It seems that every American generation needs to be reawakened to the truth of racial injustice.
Black Lives Matter. Those three words have become the headline of a new chapter in American history. What they mean to each of us, how they make us feel, depends in large part on our own personal life experiences.
Mine began in the early 1950s. Living in an inner-city Chicago low-income and racially diverse neighborhood, my classmates and friends were as likely to be Black or Hispanic as white. I’m only consciously aware of that in retrospect — back then, we were just kids going to school and growing up. Playing sports was all about having fun and winning — the skin color of my teammates was never considered. There’s no doubt that because I was raised in a home that didn’t promote or allow prejudice of any kind, I felt none myself. Guess you could say that my early years were somewhat racially naive.
I didn’t come face to face with the ugliness of unmitigated racism until I enlisted in the Air Force in 1967. I spent the first two years stationed in the Deep South — at the time it was racism’s ground zero.
In Mississippi I met KKK members who told me that Blacks were a subspecies of Homo Sapiens. In Alabama I saw a laundromat with a “Whites Only” sign and a DQ that would only serve Blacks through the back door. The town’s movie theater prohibited Black patrons from using the restroom, refreshment stand and lower level seating. I recall how angry those of us on base felt, so we devised a plan of action. Several of us escorted a Black airman and his date to that theater and forced management to set aside those prohibitions or face retaliation — I was so proud to be among that group of GIs!
In fits and starts, America has taken steps over the years to bring about some measure of racial equality. It was during the 1950s and ‘60s that America was being awakened by the racial earthquakes that helped shape the country’s landscape for decades to come. The civil rights movement brought attention to the fact that Black lives mattered less.
In 1954, Thurgood Marshall successfully won the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, thereby ending Jim Crow segregation in public schools. That legal process wasn’t universally accepted. Subsequently in 1957, the nation watched in horror as the “Little Rock Nine” had to run a gauntlet of hate in Arkansas, and later federal marshals were needed to escort James Meredith to attend classes at Ole Miss. What I took from this is that laws without enforcement don’t mean much. Racism will never be undone by laws and court decisions alone.
I really started to pay closer attention to racial issues when I began to listen to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. One promoted peaceful resistance while the other sought change through more aggressive means. I believe that both strategies combined to bring about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These landmark laws were enacted only because of people taking to the streets and forcing Congress to act. But still, laws and court decisions didn’t erase racism in America.
There can be no denying that racism still exists in the hearts and minds of many. Often, racism is seen in ways that don’t make headlines and can be easily ignored and hidden. However, if we look closely we find discrimination exists in education availability, in employment opportunities, in obtaining loans and mortgages, in quality health care access and in the criminal justice system.
While many African Americans have certainly felt the pain from these types of overt discrimination, virtually all have felt the more subtle but no less painful stabs that come from a disapproving glance or a sidestep on a public sidewalk or a condescending word. Still today in America, Black parents live in fear for the lives of their children walking down the street. Racism is wired into America and it is hurting America.
There is no question that virtually every negative societal development hits minority communities hardest. It doesn’t matter if it’s economic recession, a housing bubble burst or a pandemic infection, people of color suffer most. When so many young Black men and women are dying for no other reason than the color of their skin, how can they not believe that Black lives matter less?
The current discussion surrounding Civil War monuments uncovers some of that racist wiring. It’s yet another awakening to racial injustice. We’re now being told that American history is being erased. In truth, most of these statues were erected many years after the war and were funded by organizations that promoted Jim Crow laws and segregation. They offer no historical context — Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis presented as noble and virtuous statesmen is ludicrous. These monuments are attempts to rewrite the history of slave-owning America and the Union’s desperate fight to free human beings.
The Civil War was fought because of slavery. The state’s rights argument was about states maintaining slavery. The economic issue was about plantations owning a slave workforce. Without the context of the horrors of slavery and attempted destruction of the Union, any attempt to honor the Confederacy is absurd and unpatriotic.
The real history needs to be told in complete context — the real history is in the blood and tears of slaves. I can’t imagine what it must be like for African Americans to walk past ghosts of stone that honor those who enslaved their ancestors. To African Americans, they are a painful reminder that Black lives matter less and they must be taken down.
It seems like every generation needs to be reawakened to racial injustice. 2020 has become another of those jolts. I can’t help but wonder if taking a knee during the national anthem had been met with understanding and introspection rather than disdain, how differently things might have gone.
The anger and pain we see in our streets today has been felt and pent up for decades. It is born of the injustice that has existed for over 400 years in America. And now we are being asked to face it once again.
Soon, governments at various levels will enact reforms and laws, courts will render their decisions but to what effect? Will hearts and minds be opened? Will rigid political differences cause some eyes to close shut, ignoring the pain and suffering?
Black Lives Matter is not a political statement. Acknowledging that Black lives actually do matter does not undervalue the lives of others — it doesn’t mean that white lives don’t matter.
When we understand and accept that some lives have been wrongly treated, when we commit to doing all we can to correcting that, then we can truly say All Lives Matter! When we stand together to say that Black Lives Matter, we can begin to hope that future generations won’t need to be reawakened to the continuing wrongs of racial injustice. We can hope that we’ll all be able to live, work and play together as Americans.
Ralph Atchue is an Eloy resident and is active in the Democratic Party.