Fifty years ago, I was a junior in college, probably huddled around my sorority’s solitary black and white television. My adventure with a white professor and four white male classmates – a naive road trip from our Wisconsin campus to the capitol of Mississippi to “see for ourselves” the challenges of the civil rights movement – was a year behind me, but the impact was still vivid, those brave men and women, led by the intrepid young preacher from Atlanta, walk straight into a hellish nightmare of anger, violence and bloodshed, courtesy of Alabama’s snarling state troopers. My current Congressman, John Robert Lewis, was among the 50 black protesters hospitalized after being brutally tear-gassed and beaten bloody by the flailing billy clubs.
I have been crying, off and on, ever since. I’m in that mood again today.
Last night in Madison, Wisconsin, another black teenager, Tony Robinson, 19, was shot and killed by a Madison Police Department officer. That’s all I know at the moment, so those of you who will gleefully encourage me to wait until all the information is in can save your breath and your fingers. I do that anyway, even now, after so many examples of government armed employees using deadly force because “they are in fear for their lives.” Maybe that is exactly what happened in Madison last night. But I can no longer assume that was the case (if I ever should have assumed such a thing.) The Justice Department report on the Ferguson, Missouri criminal justice system has obliterated whatever little belief in the system I had left.
My Mayberry-style upbringing taught me “the policeman is your friend. If you ever get lost, find a policeman and everything will be alright.” Those who were teaching me that had every reason to believe it, given their white skin. Lucky for them I was a girl, not a boy, with my cafe au lait complexion. Turns out, that advice for the black boys in my neighborhood wasn’t exactly correct.
No, there is little I can find to celebrate on this anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Have things changed, as I’m sure at least one of you will mention in the comments? Sure, they’ve changed. Now, instead of attacking peaceful crowds of protesting black people with gas and clubs and ferocious police dogs, individual cops take out their rage with impunity on random black youths who have the audacity to try to exercise their civil rights by asking why they are being detained or by refusing to lower their car window exactly the way the cop is shouting at them to do.
Now, instead of Jim Crow laws on the official books denying all blacks the right to vote, the good-ole-American practice of gerrymandering and an endless enactment of new voting laws designed to suppress the black vote are talking hold, state by state by state, as conservative Republicans have their way with the outcome of elections.
On Election Night, 2008, I was crying, too. Sobbing spasmodically, unable to speak, I was. But this time the emotion was pure joy and unfettered hope. “We did it!” I stammered into the phone to my son on the other end. The sight of the family of Barack Obama, homeboy from Chicago, standing behind bullet-proof barriers waving to throngs of equally emotional supporters was something I would have never dreamed would happen in my lifetime. I should have known.
Again, for those of you who will be tempted to assert that your objection to President Obama is based solely on his policies, save your strength. Preserve your lies for someone you have better than a snowball’s chance in hell of persuading. The treatment of this President has been as transparent as those voter suppression laws. No amount of your weasel-wording will be sufficient to disabuse me of the fact that the “great” country of America has demonstrated to the entire world what it does to people they deem “not like us.” I am ashamed to breathe the same air as you do.
So I remember those brave souls who risked their very lives so I could have a fighting chance at full-participation in the American Dream. I remember them with admiration for their profound courage and with sadness for their wasted suffering. I remember the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. in the same way. He led the way and paid the supreme price for his bravery.
I cry today because all I can think about is “…and for what?”