The Long March to Justice

By Bobbie Kirkhart

Photo Credit: “Miami Protest, June 7, 2020” by Mike Shaheen

When I was five years old, I announced my new discovery: “Negroes (the polite term at the time) are bad.” My parents tried to correct me, but I felt my logic was unshakable: When the radio reported a crime, the perpetrator was often black. They never said that a suspect was white. I didn’t know any black people in our segregated town, but I knew many white people, and none of them were criminals. This was an open-and-shut case in my five-year old’s mind.

A few weeks later, my father took me downtown to see a parade. He struck up a conversation with a black woman we were standing next to. She had a baby, who captured my interest, though I was more entranced by her Kraft Caramels (my favorite candy at the time) she shared generously with me. This, of course, completely shattered my baby bigotry.

When I was approaching middle age, I reflected on the incident. Only then did I realize that when I was young, parade-viewing areas – as well as everything else – were strictly segregated in Enid, Oklahoma. It must have taken some planning and more than a small amount of courage to arrange for us to stand in the “colored area” next to a friendly woman who just happened to have a cute baby and my favorite candies.

The issue of race did not come up often in our small, mostly white town (at least not in the white community), so I had little need to reflect on what I had learned until Emmett Till’s murder on August 28, 1955, made national news and provoked national outrage.

He was just 14, a middle-class black boy from Chicago, visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman. He was beaten and shot. Although the two murderers confessed their crime, no one ever served time. This and similar crimes brought a few angry northerners to the South in hope of reforming the situations. Northern and southern lives were lost, but southern minds were not changed. A more successful protest began also in 1955 when seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, as was the law. It took a year of bus boycott and protest, but the Montgomery, Alabama, busses were integrated.

These two events marked the beginning of the era we remember as “The Civil Rights Movement,” roughly from 1955-1965. Though some of the rights won have been weakened since then, a great deal was accomplished, the most important being the right to vote. Before that era, black southerners were unilaterally barred from the ballot box through poll taxes they could not afford, literacy tests that were rigged to ensure failure, or sometimes simple violent retaliation against anyone who attempted to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended that, and even though the Supreme Court weakened it substantially in 2014, the total ban on black voting in the South no longer stands.

One big difference between the 20th century and today is that the 20th century protests were very much black people’s programs, run by and for African Americans. There were some white participants and quite a few white supporters sitting in front of their TVs, cheering for the cause, even sometimes donating money, but the movement in the streets was a shout from the aggrieved.

Today’s protests include all races, with a white majority. They occur in every state, in small towns as well as big cities, and they enjoy substantial rallies in as many as 60 countries and on every continent except Antarctica. Still, it is an American protest, arguably the first anti-racist event that included robust participation from every substantial ethnic group in the country, with Euro-Americans represented in numbers near their share of the country. One has to wonder if the presence of so many Euro-Americans has kept the law enforcement violence lower than it might have otherwise been.

What motivated so many to march for so long? There is little doubt that around the world the primary impetus was eight minutes, forty-six seconds of video tape showing four police officers killing George Floyd because he might have tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. As the man pled for his life, crying “I can’t breathe,” the country remembered the same cry from a dying Eric Garner, another black man who was killed by police because he was suspected of a minor crime.

Even so, George Floyd’s death might not have instigated such a reaction were it not for other frustrations many Americans were enduring. One important factor is that in recent years there has been much more reporting of police-involved killings by media and activists. The emergence of a new organization, Black Lives Matter in 2013, has been effective, and in 2015, The Washington Post began tallying how many people were shot and killed by police. By the end of 2015, officers had fatally shot nearly 1,000 African Americans, twice as many as ever documented in one year by the federal government. (A dozen high-profile fatal encounters that have galvanized protests nationwide)

Liberals in the United States are especially frustrated. There are even U.S. citizens who do not understand that we do not elect our president by popular vote. Instead, we vote for “electors,” who are overrepresented in rural, typically more conservative states. This makes it possible for the candidate who got the fewer votes to win the presidency, as happened before, latest in 2000 and 2016. Democrats felt cheated and have been reluctant to accept Donald Trump as a legitimate president. Many felt like our democracy was taken from us.

As the protests seem to be winding down, Americans ask, “What will be accomplished by these historic actions?” It is the habit of major social movements to deliver less than they had demanded, but nevertheless, to deliver. We are far short of the egalitarian world that we envisioned in the last century, but we are well ahead of the society that kept black southerners in virtual slavery and their northern counterparts in second-class citizenship. Today’s protests will not bring us the utopia some envision, but we will see significant, if uneven, improvement in law enforcement. We will see a friendlier, more trusting, society – one where no one must make special arrangements to teach a child that friendship comes in all colors.

Bobbie Kirkhart is a past president of the Atheist Alliance International and of Atheists United. She is a founder and past vice president of the Secular Coalition for America. She is a frequent contributor to U.S. freethought publications.