I live in a quiet, residential neighborhood in the vicinity of the Wendy’s where the latest “officer-involved” Atlanta shooting occurred. I laid in bed Saturday night listening to the sounds of police car and fire engine sirens at the scene. I heard flash bangs and protesters on megaphones. The Wendy’s was on fire. I thought, “here we go again.”
To those Americans of the White, Trumpian persuasion who seriously believe that Black folks must be the architects of their own misfortunes, causing them to draw the ire of law enforcement — I have news for you. Everything we have ever done has been illegal in America since our arrival in 1619. It’s on the books. Let me count the ways.
- 1705. The Virginia Slave Codes. In 1619, Black men in chains were dragged to these shores as free labor. Later, other Black men came here as indentured servants, or in some cases, arrived as free men. But by 1705, the Codes took away all equal rights to Black people, rendering them slaves for life.
- 1740. The South Carolina Act penalized anyone who, “taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe, in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money.”
- 1819. The Virginia Revised Code admonishes that, “… all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses, &c., in the night; or at any SCHOOL OR SCHOOLS for teaching them READING OR WRITING, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY…”
- 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act made it illegal for slaves to escape for their freedom.
- 1857. Dred Scott vs. Sanford was blessed by the U.S. Congress and explicitly states, among other things, that slaves were not even considered American citizens. Slaves were deemed unworthy of their full rights of citizenship.
- 1866. The Black Codes were a set of laws that denied African-Americans the right to vote, sit on a jury, or enlist in state militias. It was illegal to give testimony against a White person and, despite the Emancipation Proclamation liberating Black folks, African-Americans could only seek new work with the approval of a previous (White) employer.
- 1896. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson reinforces “separate but equal” segregationist Jim Crow laws that were in play in the South since Reconstruction in the 1870’s. These laws relegated Black folks to the backs of trains and buses, prohibited them from eating or staying in white-owned restaurants and hotels. Jim Crow laws kept African-Americans from going to schools with Whites. These laws affected where Blacks lived, where and how they worked. Jim Crow laws stayed on the books for almost 60 years.
So, to sum up, since 1619 when Blacks arrived on America’s shores, it was against the law to: learn how to read or write, escape from torturous slavery, vote, testify against a White person who may have stolen your land or harmed your person, assemble in a group at any time during the day or at night, live where you chose or sit anywhere you wanted on a public conveyance, among about a gazillion other things.
For African-Americans, justice didn’t exist. Breaking these laws meant spending years in horrific penitentiaries enduring any number of terrible punishments including death.
All this is to say that for over 400 years, America has been a very dangerous place to live for African-Americans. It’s why law enforcement keeps a foot on our necks. In the 21st century, little has changed.
Vote in November.