Twenty years ago, my grandmother and I sat together watching television. Flipping through channels, I stopped for a moment on a documentary about Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Is that colored boy still causing trouble?” she asked.
Alzheimer’s disease had begun its terrible invasion; there was no predicting what would come out of her mouth. She was a fine Christian woman, but she had momentarily reverted to her teenage mindset.
When she was a kid, it wasn’t unusual to treat African Americans like animals and condescendingly call black men “boy.”
I can imagine how threatening it must have felt to find someone as eloquent as MLK riling up crowds with demands to be treated better.
I asked my mother how she reacted to things like separate water fountains for “colored” people. She said that’s just how things were.
That’s the tough part, isn’t it? Who do you file a complaint with when all of the authority figures around you condone prejudice?
I was born 10 days before the Civil Rights leader delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address and was fatally shot by a racist sniper named James Earl Ray as he stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The assassination led to a nationwide wave of race riots in Washington D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, Louisville, Kansas City and dozens of other cities. The U.S. Army occupied three major American cities, and National Guard units patrolled a dozen more.
As journalist Clay Risen wrote in his 2009 book “A Nation on Fire,” those riots delivered “a death blow to the liberal dream of the 1960s, gave new life to the faltering conservative political movement, and launched urban America into a downward spiral from which much of it has never recovered.”
Seven years later, I asked my Sunday School teacher at Mt Carmel Baptist Church, O’Dell Duke, questions about black people. “Roots” had just aired on television, and I was curious about African-Americans. He was a good man, a kind man, and he patiently answered my questions, urging compassion in the Christian tradition.
How fortunate I was to have such a mentor. Some men only have a racist uncle to shape their views of the world.
Skip ahead 43 years, and we see echoes of the ‘60s protests this week. More than a half-century later, we are still struggling to reconcile our complicated relationship with different races. If I feared other ethnic groups, I’d probably be terrified by the inevitability of white people becoming a minority in America. I sure hope we get treated better than how we’ve historically treated others.
When this week’s protests began and boiled over into acts of vandalism, theft, arson and violence, most white people, I suspect, expected blacks enraged over the death of a Minnesota man named George Floyd to “get it out of their system” and presumed everything would settle down and pretty much return to normal after a day or two. That was the pattern we’d seen in the past: rage and anger amassing so much pressure that it occasionally erupts to relieve that tension.
It soon became apparent that the standard catharsis wasn’t going to be enough.
No, this time, African-Americans were fed up with the majority responding to their collective suffering by shrugging our shoulders and dismissing racial disparities as “just the way it is”.
They tried getting their point across peacefully, but that only led to outcries that professional athletes taking a symbolic kneel during the national anthem as a silent act of protest was insulting to America.
The only protest that the majority of Americans are going to be content with is the one we can ignore.
Televised images of black people looting stores triggered widespread outrage. The oppressed had done what they always seem to end up doing, acting like “thugs” and losing any moral authority.
How many of you can admit those thoughts entered your mind?
But then two curious things happened.
First, we started seeing evidence that white supremacist groups were posting online to encourage their members to use the protests as a cover to create chaos as part of their efforts to inflame tensions in the United States by posing as left-wing activists online. The president’s own son shared an Instagram post from a fake account that was linked to a white nationalist group attacking “Antifa,” short for anti-fascists, a loosely-organized group of people whose political beliefs lean toward the left — often the far-left — but do not conform with the Democratic Party platform.
Secondly, the videos of police in riot gear using batons to beat and tear gas peaceful protesters shifted public sympathies for millions of Americans.
As I’ve said before, I believe most police officers are good people, but those videos removed any doubt that there are also bullies who enjoy having a chance to beat innocent people into submission. The arrival of mystery soldiers in D.C. concealing their names and service branch is terrifying and sinister.
The massive, multi-cultural swarm of protests occurring internationally now is encouraging, however. The restoration of peace and the airing of grievances are not mutually exclusive. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.
In the fog of chaos, it’s tough to know what’s going on. White nationalists have previously baited racial provocations to frame the resulting violence. The rhetoric of provoking a race war is the expressed aim of mass murderers like Dylan Roof, who slaughtered nine African Americans while they were gathered in a church for a Bible study. You may recall that incident ignited a fierce debate about displaying the Confederate battle flag.
A little consistency from the nation’s leadership would be helpful. A few weeks ago, the current occupant of the White House was cheering on angry protesters armed with assault rifles as they stormed the Wisconsin statehouse to demand their right to go eat at Olive Garden, but this week, he added new fencing barriers and inspected the underground bunker, just in case.
We went from arguing that Stay-at-Home orders are unconstitutional to calling for curfews for our safety. I suppose black people who won’t back down are scarier than a microscopic virus that has killed more than 108,000 people (and growing).
Endless paranoia and animosity only bring more tragedy. We have to find more peaceful and productive ways to be open with one another, reconcile past wrongs and increase understanding that we aren’t all that different: We all love our families and want to enjoy better lives. I wish we could be as supportive of black men in everyday life as we are on Saturdays in the fall when they’re contributing to victories for the Tigers and the Tide. We love ‘em then.
The events of the past week have been deeply disturbing, exposing to the rest of the world our deepest, darkest shame: a 400-year-old sin and a lack of political will to heal. This freshly re-opened wound has become infected yet again, and I hope we don’t have to amputate a limb to survive.
I wish George Floyd was still alive, not having his name chanted as a martyr and a symbol of frustration. I’ve curiously watched the reactions of people (Facebook makes “people watching” pretty easy). There are people I’ve known for decades that I’m experiencing for the first time who they really are.
The triumph of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement is that I, a white guy in Alabama, want to treat all people the same.
These scary and turbulent days are surely changing us. When things calm back down and we look back on HOW the events of 2020 affected us, will you be proud of the things you said and did?
When our grandchildren sit with us in front of a hologram (or whatever replaces TV sets in 50 years) and they flip through a documentary about how much 2020 sucked, perhaps they’ll learn a lot about us and our times by asking a simple question: “How did you react to all of that?”
What will you tell them?
— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.