Promises Broken

Illustration of seven women with arms interlocked with police cars in the background.

By Joy James
Illustration by Diana Ejaita

Abolition’s long history.

The public’s growing awareness following U.S. police killings of unarmed Black Americans—among them George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor—have brought greater attention to abolitionism, a centuries-old movement in opposition to the exploitation and captivity of African and African-diasporic people. It comes as no surprise that the concept of prison and police abolition has again gained traction, yet we would be wise to remember that with every wave of mutating racist oppression since the end of slavery, American politicians have made—and broken—abolitionist promises. Perhaps it would help today’s movement to understand abolition’s long history.

Let’s begin with the Civil War, where some 200,000 Black Americans fought to ensure the North’s victory and to preserve the Union. On Jan. 16, 1865, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman promised some freed families 40 acres and a mule. Yet Andrew Johnson, first as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president and later as the 17th American president, ensured that promissory note was abrogated. Instead, he courted Confederates and helped kill Black freedom by instituting a racial terror that became economically profitable to whites through lynching, convict prison leasing and sharecropping.

Almost 100 years later, activists engaged in what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called a “Second Reconstruction” and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) called a “Second Civil War.” The abolitionist goal was to end the terrors of Jim Crow segregation. Critical race theorist Derrick Bell argues that “interest convergence” determined civil rights gains. That is to say, the needs of the disenfranchised had to align with the needs of elites. The John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations needed mass nonviolent protests to subside in order to stabilize their administrations, so they pushed for reforms, yes. Yet the Kennedy and Johnson administrations also controlled the agenda. At the historic August 1963 March on Washington, the Kennedy administration told SNCC leader John Lewis (who died this past July after serving three decades in Congress) to tone down his speech and other speakers not to demand full employment at living wages. They demanded that Black women not speak on stage. A month later, Klansmen planted a bomb in the women’s restroom at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four Black girls.

When King found the courage to condemn predatory capitalism as an accelerant to dire poverty and the war in Vietnam as violent imperialism, promises of support from liberal foundations and funders, as well as from Black elites, dissipated. Uprisings followed King’s assassination, and, in the wake of abolitionist protests to stop the killing of Black Americans, law-and-order candidate Richard Nixon was elected to the U.S. presidency. His administration marketed the “war on drugs” to cover his anti-abolitionist campaigns against those protestors, and the war on drugs became a catalyst for the U.S. to lead the world in mass incarceration, as it does today.

As we see, no American president has enacted promissory notes to secure our rights to live in a nonracial democracy. Perhaps the best promissory note we could collect today would be for government not to ratchet violence and refuse to repurpose streets and prisons as display cases for authoritarian dominance. Abolitionism never promised a rose garden. Still, we could do with fewer bloody thorns as we seek to build a just society.

Photograph of an urban waterfront

Joy James is the Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Humanities at Williams. Among her books are Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals (Routledge, 2014) and The New Abolitionists: (Neo)slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings (SUNY Press, 2005).

Also in this issue