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Excerpted From: Yohuru Williams, “The Special Favorite of the Laws”? Black Lives Matter Moments in American Constitutional and Legal History, 18 University of Saint Thomas Law Journal 171 (Spring, 2022) (73 Footnotes) (Full Document)


YohuruWilliamsThe law no longer knows white nor black, but simply men, and consequently, we are entitled to ride in public conveyances, hold office, sit on juries, and do everything else which we have in the past been prevented from doing solely on the ground of color. (Delegate to a convention of Alabama freedmen, 1867)

On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in a wanton act of police brutality by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, widespread protests against police brutality erupted in Minneapolis and across the nation. At Floyd's memorial service on June 4, civil rights activist and Reverend Al Sharpton placed the killing in a broader context: “George Floyd's story has been the story of Black Folk in America.” Using Derek Chauvin's knee as a metaphor, Sharpton talked about the myriad ways in which white supremacy imposed and continues to impose economic, social, and political inequality on people of African descent in the United States.

Sharpton concluded his remarks with an appeal for Americans to finally deal with the issue of accountability in policing, systemic prejudice, and racial injustice. He pointed to the need for what I call “historical recovery.” This process of learning United States history through the lens of African Americans enables us to better understand the intentional policies, practices, and procedures that form the basis of contemporary challenges regarding race, law, and public policy. It also lays the groundwork for understanding the urgency of passing legislation entitled The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

This process of historical recovery is essential. All too often when confronted with examples of racial prejudice with roots in historical injustices, many Americans look to fix the blame on individual choices rather than identifiable policies, practices, and procedures that continue to exert enormous influence on law and society. Without the foundational historical knowledge necessary to comprehend the connection among these issues, most discussions on how to eliminate systemic racism eventually degenerate into a form of victim blaming. A good example can be found in the ongoing debate and discussion over the destruction of the Rondo community in St. Paul. In 1956, the predominantly Black neighborhood was literally bisected to accommodate the construction of the I-94 freeway. Some 600 families were displaced, not to mention a large number of businesses shuttered. This was not an isolated incident confined to St. Paul. In Minneapolis, the construction of Interstate 35W in 1959 also resulted in the destruction of one of the few city neighborhoods where Black people could rent and own homes unencumbered by racially restrictive covenants. The impact of these deliberate choices on the part of lawmakers and urban planners continues to echo in our contemporary moment. The 2020 Census shows that while only about 25 percent of Black people own homes in the Twin Cities, white homeownership stands at 76 percent. This disparity encapsulates the legacy, in many ways, of state and federal laws and discriminatory practices. The income gap provides further evidence; the median national income for white households comes in at $84,500 a year compared to just $38,000 a year for Black households.

[. . .]

Lewis implored, “My message to the members of the United States Supreme Court is remember, don't forget our recent history. Walk in our shoes. Come and walk in our shoes.”

Congressman Lewis, in his final letter to the American people published posthumously in July of 2020, pointed to history as an important foundation for the work ahead. Reflecting on his own journey, Lewis punctuated the issue of intergenerational trauma as a spark for activism. As he wrote, “Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor.” Far from echoing the problematic adage that history repeats itself, Lewis offered a powerful lesson in agency--reminding us that his own life, like the lives of Bird Gee, Loren Miller, and countless other known and unknown women and men, was a testament to it.

As Lewis put it, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.” The work of historical recovery remains essential to that process.

This essay is derived in part from Professor Williams's keynote at the UST Law Journal Symposium: Protest and Reform, October 23, 2020.

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