Many know the story of Nashville, Tennessee as the country music hall of fame. Musicians from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash and many others have walked down those streets. The recognition that the city has been given because of its role in the development of country music has even resulted in a popular television show with its namesake. However, there is also a different history in Nashville that exists alongside this narrative that we already know. It also played a crucial role in the development of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s and prominent leaders during the movement such as: James Lawson, C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and Congressman John Lewis. Furthermore, it is home the the most comprehensive Civil Right library in the country. Nashville is also home to the first health center that trained African Americans called the MeHarry medical college. So why has Nashville’s rich history during the Civil Right Movement and beyond been overlooked. Again I turn to lessons that I learned from conversation with various members of the community. Kwame Lillard, a civil rights veteran reasoned that this was because of the insufficiencies that resulted from the movement. Chief among those was the transition from eradicating the white signs [legislation] to eradicating the white mind [white supremacist ideology, practices].
So what exactly is the transition from white signs to white minds? It begins with the assumption that racism is actually an oligarchical beast. It is both individualistic as well as institutional. Both aspects can be mutually reinforcing. One cannot be eradicated without eliminating the other. White signs in a very literal sense are the policies enacted under Jim Crow that systematically disenfranchised African Americans and many other minorities from the political process and public accommodations. White signs describes segregated schools, buses, lunch counters, housing, employment opportunities, and every other form of explicit representation in which “Whites Only” is the written law. White signs was the major battleground in which the civil rights struggle took place. When the Nashville Five refused to move when the sought to integrate lunch counters in the South they had effectively waged war against the white signs. When these same individual continued to execute CORE’s plan of testing the federal law via Boynton v. Virginia 1960 which mandated integrated transportation facilities they were once again attacking white signs. During the famed March on Washington in 1963 John Lewis and others gave speeches that were pivotal putting pressure on the U.S. government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both the speeches and the ensuing legislations were aimed at ending white sign. What had yet to be addressed was white supremacist logic itself.
White minds, according to Lillard, are the dominant ideologies created by the fog of white supremacy that continues to disenfranchise African Americans in society today. He noted that one of the shortcomings of the activism from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s is that it did not go far enough. Indeed activists were effective in the ability to force America to deliver on its promises of equality in the areas of voting rights and public accommodations it did nothing to attack the ideologies and cognitive notions that allowed a racial hierarchy to permeate every aspect of society including the government. He compares the struggle for civil rights to warfare tactics. When the Allied Forces invaded Normandy in what would be the largest seaborne invasion in history, they did not stop once all of the troops had landed there. They aimed for and achieved a total and decisive victory over the Germany. Movement leaders got to Normandy ( equal access to public accommodations, and voting rights) but did not go for the total annihilation of a system. They did not confront the mindsets that made so many uncomfortable. Underlying ideologies remained the same and could be repackaged in various forms. To state simply the Civil Rights Movement did not confront the heart of white supremacy.
So what would we be necessary to finish what was started by Kwame Lillard and so many more during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s? One solution is to recognize that white supremacy is not just a question of civil rights; it questions the very fabric of what it means to be human. As Lillard expresses it is a transition from advocating for civil rights to advocating human rights. Human rights should not be simplified as to not recognizing the various racial disparities that affect black and brown bodies for a more general concern for humanity. Rather it recognizes the racialized nature of laws, norms, and various institutional structures. However, it goes beyond recognition of those structure and deals with issues of how to help oppressed and marginalized groups reclaim their human dignity and respect.
An example of this is with voter disenfranchisement laws throughout the country. Several states including my home state of Kentucky have laws that do not restore voting rights to citizen upon return from incarceration. In the state of Kentucky alone there are over a quarter million citizens who are denied their right to vote because they have a criminal conviction on their record. This measure of institutionalized racism has had a particular severe effect on the African American community in the state. Over ⅕ of the state’s African American population cannot vote because of these restrictions. Activist such as Jordan Mazurek and Greg Capillo have worked with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network to end this particular injustice. In a recent legislative session they petitioned for the Kentucky state senate to hear House Bill 70, which would offer reform to the current system in the state. In doing so they have found a way to transition to the struggle against the white mind. There are various other examples of how to move from as Lillard suggests attacking white signs to white mind, however, it is imperative that we realize the struggle for human rights and equality is never over.
Photo description: ([Black] man drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma” ca. July 1939), found on Flickr. original photographer unknown.