What Civil Rights History Can Teach Kavanaugh’s Critics

Apr 02, 2019
It’s always interesting to be a historian of a civil rights movement that failed in its time. I particularly appreciate this perspective during moments in which many people have advocated for what they believe is right but have ultimately lost.

In recent weeks, a large number of Americans organized against the Senate’s confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court. They rallied and spoke fervently about the importance of shifting the political climate so that a man credibly accused of sexual assault would not be allowed to sit on the highest court in the land — and more broadly, that survivors of sexual assault would be believed and women’s perspectives taken seriously.

Those protests failed to prevent his confirmation, and he was sworn in a week ago. Since then, many have understandably been feeling despair about that and what this development signifies in the larger fight for the rights and dignity of women.

My expertise in the early civil rights era — a time during which activists tried valiantly to right some of the greatest injustices in American history in a dangerous age but initially failed to stop the passage of new segregation laws and voter disfranchisement — helps me see this setback differently. While one justice’s confirmation is not a moment on the same scale as the era historians call the nadir of African-American history, my scholarship sheds light on it.

From researching the lives of activists, I have learned so much, including that progress toward social justice is often preceded by many, many periods of failure.

My first book chronicles the organizing and litigation that led to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision — which established the “separate but equal” doctrine —  and the subsequent Southern streetcar boycott movement between 1900 and 1907. One of the first times I discussed it publicly, a historian in the audience pointed out with a singsong disdain in his voice that I had described the publication as “a grand history of a failed movement.” Then he asked, “So what?”

I explained that the failure I’d described when discussing the content of my book was the movement of thousands of African-Americans who, between 1850 and 1910, worked to stop the passage of laws and the implementation of policies segregating trains and streetcars, beginning in the North before the Civil War, and then continuing during and after the end of Reconstruction. People sued for their right to ride trains without the fear of being stigmatized as essentially different than white passengers. One of those litigants was a young Ida B. Wells, who was forcibly ejected from a Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad ladies’ car in fall of 1883.

Wells fought back that day, biting the hand of the conductor after he grabbed her arm and trying to wedge herself between the seat in front of her and her own. Despite her resistance three white men finally removed her while white passengers stood and cheered. In response Wells sued the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad for denying her the seat in first class that she had purchased. Wells’s suit was defeated on appeal.

Her case and many others like it failed to end the rising tide of segregation in the 1880s, but Wells and thousands of other black Southerners continued to contest segregation.

The protests of people like Wells led to collective dissent, first against the segregation of Southern railroads and later at the movement’s high point, when streetcar boycotts occurred in 25 different Southern cities. One of the most robust boycotts began in May 1904 in Richmond, Va., in response to new laws segregating the cars and allowing the white conductors to enforce the separation.

The movement against segregation in the city was led by two politically minded business leaders and journalists, Maggie Lena Walker and John Mitchell Jr. One of the most iconic moments of the protest came in the late spring of 1904 when the 3,000-plus members of the Colored Baptist Sunday-School Union took to the hilly streets to march in the hot sun to the site of their monthly meeting in protest, even as the pastors of their churches were silent on the question of segregation and a signal that when official leadership failed, the people would lead themselves.

But in the end, these turn-of-the-20th-century African-American activists could not stop Jim Crow’s advance. Their suits, sit-ins, letter-writing campaigns, boycotts, marches and impassioned pleas to lawmakers failed to make a difference when legislators were determined to segregate no matter the costs. Segregation or exclusion became the law of the land in the American South, and remained so for many years, separating black and white Southerners not only on trains and streetcars but also in schools, neighborhoods, libraries, parks and pools.

Progressives, liberals and sexual assault survivors and all those who desire a more just and decent America and who feel they lost when Kavanaugh was confirmed despite their protest should remember Mitchell, Plessy, Walker and Wells, along with Elizabeth Jennings, James Pennington, Lola Houck, Louis A. Martinet, Rodolphe Desdunes, P.B.S. Pinchback, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell, J. Max Barber and many others, including those whose names we do not know. All of these men and women were on the side of justice and lost. None of these people, who fought for full and equal public access as free citizens on trains and streetcars, stopped fighting. None abandoned what they knew was right. They all tried again. Most would not live to see things made right, but they continued.

Those who see Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a lost battle in the larger war for gender equality and dignity for women — and sexual assault survivors, specifically — should emulate the activists of generations past. They should keep organizing, connect with like-minded people, volunteer for organizations that advocate for survivors, consider running for office, and work on the campaigns of those they believe in. A week after his confirmation, a reminder is in order: Movements are about more than moments; they are about thoughtful networks of dissent built over time.

My scholarship has taught me that activism requires a certain resilience, and the willingness to be long-suffering in pursuit of the cause. I hope people remember this. I hope they keep going.

Blair L.M. Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and the author of “Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African-American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson.”