Gun Violence Is the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

We betray the legacy of the civil rights movement—and fail to value black life—if we don’t take steps to end gun violence.

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Whether or not Americans are willing to admit it, black life has historically been valued less than white life. This was one of the chief reasons that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 50 summers ago this year, recruited white volunteers to go into Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Violence, and even murder, against black civil rights workers inspired little outrage. But the loss of white life proved enough to trigger national soul-searching.

Even as we celebrate important civil rights milestones this year, we betray the legacy of the movement—and fail to value black life—if we fail to take action toward ending gun violence.

The inability to admit that race matters in all facets of American life, even—especially—in debates over gun violence, cheapens our discourse over what is the most pressing civil rights issue of our day.

It is the most basic human right, the right to live, that is being taken away from the most vulnerable, poor and segregated part of the American family.

This daily loss of young black people’s lives to gun violence is a national tragedy. It is the most basic human right, the right to live, that is being taken away from the most vulnerable, poor and segregated part of the American family.

For people of color in America, racial poverty a half-century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act doesn’t just mean the added layer of being more likely to live in racially segregated neighborhoods, attend failing schools, be primed for prison, and have poor access to health care and social services.

It also means that you are more likely to be shot and killed by a gun.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the recently released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.

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