On May 3, 1963, Commissioner for Public Safety, “Bull” Connor, ordered the police and fire departments of Birmingham, Alabama to haze demonstrators who participated in the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s Birmingham campaign. Those potent images are always with me through relatives and friends who were there and others who have publicly remembered this moment in American history. The articulated needs of the Black poor and marginalized rallied thousands from around the country and the entire world turned to this catalytic moment. For days, fire hoses and canines were used to intimidate demonstrators. People from all over the country wanted to fight for the needs of America’s wrongly served. This event led to immediate shifts in the American South and created opportunity for Black people to integrate. Affirmative action grew; we could shit from the same toilet, we could begin to live where we wanted and demand a higher wage. The student sit-ins and peaceful protests were transformative for all of this country. Some of us are slightly better while others are a great deal better, but over the last six decades, things are still far from equal.
The question then is one of political potency. How do we think of the history of Black political engagement that required acts of unrestrained heroism and life-threatening engagement? What is the state of Civil Rights, especially now that there are splinters of class-based need, new marginalized groups, and the ever present belief that things are better for all because of the election of 2008?
An Epitaph for Civil Rights and Other Domesticated Structures (2011) offers a descent into my mourning. It is a chance to acknowledge the potent symbols of democracy and degradation and also ask the question, “Is our political structure as tidy as the fine China that we use to serve or the galvanized, sterile appliances that civil rights has given us access to?” My descent implicates me as an aesthete who seeks a glorious retelling of the most important American narrative shy of the Slave Trade. I offer the materials of the Black South Side or “the forgotten city” as an Epitaph for Civil Rights, in hopes of a historical and political redemption; redemption, even for me.