But how can anyone in 2020 lead on this issue? Chapter 3 of Barack Obama’s book Dreams from My Father, talks about his awakening to the existence of systemic racism. In Chapter 8 he introduces us to his discovery of the fatalism from decades of frustrated hopes and promises denied that led to an ennui in Black communities as the industrial economy changed. Barack Obama’s book was first published in 1995, 25 years ago! Few people took his talk about systemic racism to heart.
For America’s Black mothers, the fear of loss and trauma is constantWhen photographer Jon Henry poses families as if in mourning, he’s calling out police violence that too often kills young Black men and terrifies their mothers.
When James Baldwin visited San Francisco in 1963 to film a documentary about U.S. racism, he encountered neighborhoods in turmoil: the city was seizing properties through eminent domain, razing them, and turning them over to private developers. Part of a massive, federal urban renewal program, nearly 5,000 families—no fewer than 20,000 residents, the majority of them people of color—were being displaced from rental homes, private property, and businesses in the Western Addition neighborhoods. Baldwin spoke to a Black teenager who had just lost his home and watched as his neighborhood was destroyed. He told Baldwin: “I’ve got no country. I’ve got no flag.” Soon after, Baldwin would say: “I couldn’t say you do. I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does.”
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods.
That young man was one of millions of Americans, disproportionately of color, who lost homes and communities through the federal urban renewal program. In discussing its human costs—colossal in scope and yet profoundly intimate—Baldwin helped popularize a phrase common in Black neighborhoods: urban renewal meant “Negro removal.” To steal people’s homes, Baldwin understood, was to shred the meaning of their citizenship by destroying their communities. And “the federal government,” he said, “is an accomplice to this fact.”
The 1921 Tulsa massacre and redlining have pierced the popular consciousness in recent years as ways that, through murder and markets, Black communities were destroyed. Curiously, urban renewal has so far remained on the margins of these discussions. Yet that program, in operation between 1949 and 1974, constituted one of the most sweeping and systematic instances of the modern destruction of Black property, neighborhoods, culture, community, businesses, and homes. At its peak in the mid-1960s, urban renewal displaced a minimum of 50,000 families annually—a 1964 House of Representatives report estimated the figure at more like 66,000.
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods. Federal subsidies went to more than 400 cities, suburbs, and towns, supported more than 1,200 projects, and displaced a minimum of 300,000 families—perhaps some 1.2 million Americans. While Black Americans were just 13 percent of the total population in 1960, they comprised at least 55 percent of those displaced. And, while we tend to remember urban renewal as a big-city program, pursued by titans such as Robert Moses in New York, the vast majority of projects were carried out in cities of 50,000 residents or fewer. These were small cities such as Greenville, North Carolina, where 207 families of color and 11 white families were displaced; Tupelo, Mississippi, where 217 families of color and 31 white families were displaced; and Demopolis, Alabama, where 55 families of color and 7 white families were displaced. Urban Renewal was spread as widely as today’s marches for social justice.
Today, as racially disparate rates of eviction, police violence, and capital flight raise urgent questions about the right to live in safe, thriving communities, a more complete reckoning with urban renewal’s record of destruction is necessary. Fortunately, because urban renewal was federally funded, Washington collected data about how projects unfolded; these records also allow us to reconstruct the many costs of urban renewal. Thanks to a recent comprehensive digital mapping project which I helped spearhead at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, it’s now possible for the first time to visualize how hundreds of urban renewal projects displaced tens of thousands of Americans. While private–public practices such as redlining help explain the staggering racial wealth gap, the history of urban renewal, though no less materially devastating, involved kinds of theft that are more difficult to quantify—thefts that amount to the destruction of entire lifeworlds. And, the political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today. Like redlining, profit— in this case, returns derived from boosting property taxes— continues to define the state’s interest in destabilizing Black neighborhoods.
The political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today.
As the United States emerged from World War II, many cities faced a housing crunch. Whites policed the racial boundaries of their neighborhoods, often violently. And so as greater numbers of African Americans migrated north in search of manufacturing jobs and to escape the South’s more formal system of Jim Crow, Black neighborhoods quickly became overcrowded. Residents were often subjected to exorbitant rents in derelict housing owned by slumlords. Families and friends boarded together. Others sublet rooms to meet extortionate rents. Segregated neighborhoods in northern cities became so crowded that many schools operated in two shifts—half of the students went in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. “Blight” was the term policymakers used to describe the worsening conditions structured by these national practices of urban segregation.
Meanwhile, city budgets teetered on the edge of fiscal cliffs, from which they had only just clawed their way back up. The economic exuberance of the 1920s had produced an urban and suburban “land boom,” as the Wall Street Journal put it—the overheated, last gasp of a period “of great and extended prosperity.” Cities fueled this speculation by taking on staggering levels of debt to support the infrastructure that made private property profitable. Net annual additions to municipal debt between 1923 and 1931 averaged over $845 million (or more than $13.5 billion in 2020 dollars), or enough, as one contemporary analyst accurately predicted, “to keep municipal finance in a turmoil for two decades or more.”
When the bottom fell out of the stock market, the consequences quickly ricocheted through urban land markets and city budgets. Property values plummeted, and tax delinquency skyrocketed. In the Great Depression, some 1,200 local or county governments defaulted or went bankrupt.
The New Deal helped stabilize the situation. Later, defense conversion and contracting in World War II injected desperately needed capital into cities. But cities still held considerable debt, and the New Deal’s public works agenda was not without its own considerable costs—while federally subsidized labor constructed many bridges, libraries, schools, and sewage plants, these public assets had also become new line items on municipal budgets. Moreover, as the Depression shuttered factories and the Great Migration brought new residents, officials worried that property tax revenues would never rise to meet these new burdens.
As early as the late 1930s, New Dealers were increasingly concerned that city budgets were fiscal time bombs that threatened to explode the entire progressive project. And they saw that local governments were already using New Deal works programs to remedy the situation. As Mabel Walker, an urban analyst, noted in 1938, in New York City, federally subsidized works projects had begun “siphoning off [the] slum population,” constructing affordable housing “in cheaper areas,” and might even facilitate the delivery of cleared land to “higher income groups” and “business and industry.” The result, she wrote, was “in effect a gigantic subsidy or bonus handed out to property holders in these slum areas” who could never have assembled enough private capital to reset urban land markets themselves. By 1938 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia estimated the city had torn down or gutted nearly 9,000 buildings. In Philadelphia federal support for clearance subsidized the demolition of 8,328 structures, releasing land with an estimated value of $11.5 million.
Federal leaders struck on the idea of using urban renewal to harness this haphazard redevelopment of cities and turn it into a more coherent, national program of planning, redevelopment, and housing. They also recognized that the federal government’s budget overwhelmingly depended on capital generated in cities in the form of confiscatory, progressive corporate and personal income tax rates. As one of urban renewal’s federal designers put it, short of “a nation-wide overhauling of our traditional arrangements for taxation and public expenditures,” “it seems only fair that the federal government should aid the local governments to the extent necessary to cover their urgently needed outlays.” Federally subsidized slum clearance and redevelopment could put cities back on the path to fiscal independence—and the federal government wouldn’t have to share much of its precious income tax revenue.
Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment.
World War II delayed the initiative, but the Housing Act of 1949 set aside significant financing to enable cities to build public housing and to demolish neglected, overcrowded neighborhoods, and antiquated or abandoned industrial properties. As in a number of New Deal programs, the subsidies would be offered in the form of bonded debt, which, after cities delivered a matching share, the federal government would retire. The goal with such a convoluted system of finance was to get capital moving through private financial institutions and to plausibly deemphasize the role of the national government. These were local programs.
This growing mishmash of priorities was a hallmark of midcentury liberalism, which forged cross-cutting relationships with many different interest groups. Some policymakers, for instance, worked closely with real estate interests and business groups and their allies in city halls. Together they hungered for the potential bonanza of private redevelopment and city property tax yields. Others were aligned with progressive public housing advocates or worked closely to cultivate the support of African American community leaders. When he signed the 1949 bill, a signature piece of his Fair Deal agenda, President Harry S. Truman heralded a new front in the war for civil rights: securing a decent home for all Americans. Early on, Black clergy and civil rights activists were among the initiatives’ most hopeful supporters.
Congress soon confronted the reality that few local governments were pursuing the program. Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment. But the act’s regulations mandated that housing projects were to be prioritized.
Rather than amend the legislation to offer greater incentives for housing, a revised version of the legislation, the Housing Act of 1954, created the federal Urban Renewal Administration, ceding to the interests of commercial lobbyists and mayors. The act loosened housing mandates and so unleashed a goldmine of federally financed business-oriented clearance and development.
Many of the developments that resulted are among their city’s most iconic. New York City’s Lincoln Square, anchored by Lincoln Center, displaced at least 4,000 families, many of whom were recent arrivals from Puerto Rico. (One imagines some of those residents had been displaced from Puerto Rico, too, where the federal government funded renewal projects in some 30 municipalities, displacing at least 10,000 families.) Pedro Quinones protested displacement by joining a movement called Save Our Homes. As he correctly understood, the program “has come to New York to ‘clean up’ minority groups.” But “we are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. . . . We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants to have what are called ‘better class people’ there.”
Other projects underwrote the emergence of the “meds and eds” economy that fuel so many cities today. The University of Chicago displaced more than 4,000 families in a series of projects. Clearance and construction of Oklahoma City’s University Medical Center displaced at least 700, disproportionately African American families. And Detroit’s massive Medical Center displaced around 2,000 families, again disproportionately of color. That campus now anchors the city’s fashionable Midtown neighborhood. The University of Pennsylvania spurred projects that displaced more than 700 African American families and a thriving Black business district. That community, called Black Bottom, had been owned or occupied by African Americans since at least the Civil War. Many of its men were Union Army veterans.
“We are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants ‘better class people’ there.”
Just counting families displaced, however, misses important dimensions of what made this so devastating. While they may not have been thriving in the terms that counted on municipal balance sheets, and while many residents were in dire economic straits, the informal, unplanned mix of public and private, business and culture often amounted to thriving communities. In New York, for instance, more than 600 businesses sat within the Lincoln Square project footprint, businesses that defined the commercial and cultural life of the neighborhood: diners and luncheonettes, candy stores and beauty parlors, a “Chinese goods” store, photography studios, a detective agency, and a funeral parlor.
For displaced businesses, federal law authorized a $2,500 reimbursement for “moving and fixtures” (the ceiling was ultimately abolished, but payments were still at local officials’ discretion). But business owners protested that the figure was a pittance compared to the costs associated with moving, reopening, and lost revenue in the meantime. Small businesses operated on vanishingly slim margins. One pharmacist estimated the cost of relocating and reopening was more like $20,000. Many displaced businesses simply closed down. These dynamics played out in small cities such as Rome, Georgia, too. Callie Martin had owned and operated Let’s Eat Café in the city’s cleared Black neighborhood. After packing up, moving, and reopening, she was barely scraping by. “I was able to give work to two people,” she told the local paper in 1971. “But now I’m just working by myself and not really making ends meet.” Renewal “really caused me to lose a decent living.” Hubert Holland, who lost his barber shop was clearer: “The way I see it, they destroyed the Negro businesses, what little they had.” Two years after clearance, just four of Rome’s 16 displaced Black businesses had reopened. As of 1963, some 39,399 businesses were reported to have been displaced through urban renewal alone (the federal highway program displaced thousands more). Urban renewal would run for another 11 years.
The vast majority of families displaced were renters: a 1968 study found that two thirds of all “relocatees” and three quarters of non-white families displaced were renters. While their landlords—slumlords in many cases—would be compensated for the loss of their property (and some quite handsomely), very often the families that actually lived in these buildings were not. Instead, federal statutes entitled these citizens to “relocation assistance”—vague guidelines that local authorities assist displaced families with finding temporary housing. The legislation “authorized” local governments to offer up to $300 in relocation grants to displaced families. That figure was raised to $500 in 1964, the first year that relocation funds and rental assistance were included elderly individuals. But in many cities, “relocation assistance” simply amounted to flyers with lists of local real estate brokers.
Because of baked-in local discretion, thousands and thousands of those who were displaced never received any financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them; as a result, displacement records constitute one of the archival silences of urban renewal. In one Cleveland neighborhood, 717 families’ homes were razed to clear land for industrial redevelopment. Of them, 224 moved to “unknown” locations (they were likely living with friends and family); 57 moved into other forms of “substandard” housing; and 301 still lived, as the city’s Black paper reported, “in the midst of abandoned housing.” Across a number of Cleveland’s renewal programs, officials admitted not knowing what had become of another 1,194 families.
Thousands of those who were displaced never received financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them.
The transfer of wealth, capital, and land from these communities to large business interests and developers only scratches the surface of the damage done by urban renewal. Ties of kinship and community were shattered. The loss of a sense of “rootedness” was devastating. Grady Abrams, who was displaced from the Five Points neighborhood in Augusta, Georgia, recalled the traumatic experience of his lost community. “It is one thing to leave your home, your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner.” He testified to the lasting trauma: “It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. In fact, my neighbors and I lost relationships forever. There is nothing of the past now in Five Points that I can show my grandchildren and great grandchildren that was part of my past. Nothing at all.”
All of these issues were known to federal administrators. As one 1965 report found, thanks to urban renewal, “Nonwhites have been forced into already crowded housing facilities, thereby spreading blight, aggravating ghettoes, and generally defeating the social purpose of urban renewal.” Displaced citizens, another report found, “are faced with having to reconstruct their lives. . . . They must terminate relationships and break routines that—especially for the elderly—have been equated with life itself.” These were connections to tradition, community, and history that the built environment makes manifest—the millions of memories and attachments we make to each other through spaces like street corners and schools, bars and barber shops.
As we try to reconstruct these histories, so far we only have comprehensive family displacement data for the years 1950–66. These figures dramatically undercount families of color because in many places Latin and Caribbean communities were counted as white, as in the Lincoln Center project and a number of clearance projects in California. Moreover, the government only counted families for displacement purposes, because they were the primary displacees entitled to the paltry and frequently underdelivered relocation assistance grants. Non-elderly single people and nonconforming households—by which officials meant gay and lesbian families and those in which unmarried women and men cohabitated—were not entitled to relocation assistance. They literally didn’t count.
Rather than solve urban decay, urban renewal often exacerbated the problems. Many projects took years to complete. In the state of New York, it took an average of 8 years to develop a project; in New York City the average was 13 years. Those who stuck around their old neighborhoods often lived among boarded-up and vacated buildings or vacant lots. Not surprisingly, crime, which often hadn’t been much of a problem before, frequently took hold. Once optimistic Black residents—who had hoped to take their relocation checks out to the suburbs or use them to secure new homes in their old neighborhoods—couldn’t wait to get out. As one Black property-owner in Cleveland put it, “I’d move tonight if the city will buy my property. I’m ready to get out.” But in Cleveland, as in other cities, the local urban renewal office often intentionally delayed purchasing properties. In the mid-1960s, the federal Civil Rights Commission found that city officials allowed targeted properties to fall into further disrepair in order to secure a lower purchasing price ahead of demolition.
As historian Arnold Hirsch found in his landmark study of midcentury Chicago, clearing out African Americans was often the entire point: as the Chancellor of the University of Chicago put it, the program would act as “an effective screening tool” and as a way of “cutting down the number of Negroes” in the neighborhood surrounding the elite institution. That said, communities of color, immigrants, and the elderly were not alone in shouldering the costs of urban renewal. Many working-class white communities were devastated as well. While white families had more options for neighborhoods where they could move, and greater access to traditional mortgages, the loss of community and history reverberated across the color line.
“It is one thing to leave your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner. It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. There is nothing of the past now that I can show my grandchildren.”
In Boston, the majority of families displaced to build the city’s new West End and brutalist Government Center complex—nearly 70 percent—were white. Though even that figure suggests that nonwhite Bostonians were disproportionately displaced: as of 1960, they were still less than 10 percent of the city’s population. Still, the sheer number of white families displaced in Boston, more than 7,000, is staggering. And, as in Black neighborhoods, class played an important role in leading officials to choose certain communities—those with fewer resources and less political clout suffered greater losses. In Brooklyn, for instance, white, middle-class gentrifiers successfully blocked or modified key aspects of Robert Moses’s redevelopment plans for Brooklyn Heights and neighborhoods farther south. In the process, they also taught city planners about the potential value to be gained through preservation and gentrification. From these clashes emerged new, subtler and more recognizably modern forms of urban renewal: code enforcement, historical zoning, targeted policing.
In total, at least 550 square miles of U.S. cities were razed through urban renewal. The scale of displacement in big cities was staggering. Washington, D.C.’s Southwest projects displaced more than 4,000 families. The Lubbock, Texas, Coronado project forced out nearly 1,300 families and, federal data shows, managed not to touch a single white family. The country’s single largest project in terms of dislocation was Cincinnati’s Kenyon-Barr, which displaced at least 4,953 families—4,824 of which were African American. However, the intimacy of clearance in small city renewal projects was no less devastating. Communities that had lived and worked beside each other were ripped apart. Tiny Danville, Kentucky—population 9,010 in 1960—cleared out its lone Black residential and commercial district, displacing businesses and at least 48 families of color. When violence erupted in smaller cities in Georgia—Augusta in 1970 and Rome in 1971—a younger generation of African Americans in these communities signaled that discriminatory policing and displacement continued to define their second-class citizenship.
Throughout, local and federal officials kept their eyes on the bottom line: property values and property tax revenues. As the commissioner of the federal Urban Renewal Administration testified before Congress, the leading rationale for the program had “always been to sustain and increase the capacity of cities to meet rising needs for essential public facilities and services”; “private enterprise could not do it alone”; and “the impact of urban renewal upon taxable values is particularly important.” Local officials enthusiastically ratified these commitments. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley expected the city’s tax harvest on renewed land to rise from $2.3 million to $4.8 million. The massive Southwest, Washington, D.C., renewal project—estimated to displace some 2,500 black families—was expected to produce nearly $5 million in tax revenue annually against less than $600,000 prior to clearance. Even Tiny Calexico, California, population 7,900 in 1960, situated on the California–Mexico border, predicted a nearly fourfold uptick in property tax yields on its renewed land, from $4,400 to $16,400.
Many projects failed, leaving cities under pressure to boost property values through aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, the DOJ found that Ferguson’s harsh policing of Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue.
Yet, for many cities, these forecasts were dead wrong. Many projects failed to materialize, often removing otherwise “productive” properties from the tax rolls. The result has been even greater pressure on municipal governments to boost property values and tax yields, goals they have often pursued through greater borrowing and aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by Ferguson, Missouri, police, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the city’s harsh policing of its Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue. The recent allegations that Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville police was tied to a special police squad—“Place Based Investigations”—makes the linkage between policing, municipal revenue creation, and redevelopment even clearer. According to attorneys for Taylor’s family, the warrants associated with narcotics investigations were meant to address one of the “primary roadblocks” to a multimillion-dollar redevelopment initiative. As the attorneys put it, “When the layers are peeled back, the origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards.”
The young man James Baldwin spoke with in San Francisco understood that the fullest expressions of identity and citizenship rest on the most intimate foundations—the spaces of home and community through which our lives take on meaning, a neighborhood to which we might return, memories created and that come rushing back. Returning to such spaces enables us to rediscover our roots, collapsing, for a moment, the distance between past and present. Urban renewal robbed generations of these formative spaces—and much more besides.
As today’s movements for social justice grapple with state-sanctioned violence on communities of color, we must also be alert to the fact that policing is but one branch of the local state. While the audacity and scale of urban renewal was exceptional, the structural conditions and fiscal-political logics that created it are still with us. Indeed, today’s austerity and municipal debt only increases urban budgetary pressures, which helps explain why cities led by Black mayors and councils are as likely as any other to pursue aggressive displacement and redevelopment schemes. These powerful dynamics also help explain why city officials resist calls for defunding the police: they guard present property values and are one among a number of tools for producing the property values of the future. Focusing on policing alone, then, misses this broader picture—of urban real estate, the fiscal bases of city governance, and capitalism. Producing flourishing Black communities today means addressing all of these forces at once.
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IN THE SPRING OF 2011, the brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were the talk of Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. Some people said that the brothers were righteous; others thought that they had lost their minds. That March, Melvin and Licurtis stood in court and refused to leave the land that they had lived on all their lives, a portion of which had, without their knowledge or consent, been sold to developers years before. The brothers were among dozens of Reels family members who considered the land theirs, but Melvin and Licurtis had a particular stake in it. Melvin, who was 64, with loose black curls combed into a ponytail, ran a club there and lived in an apartment above it. He’d established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land, and his sense of self was tied to the water. Licurtis, who was 53, had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s.
Their great-grandfather had bought the land a hundred years earlier, when he was a generation removed from slavery. The property — 65 marshy acres that ran along Silver Dollar Road, from the woods to the river’s sandy shore — was racked by storms. Some called it the bottom, or the end of the world. Melvin and Licurtis’ grandfather Mitchell Reels was a deacon; he farmed watermelons, beets and peas, and raised chickens and hogs. Churches held tent revivals on the waterfront, and kids played in the river, a prime spot for catching red-tailed shrimp and crabs bigger than shoes. During the later years of racial-segregation laws, the land was home to the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. “It’s our own little black country club,” Melvin and Licurtis’ sister Mamie liked to say. In 1970, when Mitchell died, he had one final wish. “Whatever you do,” he told his family on the night that he passed away, “don’t let the white man have the land.”
Mitchell didn’t trust the courts, so he didn’t leave a will. Instead, he let the land become heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. The practice began during Reconstruction, when many African Americans didn’t have access to the legal system, and it continued through the Jim Crow era, when black communities were suspicious of white Southern courts. In the United States today, 76% of African Americans do not have a will, more than twice the percentage of white Americans.
Many assume that not having a will keeps land in the family. In reality, it jeopardizes ownership. David Dietrich, a former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Property Preservation Task Force, has called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” Heirs’ property is estimated to make up more than a third of Southern black-owned land — 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion. These landowners are vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. Black families watch as their land is auctioned on courthouse steps or forced into a sale against their will.
Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among black families is about a tenth that of white families. Now, as reparations have become a subject of national debate, the issue of black land loss is receiving renewed attention. A group of economists and statisticians recently calculated that, since 1910, black families have been stripped of hundreds of billions of dollars because of lost land. Nathan Rosenberg, a lawyer and a researcher in the group, told me, “If you want to understand wealth and inequality in this country, you have to understand black land loss.”
By the time of Melvin and Licurtis’ hearing in 2011, they had spent decades fighting to keep the waterfront on Silver Dollar Road. They’d been warned that they would go to jail if they didn’t comply with a court order to stay off the land, and they felt betrayed by the laws that had allowed it to be taken from them. They had been baptized in that water. “You going to go there, take my dreams from me like that?” Licurtis asked on the stand. “How about it was you?”
They expected to argue their case in court that day. Instead, the judge ordered them sent to jail, for civil contempt. Hearing the ruling, Melvin handed his 83-year-old mother, Gertrude, his flip phone and his gold watch. As the eldest son, he had promised relatives that he would assume responsibility for the family. “I can take it,” he said. Licurtis looked at the floor and shook his head. He had thought he’d be home by the afternoon; he’d even left his house unlocked. The bailiff, who had never booked anyone in civil superior court, had only one set of handcuffs. She put a cuff on each brother’s wrist, and led them out the back door. The brothers hadn’t been charged with a crime or given a jury trial. Still, they believed so strongly in their right to the property that they spent the next eight years fighting the case from jail, becoming two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history.
LAND WAS AN IDEOLOGICAL PRIORITY for black families after the Civil War, when nearly 4 million people were freed from slavery. On Jan. 12, 1865, just before emancipation, the Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman met with 20 black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, and asked them what they needed. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land,” their spokesperson, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, told Sherman. Freedom, he said, was “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.” Sherman issued a special field order declaring that 400,000 acres formerly held by Confederates be given to African Americans — what came to be known as the promise of “40 acres and a mule.” The following year, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, opening up an additional 46 million acres of public land for Union supporters and freed people.
The promises never materialized. In 1876, near the end of Reconstruction, only about 5% of black families in the Deep South owned land. But a new group of black landowners soon established themselves. Many had experience in the fields, and they began buying farms, often in places with arid or swampy soil, especially along the coast. By 1920, African Americans, who made up 10% of the population, represented 14% of Southern farm owners.
A white-supremacist backlash spread across the South. At the end of the 19th century, members of a movement who called themselves Whitecaps, led by poor white farmers, accosted black landowners at night, beating them or threatening murder if they didn’t abandon their homes. In Lincoln County, Mississippi, Whitecaps killed a man named Henry List, and more than 50 African Americans fled the town in a single day. Over two months in 1912, violent white mobs in Forsyth County, Georgia, drove out almost the entire black population — more than a thousand people. Ray Winbush, the director of the Institute for Urban Research, at Morgan State University, told me, “There is this idea that most blacks were lynched because they did something untoward to a young woman. That’s not true. Most black men were lynched between 1890 and 1920 because whites wanted their land.”
By the second half of the 20th century, a new form of dispossession had emerged, officially sanctioned by the courts and targeting heirs’ property owners without clear titles. These landowners are exposed in a variety of ways. They don’t qualify for certain Department of Agriculture loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting. Individual heirs can’t use their land as collateral with banks and other institutions, and so are denied private financing and federal home-improvement loans. They generally aren’t eligible for disaster relief. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina laid bare the extent of the problem in New Orleans, where 25,000 families who applied for rebuilding grants had heirs’ property. One Louisiana real-estate attorney estimated that up to $165 million of recovery funds were never claimed because of title issues.
Heirs are rarely aware of the tenuous nature of their ownership. Even when they are, clearing a title is often an unaffordable and complex process, which requires tracking down every living heir, and there are few lawyers who specialize in the field. Nonprofits often pick up the slack. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, has cleared more than 200 titles in the past decade, almost all of them for African-American families, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Josh Walden, the center’s chief operating officer, told me that it had mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina. He said that investors hoping to build golf courses or hotels can target these plots. “We had to be really mindful that we didn’t share those maps with anyone, because otherwise they’d be a shopping catalogue,” he told me. “And it’s not as if it dries up. New heirs’ property is being created every day.”
Through interviews and courthouse records, I analyzed more than three dozen cases from recent years in which heirs’ property owners lost land — land that, for many of them, was not only their sole asset but also a critical part of their heritage and their sense of home. The problem has been especially acute in Carteret County. Beaufort, the county seat, was once the site of a major refugee camp for freed people. Black families eventually built homes near where the tents had stood. But in the 1970s the town became a tourist destination, with upscale restaurants, boutiques, and docks for yachts. Real-estate values surged, and out-of-town speculators flooded the county. David Cecelski, a historian of the North Carolina coast, told me, “You can’t talk to an African-American family who owned land in those counties and not find a story where they feel like land was taken from them against their will, through legal trickery.”
BEAUFORT IS A QUAINT TOWN, lined with coastal cottages and Colonial homes. When I arrived, last fall, I drove 20 miles to Silver Dollar Road, where Melvin and Licurtis’ family lives in dozens of trailers and wood-panelled houses, scattered under pine and gum trees.
Melvin and Licurtis’ mother, Gertrude, greeted me at her house and led me into her living room, where porcelain angels lined one wall. Gertrude is tough and quiet, her high voice muffled by tobacco that she packs into her cheek. People call her Mrs. Big Shit. “It’s because I didn’t pay them no mind,” she told me. The last of Mitchell Reels’ children to remain on the property, she is the family matriarch. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews let themselves into her house to pick up mail or take out her trash. Around dinnertime on the day I was there, the trickle of visitors turned into a crowd. Gertrude went into the kitchen, coated fish fillets with cornmeal and fried them for everyone.
Her daughter Mamie told me that Melvin and Licurtis had revelled in the land as kids, playing among the inky eels and conch shells. In the evenings, the brothers would sit on the porch with their cousins, a rag burning to keep the mosquitoes away. On weekends, a pastor strode down the dirt street, robed in white, his congregants singing “Wade in the Water.” Licurtis was a shy, humble kid who liked working in the cornfields. Melvin was his opposite. “When the school bus showed up, when he come home, the crowd would come with him and stay all night,” Gertrude said. When Melvin was 9, he built a boat from pine planks and began tugging it along the shore. A neighbor offered to teach him how to shrimp, and, in the summer, Melvin dropped nets off the man’s trawler. He left school in the 10th grade; his catch was bringing in around a thousand dollars a week. He developed a taste for sleek cars, big jewelry and women, and started buying his siblings Chuck Taylors and Timberlands.
Gertrude was the administrator of the estate. She’d left school in the eighth grade and wasn’t accustomed to navigating the judicial system, but after Mitchell’s death she secured a court ruling declaring that the land belonged to his heirs. The judgment read, “The surviving eleven (11) children or descendants of children of Mitchell Reels are the owners of the lands exclusive of any other claim of any one.”
In 1978, Gertrude’s uncle Shedrick Reels tried to carve out for himself the most valuable slice of land, on the river. He used a legal doctrine called adverse possession, which required him to prove that he had occupied the waterfront for years, continuously and publicly, against the owners’ wishes. Shedrick, who went by Shade and worked as a tire salesman in New Jersey, hadn’t lived on Silver Dollar Road in 27 years. But he claimed that “tenants” had stood in for him — he had built a house on the waterfront in 1950, and relatives had rented it or run it as a club at various times since. Some figured that it was Shade’s land. He also produced a deed that his father, Elijah, had given him in 1950, even though Mitchell, another of Elijah’s sons, had owned the land at the time.
Shade made his argument through an obscure law called the Torrens Act. Under Torrens, Shade didn’t have to abide by the formal rules of a court. Instead, he could simply prove adverse possession to a lawyer, whom the court appointed, and whom he paid. The Torrens Act has long had a bad reputation, especially in Carteret. “It’s a legal way to steal land,” Theodore Barnes, a land broker there, told me. The law was intended to help clear up muddled titles, but, in 1932, a law professor at the University of North Carolina found that it had been co-opted by big business. One lawyer said that people saw it as a scheme “whereby rich men could seize the lands of the poor.” Even Shade’s lawyer, Nelson Taylor, acknowledged that it was abused; he told me that his own grandfather had lost a 50-acre plot to Torrens. “First time he knew anything about it was when somebody told him that he didn’t own it anymore,” Taylor said. “That was happening more often than it ever should have.”
Mitchell’s kids and grandkids were puzzled that Shade’s maneuver was legal—they had Mitchell’s deed and a court order declaring that the land was theirs. And they had all grown up on that waterfront. “How can they take this land from us and we on it?” Melvin said. “We been there all our days.” Gertrude’s brother Calvin, who handled legal matters for the family, hired Claud Wheatly III, the son of one of the most powerful lawyers in town, to represent the siblings at a Torrens hearing about the claim. Gertrude, Melvin and his cousin Ralphele Reels, the only surviving heirs who attended the hearing, said that they left confident that the waterfront hadn’t gone to Shade. “No one in the family thought at the end of the day that it was his land and we were going to walk away from it forever,” Ralphele told me.
Wheatly told me a different story. In his memory, the Torrens hearing was chaotic, but the heirs agreed to give Shade, who has since died, the waterfront. When I pressed Wheatly, he conceded that not all the heirs liked the outcome, but he said that Calvin had consented. “I would have been upset if Calvin had not notified them, because I generally don’t get involved in those things without having a family representative in charge,” he told me. He said that he never had a written agreement with Calvin — just a conversation. (Calvin died shortly after the hearing.) The lawyer examining Shade’s case granted him the waterfront, and Wheatly signed off on the decision. The Reels family, though it didn’t yet know it, had lost the rights to the land on the shoreline.
Licurtis had set up a trailer near the river a couple of years earlier, in 1977. He was working as a brick mason and often hosted men from the neighborhood for Budweiser and beans in the evenings. Melvin had become the center of a local economy on the shore. He taught the men how to work the water, and he paid the women to prepare his catch, pressing the soft crevice above the shrimps’ eyes and popping off their heads. He had a son, Little Melvin, and in the summers his nephews and cousins came to the beach, too. One morning, he took eight of them out on the water and then announced that he’d made a mistake: only four were allowed on the boat. He threw them overboard one by one. “We’re thinking, We’re gonna drown,” one cousin told me. “And he jumps off the boat with us and teaches us how to swim.”
In 1982, Melvin and Gertrude received a trespassing notice from Shade. They took it to a lawyer, who informed them that Shade now legally owned a little more than 13 acres of the 65-acre plot. The family was stunned, and suspicious of the claim’s validity. Many of the tenants listed to prove Shade’s continuous possession were vague or unrecognizable, like “Mitchell Reels’ boy,” or “Julian Leonard,” whom Gertrude had never heard of. (She had a sister named Julia and a brother named Leonard but no memory of either one living on the waterfront.) The lawyer who granted the land to Shade had also never reported the original court ruling that Gertrude had won, as he should have done.
Shade’s ownership would be almost impossible to overturn. There’s a one-year window to appeal a Torrens decision in North Carolina, and the family had missed it by two years. Soon afterward, Shade sold the land to developers.
THE REELSES KNEW that if condos or a marina were built on the waterfront the remaining 50 acres of Silver Dollar Road could be taxed not as small homes on swampy fields but as a high-end resort. If they fell behind on the higher taxes, the county could auction off their property. “It would break our family right up,” Melvin told me. “You leave here, you got no more freedom.”
This kind of tax sale has a long history in the dispossession of heirs’ property owners. In 1992, the NAACP accused local officials of intentionally inflating taxes to push out black families on Daufuskie, a South Carolina sea island that has become one of the hottest real-estate markets on the Atlantic coast. Property taxes had gone up as much as 700% in a single decade. “It is clear that the county has pursued a pattern of conduct that disproportionately displaces or evicts African-Americans from Daufuskie, thereby segregating the island and the county as a whole,” the NAACP wrote to county officials. Nearby Hilton Head, which as recently as two decades ago comprised several thousand acres of heirs’ property, now, by one estimate, has a mere 200 such acres left. Investors fly into the county each October to bid on tax-delinquent properties in a local gymnasium.
In the upscale town of Summerville, South Carolina, I met Wendy Reed, who, in 2012, was late paying $83.81 in taxes on the lot she had lived on for nearly four decades. A former state politician named Thomas Limehouse, who owned a luxury hotel nearby, bought Reed’s property at a tax sale for $2,000, about an eighth of its value. Reed had a year to redeem her property, but, when she tried to pay her debt, officials told her that she couldn’t get the land back, because she wasn’t officially listed as her grandmother’s heir; she’d have to go through probate court. Here she faced another obstacle: heirs in South Carolina have 10 years to probate an estate after the death of the owner, and Reed’s grandmother had died 30 years before. Tax clerks in the county estimate that each year they send about a quarter of the people who try to redeem delinquent property to probate court because they aren’t listed on the deed or named by the court as an heir. Limehouse told me, “To not probate the estate and not pay the taxes shouldn’t be a reason for special dispensation. When you let things go, you can’t blame the county.” Reed has been fighting the case in court since 2014. “I’m still not leaving,” she told me. “You’ll have to pack my stuff and put me off.”
FOR YEARS, the conflict on Silver Dollar Road was dormant, and Melvin continued expanding his businesses. Each week, Gertrude packed two-pound bags of shrimp to sell at the farmers’ market, along with petunias and gardenias from her yard. Melvin was also remodelling a night club, Fantasy Island, on the shore. He’d decked it out with disco lights and painted it white, he said, so that “on the water it would shine like gold.”
The majority of the property remained in the family, including the land on which Gertrude’s house stood. But Licurtis had been building a home in place of his trailer on the contested waterfront. “It was the most pretty spot,” he told me. “I’d walk to the water, and look at my yard, and see how beautiful it was.” He’d collected the signatures of other heirs to prove that he had permission, and registered a deed.
When real-estate agents or speculators came to the shore, Melvin tried to scare them away. A developer told me that once, when he showed the property to potential buyers, “Melvin had a roof rack behind his pickup, jumped out, snatched a gun out.” It wasn’t the only time that Melvin took out his rifle. “You show people that you got to protect yourself,” he told me. “Any fool who wouldn’t do that would be crazy.” His instinct had always been to confront a crisis head on. When hurricanes came through and most people sought higher ground, he’d go out to his trawler and steer it into the storm.
The Reels family began to believe that there was a conspiracy against them. They watched Jet Skis crawl slowly past in the river and shiny SUVs drive down Silver Dollar Road; they suspected that people were scouting the property. Melvin said that he received phone calls from mysterious men issuing threats. “I thought people were out to get me,” he said. Gertrude remembers that, one day at the farmers’ market, a white customer sneered that she was the only thing standing in the way of development.
In 1986, Billie Dean Brown, a partner at a real-estate investment company called Adams Creek Associates, had bought Shade’s waterfront plot sight unseen to divide and sell. Brown was attracted to the strength of the Torrens title, which he knew was effectively incontrovertible. When he discovered that Melvin and Licurtis lived on the property, he wasn’t troubled. Brown was known among colleagues as Little Caesar — a small man who finished any job he started. In the early 2000s, he hired a lawyer: Claud Wheatly III. The man once tasked with protecting the Reels family’s land was now being paid to evict them from it. Melvin and Licurtis saw Wheatly’s involvement as a clear conflict of interest. Their lawyers tried to disqualify Wheatly, arguing that he was breaching confidentiality and switching sides, but the judge denied the motions.
Earlier this year, I met Wheatly in his office, a few blocks from the county courthouse. Tall and imposing, he has a ruddy face and a teal-blue stare. We sat under the head of a stuffed warthog, and he chewed tobacco as we spoke. He told me that he had no confidential information about the Reelses, and that he’d never represented Melvin and Licurtis; he’d represented their mother and her siblings. “Melvin won’t own one square inch until his mother dies,” he said.
In 2004, Wheatly got a court order prohibiting the brothers from going on the waterfront property. The Reels family began a series of appeals and filings asking for the decree to be set aside, but judge after judge ruled that the family had waited too long to contest the Torrens decision.
Licurtis didn’t talk about the case, and tried to hide his stress. But, Mamie told me, “you could see him wearing it.” Occasionally, she would catch a glimpse of him pacing the road early in the morning. When he first understood that he could face time in jail for remaining in his house, he tried removing the supports underneath it, thinking that he could hire someone to wrench the foundation from the mud and move it elsewhere. Gertrude wouldn’t allow him to go through with it. “You’re not going with the house nowhere,” she told him. “That’s yours.”
At 4 a.m. on a spring day in 2007, Melvin was asleep in his apartment above the club when he heard a boom, like a crash of thunder. He went to the shore and found that his trawler, named Nancy J., was sinking. Yellow plastic gloves, canned beans and wooden crab boxes floated in the water. There was a large hole in the hull, and Melvin realized that the boom had been an explosion. He filed a report with the sheriff’s office, but it never confirmed whether an explosive was used or whether it was an accident, and no charges were filed. Melvin began to wake with a start at night, pull out his flashlight, and scan the fields for intruders.
By the time of the brothers’ hearing in 2011, Melvin had lost so much weight that Licurtis joked that he could store water in the caverns by his collarbones. The family had come to accept that the dispute wasn’t going away. If the brothers had to go to jail, they would. Even after the judge in the hearing found them guilty of civil contempt, Melvin said, “I ain’t backing down.” Licurtis called home later that day. “It’ll be all right,” he told Gertrude. “We’ll be home soon.”
ONE OF THE MOST PERNICIOUS legal mechanisms used to dispossess heirs’ property owners is called a partition action. In the course of generations, heirs tend to disperse and lose any connection to the land. Speculators can buy off the interest of a single heir, and just one heir or speculator, no matter how minute his share, can force the sale of an entire plot through the courts. Andrew Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, told me that even small financial incentives can have the effect of turning relatives against one another, and developers exploit these divisions. “You need to have some willing participation from black families — driven by the desire to profit off their land holdings,” Kahrl said. “But it does boil down to greed and abuse of power and the way in which Americans’ history of racial inequality can be used to the advantage of developers.” As the Reels family grew over time, the threat of a partition sale mounted; if one heir decided to sell, the whole property would likely go to auction at a price that none of them could pay.
When courts originally gained the authority to order a partition sale, around the time of the Civil War, the Wisconsin Supreme Court called it “an extraordinary and dangerous power” that should be used sparingly. In the past several decades, many courts have favored such sales, arguing that the value of a property in its entirety is greater than the value of it in pieces. But the sales are often speedy and poorly advertised, and tend to fetch below-market prices.
On the coast of North Carolina, I met Billy Freeman, who grew up working in the parking lot of his uncle’s beachside dance hall, Monte Carlo by the Sea. His family, which once owned thousands of acres, ran the largest black beach in the state, with juke joints and crab shacks, an amusement park and a three-story hotel. But, over the decades, developers acquired interests from other heirs, and, in 2008, one firm petitioned the court for a sale of the whole property. Freeman attempted to fight the partition for years. “I didn’t want to lose the land, but I felt like everybody else had sold,” he told me. In 2016, the beach, which covered 170 acres, was sold to the development firm for $1.4 million. On neighboring beaches, that sum could buy a tiny fraction of a parcel so large. Freeman got only $30,000.
The lost property isn’t just money; it’s also identity. In one case that I examined, the mining company PCS Phosphate forced the sale of a 40-acre plot, which contained a family cemetery, against the wishes of several heirs, whose ancestors had been enslaved on the property. (A spokesperson for the company told me that it is a “law-abiding corporate citizen.”)
Some speculators use questionable tactics to acquire property. When Jessica Wiggins’ uncle called her to say that a man was trying to buy his interest in their family’s land, she didn’t believe him; he had dementia. Then, in 2015, she learned that a company called Aldonia Farms had purchased the interests of four heirs, including her uncle, and had filed a partition action. “What got me was we had no knowledge of this person,” Wiggins told me, of the man who ran Aldonia. (Jonathan S. Phillips, who now runs Aldonia Farms, told me that he wasn’t there at the time of the purchase, and that he’s confident no one would have taken advantage of the uncle’s dementia.) Wiggins was devastated; the 18 acres of woods and farmland that held her great-grandmother’s house was the place that she had felt safest as a child. The remaining heirs still owned 61% of the property, but there was little that they could do to prevent a sale. When I visited the land with Wiggins, her great-grandmother’s house had been cleared, and Aldonia Farms had erected a gate. Phillips told me, “Our intention was not to keep them out but to be good stewards of the property and keep it from being littered on and vandalized.”
Last fall, Wiggins and her relatives gathered for the auction of the property on the courthouse steps in the town of Windsor. A bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stood behind them. Wiggins’ cousin Danita Pugh walked up to Aldonia Farms’ lawyer and pulled her deed out of an envelope. “You’re telling me that they’re going to auction it off after showing you a deed?” she said. “I’m going to come out and say it. The white man takes the land from the black.”
Hundreds of partition actions are filed in North Carolina every year. Carteret County, which has a population of 70,000, has one of the highest per-capita rates in the state. I read through every Carteret partition case concerning heirs’ property from the past decade, and found that 42% of the cases involved black families, despite the fact that only 6% of Carteret’s population is black. Heirs not only regularly lose their land; they are also required to pay the legal fees of those who bring the partition cases. In 2008, Janice Dyer, a research associate at Auburn University, published a study of these actions in Macon County, Alabama. She told me that the lack of secure ownership locks black families out of the wealth in their property. “The Southeast has these amazing natural resources: timber, land, great fishing,” she said. “If somebody could snap their fingers and clear up all these titles, how much richer would the region be?”
Thomas W. Mitchell, a property-law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, has drafted legislation aimed at reforming this system, which has now passed in 14 states. He told me that heirs’ property owners, particularly those who are African-American, tend to be “land rich and cash poor,” making it difficult for them to keep the land in a sale. “They don’t have the resources to make competitive bids, and they can’t even use their heirs’ property as collateral to get a loan to participate in the bidding more effectively,” he said. His law, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, gives family members the first option to buy, sends most sales to the open market, and mandates that courts, in their decisions to order sales, weigh non-economic factors, such as the consequences of eviction and whether the property has historic value. North Carolina is one of eight states in the South that has held out against these reforms. The state also hasn’t repealed the Torrens Act. It is one of fewer than a dozen states where the law is still on the books.
Last year, Congress passed the Agricultural Improvement Act, which, among other things, allows heirs’ property owners to apply for Department of Agriculture programs using nontraditional paperwork, such as a written agreement between heirs. “The alternative documentation is really, really important as a precedent,” Lorette Picciano, the executive director of Rural Coalition, a group that advocated for the reform, told me. “The next thing we need to do is make sure this happens with FEMA, and flood insurance, and housing programs.” The bill also includes a lending program for heirs’ property owners, which will make it easier for them to clear titles and develop succession plans. But no federal funding has been allocated for these loans.
THE FIRST TIME I MET Melvin and Licurtis in the Carteret jail, Melvin filled the entire frame of the visiting-room window. He is a forceful presence, and prone to exaggeration. His hair, neatly combed, was streaked with silver. He didn’t blink as he spoke. Licurtis had been given a diagnosis of diabetes, and leaned against a stool for support. He still acted like a younger brother, never interrupting Melvin or challenging his memory. He told me that, at night, he dreamed of the shore, of storms blowing through his house. “The water rising,” Licurtis said. “And I couldn’t do nothing about it.” He was worried about his mother. “If they took this land from my mama at her age, and she’d been farming it all her life, you know that would kill her,” he told me.
The brothers were seen as local heroes for resisting the court order. “They want to break your spirits,” their niece Kim Duhon wrote to them. “God had you both picked out for this.” Even strangers wrote. “When I was a kid, it used to sadden me that white folks had Radio Island, Atlantic Beach, Sea Gate and other places to swim, but we didn’t!” one letter from a local woman read. She wrote that, when she was finally taken to Silver Dollar Road, “I remember seeing nothing but my own kind (Blk Folks!).”
In North Carolina, civil contempt is most commonly used to force defendants to pay child support. When the ruling requires a defendant to pay money other than child support, a new hearing is held every 90 days. After the first 90 days had passed, Melvin asked a friend in jail to write a letter on his behalf. (Melvin couldn’t read well, and he needed help writing.) “I’ve spent 91 days on a 90 day sentence and I don’t understand why,” the letter read. “Please explain this to me! So I can go home, back to work. Sincerely, Melvin Davis.” The brothers learned that although Billie Dean Brown’s lawyer had asked for 90 days, the court had decided that there would be no time restriction on their case, and that they could be jailed until they presented evidence that they had removed their homes. They continued to hold out. Brown wasn’t demolishing their buildings while they were incarcerated, and so they believed that they still had a shot at convincing the courts that the land was theirs. That fall, Brown told the Charlotte Observer, “I made up my mind, I will die and burn in hell before I walk away from this thing.” When I reached Brown recently, he told me that he was in an impossible position. “We’ve had several offers from buyers, but once they learned of the situation they withdrew,” he said.
Three months turned into six, and a year turned into several. Jail began to take a toll on the brothers. The facility was designed for short stays, with no time outside, and nowhere to exercise. They couldn’t be transferred to a prison, because they hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Early on, Melvin mediated fights between inmates and persuaded them to sneak in hair ties for him. But over time he stopped taking care of his appearance and became withdrawn. He ranted about the stolen land, though he couldn’t quite nail down who the enemy was: Shade or Wheatly or Brown, the sheriffs or the courts or the county. The brothers slept head to head in neighboring beds. “Melvin would say crazy things,” Licurtis told me. “Lay on down and go to sleep, wake up, and say the same thing again. It wore me down.” Melvin is proud and guarded, but he told me that the case had broken him. “I’m not ashamed to own it,” he said. “This has messed my mind up.”
Without the brothers, Silver Dollar Road lost its pulse. Mamie kept her blinds down; she couldn’t stand to see the deserted waterfront. At night, she studied her brothers’ case, thumbing through the court files and printing out the definitions of words that she didn’t understand, like “rescind” and “contempt.” She filled a binder with relatives’ obituaries, so that once her brothers got out they would have a record of who had passed away. When Claud Wheatly’s father died, she added his obituary. “I kept him for history,” she told me.
Gertrude didn’t have the spirit to farm. Most days, she sat in a tangerine armchair by her window, cracking peanuts or watching the shore like a guard. This winter, we looked out in silence as Brown’s caretaker drove through the property. Melvin and Licurtis wouldn’t allow Gertrude to visit them in jail. Licurtis said that “it hurt so bad” to see her leave.
Other members of the family — Melvin and Licurtis’ brother Billy, their nephew Roderick and their cousin Shawn — kept trying to shrimp, but the river suddenly seemed barren. “It might sound crazy, but it was like the good Lord put a curse on this little creek, where ain’t nobody gonna catch no shrimp until they’re released,” Roderick told me. Billy added, “It didn’t feel right no more with Melvin and them not there, because we all looked out for one another. Some mornings, you didn’t even want to go.”
Sheriff’s deputies came to the property a few times a week, and they wouldn’t allow the men to dock their boats on the pier. One by one, the men lost hope and sold their trawlers. Shawn took a job at Best Buy, cleaning the store for $11.50 an hour, and eventually moved to Newport, 30 miles southwest, where it was easier to make rent. Billy got paid to fix roofs but soon defaulted on the mortgage for his house on Silver Dollar Road. “One day you good, and the next day you can’t believe it,” he told me.
Roderick kept being charged with trespassing, for walking on the waterfront, and he was racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees. He’d recently renovated his boat — putting in an aluminum gas tank, large spotlights and West Marine speakers — but, without a place to dock, he saw no way to hold on to it. He found work cutting grass and posted his boat on Craigslist. A white man responded. They met at the shore, and, as the man paid, Roderick began to cry. He walked up Silver Dollar Road with his back to the river. He told me, “I just didn’t want to see my boat leave.”
THE REELS BROTHERS were locked in a hopeless clash with the law. One judge who heard their case likened them to the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who attempts to guard his forest against King Arthur. “Even after King Arthur has cut off both of the Black Knight’s arms and legs, he still insists that he will continue to fight and that no one may pass — although he cannot do anything,” the judge wrote, in an appeals-court dissent.
In February, nearly eight years after Melvin and Licurtis went to jail, they stood before a judge in Carteret to request their release. They were now 72 and 61, but they remained defiant. Licurtis said that he would go back on the property “just as soon as I walk out of here.” Melvin said, “I believe that land is mine.” They had hired a new lawyer, who argued that it would cost almost $50,000 to tear down the brothers’ homes. Melvin had less than $4,000 in the bank; Licurtis had nothing. The judge announced that he was releasing them. He warned them, however, that if they returned to their homes they’d “be right back in jail.” He told them, “The jailhouse keys are in your pockets.”
An hour later, the brothers emerged from the sheriff’s department. Melvin surveyed the parking lot, which was crowded with friends and relatives. “About time!” he said, laughing and exchanging hugs. “You stuck with me.” When he spotted Little Melvin, who was now 39, he extended his arm for a handshake. Little Melvin pulled it closer and buried his face in his father’s shoulder, sobbing.
When Licurtis came out, he folded over, as if his breath had been pulled out of him. Mamie wrapped her arms around his neck, led him to her car, and drove him home. When they reached Silver Dollar Road, she honked the horn all the way down the street. “Back on Silver Dollar Road,” Licurtis said, pines flickering by his window. “Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm.”
Melvin spent his first afternoon shopping for silk shirts and brown leather shoes and a cell phone that talked to him. Old acquaintances stopped him — a man who thanked him for his advice about hauling dirt, a DJ who used to spin at Fantasy Island. While in jail, Melvin had been keeping up with his girlfriends, and 11 women called looking for him.
Melvin told me that he’d held on for his family, and for himself, too. But away from the others his weariness showed. He acknowledged that he was worried about what would happen, his voice almost a whisper. “They can’t keep on doing this. There’s got to be an ending somewhere,” he said.
A few days later, Gertrude threw her sons a party, and generations of relatives came. The family squeezed together on her armchairs, eating chili and biscuits and lemon pie. Mamie gave a speech. “We gotta get this water back,” she said, stretching her arms wide. “We gotta unite. A chain’s only as strong as the links in it.” The room answered, “That’s right.” The brothers, who were staying with their mother, kept saying, “Once we get this land stuff sorted out . . .” Relatives who had left talked about coming back, buying boats and go-karts for their kids. It was less a plan than a fantasy — an illusion that their sense of justice could overturn the decision of the law.
The brothers hadn’t stepped onto the waterfront since they’d been back. The tract was 100 feet away but out of reach. Fantasy Island was a shell, the plot around it overgrown. Still, Melvin seemed convinced that he would restore it. “Put me some palm trees in the sand and build some picnic tables,” he said.
After the party wound down, I sat with Licurtis on his mother’s porch as he gazed at his house, which was moldy and gutted, its frame just visible in the purple dusk. He reminisced about the house’s wood-burning heater, the radio that he’d always left playing. He said that he planned to build a second story and raise the house to protect it from floods. He wanted a wraparound deck and big windows. “I’ll pour them walls solid all the way around,” he said. “We’ll bloom again. Ain’t going to be long.”
Worried about protecting heirs’ property owners? We made a list of ways that families can protect themselves and describe legislative reforms that experts have proposed.
The Reels brothers grew up on waterfront land that their great-grandfather bought one generation after slavery. Their family has lived there for more than a century. But because it was passed down without a will, it became heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. Without a clear title, these landowners are vulnerable to laws that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. One attorney called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.”
What can heirs’ property owners do to protect their land?
Plan for the future. Write a will or prepare a transfer on death deed to help pass a clear title to the next generation.
Pay your property taxes. Visit your tax assessor’s office and make sure that your taxes are paid and that the address of the person responsible for coordinating bills is up to date.
Write a family tree. Find out the names on the deed for your land and lay out each generation of heirs that has followed. You can use legal documents from the county, like birth certificates and marriage licenses, as well as family letters, obituaries, information from genealogy websites and records from family reunions.
Create a paper trail to prove your ownership. If you inherited your property without a will or formal estate proceedings, many states allow for an affidavit of heirship to be filed in the property records to establish your ownership. The rules of when and how an affidavit can be filed vary by state.
Consolidate the ownership. Consider asking other heirs if they would be willing to transfer their interest in the property to those with the closest ties to the land. In many states, this can be done through a gift deed.
Manage the co-ownership. Talk to a lawyer you trust about your options, like creating a family LLC or land trust.
Track your expenses. If you pay for expenses on the property, like improvements to the homes or taxes, keep track of them. If a partition sale is started, you may be able to receive a larger share of the proceeds.
What laws affect heirs’ property owners?
Fourteen states have passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which expands heirs’ rights in partition actions and can help heirs’ property owners gain access to Department of Agriculture programs. States where this has not passed include North Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee.
The 2018 Farm Bill created a lending program that, if funded by Congress, would support local organizations providing legal assistance to heirs’ property owners.
About half of the states have Transfer on Death Deed statutes, which allow families to file a simple deed that automatically transfers title to real property upon the owner’s death, without having to go through probate court. The Uniform Real Property Transfer on Death Act has been presented as a model for how such statutes can be written.
What do advocates see as the next steps in helping heirs’ property owners?
Advocates have supported a number of possible legislative initiatives, including:
Funding to support an increase in the number of legal aid lawyers who help families clear title and make estate plans, and to support local legal education on maintaining clear title.
Legislation that creates an easier route for heirs’ property owners to access FEMA and home repair programs by allowing for heirship affidavits, a simpler, less costly process than clearing a title through the courts.
Legislation that creates alternatives to the formal administration of estates when a homeowner dies without a will.
Legislation that allows heirs’ property owners to access exemptions from property taxes that are available to other homeowners.
Young black people have exploded in rebellion over the grotesque killing of George Floyd. We are now witnessing the broadest protest movement in American history. And yet the response of black elected officials has been cautious and uninspired.
The Congressional Black Caucus offered a familiar list of the kind of police reforms that have failed for decades to end police violence. After protesters vandalized CNN’s headquarters and set a police car on fire in Atlanta, the mayor, Keisha Bottoms, told them to “go home” because registering to vote “is the change we need.” President Barack Obama also argued in an essay that “real change” comes from both protest and voting.
Instead, organizers on the ground have provided leadership. Women like Mary Hooks from Southerners on New Ground in Atlanta and Miski Noor and Kandace Montgomery of the Black Vision Collective in Minneapolis have been at the center of articulating new demands for redistributing resources away from policing, prisons and billionaires, and back into public programs. We can also find this leadership among the ranks of black low-wage “essential workers” who have challenged Amazon and other big corporations since the beginning of the pandemic. These organizers and workers are channeling the confrontational black politics of a previous period.
Because of them, we are at the end of one era of black politics and the start of a new one.
The revolt in American cities, amid a deadly pandemic that is disproportionately killing African-Americans, suggests that people feel the political system cannot solve their problems. Many have been looking back at the urban uprisings of the 1960s to make sense of our situation. Those protests exposed a shocking degree of racism in the supposedly liberal North. A main demand from protesters then was more black political control of cities.
Our own intelligence about the oppressiveness of the kind of society which would like to forget us along with other historical ‘mistakes’ should give black people a unique force in effecting change in America. An infusion of blacks into the political arena might provide the moral force of ‘soul’ which America either lost or never had. …
Some see the black American’s choice as between withdrawing from this ‘hopeless’ government or overthrowing the entire system. I see our choices as between political involvement or political apathy. America is the black man’s battleground. It is here where it will be decided whether or not we will make America what it says it is.
The Congressional Black Caucus was formed in that era. Its members called themselves the “conscience of the Congress” and saw themselves as representing the political interests of all of black America. They were “unbought and unbossed” as a founding member, Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York, said.
This independence led to confrontations, not only with Republicans, but also within the Democratic Party. In the summer of 1972, just weeks before Democrats would formally nominate Senator George McGovern for president, the caucus wrote a “Black Declaration of Independence” and “Black Bill of Rights.” These were inspired by a more militant document called “A National Black Agenda” that had emerged from the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., where thousands of African-Americans had convened earlier that year.
To be fair, no elected official is ever wholly “unbought” or “unbossed.” It is the nature of politics to negotiate and compromise. Many black politicians represented urban areas, and governing became harder as whites and their tax dollars fled to the suburbs. The 1970s also saw the end of the postwar economic boom and the acceleration of deindustrialization. The changing economic fortunes of cities, which had been the engine of the American economy, made it harder for the ascendant black political class to carry out reforms.
Increasingly, black elected officials were seen as managing the crises in black working class communities, instead of leading efforts to root them out.
In 1994, the Congressional Black Caucus played a key role in the passage of the notorious crime bill, which is widely viewed as pivotal in the turn toward mass incarceration. Although the caucus pushed for a provision that would have allowed defendants on death row to appeal their sentences by citing statistics to try to show that such sentences have been racially biased, Bill Clinton weeded this out of the legislation. Nonetheless, a vast majority of caucus members still voted for the bill. In doing so, they had the support of African-American mayors in Denver, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta and other major cities.
This was not just a case of selling out. As more blacks entered the middle class, political demands shifted. Black elected officials were more in tune with the needs of their middle-class constituencies, black and white, than they were with the needs of the black working class. And their middle-class constituencies were more often concerned about a rise in property taxes than in ensuring access to a local Head Start.
Perhaps the uprising in Baltimore in April 2015 marked a symbolic end to this phase of black politics. Black people held many of the city’s top leadership roles, and the nation’s first black president and attorney general were a mere 40 miles away. And yet that concentration of black political power was not enough to stop the death of Freddie Gray, who died after being detained by the Baltimore police.
Of course, the problems ran much deeper than police violence. Thousands of African-Americans lived in neighborhoods where there was no pretense of investment. Black leaders didn’t stop the chronic joblessness or the underfunding of the public schools. Instead, many of them dug into the strategy of trying to attract higher salaried workers while making poverty so uncomfortable that the poor would simply leave.
This style of governance can be seen in cities across the country, and it may be motivating the “reverse migration” of African Americans to the South in search of better housing and jobs. Thousands of blacks are leaving Chicago each year as the city has become increasingly hostile to their presence. The greatest public policy expenditures in Chicago are for the police, even as black residents have grown desperate for affordable housing and more investment in public schools. The city, which is now led by a black mayor, Lori Lightfoot, still prioritizes boondoggle development ventures like the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project.
Black electoral success has not translated into qualitative improvements in black life. This too, erodes black participation in the political process. If voting simply reproduces variations on the same overall condition of deprivation, then black people are less likely to participate.
Mr. Bloomberg was mostly known for his full-throated support of stop-and-frisk, which resulted in millions of needless police stops. As Mr. Bloomberg erroneously celebrated that tactic as the reason behind New York’s drop in crime, other cities sought to replicate it. That’s why stop-and-frisk and the racial profiling at its core were among the catalysts for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Young black voters supported Bernie Sanders, but he was unable to translate that support into actual votes. His policies would have been most beneficial to African-Americans; in fact, they were more enthusiastic about his signature issue, Medicare for All, than any other demographic. But black voters in South Carolina, after the endorsement of Representative James Clyburn, cast cautious and predictable votes for Mr. Biden and turned the tide of the primary.
While older black voters are paralyzed by pragmatism when faced with the potential for a second term of Donald Trump, they have also been conditioned to accept the absolute least from political representatives. At the same time, young black people are rebelling against the strangulation of the status quo. This includes a stale black leadership that regularly fails to rise to challenges confronting this generation, which refuses to accept the symbolism of black leadership without its professed rewards. Black elected officials have become adept at mobilizing the tropes of black identity without any of its political content. Case in point: Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, painting the words “Black Lives Matter” on a street headed in the direction of the White House. But she also proposed a $45 million increase in the local police budget.
In 2018, three black women sued the city, claiming that the policies pursued by its administrators served to “attract younger, more affluent professionals” and “discriminated against poor and working class African-Americans” who had lived in the city for generations. These plaintiffs, like the mayor, are black women, but their differing class positions and access to power have fundamentally impeded the possibilities of solidarity.
Mr. Trump’s smearing of Ms. Bowser as “incompetent” put black voters in a tough spot. They want to defend African-American officials from racist and sexist charges, while at the same time challenging these officials’ policies. For poor black women in Washington, the issue isn’t incompetence; it’s Ms. Bowser’s conception of development, which has left working-class blacks behind.
This doesn’t mean that representation no longer matters. It does. But we can no longer assume that shared identity means a shared commitment to the strategies necessary to improve the lives of a vast majority of black people. Class tensions among African-Americans have produced new fault lines that the romance of racial solidarity simply cannot overcome.
Representation in the halls of power has clearly worked for some, but we must talk about those it hasn’t worked for. We have not seen, in decades, protests with the scale or scope of those that were unleashed by the killing of George Floyd. New, young, black leaders with the Movement for Black Lives are now emerging, leaders unencumbered by past failures and buoyed by their connection to the ruckus in the streets.
The word backlash gained popularity in the summer of 1963, when, after dallying on the issue for the first two years of his presidency, President John F. Kennedy proposed significant civil-rights legislation. In response, the word, which had primarily denoted the recoil of a fishing line, was repurposed, usually as “white backlash,” to refer to opposition to the increased pace of African American civil-rights activism or the Kennedy (and, after his assassination in November 1963, the Lyndon B. Johnson) administration’s legislative proposals and executive actions, or both.
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In 1966, a commentator, speaking of “the grand new word, backlash,” claimed without much exaggeration that “just about everything that happened could be (and was) attributed to some form of backlash.” The word came to stand for a topsy-turvy rebellion in which white people with relative societal power perceived themselves as victimized by what they described as overly aggressive African Americans demanding equal rights. Backlash, as the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote, “is nothing more nor less than white resentment of Negroes.”
Moving beyond an opposition to civil rights, the word backlash—less frequently qualified as “white”—quickly became a synonym for a new and growing conservative force, signifying a virulent counterreaction to all manner of social movements and cultural transformations that became central to American politics. Over time, observers noted manifestations of this reaction in a “Southern backlash,” a “male backlash,” a “heterosexual backlash,” a “property tax backlash” and a “backlash against environmentalists.” Just a month after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a journalist described the United States as being in the midst of “a multitude of backlashes.” But as one commentator pointed out, “The word which gave rise to all sorts of other ‘lashes’ was coined in reference to white opposition to Negro gains.”
Since then, such framing has done more than merely shape the politics of reaction in the United States; it has also constrained putatively supportive political leaders, who live in fear of setting off backlashes. Responding to a moderate plan to enfranchise only free blacks in Louisiana in 1864, the Union general Nathaniel P. Banks, worrying about a negative response from the state’s whites, who were being defeated in the Civil War, said, “Revolutions which are not controlled and held within reasonable limits produce counter-revolution.” That obeisance to a defeated group in 1864 was an extreme version of a general pattern that has remained a hallmark of backlashes ever since: solicitousness to white fears.
For many white backlashers in the 1960s, the era of what the historian C. Vann Woodward called the “second Reconstruction,” the first Reconstruction remained a negative model. They viewed its reform as overly fast-paced, and felt that it foregrounded black civil rights at the cost of white people’s peace of mind. They associated civil-rights activism with what popular historians and commentators of the day called the “excesses” of Reconstruction, by which they meant a combination of “militant” African American demands for basic equality with overweening, aggressive, and hasty federal action in support of interracial democracy. Thurman Sensing of the Southern States Industrial Council, a conservative business group, described the civil-rights movement in 1966 as an effort to force “the Reconstruction of American customs,” showing the degree to which the post–Civil War campaign for racial equality remained a central metaphor for white backlashers. The journalist in December 1963 who noted the political power of those opposed to “Negro pressure for equal opportunity and the Federal Government’s pace on the Civil Rights front,” could just as easily have been describing the origins of the counterrevolution of the 1870s.
Since reconstruction, many backlash campaigns have imposed a politics of white fragility and frustration onto racial-equality struggles. Reporting on the “hate vote” in The Saturday Evening Post, in October 1964, one month before the presidential election, Ben H. Bagdikian highlighted the “churning, emotional conflict within each voter,” by which he meant white people. He noted that the backlashers “are not against a better life for the Negro, but they are strongly against this being achieved at the cost of white tranquility.” The elevation of “tranquility” over equal justice for all was a hallmark of backlash discourse, which ranked white feelings over black rights.
Backlashers understood civil rights as zero-sum, and therefore treated campaigns for African American equality as an inexcusable undermining of what they saw as deserved white privileges and prerogatives. A New York Times poll revealed, in condensed form, the emotional landscape of the white backlash: “Northern white urbanites have no sympathy for the Negro’s plight, and believe the Civil Rights movement has gone too far, while a considerable percentage believes Negroes ‘don’t appreciate what we’re doing for them.’” The extension of sympathy, such as being in favor of a “better life for the Negro,” was, then, conditional on personal convenience and easily withdrawn. “In general, the persons interviewed were mildly in favor of a better break for Negroes—as long as it wouldn’t affect them personally,” the reporter Dave Allbaugh observed in 1963.
White backlashers did not just wallow in their fear, anger, and resentment. In broadcasting these feelings widely, they shaped the limits of acceptable reform. Recommending a “go-slow course,” they could extend sympathy or not, and sought to determine when equal rights crossed the line into “special privileges.” A reporter noted “the apprehension of suburbanites and others in white neighborhoods that their residential areas will face an influx of Negroes.” In this worldview, whites presented themselves as victims, the crimes perpetrated against them by campaigns for equality were anxiety, inconvenience, and fear. Long before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a politician told the Post’s Roberts in October 1963, “For the first time, I’m getting mail from white people saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got rights too.’” The “too” was especially telling because at that time a large number of African Americans still lacked federal protection for basic civil and voting rights.
Throughout what we might call the “backlash era,” African Americans offered a clear-eyed analysis and robust critique of backlashes and white defenses of them, taking them to be, as the ex-baseball star and longtime activist Jackie Robinson put it in a 1966 New York Amsterdam News article, “a great big fat alibi for bigotry.” Whereas many white observers in the early 1960s highlighted the novelty of white backlash, Martin Luther King Jr. more accurately called it “a new name for an old phenomenon” that “had always existed underneath and sometimes on the surface of American life.” Langston Hughes wrote a poem, “The Backlash Blues,” which Nina Simone later set to music and recorded.
Perhaps Lorraine Hansberry most directly put her finger on the issue in a June 1964 talk titled “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” which she gave at the Town Hall in New York City. She spoke during an event organized by the Association of Artists for Freedom, a group of African American artists and intellectuals, about two weeks before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Pointing to the long history of the black-liberation struggle, Hansberry said, “The charge of impatience is simply unbearable.” Her request to the “white liberal to stop being a liberal and to become a radical” was largely a call for those liberals to recognize that the true victims of racism were not resentful white Americans but African Americans demanding equality.
Using the same phrase that General Banks had employed a century earlier, but to different purposes, a columnist wrote that the proper way to understand white backlash was as “a counter-revolution against the black man.” Counterrevolution is a phrase that Americans rarely use to describe our politics. But it is not unfair or inaccurate to apply this label to white backlash, whose explicit goal was to slow or halt the civil-rights revolution.
The backlashers lost a number of key political battles in the 1960s, the decade in which they got their name. From Reconstruction to the New Deal, they had been vanquished before, and they’ve been defeated more recently, too, in a variety of areas—LBGTQ rights, for example. But both before and since, the preemptive politics of grievance and anti-egalitarianism they championed, whereby the psychology of privilege takes center stage while the needs of the oppressed are forced to wait in the wings, has left a deforming and reactionary imprint on our political culture. It has done so not just by emboldening reactionaries but by making the fear of setting off backlashes a standard element of the political conversation.
Consider, as examples, when last year the economist Larry Summers tweeted about the dangers of a wealth tax “boomerang,” and David Brooks warned about the “ugly backlash” that would likely follow an impeachment trial. Or, in a similar vein, when the columnist Ross Douthat wrote that if the Democrats adopt the Green New Deal, it “will empower climate-change skeptics, weaken the hand of would-be compromisers in the GOP” and “possibly help Donald Trump win re-election.” In this way, backlash politics has become a constraint on modern liberalism.
“Please don’t be too nice,” Donald Trump told an audience of police officers on Long Island in 2017, in a speech largely focused on the MS-13 gang. The audience laughed. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”
Floyd’s killing has sparked nationwide protests, despite the fact that the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans and left 40 million without work, is still killing about 1,000 people a day in the United States. Those Americans who were disproportionately dying from a plague came out in force to protest being murdered by their government. Trump, who ran as the “law and order” candidate, now presides over the very “American carnage” he vowed to end.
A different president might have tried to quell the unrest and unify the nation, but Trump is incapable of that. He cannot rally Americans around a common identity or interest, because his presidency is a rejection of the concept, an affirmation of the conviction that America’s traditional social hierarchies are good and just. He is hardly the first president to embrace those hierarchies as unassailably virtuous, but he is the first in decades to do so openly. Law and order, for this president, simply means that he and his ideological allies are above the law, while others, such as Floyd, are merely subject to it. The chaos sweeping across the United States has many causes, but the one over which the president has the most control is the culture of lawlessness and impunity he has cultivated and embraced. When you attempt to impose “law and order” without justice, you get chaos.
The moral core of the protests is a simple demand: that police who abuse their authority be held accountable, that black Americans be able to live free lives without fearing that they will be cut short by a chance encounter with law enforcement. This demand clashes with the history of the United States, in which the ideal of equal justice coexists uneasily with the tacit understanding of many Americans that guarding the color line is one of law enforcement’s obligations, a commitment that has existed from slavery to the beating of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Ronald Reagan blamed the activist for his own murder, hissing that King’s death was the kind of “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order.”
When a white dog-walker in Central Park threatened to call the police on a black bird-watcher and tell them that “an African American man is threatening my life,” she was leveraging their mutual understanding that the police exist to protect white people from black people. This is why Chauvin and his fellow officers thought nothing of him being videotaped as he dug his knee into Floyd’s neck, and why authorities in Georgia saw no crime in the stalking and killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Integrating police departments was meant to help align law enforcement with its stated ideals, but as in every other area of public policy, correcting centuries of tradition is an arduous task, even if one is sincerely committed to it.
The president, a man who once called for the execution of five black and Hispanic teenagers for a crime they did not commit, is not just skeptical of reform. He views the violent enforcement of the color line as an honorable calling, and one that police officers should embrace rather than reject. Decades after taking out a newspaper ad demanding that New York “Bring back the death penalty and bring back our police!” the president still refuses to acknowledge the innocence of the Central Park Five. If they were not guilty of the actual crime, they were guilty of being the kind of people he wanted the police to crack down on.
Trump has few ideological convictions as consistent as his belief in the redemptive power of state violence against religious and ethnic minorities. During the 2016 campaign, Trump regaled audiences with tales of apocryphal war crimes against Muslims by American service members, then he pardoned service members who engaged in actual war crimes. He vowed to disregard the constitutional rights of anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, then he pardoned Joe Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff famous for violating those rights.
Remarks like those the president made on Long Island are often dismissed by the president’s defenders as just an artifact of his brash personality. Hardly. The Trump administration has worked diligently to turn the president’s affection for extralegal cruelty against religious and ethnic minorities into public policy, from the Trump-era toddler jails for migrants to his anti-Muslim travel ban. As with the prior examples, Trump’s encouragement of police brutality is far more than bluster.
During the Obama administration, the civil-rights division of the Justice Department undertook an aggressive effort to root out unconstitutional policing practices, initiating more such investigations than any prior administration. The authority it relied on was authored by police reformers and tucked into the now-disfavored 1994 crime bill, drafted in part by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Its inclusion in the bill was a response to the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers who attacked him. In other words, in 2017, the Trump administration took a provision of the law passed to prevent police brutality and the unrest it sparks, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash.
In Miami, Obama-era investigators found “egregiously long delays in concluding administrative investigations of officer-involved shootings.” In Chicago, they found a widespread pattern of abuses hidden by “police officers’ code of silence,” which included lying and “affirmative efforts to conceal evidence.” In Baltimore, which was rocked by riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, investigators discovered “repeated violations of … constitutional and statutory rights, further eroding the community’s trust in the police.” In Ferguson, Missouri, an investigation following the protests and riots sparked by the killing of Michael Brown found that local police had set “maximizing revenue as the priority,” not solving crime, leading to officers crushing the town’s impoverished black residents with fines and fees designed to finance the local government. If the Trump administration had not abandoned any effort at police oversight, it might have discovered that Minnesota police had rendered dozens of suspects unconscious with the same knee restraint that killed Floyd.
Among the police forces investigated was the Suffolk County Police Department, the jurisdiction where Trump gave his speech extolling the virtues of police brutality. The department entered into a federal-supervision agreement in 2014 to take measures to avoid discriminating against Hispanic residents.
The Justice Department’s probes were not criminal investigations. Their purpose was to curb police abuses and, by doing so, to improve local law-enforcement agencies’ relationships with their communities and reduce crime. When a local community lives in fear of the police, its members will minimize their interactions with cops as much as possible, lest they end up like Floyd.
Ideally, overseeing police misconduct would be the job of local elected officials. But what appears to be a public-policy problem is also a problem of political power. Local leaders cower in fear of the power of police unions, whose political interests include not just securing higher wages and benefits or better equipment and overtime pay, but impunity for criminal behavior.
“Many of these unions have pushed collective bargaining agreements that make it all but impossible for departments to punish, much less fire, officers,” as BuzzFeed News’ Melissa Segura has written. “These agreements defang civilian review boards and police internal affairs departments, and they even prevent police chiefs from providing meaningful oversight, according to community activists and civil rights lawyers. Meanwhile, the unions have set up legal slush funds to defend officers sued for misconduct.”
The approach of many police unions both reinforces the code of silence for police abuse and makes officers whose consciences are troubled less likely to intervene, because the social costs of speaking out are so much greater than the possibility that a corrupt officer will face justice for breaking the law.
“It’s tough when somebody witnesses something and they want to speak up against it. You feel like if you do speak up, you’ll end up looking like the bad guy. Now people don’t want to talk to you,” Michael Baysmore, a black former cop in Baltimore, told BuzzFeed News in 2016. “And if nothing even happens to the person you spoke up against, it’s almost like, what’s the point?”
The extent of police unions’ power was illustrated this weekend, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected as a police reformer, defended cops plowing through protesters with cars even as the local sergeants’ union doxxed his daughter for participating in the protests.
The Obama administration’s reform efforts, although ultimately aimed at improving policing, were seen by the police unions as a “war on cops,” because they threatened the impunity to which their organizations aspired. By 2015, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and their ability to document for white audiences the shocking regularity of lethal encounters between police and black Americans had led some police-union officials to reconsider their approach. But the rise of Donald Trump, and his unqualified embrace of both racial discrimination and official impunity for law enforcement, offered new political possibilities.
Police departments themselves are not monolithic—some actually rejected Sessions’s offer to rescind federal-oversight agreements—and some law-enforcement organizations, those run by black officers in particular, have tried to rectify the profession’s history of discrimination. But the political power of police unions, the impunity granted by police contracts, and the culture of silence enforced by both leave little room for dissent, with isolation and ignominy as a reward for those who do. The entrenched legal doctrine of qualified immunity ensures that the most egregious violations of the Constitution cannot be addressed in civil court. A system that so efficiently stifles accountability cannot be overcome by the good intentions of individual officers. It is a system that ensures, as a matter of design, that bad apples remain to spoil the batch. And that was before the president encouraged police to engage in brutality for its own sake.
The head of the police union in Minneapolis, Bob Kroll, decried the Obama administration’s “handcuffing and oppression of the police” at a Trump rally in 2019. On Monday, Kroll released a letter complaining that the four police officers who had been fired over Floyd’s death had been denied “due process.” Floyd, who was being detained on suspicion of forgery, was to blame for his own death, because of his “violent criminal history.” This is a worldview that is consonant with Trumpism, in that it imagines being democratically accountable to those you regard as beneath you as tyranny, and the unquestioned authority to impose your will on those people as freedom. But amidst the president’s vocal encouragement of police brutality, his administration’s conscious abdication of oversight, and the police unions’ fanatical resistance to accountability, the condemnations of Floyd’s killing from Trump and his allies ring hollow.
This agenda of impunity for police who break the law has merged flawlessly with President Trump’s belief in impunity for himself and his allies. Both political philosophies envision a line drawn between those who are protected by the law and those who are subject to it. As Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, articulated with chilling clarity, communities that protest police abuses “might find themselves without the police protection they need.” This principle does not apply to the president or other members of the ruling party in good standing—merely to Americans whose rights have historically been easily revocable, and occasionally to those who express solidarity with them.
As the historian Rick Perlstein recounts in Nixonland, when asked by a black reporter what law and order meant, Nixon replied, “To me law and order must be combined with justice. Now that’s what I want for America. I want the kind of law and order that deserves respect.” Reporters today do not bother asking Trump what law and order means, because everyone already understands that it simply means violence.
Trump has dispensed with any pretense of seeking justice, and the Trump-era Republican Party has closed every possible path for reforming the police. Federal oversight of police is oppression. Elected officials who seek police reform have “blood on their hands.” The exercise of prosecutorial discretion by district attorneys is “anti-law enforcement” when it involves “seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient,” in the words of Barr, who has meanwhile busied himself with bailing out the president’s criminal associates. Those who challenge police abuses are not even allowed the dignity of protesting in silence. This is not the rule of law; it is the rule of might, and it is devoid of anything resembling justice.
After Floyd’s death, Minneapolis erupted in protests, including riots that began last Wednesday night and lasted through the weekend. The protests spread across the country, and in some cases so did the violence. In an atmosphere of lawlessness, opportunists looking to harm others, cause destruction, vandalize, or steal will attach themselves to whatever legitimate cause they can find. Those acting out of rage or grief may do the same. But whether motivated by rage, greed, or outright malice, such criminal acts cannot discredit demands for police accountability, or justify police brutality. They cannot repeal the Constitution.
Many police departments across the country seem determined to escalate rather than prevent violence. Videos of protests have shown “police officers in recent nights using batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders and journalists, often without warning or seemingly unprovoked,” as The New York Times reported. This was Barr’s prophecy: an ungrateful public, protesting the unjust taking of human lives by law enforcement, punished for the foolish belief that their rights were inalienable. A First Amendment that guarantees the freedom to criticize the government only when you do not criticize the government is meaningless.
For a century, such riots in America have followed a familiar script—there is an incident of police brutality that goes unpunished, a protest, an escalation by police, and then a riot. These incidents are icebergs—the precipitating event and the destruction that follows are merely what can be seen above the surface. Underneath lie years of anger, abuse, and neglect. We do not know how the president’s encouragement of such abuse has shaped policing in the cities now rocked by protests, because his Justice Department has willingly blinded itself to the answer.
There is no romance in the destruction. Riots are, for the communities in which they occur, desperate acts of self-immolation, with consequences that can last for decades. Yet the historical record shows that the authorities often avoid taking the grievances of such communities seriously until buildings start burning. Only then do those who previously dismissed nonviolent protests against police brutality, or participated in belittling or silencing them, begin to pay attention and ask what would move such people to violence.
Such riots are, in the long run, devastating for all involved. But a legal and political system that sees no crime in the murder of black Americans by police until things are set on fire leaves black Americans with two terrible options: acquiescing to a system in which your life does not matter, or engaging in acts of destruction and self-destruction that persuade authorities to treat the needless taking of a life by police officers as a crime worth investigating, let alone punishing.
To say that a grievance is justified is not to justify every action taken by the aggrieved. But as a nation, we bear particular responsibility for the violence committed by police. We do not pay civilian rioters and looters with taxpayer dollars and empower them with the authority to use lethal force to protect our rights and our persons, as we do with police officers. That authority is a power granted by the people, and if it is abused, it must be withdrawn.
Most of Trump’s predecessors in the 20th century, including Nixon, who believed black people unfit for self-government, preoccupied themselves with preserving the credibility of an unequal justice system. By forswearing even that, by publicly reveling in the idea that state violence should be used to affirm America’s traditional social hierarchies, by denying the very legitimacy of both private protest and social reform, the Trump administration has undermined respect for the law more than any radical left-wing professor or hotheaded activist. The president sees the law as a thing of mere violence, a matter of who has enough guns to enforce their will. You can make people fear the law at gunpoint, but you cannot make them respect it.
How the news covers activism matters profoundly to a democracy because the media can influence public support or rejection of policies that might solve social ills such as racism and police brutality. Following the dozens of uprisings that swept U.S. cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission, reported on the cause and possible future prevention of such unrest. The commission asserted that, in addition to generational poverty, housing and employment discrimination, and over-policing, the media was partially responsible for the neglect felt by black communities.