Resistance to America’s ‘double system of justice’ has long history in Great Barrington

In a letter to the editor, the Clinton Church Restoration board members write, "Du Bois’ writing in 'Souls' reminds us that the systemic racism that led to the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and too many other Black people in this country is not new."

To the editor:

In his 1903 classic “The Souls of Black Folk,” the ever-prescient W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the very issues with which America is now grappling:

“Daily the Negro is coming more and more to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression. The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; they are executed by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration; and, finally, the accused law-breaker is tried, not by his peers, but too often by men who would rather punish ten innocent Negroes than let one guilty one escape.”

The result, he concluded, was “a double system of justice, which erred on the white side by undue leniency and the practical immunity of red-handed criminals, and erred on the black side by undue severity, injustice, and lack of discrimination.”

While Du Bois was primarily writing about the South, brutality against Black bodies and America’s double system of justice have been a concern in Great Barrington for a very long time.

In September 1895, the Clinton Church hosted the New England Conference of the A.M.E. Zion Church’s annual Sunday school convention. At the event, which drew dozens of pastors and teachers, the committee on the state of the nation expressed grave concerns about lynching and the treatment of Black people. The Berkshire Courier shared some of the report Sept. 5, 1895:

“[T]he condition of the Negro citizen in this nation continues to be one of anxious solitude. The deplorable spirit of lawlessness, as manifested in lynchings … is spreading itself over the land. What we need in this critical condition of public affairs is just what we needed in the dark days of slavery—men to ‘stand on the wall.’ As did [abolitionists] Garrison, Phillips, Sumner and Douglas[s], hurling their thunderbolts at the citadel of injustice, and swaying the rulers and people of the American nation into a recognition and practice of the principles of the constitution of the United States. God’s blessing cannot long continue with a nation whose people are indifferent to, or careless of the claims of justice to each and all of its citizens.”

This is merely one example of the church’s history of advocacy for racial justice, documented in David Levinson’s book “The African American Community in Rural New England: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church.” Levinson tells us more:

  • Members of the congregation were active in the Berkshire NAACP, formed in 1918 and reactivated in 1945, and hosted chapter meetings in the church basement.
  • Clinton pastors and members complained publicly about housing discrimination, harassment and police brutality against Black youth, advocacy that led to the establishment of a town-wide committee on police relations in 1969.
  • Rev. Esther Dozier, who became the church’s first female pastor in 1999, was equally outspoken on matters of injustice and began the town’s first celebrations of civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, who had been largely ignored in his hometown for decades.

Du Bois’ writing in “Souls” reminds us that the systemic racism that led to the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and too many other Black people in this country is not new. The history of the Clinton Church makes clear that neither is African American resistance to this brutality.

We need to tell these stories. We need to say their names.

This letter was sign by the following:

Clinton Church Restoration board members Wray Gunn Sr., Cora Portnoff, Dennis Powell, Will Singleton, Beth Carlson, Frances Jones-Sneed, Rachel Fletcher, Dan Bolognani, and interim executive director Eugenie Sills