“…I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail
When I went to college, I took a course in African-American Literature. The course covered African-American writers from colonial America to around the early 2000s. When you really read them, you see the themes, the changing attitudes, and the unique world that African-Americans inhabited due to their circumstances. I loved that course. I could finally get an idea of what African-American leaders like Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were talking about and understand their anger and passion. It could be a violent world from slavery to segregation, but the power of the human spirit and the will to stand against injustice always stood out. I felt the deepest sadness at reading excepts of Frederick Douglass’s memoirs. His standing at the docks and asking “Why am I not free?” broke my heart. I could feel his suffering as a human being. Yet, the most powerful story he told was of incident as a slave child.
When he was around 8 years old (I believe), Douglass was loaned out to one of his slave master’s family. When he arrived, the white hostess welcomed and treated him with the same kindness she would any child. She didn’t understand the concept of slavery or race. She was appalled that Douglass was so poorly educated and she went straight to teaching him how to read. Douglass loved her and was grateful for her kindness. They saw each other as human beings. They were in the same world. Unfortunately, her husband learned of what she was doing and explained that what she was doing was “wrong.” The husband “educated” her on how slaves like Douglass were to be treated, causing her to become a cruel slave master to young Douglass. I would have understood if Douglass had decided to hate white people for his treatment, particularly towards the hostess who betrayed him. What surprised me was that he didn’t hate her… he pitied her. Douglass observed at that young age that slavery did not only hurt African-Americans, but white people like his hostess as well. Slavery was a poison and harmful mentality that had to be destroyed for the good of not just black people, but all people. It’s amazing how he could move past revenge and, instead, advocate for justice. He wanted to save everyone from slavery. I’m not sure if I were in his position I could push past the pain he endured and fight for something higher than vengeance.
Years after that class, I was writing my undergraduate thesis on a local labor strike in late 1920s, early 1930s. I did not focus on race issues during that strike, but reading the local newspapers did give me some insight into African-American life in my community at the time. There were three local newspapers at the time: the main newspaper and two distinct African-American newspapers. Why three different newspapers? In my Literature class, we talked about local Civil Rights and African-American history, and one incident discussed was an African-American woman who was beaten and dragged to jailhouse by the white sheriff. The story never made it into the mainstream paper, but it was talked about heavily in the African-American community, particularly in the local African-American churches. In the mainstream newspaper, I saw a small article titled “Negro killed by mob.” The man had been accused of raping a white woman. The police tried to stop the mob, but they were unsuccessful. No one would ever know if he was innocent or guilty. Even if he had been brought to trial, an all-white jury would likely have found him guilty no matter what the evidence shown. It was either a judicial lynching or an extrajudicial lynching.* What saddened me was how flippant the article was about the brutal killing of man regardless of his alleged crime. I’m sure if I had searched the African-American newspapers or found old African-American church newsletters (I believe those were around), I may have learned more about the man. Did he have a family? Was he a good man? Was he framed? I realize now that I was looking at two different worlds: the White world and the Black world. Two different communities that rarely discussed the other unless their worlds happened to cross… often violently. These two separate worlds have existed in what is now the United States since the 1600s. I thought the two worlds became one world by the 1970s, but recent events have proven me and many Americans wrong. There is still a divide.
What is happening in Ferguson, Missouri and throughout the United States now depresses me. When I was growing in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was told the Civil Rights movement was a great victory. Yet, there are issues that still need addressing. Racial profiling, poverty, violence, de facto segregation, and other vestiges of cultural racism remain. The cries of “outside agitators” make my skin crawl. The labor strike I studied had politicians and factory managers calling strikers “victims” of outside agitation when the local strikers did have legitimate concerns. The quote I have on the top of my post from Dr. King shows the fallacy of this tactic. We are all stakeholders in justice whether in Ferguson, the United States, or the World. There are going to be those fighting for peace and justice with non-violent civil disobedience and dialogue just as there will be those wanting a physical confrontation. I hope the former hold out and win.
It’s easy to point out the problems, yet it’s frustrating when there are no solutions presented. These are complex problems requiring complex solutions. I believe that education is key. A well-educated society can lead us out of this. We have to find ways to adequately fund our public schools and strive for excellence in creating a nation of critical thinkers. Not long after Michael Brown’s death, one of my nearby county’s African-American community leaders, local politicians, and the sheriff began having meetings. Meetings like these are a good start. Police should be gaining technology (body cameras, dashboard cameras, etc.) and developing procedures to keep honest police honest and giving the dishonest ones the boot. There must be outside investigations into police misconduct for impartiality. The American public should be analyzing the issues and pressuring their local, state, and federal representatives to create laws solving these problems. These are just a few possible solutions.
We must find ways to integrate more in our society. We can’t live in different worlds anymore. A house divided against itself cannot stand. We can learn from and push past the pain for a higher purpose. We can find that we are more similar than different. It will be hard, but it is possible. Ferguson, Missouri has shown us the problems we face as a nation, and we can now work towards solving them. We can do it. We have a chance.
Don’t blow it.
*Read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. See also “The Scottsboro’s Boys” trials. I think the latter inspired Lee to write her novel. There’s some eerie similarities.