Let me begin by stating that I acknowledge that Black people have suffered for generations. The inequality that founded America exists today in numerous forms even though slavery has been abolished for generations. I acknowledge that society needs to change. I could write books, essays, and epics about the myriad ways racism is prevalent in every corner of society, but all of that can be summed up in once sentence: There’s no grey in America.
The United States is Black or White and there doesn’t seem to be an in-between. Back in 1991, I was a naive teenager who didn’t know a lot about racial tension and oppression. Where would I get the education from when North American schools hardly touched the matter? Why was education about slavery and racial oppression taught about only in the past tense? The reason is simple: To educate is to implicate. Anyway, Michael Jackson was singing “Black or White” and those of us that believed that it really didn’t matter if you’re Black or White were living on the other side of the fence, it would seem. This song came out one year before the Rodney King riots in L.A. and long before Baltimore and Ferguson. History Repeats Itself. Why? The same scenario has been played out again and again in American history with little change…..again, why?
Well, that’s complicated. Even reciting dates and events seems to dredge up ill feelings and anger, on both ends. This topic almost seems too big to even begin to tackle, but I think that to understand what Black people were up against you have to understand the level of oppression they have endured and still endure. Black people were up against incredible odds just to get an education beyond high school as late as the ’60’s. They were racially segregated from the rest of modern society, much like my people, the Native people. The first Black university student in Mississippi was finally allowed to enroll in 1962! That’s barely a generation ago….it’s in living memory! That is not only morally wrong, but it’s shameful and disgusting! Is it any wonder the Civil Rights Movement arose? I think that it should have happened much sooner, so what prevented that?
It’s no secret that European people conquered and colonized North America. The brutal way Europeans accomplished this has been “whitewashed”; softened so that the myths of the melting pot and multiculturalism could be propagated and the sins of the past could be exonerated because somewhere along the way the Europeans “allowed” those they conquered and enslaved to participate in polite society, or so they chose to believe. The important thing here is that racial oppression only seems to be viewed as “in the past” and that past was never reconciled with the present. Not then, and not now. The breach is wide and many Black people have tried to cross only to discover that the other will only allow them to participate, but never truly belong. What will change hateful minds of the people who still stigmatize Black people in the most dehumanizing ways, such as calling them animals? It’s obvious their parents haven’t. It’s obvious theirs schools haven’t and it’s obvious their politicians and religious leaders are not doing enough to. It’s time to practice what we preach. We say we value love for our brother and treasure freedom and equality, but it’s time to live out those ideals. How?
Martin Luther King Jr. preached peace. He lived peace and he died violently. It must have been such a dark time and it likely seemed that all of the dreams of a peaceful and racially united America seemed to die right alongside of him. Some say it was a conspiracy, some say it was planned to keep the Black man down. Any rational and impartial person would question why the FBI insisted on massive amounts of tax dollars and manpower to put in place an almost decade long surveillance of a peaceful man. It’s hard to digest why this gentle man would be so scary to the powers that be? What exactly was so frightening about empowerment? The answer is simple: there is a status quo and it’s painfully obvious that that status quo was to be maintained at all costs, including lives. There’s no grey in America.
The rise of the Black Panthers came right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. The tone was different, and the means were different too. Where King encouraged and motivated, the Panthers acted. The rise of the Panthers was in response to an awakening social consciousness among black society. It was revolutionary and it was led by powerful individuals like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. Once that candle was lit the unstoppable fire spread throughout the whole nation using the words “Black Power” as a means to build up the tattered and abused psyche of Black America. It was a meant to empower. Social change was coming, until Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. This blow left a void in the heart of the movement, but it was the FBI creating COINTELPRO and the killing of Fred Hampton by police that likely finished it off, but only for that moment in time. After a stand-off with Police in L.A. at their offices, one Panther described why he was there and what drove him:
“I felt absolutely free. I was a free Negro, you understand?” he said. “I was making my own rules. I was the king of my domain. You couldn’t get in. I couldn’t get out. But in my space I was the king.”
Wayne Pharr – PBS Documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”
Let’s get one thing straight here, you cannot encourage social change by encouraging anarchy. It won’t work. Stigmatizing the other in reaction to their oppression of you will not work. You can’t change an opponents mind with negative rhetoric. You change minds with positive action You educate your children. You build up their self-image. You vote for politicians that have your voice in mind. You join school boards, church boards, community groups, and little leagues. The tide cannot be turned in one day. Armed revolution is not the answer. The pen is mightier than the sword.
“If you are going to deal with the issues that affect you,” (Courtland) Cox says today, fifty years on, “you got to figure out how to stop making demands, but making decisions.” For him that remains the legacy of the march from Selma to Montgomery: not the pageantry or symbolic glory of the scene, but the responsibilities it afforded. “You can’t keep asking people who you say oppress you to deal with the nature of your oppression,” he says. “At the end of the day you have to deal with it.”
From Selma to Black Power – Benjamin Hedin
In conclusion I want to tell a personal story. It happened almost two years ago and has haunted me ever since:
It was the middle of March 2015, and we were on our way to NYC from Saint Louis via Tulsa.We stopped for the night at a Super 8 in Conway, AK. My husband Shane went to the Wal-Mart next door to take money from the bank machine to pay for our pizza. He was taking quite a long time, and I was concerned the pizza would be there before he was back with the cash, so I decided to go down to the lobby to see if I could see him anywhere. I found him a few minutes later and he told me the pizza guy was right behind him so I should go on up to the room as he needed to speak to the front desk attendant.
I hurried up the stairs with my three year old, and we almost collided with someone at the top. I rounded the corner and at the last second pulled my daughter out of the way or she would have been caught between me and the person rounding the corner to come down the stairs. Being Canadian I automatically said sorry, and then I looked up into the face of an older black gentleman who had the most horrified look on his face. He said, “I’m sorry miss, so sorry.” I said it was ok and I was going to continue on my way, but he stood in front of me and he kept apologizing. I was confused and I repeated it was ok, but then he did something that shocked and horrified me. He actually BOWED to me, and to my daughter especially, repeating he was sorry. It was in that moment I could see he was truly terrified……of me and a three year old girl!!! I was sickened. I touched his arm, looked him in the eye, and said, “sir, it’s ok, really. We are fine!” Then I walked away.
Back at my room I felt stuck in that moment. It left me feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I could hardly eat the pizza I was looking forward to only minutes before. I kept thinking of the racial divide that seems to exacerbate the moment we cross the border into the states. I kept thinking of how frightening and awful it was to spend the afternoon in St. Louis, with Ferguson so near and all of the tension and turmoil all around us at that very moment!! It was in every store, restaurant, hotel, and travel center we visited. The indignities black people have suffered was revealed and personified in one excruciatingly desperate moment. Tell me why we live in a world where an elderly black man, living in the south, is still afraid.