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Chris Hedges: Harriet Tubman And The Battle For America’s Symbols

Above Photo: A portrait of Harriet Tubman (ca. 1820-1913). Corbis via Getty Images.

What’s at stake in the fight over monuments and symbols isn’t just aesthetics.

It’s the future of racial justice and democracy, says author and professor Clarence Lusane.

The debate over America’s symbols and monuments has sharpened with the growing mass movement for racial justice in the past decade. The lionization of slave-owners and genocidaires has been pointed out by many as in contradiction to the ideals of democracy and racial justice so often touted as national core values. In the midst of this debate, the decision by the US Treasury to place Harriet Tubman alongside Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill starting in 2030 has incited controversy. Howard University professor of political science Clarence Lusane joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss the Harriet Tubman dollar bill, and the stakes of the debate over national symbols in righting the historical wrongs of slavery and white supremacy.

Dr. Clarence Lusane is a full Professor, former Chairman of Howard University’s Department of Political Science, and current Director of the International Affairs program. He is an author, activist, scholar, lecturer, and journalist. His most recent book is

Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy.


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Chris Hedges: When the new $20 bill is issued in 2030, it is scheduled to have on one side a portrait of Harriet Tubman, the fiery abolitionist who made over a dozen clandestine trips south to free enslaved people, and later served as a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War. And on the back, it is supposed to have a statue of the slave holding seventh president Andrew Jackson, who is one of the principal organizers of the genocidal campaigns against Native Americans. It is a bit like Germany issuing a bill with Anne Frank on one side and Adolph Eichmann on the other. This schizophrenia reflects the bifurcation within the United States where the dwindling majority of whites often embrace the so-called white replacement theory seen in the effort to honor the nation’s diversity and own up to the sins of white supremacy, a campaign to erase them. The fight over symbols and monuments is grounded in this fear of dethronement.

For as Aaron L. Thompson writes, monuments aren’t history lessons, they’re pledges of allegiance. Owning up to our past, the goal of critical race theory shatters the myth, perpetuated by white supremacists that are racial hierarchy is not somehow engineered, but the natural outcome of a meritocracy where whites are endowed with superior intelligence, talent, and civilization while Blacks deserve to be at the bottom of society because of their innate characteristics. Owning up to the past eradicates the whitewashing in textbooks, monuments, memorials, and historical narratives, and forces white Americans to grapple with a history every bit as evil as that perpetuated by German fascists.

As Clarence Lusane, the author of Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy argues, rolling out a Tubman $20 bill not only disrupts and diminishes the legacies of white supremacy that persist in official narratives, but that doing so is a necessary step toward diminishing and abolishing racist distortions of our political economy, health and medical institutions, and justice system. Joining me to discuss this battle over national symbols and monuments is Professor Clarence Lusane, the director of International Affairs Program and the interim chair of the political science department at Howard University. So let’s just begin quickly. She’s a remarkable figure, Harriet Tubman, just for people who don’t know, just a brief outline of who she was and why she was important.

Clarence Lusane: First of all, thank you for having me, Chris. And this really is an important topic and Harriet Tubman is a great character to talk about the issue of symbolism and importance. So for basically anybody that’s been to an American school and had at least a fourth grade education, somewhere along the way you learned about Harriet Tubman. But mostly what you learned was that she helped people escape from slavery. She escaped herself and then she made a number of trips back down to free her family and friends and she gets frozen at that. What I try to do in this book is to widen the lens and look at her overall broader life, where not only did she fight to end slavery, but she also fought for women’s rights. She fought for voting rights. She spoke out against injuries and people who were infirm. She spoke out for people who were poor.

So Harriet Tubman, for me, represents really the epitome of someone who’s fighting for a broader democracy in the country. And then you compare that to, as you mentioned, Andrew Jackson, who not only was someone who was a participant in massacres against Native Americans, his administration led to the infamous and tragic Trail of Tears. He was also an enslave and a slave traitor. And then a lot of people also know him or project him as someone who founded the Democratic Party. But it was a Democratic party and it was a vision of democracy completely and opposite to that of Harriet Tubman. For Andrew Jackson, his understanding of democracy was white privileged men. And so you really have two contrasting individuals, but more generally, two contrasting visions of what the society should be about, who should be represented, where the society should be headed.

Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about monuments. So you have end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, large numbers of Confederate monuments put up, courthouse lawns, you write, state house grounds, strategically erected to serve as reminders to Black folks that those institutions had no regard for them. Whites may pass a statue of Robert E. Lee and think of it as benign, but Blacks can’t and you write about this. So talk about the choice of those who are honored and the role of the monuments as part of the subjugation and ultimately the reign of terror that is carried out under Jim and Jane Crow against Black people.

Clarence Lusane: So monuments, and statues, and buildings that are named after individuals, all of this symbolism is not benign. It represents a position, a position on history, a position on society. As you noted, many of the statues that came about that honored the Confederacy, didn’t come right after the Civil War when it was clear to everybody what the Civil War was about, that had been about defending slavery. It came as a part of the lost cause and a reconstructed history that made the Confederacy as something noble, as it was fighting against government overreach and that these were actually heroes. And so those monuments were not about the Civil War, they were about post reconstruction, politics of race.

And particularly because they were in the south, although there was some outside of the south, it was to reinforce and reiterate every single day the Jim Crow segregation that Black people and other people of color had to deal with. So the objection to these monuments didn’t come as a rebuttal against whites in general, but it came across and was there from the beginning by African Americans. And you’re talking about Black leaders from W.E.B Du Bois to Marcus Garvey, to other Black leaders who all spoke out because it was recognized, from the top to the bottom, that these really did represent an argument for the continuation of Jim Crow, and the continuing oppression of Black people, Native Americans, and Latinos in this country.

Chris Hedges: But it was also accompanied or part of a historical erasure, one which you write about in the book, the number of slave revolts. I think if I remember right, you said 250, I didn’t know it was that large, but also reconstruction, when you had that brief period when northern troops were occupying the south and Blacks were allowed to gain political office. So it wasn’t just about honoring, it was also about disappearing history. Can you address that?

Clarence Lusane: Yes. I have lamented for years that we do not teach enough about reconstruction. So most broader history in the US tends to think of you had slavery, you had the Civil War, you had Jim Crow, and then you had the Civil rights movement. And it erases this really important moment between 1867 and 1877 when there was an effort on the part of the US Federal Government to take responsibility, not only for how people who had been enslave had been treated, but to offer remedies, which included a specific bank that was created to give African Americans opportunities to take out loans, for example, to start businesses, to buy properties. You had the Freedman’s Bureau, which promoted education and created schools. And these schools were actually multiracial. The first time many whites in the South actually were able to go to school was during reconstruction. And then you also had Black political participation where you had African Americans who had been enslaved in the 1850s who were in Congress, who were in state legislatures, who were in city councils in the 1870s.

So it was a remarkable period. And because of that period, after it was crushed in 1877 with the Hayes Tilden Compromise, where the two political parties reached a deal that Rutherford B. Hayes would be given the presidency, and basically, they would stop protecting freed Black people in the South. After that period, it was the strength of Black people having learned politics, learned how to survive that prepared people for the next a hundred years of Jim Crow. So it’s a really, really critical error. And again, there’s very little taught and, of course, that then gets reflected, there’s almost no public symbolism about reconstruction as opposed to, for example, the Confederacy.

Chris Hedges: So I want to read this passage from your book. I found it fascinating that these memorials, these monuments are not just about honoring a particular period of white supremacy and a perpetuation of white supremacy, as well as erasure of huge parts of history, but they also influence political behavior in the present. You write, “A 2021 study by researchers at the University of Virginia confirmed that there is a direct correlation between confederate monuments and white racial terror concluding that, and this is in quotes, the number of lynching victims in a county is a positive and significant predicate of the number of Confederate memorialization in that county.”

Clarence Lusane: Yeah, so it’s absolutely true that these monuments, these statues are narratives and they not only tell a story, but they also offer a form of action. And so we see this time and time and time again, there was a case coming out of Georgia, I believe, or Tennessee, where there was a courtroom, and in this courtroom it was basically a pageant to the Confederacy. And there was a successful lawsuit from a Black defendant who argued that, the fact that you would have a jury room where the Confederacy would be celebrated was prejudicial. And that you can look at in a broader context that throughout the region, where you had these confederate monuments and statutes, you had the KKK, you had the white citizens councils.

We saw all of this really come to crest in 2017, in Virginia, with the Unite the Right rally, which I will remind people was about defending the Confederate statue, Robert E. Lee. And it was the most extreme, but not the only, and certainly not the unusual defense that we’ve seen, which has animated those who feel most, that they are being replaced, who have bought into this argument that African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants from the third world are coming to replace them. And the only way to defend that is through undemocratic and even violent means.

Chris Hedges: I want to talk about reparations, affirmative action, but before I do, I want to read a short passage from your book. “In numerous studies from Eric Williams, Classic Slavery and Capitalism to Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery In The Making of American Capitalism. Historians and economists have documented how the US economy from the pre-Revolutionary War period until the last days of slavery was built on the backs of enslaved African people and their descendants. At the onset of the Civil War in 1861, white people enslaved, 3.9 million, 88% of the 4.3 million Black people in the United States. The abolition of slavery represented the victory of an industrial aristocracy over an agrarian one. The emancipatory politics of Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner and others overlapped with the interests of wealthy northerners who founded the Republican party and created an inevitable clash that led to the Civil War.”

First, that’s a very important point that this was an economic battle between the North and the South with the cover of slavery. But I think it begins to address all of us who do argue for reparations, have long said that that enslaved African Americans built almost everything in this country, including the Capitol, and I believe the White House. And originally affirmative action, I want you to address this, because we’re now watching a Supreme Court on the cusp of essentially abolishing affirmative action, when it was set up by Lyndon Johnson, was set up as a way to essentially acknowledge the economic contribution of African Americans. And I think that famous Johnson, when you have your foot on a man’s neck for 300 years and then you finally take the boot off his neck, you can’t call that an equal starting point. Again, I’m butchering the quote.

And that affirmative action itself got distorted, but it wasn’t originally designed for diversity. It was designed because of the economic contribution of African Americans in the United States for which they were never compensated, especially, of course, immediately after the Civil War. And then you get convict leasing and everything else. But talk about that and talk a little bit about what’s happening right now, when we watch what little gains have been made, essentially, it looks like a about to be rolled back.

Clarence Lusane: So thank you for that question. So the cause for reparation, without using that term, go all the way back to the beginning of the US. It was long acknowledged and understood by Black people that they were being exploited, that their labor was building the economy, and as you point out, of the entire country, it wasn’t just the South. The North benefited as well through factories, through insurance, through financing. So it was a national problem that never was addressed, but it was always a component of the African American freedom movement. Prior to the Civil War, after the Civil War, during the civil rights era, it was an issue that never went away. Martin Luther King, for example, again, did not use the term reparations, but he certainly talked about a debt that was owed as a result of not only slavery, but the post-slavery era in Jim Crow and the wealth that again was built up through the exploitation of Black people during the Jim Crow era.

For example, Black people were not eligible, in most instances, for social security, but they were paying into the system. So they were building wealth for white Americans, that they were being denied despite putting in the same kind of labor. So when Johnson proposes this, and when it’s championed, even by Richard Nixon, it’s understood at that moment as a beginning of repairing the damage that had been done. It gets corrupted though, starting in the Reagan era, and then it becomes a mean for contemporary conservatives who want to simply deny A, that racial discrimination and white supremacy even exists. And then certainly that there should be no responsibility on the part of the US Government, which flies in the face of not only historic US policy, but around the world where governments and others who have been held accountable for damage, they inflicted there had to be compensation. There had to be reparations. And so it’s still an issue that resonates in the Black community, but we are in a very different kind of understanding of what this history means.

Chris Hedges: And what’s happening now? We’re now on the cusp of taking a huge step backward.

Clarence Lusane: Yes. So we’re about to see what little vestiges of affirmative action are left about to be crushed by the Supreme Court. And I think the Supreme Court, beyond affirmative action, they would be going after voting rights. They would be going after other gains that were made as a result of the civil rights and Black power movement and movements by Native Americans, Latinos, women, LGBTQ communities. All of these communities that intersect and overlap are all under attack. And we’re about to see, I think, a vigorous rollback coming out of some of the decisions that are facing the court in this present term.

Chris Hedges: What’ll be the consequences?

Clarence Lusane: Oh, they’re going to be harsh. And the challenge will be whether or not the Democrats will be up to the task of fighting back and will they be bold, for example, in expanding the court. The court, as is constituted right now with the 6/3 majority and that six conservative majority being relatively young, these individuals will be on the court the next 10, 15, 20 years. So there’s just no possibility, unless there’s some ideological metamorphosis among these members, that they’re going to push the court back towards democratic rights, political rights, rights for all of these different communities.

So I think that that just requires a boldness on the part of Democrats, if they have the opportunity, to push back and try to bring some more balance to the court. But it will be harsh. We’ve already saw it in terms of the decision affecting women with the Dobbs decision. We can go back to the Citizens United, how that’s impacted the political mainstream in the country. Voting Rights Act has been attacked a couple of times, and now it’s just a matter of putting the last stab wound in, in this particular session of the court. There’s some possibilities of challenging and having alternatives at the state level, but it’s really what the court does that has to also be addressed.

Chris Hedges: You’re right. Racialized attacks on the welfare state have been a successful method for getting white people to reject policies that would directly benefit them, such as the subsidized healthcare system known as Obamacare. It is in this manner that white supremacy has been manipulated by corporate and political interests, which was why liberation movements must focus, not just on the abolition of racial injustice, but also on freedom from the multiple ways power marginalizes people, particularly women of color, and denies them their full human agency. Well, this is really the playbook of the new Republican party, I think Glen Ford used to call it the White Man’s Party under Trump, but it works. It’s always worked.

Clarence Lusane: Yeah, it certainly has. And what the contemporary Republican party has made clear, is that vigilance is permanent, that there is no comfort level from making really remarkable gains over the last half century, going back from the sixties to the present for communities that were marginalized, and repressed, and denied, but that it never stopped. And we can see it in areas like healthcare, for example. So in the book I talk about Harriet Tubman who was injured when she was enslaved, when she was about 11 or 12 or so. She had a devastating blow to the head that for the rest of her life gave her seizures, headaches, she would often literally just sort of pass out in mid-sentence. So she had a very harsh injury that she had to live with, but that is what happened to people who were enslaved. There were no efforts at taking care of their health interests beyond what could be used to produce whatever work they were doing.

And that carried on all the way up until today. W.B. Du Bois, who mostly is noted for his speaking out around political rights and civil rights and such, also spoke out and wrote about healthcare for the Black community and did a couple of critical reports and studies that looked at everything from Black people in insurance, to Black medical schools, to how Black people were treated in white hospitals. So the issue has been there for a long, long, long time. It was there during the pandemic that happened in 1918, 1919, where there was disproportionate abandonment of the Black community to the pandemic of that moment. So it’s not really shocking when we get to 2020 and particularly with Trump as president, that there will be a very disproportionate approach. And in the fact, if left up to the Trump administration would’ve completely abandoned Black communities, brown communities, Native American communities who were initially the most devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about critical race theory that’s under attack. Books are being purged from school curriculums. The charge of the right is that they paint America’s a racist society. Well, of course that happens to be true, but this assault is not just political, it is also a pushback against any attempt to rectify the mythology that is dominated the country through white supremacy.

Clarence Lusane: Yep. I wrote somewhere that critical race theory explains the opposition to critical race theory. And by that I mean, critical race theory says that there is systemic and historic racial discrimination. And it isn’t just about individuals, but it’s about institutions and it’s about systems of power. And unless those are dismantled, then you will continue with the disproportionalities that we see in education, employment, housing, environmental and so forth. And that’s where the opposition really has understood that you have to attack critical race theory because you can’t allow that kind of framing of racial politics to seep into the society. And begin to look at it really isn’t just about individuals. And that’s important because we’ve seen an elevation of Black people, Latinos and others in these conservative and far right circles, which would seem to auger against a racial through line. But in fact, it’s irrelevant that you’ve got an Ali Alexander, for example, who’s leading the Stop the Steal movement because in fact, the Stop the Steal movement is about stopping Black votes.

And so it doesn’t matter who actually is heading that up, it’s operating in the interest of white supremacy. And so that’s really what critical race theory gets at. It initially began looking at the way in which law and the legal structures of these countries from the very beginning were embedded with white supremacists notions. Absolutely true. And it traces that from the beginning of the country starting with the US Constitution, all the way up until today, and then more generally, looking at other systems of racial power that exists. And so critical race theory is a threat to those who do not want to bring about the changes that are needed in this country. But critical race theory in and of itself is not taught in elementary schools or high schools. It’s not even taught at the undergraduate level for that matter.

Chris Hedges: Right. Well, that’s the other irony. None of them are teaching critical race theory. Anyway. Well, this is a playbook right out of colonialism where the people who pulled the strings. I worked in the Congo, so you put a mabutu in power, but essentially the Belgian colonists, the French colonists, continue to have control. We did the same thing in Latin America. That’s the role of these figures, figures like Clarence Thomas, so they do the bidding of the white overlords and the system itself remains intact.

Clarence Lusane: That’s exactly right. And I’m glad you mentioned Clarence Thomas because it’s hard to find a more direct validation of that argument, that it really isn’t just about what someone particularly looks like. It is really to what degree they’re in a position of power and how do they use that power. And Clarence Thomas, since he first emerged as a public figure, has been absolutely central to this turn towards authoritarianism and far right power. And I would add Jenny Thomas to that list as well. And so we are fighting against that type of mythology that it’s not about race, that this is just about something else, but in fact, it absolutely is.

Chris Hedges: Well, there’s a kind of protean quality you learn going all the way back to slave patrols, to militarized police that use lethal force, and what Malcolm X call our internal colonies, the vast prison archipelago across the country. It shifts, it changes its facade, but it remains the same. And I think that’s what critical race theory begins to examine and address and why it’s important. That was Clarence Lusane, the author of Twenty Dollars in Change: Harriet Tubman and The Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me

And the Chris Hedges report gets some extra time now with a few minutes of bonus material with Chris and his guest.

Chris Hedges: You talk about in the book, and I want to talk about white replacement theory. And this is this demographic, what is it, by 2025 or something, whites will no longer be in the majority. How has that colored or changed the white supremacy of the past if it has?

Clarence Lusane: So that’s a good question because white supremacy has always existed in this country, whether during the slave era, the Greek construction period, Jim Crow period never had an issue of not being the majority. There were states like South Carolina and Mississippi, for example, which at various point enslaved people were majority of a sort, but they were never in power ,and they were never a direct threat for taking power. But with the movements coming out of the sixties and seventies and the resurgence of response to that, you start to get this idea that particularly with immigrants of color, that you’re going to lose a majority, whites. And there are a number of studies that show when that particular trigger is hit, then you see a move to the right, you see a move towards authoritarianism. Now this reaches a peak with the election of Obama in 2008.

Now, Obama was as moderate a Democrat as you could get in many ways. He certainly wasn’t a Jesse Jackson or Reverend Al Sharpton, but the fact that he was a Black American underscored what had been an increasing argument on the far right that this replacement was happening. Then you couple that with the growth in the Latino population, which has actually grown and will grow larger probably than the African American population, it also becomes a tool to explain what the country is going through, in terms of many whites feeling displaced and feeling out of sorts. And what it does, of course, is that it evades a more critical analysis of how power has increasingly shifted upwards. And what we are witnessing is a growth in the corporate takeover politically, that means that everybody is going to suffer at some point. And so it shifts the focus from that to the historic scape group of people of color. And then the last element I would add in that is also September 11th, where then you also get this notion of this foreign religious threat that’s coming to the country.

Chris Hedges: I was in Montgomery a couple years ago walking through the city with Brian Stevenson, and he was pointing out all the Confederate memorials in Montgomery. Half of Montgomery of course is Black. And then Brian said something interesting. He said, “Most of these were put up in the last 10 years.” And I said to Brian, “Well, that was exactly what happened when I covered the war in Yugoslavia.” With the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia, people retreated into these ethnic nationalisms. And I’m wondering if the Dethronement, if we want to call it that, of the white working class, has essentially force them back and almost to this atavistic quality back into these old mythological narratives in search of a kind of identity.

Clarence Lusane: So certainly people want explanations for what’s happening in their life. Why does it seem that I can’t get ahead? Why does it seem that my children may not have a better life than I had? So that is completely understandable, but then what explanations are available? And there are explanations that I think more accurately target what historically, unfolds and how economic and political power gets concentrated. But then there are explanations that feed on historic myths of racial threat and danger, and those become more accessible, and in the particular social media mainstream area moments that we live in, then those can be echoed in ways that they could not 20 years ago.

And so again, there’s a number of really critical studies that demonstrate that people are in these echo chambers and they create a world that has nothing to do with the real world, but people believe it. And then people act on those beliefs. And so we are seeing this and we are seeing it affect manifest itself in the ways in which people are voting. And we see it manifesting in the ways in which one of the main political parties has essentially, become the vehicle for that grievance and for this perceived victimhood.

Chris Hedges: I want to talk about violence against Black people. Isn’t the primary vehicle of violence against Black people coming from the state I.E police?

Clarence Lusane: So I think it’s coming in a number of different ways. Certainly there’s police violence, and despite the protests and uprisings that happened in 2020 after Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and others were killed, as Washington Post report it, police killings are still going on and may actually have increased in terms of Black people. So that’s one form of violence. Then there’s non-state violence, and we’ve seen a number of instances where Black people have been killed, like Ahmad Arbery, for example, by vigilantes in effect. And then there’s the threat, and the growing threat of white supremacists, far right violence that will be done in the name of a political agenda. And I think this is important because this far right authoritarian movement has not been adequately addressed.

And to go to another historical parallel, in 1923 when the Nazi party in Bavaria, Munich surrounded the beer hall where the government was meeting and attempted to overthrow, it failed. Hitler was captured and sent to prison. Now, normally treason can be a capital offense, and certainly could be a lifelong sentence. He was out in nine months, wrote Mine Comp, and 10 years later came to power. If you do not crush these movements, if you do not eliminate them, they don’t voluntarily go away. And I think this is the lesson where we’re at today, is that this movement that we’ve seen grow to even threaten to kidnap governors, is not simply going to fall apart.

It will find other ways and particularly, if it’s not refuted by any stretch, by the party it believes it represents, it will be an ongoing problem. So we really do have a democracy versus authoritarianism moment that we’re in. And through that is a line about race and that the threat to the country, whether it’s the voting threat, or whether it’s the job threat, or whether it is the religious threat, it’s all about white, non-white people who are threatening white people.

Chris Hedges: But isn’t there an intersectionality, as there was in Weimar, Germany between these white hate groups, you saw for instance with Kyle Rittenhouse where the police let him walk away. We know that there are large numbers of white supremacists within police forces and within the military. And that’s what’s frightening that they’re interlocked.

Clarence Lusane: Yeah, they certainly are. Another point I would raise on this though, which is really critical, is that there are white working people who absolutely are in a line with people of color, with immigrants, with poor people. And that’s important to underscore because even if you go back to the Nazi era, Hitler’s base was not primarily among German workers, it was among German middle class. If you look at the demography of those who attacked the capitol on January 6th, this was not poor, rural white people from Idaho. This were middle class whites who are in the position to feel like they are being most threatened, that they have achieved things that they’re not going to lose, and they’re willing to go to the far right on these kind of politics. So I think it’s in the interest, one of the Democratic party, but certainly the progressive movement to also highlight that there are many, many, many working class whites who are much more in a position to align with people of color than with the other side.

Chris Hedges: Well it was a rural urban divide, largely in Weimar, the Nazis had no support in Berlin. There was also an urban rural divide in the war in Yugoslavia with the ethnic nationalists largely being based in rural areas and cosmopolitan cities like Sarajevo, where there was inner marriage having much less of that. And I think there’s a rural urban divide in the United States. That was Clarence Lusane, the author of Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy.

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