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Finally Healing the Wounds of Jim Crow

Maybe what we need is transitional justice.

Published on:
July 11, 2018
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9 min.
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America is chasing her tail on racial progress. We left Jim Crow behind, but that hasn’t seemed to translate into considerable forward momentum. In fact, we may now be dealing with how we dealt with the abolition of Jim Crow laws. 

A lack of understanding created a lava flow of well-intentioned but misguided attempts to redress specific aspects of the legacy of Jim Crow. With government reforms came welfare programs, drug-related addiction and crime, declines in parent-driven education, the marginalization of the black church, and the overly punitive disposition toward urban areas by the criminal justice system in the aftermath of middle-class suburban flight. This cocktail eventually erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Michael Brown, the protests following the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the rise of white supremacist rallies in the Trump era, and so on. 

Decades later, we have yet to properly reconcile the negative externalities of Jim Crow. Laws were changed, but injustices were not redressed, trauma was not treated, whites and blacks were not challenged respectively, and the hope for a racially healed America became a dream deferred by the early 1980s. 

Decades later, we have yet to properly reconcile the negative externalities of Jim Crow.

Implementing something different may help us to accomplish what we should have done in the late 1960s. Formalizing transitional justice, not social justice, for African Americans could prove to be a more helpful approach.

Transitional Justice and Jim Crow

Political sociology professor at Lingnan University Roman David in Hong Kong defines transitional justice “as a set of measures and processes adopted to deal with the consequences of mass human rights violations in the aftermath of regime changes, violent conflicts, wars, and other historical injustices that were derivatives of undemocratic regimes, colonization, occupation, and so on.” New York Law School Professor Ruti Teitel defines it as “the conception of justice associated with periods of political change, characterized by legal responses to confront the wrongdoings of repressive predecessor regimes.”

Transitional justice is what we needed to pursue after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Because of the back-to-back histories of American slavery and the racial abuses of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, every state needed to implement a formal, localized, transitional justice approach. State-level transitional justice plans would allow civil society institutions to play their respective role in bringing racial peace, reconciliation, and human flourishing.

In fairness, America did attempt to redress issues with voting, housing, employment, and the like. The blind fallacy, however, was the belief that we could change a few federal laws and move on. But we moved on without addressing the need to foster peace and reconciliation between whites and blacks, especially in the South and large urban areas. We moved on without dealing with the post-traumatic stress of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. We moved on without holding people and institutions accountable for massive amounts of person-to-person and structural injustice.

Transitional justice would have been specifically applied to those victimized by Jim Crow. Using the “Chicago Principles of Post-conflict Justice,” America can still pursue transitional justice opportunities. While the principles are originally written for nation-states, there is no reason they could not be modified at the state level in America.

Principle 1: “States shall prosecute alleged perpetrators of gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law.” 

Gross perpetrators of property crime, violent crime, and other human rights abuses during Jim Crow should have been prosecuted and still should be where possible. It is unbelievably scandalous that whites who terrorized black communities were not usually held accountable for their crimes against humanity. Domestic terrorism was the norm in many black communities during Jim Crow, and as a nation, we should be embarrassed that most domestic race terrorists were never brought to justice for their criminal activities.

Principle 2: “States shall respect the right to truth and encourage formal investigations of past violations by truth commissions or other bodies.”

It is quite unbelievable that African Americans were not given formal opportunities to recount, on record, exactly what happened during Jim Crow. A truth commission would allow us to hear the truth about Jim Crow. We need to gather firsthand accounts while we still can. Without getting the truth on record, we run the risk of exaggerations of history on both sides. It would be safe to say, as a result, that the average American under the age of fifty cannot explain the details of what life was like for blacks during Jim Crow. Individual states still have opportunities to establish Jim Crow truth and reconciliation commissions.

Principle 3: “States shall acknowledge the special status of victims, ensure access to justice, and develop remedies and reparations.”

Recognizing survivors of Jim Crow as suffering real harm, including economic harm, would have allowed us to contextualize both their trauma and struggles with agency in the years that followed.

Those who were victims of property crime, violent crime, and structural economic and political injustices could have been given specific areas of redress to match specific forms of oppression incurred during Jim Crow at the state and local level. Recognizing survivors of Jim Crow as suffering real harm, including economic harm, would have allowed us to contextualize both their trauma and struggles with agency in the years that followed. Instead, America largely chose a “let’s just move on and not talk about the past” approach with a few one-size-fits-all federal legal remedies, which ultimately failed to deliver much of what they promised by the time we reached the 1980s. To make matters worse, middle-class suburbanization and white flight in the 1970s and 1980s gave Jim Crow beneficiaries permission to put their heads in the sand without working hard to virtuously and voluntarily make things right in local communities simply because it was the right thing to do, especially for the disadvantaged.

Principle 4: “States should implement vetting policies, sanctions, and administrative measures.”

Many leaders who were involved in promoting, supporting, maintaining, and enforcing Jim Crow laws probably should have been removed from all aspects of public sector employment, like the criminal justice system, state legislatures, social work vocations, public education, and so on. Properly vetting public sector employees would also have included, for example, those involved in the Ku Klux Klan and Citizens’ Councils. It was profoundly naïve for us to believe, for example, that white police officers who enforced Jim Crow laws would happily move to enforce desegregation laws from the mid-1960s through the 1980s and beyond. Jim Crow created a moral culture that was never challenged. Jim Crow values were simply privatized and re-enforced through indirect means like zoning laws.

Principle 5: “States should support official programs and popular initiatives to memorialize victims, educate society regarding past political violence, and preserve historical memory.” 

Confederate memorials are more prevalent across the country than memorials that help people remember Jim Crow and their survivors. Educators should want children to learn about the reality of Jim Crow because it helps us understand our current context better and protects against repeating the same mistakes. Jim Crow history is an American history story that should keep every America humble about our vulnerability to deception and immoral groupthink. Key figures, dates, names, and local places should never be forgotten so that future generations do not suffer from romanticized, utopian views of history and are reminded to remain open to possibility that they might be wrong in their thinking about what is best for society. Jim Crow history is the antidote to American domestic policy arrogance.

Principle 6: “States should support and respect traditional, indigenous, and religious approaches regarding past violations.” 

It goes without saying that outside the family the single most important institution making black progress possible from slavery through Jim Crow was the traditional black church. Not simply “the church” but uniquely and specifically the traditional black church—which was mainly Baptist and Methodist. Because of this history, it stands to reason that the black church needs to be bolstered and freed to do what it has historically done best—namely, provide people hope, inspiration, moral formation, and the social connections they need to thrive. In other words, the central question here should be, “What can federal, state, and local governments do to get out of the way of churches?”

Principle 7: “States shall engage in institutional reform to support the rule of law, restore public trust, promote fundamental rights, and support good governance.” 

One could argue that Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision in 1971, and so on, were well-intentioned attempts to restore public trust and many fundamental rights that had been denied blacks during Jim Crow. While we can reasonably debate the merits, constitutionality, and effectiveness of these legal actions, it is apparent that principle seven was at least given a good-faith effort in many respects. However, with the collapse of the criminal justice system, it became clear in the aftermath of Ferguson, Missouri, that public trust in the criminal justice system, for example, had all but been eradicated.

We can only wonder where we might be as a nation if principles one through six had been pursued with the same vigor used to make changes according to principle seven.

White Church and Black Church Leadership in the Twenty-first Century

Jim Crow laws could have been seriously maimed across America had white evangelicals applied redemption to the entire creation during this time in history.

It would be difficult to argue that white evangelicals—who were in social juxtaposition to blacks—had a proper understanding of the gospel based on their social lives and church practices with respect to their engagement with black communities. The story of redemption in the Bible clearly equalizes humanity across races, but nationally, the greatest religious champions of maintaining Jim Crow were whites in conservative and evangelical Christian contexts throughout the South. A deficit in understanding the story of redemption became a deficit in using their power to bring redemption to all aspects of human life. If white evangelicals understood and followed the teachings of the Bible fully they would have found themselves repairing relationships with black people in their own communities and fighting politically to dismantle Jim Crow laws. Many white evangelicals did not follow Jesus’ teachings and found themselves largely either committing sins of commission by actively advocating for Jim Crow and resisting desegregation, or by committing sins of omission by passively doing nothing about black subjugation, suffering, and oppression. Jim Crow laws could have been seriously maimed across America had white evangelicals applied redemption to the entire creation during this time in history.

Now, with arguably less social power as generations past, white evangelicals still have the opportunity to be religious champions of racial justice. They have a special role to play in leading peace and reconciliation in their own spheres of influence in the aftermath of Jim Crow. White evangelicals are in a place to fundamentally help forge a new multi-racial solidarity in the church, local communities, and the marketplace.

The temptation is to skip principles one through six of transitional justice and quickly leap to “What are the solutions?”

The temptation is to skip principles one through six of transitional justice and quickly leap to “What are the solutions?” But knowing the past and unpacking its details is the initial step in moving toward solutions. We cannot pursue principle seven of transitional justice without exploring the historical context of principles one through six. All people, including white evangelicals and political conservatives, must be willing to be vulnerable and humble enough to let Jim Crow survivors share their stories and put this history on record. 

When we follow up a story with statements like “I wasn’t there so what do I have to apologize for?” we are forgetting the precedent of repentance in the history of God’s people. In the Bible, God reminds his people of their collective past failures and provides opportunities to repent for the sins of previous generations (Nehemiah 9). In the Christian tradition, it’s always been understood that God uses past corporate failures to reveal his sovereignty and grace despite human imperfection. Why wouldn’t we want to remind people of this? It’s true that many were not physically present at lynchings, beatings of black Civil Rights leaders, and so on, but all twentieth-century whites benefited from social, political, and marketplace freedoms that were legally withheld from blacks by the coercive power of the government during Jim Crow. The racial sins of evangelicalism’s fathers and mothers changed the course of modern life. To ignore that toes the line between hard-hearted and prideful. 

For Jim Crow survivors, the black church has a role to play in helping the black community work through what it means to forgive white evangelicals and conservative Christians in the South, many of whom were in captivity to the idolatry of white supremacy. The black church continues to help evangelicals understand what the scope of redemption actually means in its application to black people. They need help seeing those applications legally, socially, politically, and in the marketplace. Moreover, the practice of forgiveness could create space for healing that has yet to be explored and realized. 

Jim Crow survivors were not afforded an opportunity in the 1970s to get the mental health assistance they needed to rebuild their families. The nation focused on a few legislative changes and economic redistribution schemes, none of which were capable of providing the emotional support Jim Crow survivors needed to regain their agency as full participants and contributors to civil society. 

This is an invitation for America to start over. We need to formally, on record, state by state, address Jim Crow like Germany faced the Holocaust, Northern Ireland faced The Troubles, and South Africa faced Apartheid. We need courageous leaders who are willing to go back and open the Jim Crow vault so that as a society America can actually begin the long journey toward telling the truth, enlisting our society in peace and reconciliation, and healing as our nation becomes more diverse over time. We need leaders who are willing to challenge their own constituencies to find the truth and forgive.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony B. Bradley is an American author and professor of religion, theology, and ethics at the King’s College in New York City, where he also serves as the chair of the Religious and Theological Studies program.

Cover image by Matthew Spiteri.

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