his father’s home, who had been ruthlessly murdered. This is just the latest outrage.”
“Obama’s response has been pretty appalling,” Smith said. “After Trayvon’s murder, he said, ‘If I had a son he would have looked like Trayvon’. And now, when Zimmerman was acquitted Obama simply said ‘A jury has spoken, the system has worked itself out’…
“Well before the verdict came out all sorts of media pundits and experts were warning that rioting might break out ― black rioting that is ― and so Obama had to add ‘Keep your protests peaceful’. The warning was to black people, not to the people who had supported such a travesty of justice.”
Smith explained that more recently, under pressure, Obama has come out “in a more sympathetic manner”. Obama told the public: “Trayvon could have been me 35 years ago.”
But, according to Smith, real action would require the Obama administration’s Justice Department to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
“If the pressure is strong enough, the Justice Department might do so ― not because the Obama administration wants to take action, but only if it feels it needs to take action,” Smith explained.
“We’re basically suffering from a proliferation of attacks and I think that what we’re seeing is a proliferation of responses, which will, hopefully congeal in the protest in Washington on August 24.
“It is not that uncommon for people to get on a bus and travel for 18 hours to go and make their voices heard and get back on a bus and travel for 18 hours back again. That is kind of a tradition here.”