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Black Lives Matter: A little historical context seems in order

The necessity of insisting that black lives matter is tied very closely to private property and commerce.

Protesters with Black Lives Matter reading a message from the Mall of America during their Dec. 23 protest.
MinnPost photo by Brent Moore

#BlackLivesMatter is not yet 3 years old, but the idea has been around for a long time. For many white people, the insistence that Black Lives Matter is still difficult to understand. The recent attempt by the Mall of America to unsuccessfully prevent a peaceful protest asserting that black lives matter and the current call by some in the African-American community to boycott the Mall convinced me of the need for a little historical context.  

Jeff Kolnick

The Star Tribune recently argued on its editorial page that the cause of Black Lives Matter is “unrelated to the Mall of America.” I disagree.

The necessity of insisting that black lives matter is tied very closely to private property and commerce. When racial slavery was first legalized in Virginia in 1662, black lives were tied directly to private property and commerce. More specifically, black lives were legally recognized as a form of private property and a vehicle for white people to make money. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court made the connection crystal clear.  In denying Dred and Harriet Scott their freedom — because they were black — the court ruled:

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. …

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. 

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When slavery was abolished in 1865, according to historian David Oshinsky, southern “planters sought a way to control black labor now that slavery had expired.” Oshinsky’s book, “Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice,” argues that the criminal justice system in the United States was transformed after the Civil War from enforcing the law against white people to a system designed to control black bodies and labor. Under slavery, justice was meted out, for the most part, by the slave owner or his subordinates. After slavery, state and local police were used to recreate systems of unfree labor. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote of this era, “The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

Indeed, as many historians have pointed out, the value of black bodies, in the minds of white Americans, declined after slavery. During slavery days, African-Americans who challenged their subordination could be sold, thus preserving at least some of the investment of the slaveholder. After slavery, black lives mattered even less to white folk and the U.S. embarked on a century of lynching where few whites ever faced the bar of justice.

Today, too many white Minnesotans are ready to defend commerce and private property over the right of black people and their allies to state simply, clearly and peacefully that black lives matter. In 1963, while sitting in a Birmingham jail for breaking the law, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reflected on those who prefer order to justice:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Rather than try to squelch speech behind the veil of private property or the pleasantness of a shopping experience, the Mall of America should have welcomed #BlackLivesMatter to the East Rotunda. Had they done so, they would look less like the owners of segregated businesses in the 1950s and ’60s and would find themselves instead on the right side of history.  

Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota.

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