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Charles Steele Jr: “Black people have become second class citizens”

Paris Match | Posted on 6/28/2020 at 2:14 p.m.

Olivier O’Mahony , in Atlanta (Georgia)

For Charles Steele Jr, one of the spiritual heirs of Martin Luther King, the racial riots in the United States are the consequence of a “major” backtrack since the civil rights fight of the 1960s. 

Paris Match. You are the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a Christian institution founded by Martin Luther King to launch its fight against segregation. How do you interpret the current racial claims movement in the United States? 

Charles Steele Jr. Since the 1960s, everything has gone wrong. It was believed then that the fight was won once and for all: error. It doesn’t work like that: when you get a victory, a crowd of people rush to demolish it. This country was built on white domination and supremacy. And today, black people have become second class citizens. Martin Luther King said that the United States government is the enemy of the poor and people of color. It is still true today.

How did this backtracking happen? In 2013, most of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in the exercise of the right to vote, was abolished by the Supreme Court, which gave states back the power to set their own rules, formerly decided at the federal level. As a result, here in Georgia for example, it has become much more difficult for African-Americans to vote: a few weeks ago, during the Democratic primaries in the senatorial elections, we had to queue up to seven hours in front of the offices because the machines to record the vote were defective… 

But what is the interest of states like Georgia to hinder the black vote? America always talks about freedom but has never solved its problem with racism, which, like the virus, is contagious and deadly. Victor Hugo said: “There is more misery among the poor than humanity among the rich”. Wealth is not shared. In the last decade, the wealth of African-American households (houses, financial assets, etc.) has decreased by 60%, mainly because of the recession of 2008. But those responsible for this crisis (almost white) escaped from prison. In the next five to ten years, half of black high school students will not go to university because of the exorbitant tuition fees, and also because some do not see the point of going there given the absence outlets for them at the exit. Today, there are only seventeen “black banks” allowing African-American populations to access credit, compared to twenty-seven seven years ago and forty ten years ago. My prediction is that in twenty or thirty years, there won’t be any more. Depriving black people of access to credit: this is a new form of slavery.

Why did this protest movement take on such unprecedented scale? The Covid certainly played a role: it is like the chickenpox, which was imported by the Whites on the American territory and eradicated a good part of the Amerindian tribes, which were not immunized against the virus. Likewise, the black community is by far the most affected by the Covid. So she rebelled. It had to happen sooner or later.

“Barack Obama did what he could”

Will you support Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate? 

Martin Luther King Jr supported causes, not candidates in particular. I do the same. Joe Biden will have my support if he makes serious and concrete proposals on financial reparations to the black community in compensation for slavery. We built this country. The White House, universities, etc …: all these institutions were built using slaves. 

What do you think of Barack Obama, often criticized for not having done much for the black community…Barack Obama did what he could. His distant predecessor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was like him: he wanted to act, but he was blocked by a system rooted in racism. To those who implored him to act against segregation then in force, he replied: “Do me a favor, force me to do it”. By that, he meant that, all alone, he could do nothing: he needed the pressure of the street to blast institutionalized racism. So if Barack Obama could not do anything, it may be the fault of African-Americans: we should have put more pressure… 

From a civil rights point of view, will 2020 be a pivotal year like the was 1963 with the famous Martin Luther King speech “I have a dream”?

In all sections of the population, there is a real awareness of the daily life of the African-American community. It has become easier to educate people. So this movement will never die.

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