Many Days Late and Many Dollars Short: COVID-19 Institutionalised Racism and the Black British Experience

William Ackah, Birkbeck Comments, May 22, 2020

Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector studies, reflects on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Asian and other global majority heritages.

I watched my first virtual funeral this week. I and around 80 others joined the 15 or so people who were physically present in Bristol UK to say goodbye to an amazing woman. I first met this woman nearly 20 years ago, when I moved to the city. She was then recovering from a brain tumour operation. My wife and I would give her a ride to our local church and on the way she would tell us stories about her nursing career in Britain and the obstacles she had to overcome as woman of Jamaican heritage to gain recognition in her profession. She would talk with pride about her children making lives for themselves in the UK and in the United States and of her dream that when she was able to drive again, she would buy herself a Jaguar. I never quite believed that she would get the car, but lo and behold eventually she did. She was the quite the character, one of a number of wonderful people in that congregation in St Pauls in the heart of the city.

I fondly remember tasty lunches with people of Indian heritage, playing games with families from Singapore, becoming a godfather to a daughter of Malawian descent, being pastored by a man of white south African descent and praying and fasting with Nigerian descendants, Guyanese, Ghanaians, Jamaicans, Brazilians, Romanians, Croatians, Australians and white and black British. In that small church we weaved an international tapestry that criss-crossed continents, cultures and identities. Doctors mingled with taxi drivers, who talked to cleaners, dentists, lawyers, barbers and cooks. It was a living, breathing community with a network that was global in its reach and connections. The death of one the precious members of that community at this time is a very hard pill to swallow.

The bitterness of death is made even harder by the fact that the precious life of this woman will barely register outside of her immediate community. She alongside so many others will invariably be reduced to a BAME statistic. Night after night via the media and the data machine of the day, complex individuals with amazing stories and profound life experiences are reduced to racialised entities. In this reduction they are robbed of their humanity and their dignity. In life they faced discrimination in death they face denigration by statistics.

The primary data sets that reference the Black British experience primarily tell their/our story in proportion or disproportion to the ‘white’ population. The value of Black lives therefore according to the data only exists in relation to ‘whiteness’.  This invariably leads to them/us becoming a freak side show. Them/us are people that require further research and investigation, as opposed to being human beings that first and foremost need support and protection!

The statistics reveal that people from Black, Asian, and other global majority heritages are dying in some cases at four times, the rate that ‘white’ people are. A question that should be asked is why is this public health disaster only warranting calls for a public enquiry and a Public Health England investigation? We might not know why they/us are more prone to the virus, but we do know without question that they/us are particularly vulnerable so why are they/us not being shielded as a matter of priority? Why are they/us not being placed on automatic furlough?  Why are the circumstances around Black deaths not considered a national health emergency that demands immediate action?

Why oh why yet again after Windrush, Grenfell and so many other countless failings by the authorities of this nation are Black citizens once again left to suffer and die? Time after time like clockwork all we hear are words of regret and the promise of an investigation. Is that really all we are worth? Is this nation pathologically predisposed to continually s…t on its non-white citizens?

When a migrant descendant doctor, nurse, care worker, bus driver, supermarket assistant dies the impact often goes far beyond that of their immediate family. ‘Successful’ migrants and their descendants are often at the apex of complex and unfolding pyramids of influence. Their finances, knowledge and influence support communities and individuals both locally and globally. Where the state is absent here and abroad these women and men are often a vital cog in sustaining families and communities. COVID-19 is fracturing these community structures and the state through its lack of action to protect its ‘global majority’ citizens is adding salt to the wounds.

The country faces challenging times ahead. How we treat minorities and the vulnerable in a time of crisis is a true test of how ‘Great’ a nation we are. Britain’s Black, Asian and other descendant communities with origins from all over the globe have demonstrated once again their courage, loyalty, and integrity to support the nation in its time of need. What will the nation do in return? We need a systematic and comprehensive plan backed by substantial resources to eradicate racialised discrimination from our society. It is ultimately the only way to end the curse of the BAME label and stats with all their marginalising characteristics and connotations. There are many lessons that the nation needs to learn from this life-changing event, but one must be that it is time to end the madness of racialised inequality in this country once and for all.

Undaunted Resistance: Joseph Lowery and the Spirit of SCLC

R. Drew Smith, April 30, 2020, Black Perspectives, AAIHS

Against all odds, a movement for racial justice took hold in mid-20th-century America, emerging from within the racially-heated South, and drawing sustenance from a rich-array of Black religious sources. A cadre of activist Black clergypersons were among the central figures in this historic social movement, with organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) epitomizing the promise of a socially-mobilized Black clergy sector.

Although SCLC had its period of prominence, the ebb and flow of its organizational influence, as movement days gave way to post-movement organizational uncertainties, symbolizes a more general expansion and contraction of Black clergy public influence from the mid- to latter-20th century. Although embodiments of a resistance politics may have been transitory, the spirit of that resistance proved larger than its forms, carried from one place or time to another by those consecrated to its cause.

Many Black clergy achieved public prominence during the Civil Rights Movement, but few with greater impact or clearer consecration to the cause of resistance than Joseph E. Lowery, who passed away on March 27, 2020 at the age of 98. Lowery was an esteemed activist pastor whose theological calling, social convictions, and leadership capital positioned him among the foremost standard bearers of the “prophetic” Black Christianity so integral to the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, the length of his public leadership career, extending across roughly seven decades and many tactical and ideological shifts within American public life, is suggestive of his resilient and durable leadership and of his inextinguishable prophetic fire.

Lowery, a co-founder of SCLC and one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest associates, was one of the chief architects of the creative protest dynamics that propelled the movement. Seven years older than King, Lowery began pastoring a Methodist congregation in Mobile, Alabama in 1952 and also served as president of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, which helped desegregate public transportation in Mobile and provided financial support for the Montgomery bus boycott. Upon the founding of SCLC in 1957, Lowery was designated as vice-president and held that position until being named SCLC board chairman in 1967.

In 1977, Lowery succeeded Ralph Abernathy to become the third president of SCLC, taking-over as SCLC point-person almost ten years after the death of King, and at a time of intensive and extensive Black leadership contestation. Challenges to SCLC-style “jeremiadic” resistance politics had escalated throughout the late-1960s and early-1970s, as Black nationalists, womanists, and social pragmatists promoted alternative messaging and methods they deemed better-suited to the next phases of the Black freedom struggle. The outsider-protest paradigm also seemed increasingly out-of-step with new opportunities for social participation, which by the late-1970s had led to a noticeable expansion of Black professionals, including governmental officials, public intellectuals, business leaders, and others who could lay claim to and deploy system resources.

The expansions within Black professional sectors resulted not only from a cultivation of newly-emerging Black talent, but also from a migration of experienced movement leaders and activists into professional realms considered potentially more impactful, prestigious, or rewarding. Historian Charles Marsh views that migration as understandable, but regrettable, in that it depleted the ranks of seasoned activists that could have sustained a Black movement politics. Referring to a post-movement decline of activism in poor neighborhoods and communities, Marsh writes: “as members of a generation of creative and skilled black (and white) activists moved out of poor communities and into networks of political influence, non-profit work, cultural and academic leadership, and corporate boardrooms, no one took their place in the freedom houses and community centers.” The spirit of radical resistance that had animated Black Christian resistance politics during the movement was giving way (as movement momentum often does) to noticeably more conventional pursuits.

Black professionalization contributed to another dynamic that ran counter to the trajectories of Black Christian resistance politics. The authority conferred upon activist Black clergy during the Civil Rights Movement by strategic deployment of religious organizational and leadership resources was rapidly dissipating in the face of unleashed secularizing instincts and tendencies among emergent Black professional sectors. Professionalism’s potential departures from a religious metrics of progress and effectiveness weakened the need and the basis for a leading role by the religious sector in defining and executing a Black agenda that might be considered broad-based. That fact that “broad-based” in this instance meant tracking largely in social mainstream directions, Black religion that was congenial to mainstream American objectives could prove useful to Black professionalization, but a Black religion oriented toward prophetic resistance could prove a liability.

Despite the eroded strength and influence of SCLC prophetic activism, Lowery was undeterred in his commitment to being a force of resistance and locating alongside the socially marginalized and oppressed. In February 1982, during a U.S. presidency especially unreceptive to critiques of systemic injustice, SCLC launched a campaign to bring attention to persistently fierce Black economic inequalities and attacks on Black voting rights. In direct response to the sentencing of two Black women community organizers — Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder, convicted of voter fraud for assisting illiterate Black voters in Carrollton, Alabama with the signing of their ballots — Lowery organized a 160 mile march from Carrollton to Montgomery. This march (considered to be “the longest march in civil rights history”) was joined at points along the way by numerous prominent leaders, including Martin Luther King, Sr., Coretta Scott King, Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington, Angela Davis, and Congressman Walter Fauntroy, and by Black and white activists from across the Southeast and Midwest. Also, public hearings on voting rights were held along the route in Selma and Greensboro, Alabama, with the testimony generated from those hearings delivered to the Congressional Black Caucus and Senator Ted Kennedy who entered the testimony into the U.S. congressional record.

The Carrollton-Montgomery march was followed by a pilgrimage from Tuskegee, Alabama to Washington, DC, beginning in early-April and concluding in Washington early-June. Headed by Lowery and Operation PUSH director Jesse Jackson, the two-month pilgrimage across five states generated voter registration drives and rallies to increase pressure on Congress to support an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The pilgrimage was to conclude in Washington with the erecting of a Tent City near the White house (reminiscent of 1968 Poor People’s March), but Congress approved the voting rights extension just prior to the Washington arrival of the protesters.1

This high-profile 1982 mobilization revitalized SCLC’s reputation as a leading champion of voting rights and anti-poverty advocacy, while propelling Lowery toward additional dimensions of national leadership and influence. For example, 1982 was also the year Lowery became president of the National Black Leadership Forum, a consortium of approximately 20 civil rights and political advocacy organizations founded several years earlier to collectively advance a progressive Black public policy agenda. As leader of this broad consortium, and in conjunction with two additional Black leadership networks (the Black Leadership Coalition and the National Black Leadership Roundtable), Lowery was instrumental in composing a set of policy proposals in early 1984 designated as “The People’s Platform.” The Platform, designed to influence policy discussions during the 1984 election season, strongly emphasized anti-poverty and community economic development measures including job training programs and small business development.2 In the midst of the early-1980s pushback against anti-poverty governmental safety nets and economic empowerment strategies, Lowery was among the few national leaders willing to place his leadership capital behind systemic and structural critiques that challenged an increasing national policy emphasis on socially exclusionary fiscal austerity ploys and meritocratic notions.

As the nation was reiterating its historical unwillingness to assist in the empowerment of its own socially-marginalized populations (especially if they were people of color), it also was renewing its well-established antagonisms toward Global South populations around the world who dared to rise-up against oppression. Lowery’s SCLC presidency had a strong foreign policy orientation almost from the outset, with his active defense of Andrew Young’s 1979 decision while U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to hold unauthorized talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. After Young was fired by U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance for these actions, Lowery facilitated SCLC discussions with various Jewish and Palestinian leaders to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, including PLO President Yasser Arafat, PLO Observer to the UN Zehdi Labib Terzi, Israeli representative to the UN Yehuda Blum, and leaders from the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, and Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.3 When questioned by Jewish leaders about SCLC’s ongoing meetings with PLO representatives, Lowery replied: “We are making no apologies. Let’s stop the killings while we work out the problems … We have not endorsed the PLO. We have endorsed justice.” SCLC received criticism from Jewish leaders and lost Jewish support, but Lowery stood by the necessity of the PLO being included in policy discussions pertaining to the regional conflict.

By the early-1980s, the U.S. was deeply involved in efforts to counter liberation struggles in Central America, the Caribbean, and South Africa, and Lowery was strongly critical of the moral misalignments of these U.S. foreign policy initiatives. Lowery opposed the U.S.’s 1983 invasion of Grenada and the “Cold War” premises of its targeting of Grenada’s leftist regime, referring to the invasion as “premature and opportunistic” and “probably illegal and immoral.” U.S. Cold War thinking was also at work in its covert 1980s military operations against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. In responding to this, Lowery led delegations of high profile activists and Congressional representatives to Nicaragua, widely publicizing facts gathered during these visits, and conveying findings and assessments to governmental officials in Washington.4 Lowery was also highly critical of the Reagan Administration’s “Constructive Engagement” policy in South Africa, another Cold War policy construct, which lent support to the apartheid government’s efforts to subdue anti-apartheid forces within South Africa. When U.S. human rights and civil rights leaders rose up in 1984 in solidarity with South African freedom fighters and launched a “Free South Africa Movement,” Lowery was one of the very first in what would be thousands of persons to be arrested in subsequent months for protesting in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. The protests led to the passing of the 1985 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which was signed into law only after Congress overrode Reagan’s veto of the bill.

In Lowery’s domestic and foreign policy activism, the balance-of-power did not favor successful outcomes for the causes he championed, but whether or not the social changes were achieved, he spoke truth to power. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated: “…there’re times when you must take a stand that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but you must do it because it is right.”5

Lowery stood for right even when it was unsafe, impolitic, and unpopular to do so. Whether standing with a few people or thousands, whether engaging with persons at the social margins or in the halls of power, Lowery stood up and spoke out.  He also stayed the course, throughout 40 years of SCLC activism, and for more than 20 additional years after his 1997 SCLC retirement.

In a 2008 interview he was asked about his sustained involvement in the social justice movement, and his response was: ”I never left. … I’m a pastor, a preacher, and it was part of my ministry. … I never partitioned my witness. I felt called to not only help people make heaven their home, but to make their home here heavenly. That included justice.”

A pursuit of justice, no matter the odds, was a spirit that defined SCLC and the arc of Lowery’s SCLC involvements, and it is a spirit that lives on, blowing from place to place and generation to generation.

Lowery remarked in the above-cited 2008 interview: “I think heaven blesses justice.” Indeed, there is a heavenly quality to justice — and to its champions whose life journeys prove a blessing to others. Joseph Lowery was just such a champion, and leaves behind a lasting witness.

  1. AP National Desk, “Civil Rights Leaders Plan New Ten City Near White House,” The New York Times, June 8, 1982.
  2. Francesta Farmer,  “The People’s Platform,” in “Campaign 84:  The Harvard Debates,“ Institute of Politics:  John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1983-1984.
  3. Karin Stanford, Beyond the Boundaries, 57; and Carla Hall, “The Fervent Preacher and the Palestinians,” Washington Post, September 24, 1979.
  4. Julie Williams Johnson, “SCLC Against Latin Aid,” Black Enterprise Magazine, April 1984, 22; Ernie Suggs, “Remembering the Rev. Joseph Lowery—A Civil Rights Icon, 1921-2020,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 28, 2020.
  5. Martin Luther King, Jr., “America’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” Berkeley: UC Berkeley, May 17, 1967

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