Black history is American history. It is interconnected with the contributions of Black inventors, explorers, activists, educators, entertainers, and more, and we proudly celebrate those contributions each February.
My original intention was to focus on the major impact Blacks have had on American history despite the critical race theory confusion and crusade of misguided opponents to erase our contributions as a people.
But with the release of videotapes showing the brutal and heartbreaking beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police — including five Black officers — my focus turned to the dark side of Black history that we know all too well.
Generations ago, we were kidnapped and abused as we crossed the ocean from Mother Africa and arrived in a land where lynchings became a dark part of history and evolved into the beatings and shootings of today. When we explore our genealogy, some of us uncover a lynching or beating in our family history, as I did.
To temper the anger and outrage, some point to laws that, though it took generations to change attitudes, have altered the course of our history. They include:
- In the 1800s, the Emancipation Proclamation paved the way for the permanent abolition of slavery in the United States, resulting in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States.
- The Fourteenth Amendment gave citizenship to all people born in the U.S. and the Fifteenth Amendment gave Black Americans the right to vote.
- In the 1900s, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 allowed federal prosecution of anyone who tried to prevent someone from voting.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1991 restored and strengthened laws that ban discrimination in employment.
Those changes would not have occurred without federal legislation. The changes needed to stop the killing of Black people by police include getting better police candidates and requiring better training, but what we need most is federal legislation.
1. Police Camera and Accountability Act
The Tyre Nichols beating would not have been captured without police body cameras and a street camera giving a big-picture view, which is why the Police Camera and Accountability Act passed by the U.S. House must become law.
In 2022, federal grants were given to local police departments to secure body cameras. President Joe Biden’s executive order mandated federal officers to wear body cameras, yet only seven states (Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Carolina) mandate their use.
Note: We applaud Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis for firing the accused officers, releasing the videotape, and acknowledging Nichols’ beating as “heinous, reckless and inhumane.”
2. George Floyd Policing Act
This legislation will hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct in court, improve transparency through data collection, reform police training and policies, and restrict the use of no-knock warrants and chokeholds.
3. Replacement of Qualified Immunity
Police should be held personally accountable by laws with monetary consequences. We understand there should be protection from frivolous lawsuits against cities, counties and states that abuse taxpayers’ monies.
If our legal system is good enough for Joe Q Public, it should work for our men and women in blue. Federal legislation should abolish qualified immunity, which protects police and other government officials from individual liability in certain cases, and replace it with new legislation that holds officials accountable yet takes into consideration split-second decisions.
Across America, Black mothers and fathers continue to shed tears for their children killed at the hands of those sworn to protect them. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of the illustrious African Americans we celebrate during Black History Month, said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
We demand that our elected officials stop the bleeding and make needed legislative changes a reality.
Sonny Messiah Jiles is CEO of the Houston Defender Network.
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