The recent report from the Justice Department condemning the actions of police in the death of teenager Michael Brown brings to mind the death of another teenager 60 years ago, said Associate Professor of History Touré Reed, who studies the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The death of Emmett Till helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Could the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner spark a new Civil Rights Movement?
Emmett Till was a black teenager murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. His gruesome death came in the midst of a Civil Rights Movement that was already in motion.
At the time of Till’s murder, the NAACP had already won a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases challenging segregation – the most well known being Brown v. Board of Education (1954). These victories not only helped to fuel the direct-action stage of the modern civil rights movement, but they also reflected growing support for African American civil rights among northern white liberals. In this context, many white Southerners, fearing the dismantling of the racist Jim Crow laws via the federal government, felt threatened and some engaged in brutal acts of violence and terrorism like the men who murdered Emmett Till.
Unlike the Till murder, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have not been preceded by larger regional or national progressive movements. Their deaths are also not likely to spark a civil rights movement, both because the issues in these incidents are probably too narrow and because the political context of our moment is vastly different from the context that gave rise to the modern civil rights movement.
One other – yet no less – important difference between today and the era of the modern Civil Rights Movement is that in the 1950s and 1960s we also had mature, reasonably well funded, civil rights and progressive organizations, which in some cases dated back to the early 1900s. Civil rights groups like the NAACP and National Urban League (NUL) as well as black labor organizations like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and the Negro American Labor Council were in full bloom by the mid-20th century. Their members and, in the case of the NAACP, NUL and BSCP, even the organizations themselves had fought the good fight for decades by the time of the Brown (1954) verdict.
Many institutions that championed progressive politics in the modern Civil Rights Movement have not been as active or powerful for the last two or three decades. With the atrophy of progressive, political organizations since the 1970s, a new civil rights movement is not likely to arise from the ashes of Ferguson.
What is much more likely to happen – and hopefully will – is reform to the Ferguson Police Department. Having found significant disparities in prosecutions, traffic stops, citations and the use of force (not to mention the racist email comments) hopefully the Justice Department will persuade Ferguson PD to make some significant reforms.
Two issues, however, warrant circumspection about the likelihood of positive reform. First, the Justice Department found that Darren Wilson did not violate Michael Brown’s civil rights. Given the questions raised about the grand jury, this could be interpreted as a setback. Second, today – unlike the era of the modern civil rights movement – we are confronted with well-organized and deeply entrenched opposition to federal authority that transcends region.
Yet perhaps the typical response from the Justice Department of retraining, diversification and more local oversight might help. Federal oversight is also an option. We can also hope that other police departments around the nation will take lessons from Ferguson.