Last month marked the 60 year anniversary of Little Rock’s Central High School’s turbulent integration process. The commemorative event, held at Central’s Roosevelt Thompson auditorium, featured speeches from the surviving members of the Little Rock Nine, along with scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., President Bill Clinton, and several other dignitaries. While the speakers addressed a wide range of historical and contemporary issues, there was one common thread running throughout their comments: despite rightfully celebrated victories for civil rights, our country is as far from racial justice and reconciliation as it has been in decades.
As we confront the myriad struggles for equality in our society, it is important to put the current conversation around civil rights in a historical perspective. It is easy to forget that many of the causes that we retrospectively celebrate were widely disdained–and even demonized–in the relatively recent past. A Gallup poll from 1961, for example, suggested that 61% of Americans disapproved of the “Freedom Rider” protests; in 1966, Gallup estimated that 63% of Americans held an unfavorable view of Martin Luther King Jr.
And yet, today, the civil rights activism of the 1960’s is held up as an example of the “right” kind of protest. As Diane McWhorter recently opined in the New York Times, “[a]n irony of Southern history is the pride we take in the progress we tried so hard to thwart.” This irony is on full display at anniversaries and commemorations across the South, where public officials, inhabiting offices that once put up every possible impediment to racial equality, tout the very achievements their predecessors fought to prevent.
This observation is not intended to burden current officeholders with the sins of their forerunners. Indeed, the fact that those in power are able to accept changes to society that their political ancestors resisted is itself a hallmark of social and political progress. The historical perspective should, however, prompt a healthy dose of skepticism towards those who claim that the goals of previous struggles have been fully achieved. As the poignant speeches at the Central High anniversary demonstrated, vigilance in the face of injustice is as important now as it has ever been.
The sixth volume of The Arkansas Journal of Social Change and Public Service serves to remind us of one of the greatest injustices that looms over our nation and our state: mass incarceration. The modern criminal justice system, and the prison-industrial complex that has grown up alongside it, has been the subject of many recent academic and cultural works. The Journal kicked off the 2017-2018 school year with a screening of one of these works, Ava Duvernay’s award-winning documentary, 13th.
Omavi Shukur’s article, Arkansas’s Manufactured Incarceration Crisis, echoes concerns expressed in 13th and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow–including the observation that tough-on-crime politics has often been a bludgeon against the very communities that are most in need of a helping hand. The article also carries a hopeful message that, insofar as present-day conditions are the result of previous policy decisions, the potential for positive change in the future rests in the hands of the voters from whom policymakers derive their authority.
Put simply, it is up to the citizens of Arkansas to shape the future of our community. The hope of this volume, and of The Journal more broadly, is to promote the use of education and engagement as tools in that endeavor.
Zachary A. Hale
As an academic journal, we at The Arkansas Journal of Social Change and Public Service encourage investigation and analysis of the social and political forces that shape our current situation, and we invite debate and discourse around the pressing issues of our time. If you would like to submit a blog post, a piece of scholarly commentary, or a full-length academic article, please reach out to us at email@example.com.