Outdoors For All ~ Lessons Learned

Outdoors For All ~ Lessons Learned

In the summer of 2018 my course called Outdoors For All met three days a week for three hours each day for four weeks. At first I thought I’d have difficulty filling the time, but with subject matter spanning more than 150 years of racial oppression I had compiled enough historical references and case studies to fill the pages of my next book. Each day of class constituted a chapter on a specific element of the long narrative of discrimination from the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 through the first 500 days of the Trump Administration. Inspired by a keynote address from National Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin at the 2017 PGM ONE Conference in Berkeley, California, I shaped the path of our class discussions along what she had called an “upward spiral, cyclical periods of chaos”.

At the age of 96 Soskin is the oldest ranger currently serving in the National Park Service. She is also an African-American woman. Through her long life she has witnessed both the triumphs and atrocities of the last century. From the era of Jim Crow segregation, our victory over fascism in World War II, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the first Black President of the United States, Soskin has seen much of our history unfold with regular bouts of chaotic fervor, through which our society seems to take steps backward. From the horrors of lynching, housing discrimination through redlining, the disproportionate incarceration of people of color in the war on drugs and the unlawful killing of Black men and boys by police officers, I traced the narrative arch of the not-so-distant past too often punctuated by acts of social cowardice that perpetuate the status quo that still leaves racial minorities scrambling to achieve forward momentum in a society that resists the advancement of Black and Brown people. With every twist of the upward spiral people of color in this country are left to struggle for a foothold on the cultural landscape, our sense of place in the world is made uncertain, even dangerous.

Through out the course I challenged my students to proactively explore ways in which we as a nation might overcome the deeply rooted systems and culture of oppression. As an assignment in the first week of class I asked them to consider what we might have done to avoid the last century and a half of racial strife in the United States since the Civil War and Reconstruction. Just as I had hoped, they came back to class the following day with a suggestion that frankly, blew my mind.

“We could have enforced the Civil Rights Act of 1866,” one student said. At first I assumed I hadn’t heard her correctly. Then I thought she was simply mistaken. “You mean the Civil Rights Act of 1964?” I asked. “Remember, the assignment was to think hypothetically about what we could have done differently between the end of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.”
Respectfully and with more patience than I deserved the student held her ground. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “The Civil Rights Act of 1866 covers a lot of what we’ve been talking about.”

Eric Foner: 1866: The Birth of Civil Rights from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.

First of all, I am no historian. But I thought I had a pretty firm grasp of the major legislative events of the last two hundred years. I had never heard of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. I was well aware of Supreme Court rulings such as Dred Scott v.s. Sandford which declared in 1856 that so-called “Negros” and their ancestors imported from Africa could not be American citizens. The decision in Brown v.s. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 overturned the Plessy v.s. Ferguson case of 1896, which made segregation legal in much of the United States. The desegregation of public schools ended the doctrine of “separate but equal” and ushered in the national movement, which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What I didn’t realize though was that right the middle of all this debate, discussion, social oppression and racially motivated violence regarding the treatment of Black people in the United States there was a law drafted at the end of the Civil War that, as my student taught me, covers pretty much everything.

“All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed by the U.S. House and Senate over a veto by then President Andrew Johnson. The codification of equal rights for all human beings, including Black people, in our county should have put an end to legal discrimination once and for all. This legislation was further reinforced in 1868 by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The cultural significance of these words resonates from the 19th Century well through the 21st. Too often when discussing modern race relations today detractors who deny the continuing oppression of Black and Brown people in the U.S. have a common refrain. “The Civil War was a long time ago,” they say as if the atrocities of the past ended there. For almost 100 years in this country our elected officials across all levels of federal, state and local government simply ignored the rule of law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, though considered a piece of groundbreaking legislation, merely removed specific restrictions of public access and accommodation, voting rights and due process that were addressed categorically in 1866, almost a century earlier. Fifty-four years later those same protections are now under attack again as the administration of Donald Trump insists that migrants seeking asylum in this country should be detained indefinitely without trial or expelled without an objective hearing of their case. Though they are not citizens of the United States any person within its jurisdiction is guaranteed equal protection under the law.

At least a few of my students had difficulty understanding what any of this has to do with outdoor recreation or environmental conservation. As you’re reading this you might have many of the same questions. Through much of my research in recent months I’ve been working to understand how The Adventure Gap, as described in my book of the same title, was created, when it began to form. The greatest misconception we can assume is that people of color in our country have had unfettered opportunities to do and go anywhere we please, at least since emancipation. The reality is that vulnerable members of our population, minorities of all kinds, are constantly at risk of inhumane treatment by their fellow citizens, officers of law enforcement and the federal government itself. The same unlawful restrictions at prevented African-Americans in the United States from purchasing homes, voting, using public restrooms and attending desegregated schools are the ones that prevented them from visiting public beaches and yes even national parks. The notion of equity is at the core of a person’s right to access nature.

The freedom to travel safely without fear of mistreatment or abuse is the most basic tenant of life on American soil. Even those who enter this country illegally are guaranteed the right to be treated humanely and to have their day in court. Much of the negative pressure that has kept people of color from experiencing remote wilderness areas or even nearby green spaces often presents itself by tacit suggestions that they don’t belong, less explicit omissions from the cultural narrative of outdoor recreation and environmental conservation or the threat of physical violence. Though certainly there have been fewer instances of overt racism keeping people of color from experiencing the outdoors in meaningful ways they continue to occur. The very possibility that a person might feel unsafe or unwelcome is enough to deter them from even trying.

Just as I have encouraged my students to think proactively about what we can do to stop the upward spiral of chaos I want to impress upon everyone the importance of defending the rights of others to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that is promised in our Constitution. Let’s start by enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The due process provisions of that legislation and the 14th Amendment define a very simple philosophy we learned as children under the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. I believe that it is important to understand that the systems meant to keep people from enjoying the basic freedoms of life in America were put in place deliberately. Legislation, institutions and policies that include slavery, Jim Crow segregation, redlining and voter identification are all designed to restrict the social mobility of entire classes of human beings in the United States. It’s not enough to simply declare “all men are created equal” and assume that everyone is given the same advantages and opportunities to achieve their particular version of the so-called American dream. If we are truly going to correct the atrocities of the past we must be equally deliberate in our efforts to remove them.