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.

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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.