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Black men and women at the riverfront dock in Montgomery, Alabama demonstrated a display of fierce resistance to White racism on Saturday that has become an important moment in U.S. history.
The violent reaction of White Alabamians who decided to brutally beat a Black boat co-captain after he told them to move their boat represents more than an isolated incident. It reflects a crystal clear example of how the history and structure of systemic racism continues to impact this country nearly 60 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.
The viral response from Black men and women, some of them literally swimming to the rescue, ignites a sense of pride and power in a people who are used to their pain, trauma and suffering being front and center.
The caucacity: History tells White men they can act like this and get away with it
For some of the millions of people who watched the series of viral videos posted to social media on Sunday, one question burns in the mind: Why did those White folks think they could attack a Black man in broad daylight for doing his job and get away with it? The answer to that question requires an understanding of the Montgomery history that got us to this point.
Nearly 60 years after a white supremacist bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little Black girls, nearly 68 years after Rosa Parks and others led the Montgomery bus boycott to challenge segregation in the South, and 73 years after the last documented lynching in Montgomery, White Alabamians thought they could sail into a Black city and assault a Black man with impunity.
The present-day display of thuggish white privilege comes from a history of politically and socially-enforced racial domination.
Montgomery was a central point for the history of slavery, segregation and lynchings
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) studies the history of chattel slavery and racial violence in the U.S. The organization is spearheaded by Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer who has won several cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Slavery didn’t end in 1865. It just evolved. It turned into decades of terrorism, violence, and lynching,” Stevenson said during a 2017 lecture published by the Harvard Gazette.
His work has led to the creation of the National Lynching Memorial and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The national museums sit just a few miles from the riverfront dock where a group of White Alabamians attempted to jump a Black man after he told them to move their boat so another could dock.
History informs the present
Even after the United States outlawed the trafficking of human beings from Africa to become slaves on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the practice of slavery continued full steam ahead, and the demand for cotton only grew.
A quick glance at history shows Montgomery, Alabama became a prime destination to force Black men, women and children to work the cotton fields, helping to establish the United States as the main supplier of cotton to the world economy. At first by forcing enslaved Blacks on a march to Lower Alabama by foot, Montgomery grew as the foremost hub for cotton harvesting when the invention of the steamboat allowed enslavers to ship directly to the city via the Alabama river.
Generations later, a mob of White Alabamians sailed into the city via that same river expecting to have their way regardless of the commands of a Black city worker.
Using violence to enforce a racial, social order
Countless caricatures of the riverfront altercation have sprung up online, with some calling the Black men and women who aided the city worker heroes in the vein of Aquaman and Black Panther. Yet the possibility that the White mob of marauders could have stolen the Black city worker’s life echoes a much harsher reality illuminated by recent history in Montgomery.
Following the end of the Civil War and chattel slavery, Southern states adopted new rules of Jim Crow to police Black people through threat of imprisonment or death. Racial terror lynchings, however, represented a more sinister form of intimidation that was sanctioned by the fabricated social order.
Between 1877 and 1950, the EJI has documented over 4,400 lynchings of Black men, women and children, many of them witnessed by White crowds numbering in the thousands who extra-judiciously demanded blood and torture to keep Black people in their place.
Montgomery’s history of lynchings was almost repeated, But Black folks said hell no.
The highest number of lynchings of Black Freedmen and their descendants occurred in the South. According to the “Lynching in America” report and an interactive map from EJI, 359 lynchings occurred across Alabama during that time period, the fifth-highest of any state. EJI documented at least 12 lynchings in Montgomery County, the eighth-highest out of Alabama’s 67 counties.
While lynchings usually refer to hanging by a rope, Black martyrs were also burned alive, drawn and quartered, severed at the head, and beaten to death by White Alabamians emboldened by racist politicians and a system of racial hierarchy that dates back to 1619. The history of Montgomery and the rest of America proves it.
Many will say the incident on Saturday at Montgomery’s riverfront dock was nothing more than that—an isolated incident.
Each of the 359 lynchings in the state between 1877 and 1950 were also individual incidents, but collectively they represented an attempt to maintain an unnatural racial hierarchy. Whether consciously or unconsciously, those White men and women tried to bring it back, but Black folks said hell no.