American Hypocrisy during the Civil Rights Era

America has always associated itself with the concepts of freedom and equality; however, the racism embedded in its history pokes holes in this relationship. This hypocrisy is very clear in the years of the Civil Rights Movement. Just as dangerous as the blatant discrimination and violence of this era is the overwhelming lack of action to limit this discrimination. This inaction is highlighted in Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi as well as the documents in the first chapter of Takin’ It to the Streets. These readings share a theme of inaction, especially within the government. These readings discussed blatant inaction and seeming indifference within the federal government, the FBI, and local law enforcement, revealing the huge level of hypocrisy within the American government.

Moody describes the lack of action by the FBI multiple times in Coming of Age in Mississippi. After the burning down of the Taplin house, for example, no one really did anything despite the general understanding that someone burned it down intentionally. Moody tells us that “finally FBI agents arrived on the scene and quietly conducted an investigation… but as usual in this sort of case, the investigation was dropped as soon as public interest died down” (145). Later, Moody describes the same lack of action after five kids are shot in Canton. When the FBI visit her, she says they conducted an “investigation” that lasts just a few hours, and “the same afternoon they left town and we never saw or heard from them again” (322). This repeated behavior of the FBI reveals their seemingly indifferent reaction to hate crimes, even those as extreme as murder. Authoritative sectors like the FBI exist to enforce the law and protect the public. That they did nothing to help these situations shows a level of indifference so great they were willing to essentially not do their job.

Inaction also occurred at the local level of law enforcement. Moody points out this lack of response by law enforcement to violence against the black community and Civil Rights activists. During her first experience sitting-in, for example, Moody notes “about ninety policemen were standing outside the store; they had been watching the whole thing through the windows, but had not come in to stop the mob or do anything” (290). In terms of law enforcement, however, it went beyond inaction, as these documents highlight the amount of police brutality and unfair treatment. So much so that Moody relates it to Nazi Germany, saying that even Nazi soldiers “couldn’t have been any rougher than these cops… yet this was America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”” (305). Here she not only points out the inhumane treatment by law enforcement, but the hypocrisy such treatment shows. Such behavior by people in these positions of power goes directly against the American mentality of freedom and equality.

This inaction reveals the government as complicit in the discrimination and violence during the Civil Rights Era. Medgar Evans calls out this hypocrisy, specifically targeting the Mayor of his community for completely ignoring the amount of intolerance that was going on. He explains the hypocrisy of the Mayor’s claim that his community is progressive and safe when its African American citizens are discriminated against on a daily basis, being refused service in restaurants, admittance in theaters, use of public facilities, denied privileges and experiencing brutality by police and white members of the community. Similarly, in “Wake Up America,” John Lewis calls out the inaction of the government and the need for activists to demand more and not accept the lack of action, ultimately asking people to consider: “Which side is the Federal Government on” (30)?

In reading these documents, I thought back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he explains the dangers of inaction. As these readings point out, allowing discrimination to go on is just as dangerous as the discrimination itself. That the government and authorities did not act to help African American citizens undermines what they claim their nation stands for.

And it is not even the inaction of government authorities that is so surprising; rather, it is how blatant their indifference way and the hypocrisy that stems from that inaction. Especially when we consider the context of this post-war era. A war in which we fought against intolerance and discrimination. Moody summarizes the significance of such blatant indifference when she says: “The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the federal government was directly or indirectly responsible for most of the segregation, discrimination, and poverty in the South” (313).

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