Have you heard of the “New Orleans Massacre”? African-American US Army Veterans and delegates to a convention to demand voting rights for Louisiana’s “negro” citizens were ambushed by police and deputized white citizens on July 30, 1866, presumably after the Emancipation of all slaves and the victory against slavery in the Civil War. The thugs, presumably acting behind the power of the badge and the rule of law, beat and killed dozens of African-Americans and their supporters, (the exact number is unknown as there was never a full accounting of those killed and injured as well as no accountability by the thugs including politicians who organized the “Massacre”).
Before recent killings of unarmed Black US citizens in Ferguson, Staten Island, and…, and before Bloody Sunday in Selma, there has been a long history of suppression of the rights of African-American citizens post-Slavery with police and militia frequently employed as the tool of suppression, from denial of voting to landownership to institutionalized segregation. Blacks have been lynched for petty crimes to imagined crimes, with police at times, complicit, acquiescing and/or inciting as well as confronting mobs intent on murder, to their credit. As is the legacy of law enforcement checkered by its response to racially motivated suppression/hatred so is the history of all of America. The last recorded lynching occurred in 1930 in Indiana, a Union state during the Civil War.
While particularly rabid as well as institutionalized in the former Confederate States of the South, the history of segregation and oppression stains much of America’s legacy as lighthouse for tolerance, equality among people and opportunity for all. Along with our Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the “rule of law” has been a faithful companion for those seeking to counter more base and self-serving instincts of certain segments and political leaders of US society. Law enforcement and the badge though was not always on the right side of the law or the progress of history. And, it was not always African-Americans who suffered the denial of rights or worse abuses – there was a subsequent “New Orleans Massacre of 1891” where Italian-Americans were scapegoated and many faced mob justice. Ironically, there is now a third “New Orleans Massacre of 1973” recorded where NOPD were targeted by a black radical.
New Orleans is a beautiful city, and its culture, art, music and diversity have been an outstanding quality to further its beauty and what I see as greatness. When I came to New Orleans first in 1973 to play on a Tulane football squad just taking the initial steps toward integration, I and most of my teammates first recognized each other as team not denied by our race, ethnicity, religion or economic background. Probably in large part due to this, we did exceptionally well as a football squad being ranked among the best university football teams in the country – some went on to have exceptional careers as NFL players, or doctors and lawyers. (Read: “A Good Teammate Respects Differences – Sports Stars Beyond Caricature to Freedom of Expression.”)
Back then I was not aware of the history of “New Orleans Massacre” of 1866 or 1891. “Bloody Sunday” in Selma only seemed as a bump in the road onward for an America that was prepared to look forward. Unfortunately though, history has a way of pulling us back, particularly if the narrative is left to the haters and dividers. It is a lesson I relearned in the case of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the former Yugoslavia. (See: “Construction According to Putin’s Model from Bosnia to Europe?”)
The UN Human Rights Chief has asked in the aftermath of Ferguson whether US has institutionalized discrimination within its law enforcement. (See: Does the UN See US “Institutionalized Discrimination in the Wake of Ferguson?”)
To its credit, the US Justice Department undertook a comprehensive report, and at least in the case of the Ferguson Police Department found disturbing and condemning evidence that may have contributed both to the bigotry as well as mistrust by African-Americans of law enforcement frequently pierced in its mandate and claim to policing powers by stereotyping. We are not slaves of history but in order to free ourselves we must recognize it within our institutions and our own psychology and attitudes.