Question: When did slavery end?
In January 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation or maybe December 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment?
Actually, the Thirteenth Amendment did abolish slavery—except as punishment for a crime. That latter part unfortunately provided a convenient loophole that the South exploited for nearly 80 years in order to continue to use Blacks as slave labor. By some estimates more than 800,000 Blacks found themselves “re-enslaved” under the convict leasing system that became a convenient revenue source for many southern state economies. Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II provides an excruciating account of the South’s refusal to accept the end of slavery and the extremes they would successfully use to continue to enslave Blacks for many decades after so called “emancipation.”
Question: When did Blacks secure legal protection from discrimination in places of public accommodation?
With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which most historians credit with laregly ending Jim Crow laws?
Actually, not really. Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment specifically included “formerly enslaved people” in the citizenship definition and included an equal protection clause that provided all citizens “equal protection under the law.” Furthermore, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (subsequently declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883) protected all citizens from discrimination in public accommodations and facilities.
Question: What about Presidents John F. Kennedy (JFK) and Abraham Lincoln? Weren’t they fierce, ardent supporters of civil rights and racial equity—determined to bring about racial harmony?
Well….not quite. Driven by his desperation to reunite the country at all costs, Lincoln famously said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” In the case of the beloved JFK, history shows that it was actually quite difficult to persuade President Kennedy to take action on civil rights issues. Many scholars contend that the combination of the civil rights protest induced media spectacle and growing embarrassment on the international stage amid the Cold War were much more influential in persuading him to take action on civil rights than any deep-seated moral conviction.
But why does any of this matter? Ultimately, we as a country did the right thing (eventually) and extended these rights to all persons so why do we need to address these widely-misunderstood historical events anyway? The truth is that these long-standing historical misconceptions strike at the heart of the disconnect undergirding the current workplace anti-racism dialogue about how much action or aggression is needed—whether the “ask politely and wait” or “demand progress now” approach is best.
Executive produced by Will Smith and Larry Wilmore, Netflix’s new six-part docuseries Amend: The Fight for America artfully and unapologetically eviscerates the popular mythology that the deep moral conscience of this country forced sweeping civil rights advancements over the past four centuries. With a level of candor both refreshing and rare, the series reveals the inconvenient truth that those advances were actually realized as a result of painstaking, tireless resistance, not the result of some mythological natural inertia towards equality.
For many corporate workplaces with racial literacy levels so anemic that they can’t even have healthy, productive discussions on the topic of anti-racism, this series is must-see television.
Accompanied by a dizzying array of A-level artists, activists and scholars including Bryan Stevenson, Larry Wilmore, Samuel L. Jackson, Helen Hunt, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Laverne Cox, Mahershala Ali, Lena Waithe, Sherrilyn Ifill, Diane Lane, Pedro Pascal and Yara Shahidi, host Will Smith reminds viewers why they’ve loved and appreciated his deft talent for decades. Artfully combining the feel of both a documentary and a high-end theatrical production with soulful monologues, revealing interviews and stirring visual montages, Amend: The Fight for America feels almost like a new artform—one that commits to a radical level of both education and entertainment. The unique and compelling approach encourages the viewer to confront and accept ugly realities about our beloved America with the same profound love and affection with which one might acknowledge the very real and damaging dysfunction in their own family. Smith explains, “Our hope with this series is to illuminate the beauty that is the promise of America and to share a message of connection and shared humanity so that we will be able to better understand and celebrate our different experiences as Americans and promote progress toward the true equality promised to all persons under the 14th Amendment.”
Directors Kenny Leon and Reinaldo Marcus Green masterfully present the inconveniently unflattering yet stubbornly accurate portrayal of the country’s consistent willful divergence from the grand promise of the fourteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution—liberty and equal protection for all persons. While the first half of the series focuses on racism against Black Americans, the latter half explores gender and LGBTQ equality along with racism against immigrants, concluding with the thought-provoking question “Who is America For?”. The genius of the series lay not just with its ability to recount this history with impressive entertainment value—from the soul stirring oratorical renditions of civil rights heroes like Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis to the hilarious comedic commentary of Larry Wilmore—but possibly more so with its stubborn insistence on digging deeper and making the real case that needs to be heard.
Racism won’t magically fix itself over time. It never has, and it never will.
Indeed, the series does what most aren’t willing to do—tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. Clearly, rejecting the simplistic approach of retelling predictable overtold, misconstrued historical accounts—Lincoln freed the slaves, Rosa sat down and Martin stood up—the series instead leans into the truth of America’s hypocrisy on its most sacred ideals of liberty and equality. Boldly painting activist resistors as patriots instead of simplistically demonizing them, it provides space for them to tell their story offering viewers a richer, more informed and nuanced interpretation of controversial events. One such poignant example was that of Bree Newsome Bass, the North Carolina activist who scaled the South Carolina state capitol flagpole to physically remove the confederate flag ten days after a white supremacist killed eight Black parishioners and their pastor at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The New York Times article “The Woman Who Took Down a Confederate Flag on What Came Next” cites founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture Lonnie G. Bunch’s refutation of the argument that confederate flags are harmless monuments to southern heritage. “They first appeared in large numbers in the 1890s as symbols of white resistance to racial justice and as concrete manifestations of the ascendancy of racial segregation as justified by the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that legalized the concept of separate but equal, which was inherently unequal,” the article explains.
The series also introduces viewers to lesser-known but critical racial justice warriors like Bayard Rustin, close advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and arguably one of the most influential organizers of the civil rights movement. The fourth installment highlights civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray—the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and first Black person to earn a JSD degree from Yale Law School—recounting how her legal arguments were instrumental in the fight for school desegregation and women’s and LGBTQ rights.
In a corporate ecosystem that often prefers to equate professionalism with “anti-racism” passivity and moderation, Amend: The Fight for America challenges that conventional thinking and insists that waiting for progress is in fact an oxymoron. While it’s hard for anyone to deny the inexcusable atrocity of 246 years of human bondage in the form of chattel slavery, many white Americans (in particular) perpetuate the fairy tale that while it may have been slow, there’s been a straight line of progress over the past 400 years that will ultimately result in full equality if we just wait patiently…and ask politely. In response, the series echoes the impatient spirit of Dr. King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait,’” wrote King. “It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’”
The truth that no one wants to admit is that when it comes to America’s legacy on anti-racism and civil rights, white America rarely does the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. They too often do it only when they’re forced to as a last resort to rescue their image or protect some other obvious self-interest. As Dr. King put it, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
And that responsibility to demand progress lay not just with individuals but with corporations as well. In fact, President and Director-Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill explains, “In the 70 years following its ratification, the 14th amendment was more often successfully used to protect the rights of corporations than Black people. This history should be the context in which corporations see their obligations to advance diversity and inclusion measures, to adopt investment, advertising and procurement practices that support Black economic empowerment, and use their influence and investments to support Black advancement.” Ifill implores companies to take direct action. “Corporations have benefitted tremendously from the 14th amendment. They should regard it as their duty to ensure that the Amendment’s intended beneficiaries – Black people – are positioned to receive its protections.”
Clearly, no docuseries will be a panacea for advancing anti-racism—indeed, there’s no silver bullet. But this one provides a healthy first step towards the real historical education that Corporate America so desperately needs to lay the groundwork for real progress.
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