In 1963, a college student named Angela Davis learned that a church bombing in her hometown, Birmingham, had just killed four of her childhood friends. Her activist parents had raised her to be an antiracist, and at Brandeis University in Boston, she got to meet some of her idols, like James Baldwin and Malcolm X. She was studying abroad in France when she learned about the bombing. President Kennedy investigated it, but soon got assassinated.
Angela Davis is the fifth and final main character in Stamped. She had the rare experience of growing up as an antiracist in the U.S. But like all the other major activists Reynolds and Kendi have mentioned throughout American history, she combined her lived experience with higher education in order to hone her understanding of racism.
Then, President Lyndon B. Johnson took over and helped pass new civil rights legislation. But while Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination, it didn’t actually stop it: white people responded by continuing to discriminate, while saying that discrimination didn’t exist. Black Americans and activists like Malcolm X questioned whether the bill would do anything. Angela Davis agreed. Why would a racist government enforce antiracist laws?
Antiracists know that getting the government to commit to justice is one thing, but getting it to actually carry it out is a different thing entirely. This is why they keep pressuring the government to pursue justice even when their work seems to be done. Just like racists responded to Reconstruction with terrorist violence and Jim Crow segregation laws, they responded to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s with a new “color blind” form of racism: they kept discriminating, but claimed that racism was over.
Segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace and anti-government conservative Barry Goldwater both tried to defeat President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 election. They both lost, but they won plenty of support from white racists. After his reelection, President Johnson turned against civil rights groups like the SNCC, which started following Malcolm X by focusing on Black empowerment and pride. Then, Malcolm X was assassinated. Leaders like James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. honored him, and antiracists everywhere mourned him. Alex Haley published Malcolm X’s influential autobiography, which showed how he went “from assimilationist to anti-White separatist to antiracist.” President Johnson ultimately doubled down on civil rights legislation by passing the remarkably successful Voting Rights Act.
Most students likely learn to view Malcolm X as a more radical and militant alternative to Dr. King, but they were fundamentally part of the same movement, and their beliefs were generally similar. Malcolm X just came around to antiracism a little earlier than King did. But both men underwent a process of change and development through their activist careers. While Johnson waffled back and forth, the civil rights movement’s consistent pressure made sure that he ultimately passed influential civil rights legislation. This shows how activists have an important role to play in a healthy democracy: they have to represent the people’s voice and constantly pressure the government to act.