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It’s time to demand justice for Black people in America

It’s been nearly two weeks since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, even after Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”

I’m still angry.

The news about Floyd’s death hit me while I was still reeling from the killings of three other Black people, either by police or by men who were trying to act like police.

In March, Breonna Taylor was shot multiple times in her bed after police officers forcibly entered her apartment to serve a search warrant in a drug investigation – even though the person they were looking for had already been arrested.

Ahmaud Arbery was jogging outside Brunswick, Georgia, in February when Gregory McMichael and his son hunted him down. Arbery died after he was shot three times following a struggle over Travis McMichael’s shotgun.

Dreasjon “Sean” Reed was tased and then fatally shot in the back in May by Indianapolis police after running away from officers. His killing was captured on Facebook Live for all the world to see. A detective at the scene was suspended after he was heard saying, “I think it’s going to be a closed casket, homie.”

Grappling with grief, I asked myself, how can this still be happening? Why does this keep happening?

And then I remembered.

I remembered the words of my father, who said, “The system will never work for us. They didn’t intend for it to.”

It wasn’t until high school that I began to fully understand those words and what I would hear my father say throughout my life: The system of American society and jurisprudence was never intended for Black people.

We all have to acknowledge this truth. No matter how much education you have, no matter where you stand economically, regardless of what you drive or how you show up as a Black person, you’ll always have to be at least twice as good as a white person to get half the benefits of society – whether it be a job, an education or even the benefit of the doubt from police.

That was the message that I would hear, over and over again. It went beyond education. In my household when I got my first “real” job in high school, my parents always said I had to work at a higher level.

I was always told to follow the rules, regardless of what anyone else was doing. When my dad would take me to work, he would say, “Keep your head down and do your job.”

Growing up in Lincoln, Alabama, I’ve always felt compelled to do my part in fighting racism. I knew the stronghold of racism was very much alive in my birthplace and I knew it was upheld largely because of the political power structure.

I grew up hearing the personal accounts of my grandparents and parents about life in segregated Alabama under Jim Crow. Although the civil rights movement granted access, my grandparents and parents continued to live with the reality and tension of racial oppression.

I wasn’t naïve to racism, but I honestly felt the legal gains of the civil rights movement were enough. As I eventually realized, though, those achievements were just the beginning.

Although I gained a deeper awareness of racism in high school, it wasn’t until college that I began to use my voice to speak out against injustice. Initially, I thought my journey would lead to fighting this battle in corporate America.

But shortly after completing my undergraduate degree at Troy University in Troy, Alabama, I moved to Montgomery to complete my graduate studies. There, I landed a job with the Southern Poverty Law Center as a temporary employee in the Teaching Tolerance department.

Today, I am the director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, where I’m afforded the opportunity to educate others about the civil rights movement and the continued efforts for civil and human rights today.

The Civil Rights Memorial is dedicated to 40 martyrs of the modern civil rights movement. It recalls their individual sacrifices and reminds us to continue their collective cause. In the midst of all that’s happening in our country now, I’m here to remind you that we still have a lot of work to do.

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump’s presidency has energized the white supremacist movement in alarming ways.

We’ve seen an increase in hate crimes since the 2016 presidential election and an increase in the number of hate groups. And we will never forget Charlottesville, where the president emboldened people with white nationalist views and justified their inexcusably violent acts.

Trump’s rhetoric then and now is dividing this country and fueling the propaganda that emboldens those on the far right. This includes rioters posing as protesters at rallies for justice. What is happening in America right now is very real and we can’t ignore it.

As I watched police violently remove protesters in Washington, D.C. this week, so that Trump could have a photo op in front of a church, it was my anger that was fueled.

When I saw the police moving toward the crowd of protesters, I stared at the TV in disbelief. It was like I was reliving the 1960s images of peaceful protesters being attacked by police.

What I saw was an attempt to silence the voices of protest against the unjust killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed and George Floyd. Their names have been added to the long list of Black people who have suffered from our country’s white supremacy. It’s that list of names for which we are now speaking and demanding justice.

But to truly pursue justice in America, we must understand our history.

Following slavery and Reconstruction, the integration of Black people into American society in the South was met with violence. When Black people began mobilizing and organizing to protest against segregation on buses, in schools and at lunch counters they were met with violence. When they were attempting to mobilize and register to vote, they were again met with violence.

Some examples:

  • On May 4, 1961, seven civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington, D.C., to travel through the Deep South to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia – which found that segregation of interstate transportation, including bus terminals, was unconstitutional. Martin Luther King Jr. advised the riders to stop their movement because he feared they wouldn’t make it out of Alabama. But they persisted, and in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, law enforcement officers – with the permission of local authorities – allowed attacks against the Freedom Riders by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • In 1963, thousands of Black children marched the streets of Birmingham in the Children’s Crusade. The goal was to use non-violent protest to desegregate the city. Although this movement, too, was peaceful, the children were met with violence. Police were ordered to arrest them, spray them with water hoses, hit them with batons and use police dogs to threaten them. Several months after the Children’s Crusade, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. 
  • That same year, after leaving a Southern Christian Leadership Conference gathering, Fannie Lou Hamer and a group of other activists stopped for food and a bathroom break. They were refused service. Hamer was arrested. While she was in jail, a state trooper ordered two Black people incarcerated with Hamer to beat her while he and two other troopers held her down. The troopers were acquitted in the beating. While sharing her account of what happened, Hamer asked, “Is this America, the land of the free and home of the brave where we have to sleep with phones off the hook because our lives are being threatened, all because we want to live as decent human beings?”

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, violence continued as Black people protested against unjust treatment. A significant turning event was the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson. One night when Black people were marching for voting rights in Marion, Alabama, near Selma, state troopers began clubbing protesters. Jackson was shot and died eight days later.

In response to his death, civil rights leaders planned a march from Selma to Montgomery to press Gov. George Wallace on voting rights. But Wallace ordered state troopers to use whatever means necessary to stop them.

Hosea Williams and John Lewis were chosen to lead the way. As marchers began peacefully walking hand in hand, crossing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge – named after a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who was also a Confederate general – they were brutally attacked by state troopers. But the protesters never fought back.

Understanding the past sheds light on where we are now, and how much farther we have to travel on the long road to justice.

Ella Baker, who played a key role in some of the most influential organizations of the civil rights movement – including the NAACP, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – urged us to understand the system of racial oppression and how to fight it.

“In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed,” she said. “It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that. The system is working as it was designed and its goal is to maintain a racial hierarchy. Police have aided in maintaining that hierarchy. During the civil rights movement, it was police who were the perpetrators of violence on peaceful protesters. And until we change the system, nothing changes.”

Throughout the South, the civil rights movement won several landmark victories, but it was a costly battle. And yet we find ourselves here today with Black people still being killed by police.

We’re tired. We’re still fighting for access to the ballot box, still fighting police brutality, still fighting mass incarceration, still fighting economic inequalities, still fighting for fair lending practices, still fighting for equal access to health care, still fighting for livable wages, still fighting for respect and dignity.

Ella Baker’s words still ring true today: “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”

We cannot rest. We must continue our efforts in calling on Congress to hold police accountable. We must continue our efforts to make change at the state and local levels in the Deep South, where we continue to live under the oppressive spirit of Jim Crow.

We must especially fight to protect our right to vote.

Whether it’s Confederate monuments in your face at every turn, voter suppression as outlined in the SPLC’s Report Alive and Well: Voter Suppression and Election Mismanagement in Alabama, or the inadequate response of the federal government to the COVID-19 pandemic as it rages through the Black community, this country lacks the political will for equality. The only way to change that is to change those who hold positions of power in our society, and that begins at the local level.

Last month, on a call with other civil rights activists, I was reminded that every injustice that has ever happened to us – specifically in the South – has happened on the local level.

We can change that. Here are five places to start: Fully engage with each other in safe spaces. Advocate for those who do not have a voice. Leverage our power and our resources. Uplift the legacies of our people who fought and died for civil rights, and lean on what they taught us. Exercise our right to vote.

Today, let us pay tribute to those who have come before us, and pay forward to our emerging leaders and future generations by addressing the issues of Black America in this moment.

It is through our work in creating possibilities for today and for future generations that we best honor the accomplishments and legacy of our ancestors.

You and I have the power to change this country. It’s not going to be someone else. It will be us. Now more than ever we must educate, equip, mobilize and act.

The new movement isn’t coming. It’s already here.

Photo by Getty Images/Michael Ciaglo