Anti-democratic authoritarianism is on the rise–both around the world and here at home. Sometimes it is easier to recognize overseas. That’s especially true at moments like this when Vladimir Putin’s military is killing civilians in Ukraine to feed his ambitions for greater power and is crushing any effort at dissent or truth-telling in his native Russia.
Americans don’t often recognize authoritarianism at home because they don’t want to. They believe the U.S. is so exceptional that the checks and balances built into our system will protect our democratic values. That smug assurance was shaken by the Capitol Insurrection and the all-out effort by former President Trump to stay in power after the voters sent him packing.
Black Americans have never had a problem seeing the threat. After all, we were formally denied our place in democratic government for most of the country’s first century. And in some parts of the country, we were violently locked out of real access to democracy—and to opportunity—for most of its second century.
And now, almost halfway through the U.S.’s third century, we see access to voting being rolled back. We see mechanisms being put in place for the party in power to steal elections if they don’t like the outcome. And we see corrupt census figures and abusive gerrymandering being used to deny Black people the level of access to political power that we deserve.
We’ve seen this all before. Specifically, Black newspapers have seen it all before.
In 1942, the federal government was rallying Americans to support the cause of democracy in World War II, which the U.S. formally entered at the end of 1941.
One Black man called out the glaring contrast being our country’s stated ideals and the reality of life for Black people who faced prejudice and discrimination even in the military. James Thompson wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, which was the largest-circulation Black newspaper at the time. The paper titled the letter, “Should I Sacrifice to Live Half American?”
“Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life?” he wrote. “Is the kind of America I know worth defending?”
The Courier turned Thompson’s letter into a public campaign that other Black papers embraced. They adopted the allies’ “V for Victory” slogan with a call for a double victory over the enemies of democracy at home and abroad.
The Double V Campaign urged Black Americans to fight “not merely for the salvation of America, not merely to secure the same degree of democracy for Black Americans that white Americans have long enjoyed, but to establish precedent for a world-wide principle of free association among men of all races, creeds and colors. That’s the black man’s stake.”
That is still our stake. It is still our fight.
It’s no surprise to us that the same far-right media figures excusing Vladimir Putin’s brutality have also excused or actively promoted Donald Trump’s Big Lie about the election—and used that Big Lie to justify new assaults on Black Americans’ access to democracy.
Back in 1942, James Thompson wrote that he was “willing to die for the America I know will someday become a reality.”
That is the kind of remarkable faith that motivated and sustained the civil rights movement after the war. It is the same kind of faith and determination we must find to defend American democracy and our place in it.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice in the Africana Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches leadership. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.