The pictures may be in black and white, but these photos were taken on April 4, 1968 – only nine years before I was born. The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is haunting – for many reasons – but mostly because it makes you realize how recently MLK was killed. The Lorraine Motel has been left the way it was that day. It’s not some old brick building from the 19th century – it is a motel of the mid-20th century – the sign looking like something out of The Jetsons. The hotel room had air conditioning and a television. As a country we seem to want to put paint ourselves as “post-racial” – as if swamp of racism has been drained and all the snakes and alligators that once populated that swamp, have been killed off forever.
The reality, of course, is quite different. We may have a biracial man in the Oval office, but in the last few years we’ve had some of the most violent uprisings since the summer after King was killed. We seem to be split – once again – along the lines of race. Many people mock the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement – saying that it is anti-police or anti-white or simply ineffective.
The above photo is from inside the Civil Rights Museum. These placards, stating “I AM A MAN” were used by the striking sanitation workers in Memphis – the strike was why Martin Luther King was in Memphis the day he was shot. I think there is a strong parallel between the slogans “I am a man” and “Black lives matter.” Both are stating facts that should be obvious, but that the people making them believe are radical statements given the way they are treated in society.
Of course, people who are against BLM for any number of reasons, or White people who don’t want to come to terms with the different way we still treat Black people in our society – have pounced on the idea that this slogan means they think White lives don’t matter. If we lived in a society where everybody was already treated equally – then they might have a point. In such a society the “I am a man” placards would be nonsensical – but we don’t live in such a society.
Here are some facts:
· A 2013 study found that Black men have sentences 20% longer than White men charge for the same crime and with similar criminal histories.
· While Blacks make up 13% of the US population they make up 65% of prisoners serving life sentences without possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses.
· Blacks and Whites use drugs at the same rates – and yet Black people are put in jail for drug related crimes at 10 times the rate of White people.
This doesn’t even get into disparities of health and education. In the minds of many Whites these disparities are due to Black people being more violent or lazier – not taking responsibility for their own lives. As if the Civil Rights Act of 1965 cleaned the slate – and that now we can expect Whites and Blacks to have the same advantages and opportunities, even though we have 400 years of institutionalized racism.
A few more reminders of racist policies that lasted well into the mid-20th century. The GI bill after WWII was the main way that many lower to middle class whites improved their situation. The GI bill however was discriminatory – States had power over how money was distributed – and Blacks were usually left out. Of the 67,000 housing mortgages that were approved through the GI bill only fewer than 100 were granted to non-whites. 100,000 Blacks applied for educational benefits given by the GI bill – and yet only 20,000 were granted – mostly because many Universities in the South did not allow Blacks entry in the 1940’s.
Another policy which stymied Black affluence was discriminatory housing. Even Blacks who were qualified for loans were not shown homes in White neighborhoods. In Omaha, where I live now, there were covenants – where the deeds of houses stated that the owners could not sell to a non-white person. These covenants are still in the “historical” part of deeds – although non-actionable – I can’t imagine what it is like to be a Black person owning a home – where the deed states that you are not wanted here. The practical effect of these policies was that Blacks were not able to capitalize on their successes as easily as Whites – even 100 years after slavery had been outlawed.
My wife is biracial – she was born in 1975. Loving vs. the State of Virginia – the Supreme Court case that finally protected Whites and Blacks to intermarry was argued in 1967. Which means that only 8 years before she was born – my wife’s parents wouldn’t have been able to be legally married in 16 states! That is incredible to me.
This is the inside of the Church of God in Christ World Headquarters in Memphis. It is where MLK gave his “Mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed.
It’s as if someone were speaking through him. He wasn’t even going to speak that night because he was tired from travel – but when he heard that a large crowd had gathered during a storm – and they had come to hear him – he came anyways. He spoke for over 40 minutes. At the end he basically collapsed into the arms of Ralph Abernathy.
BLM is possibly the most important movement for Civil Rights since MLK. The issues are real. If we are to “be true to what you said on paper” then we have to make sure that all citizens are given equal opportunities to succeed in our country. That doesn’t mean handouts – even though handouts wouldn’t be unfair given how much value Blacks have created for this country without being given anything in return – it means giving people a fair shake. It means acting against our prejudices. It means those with the power of the police or even neighborhood watch (I won’t even get into the whole George Zimmerman selling the gun he used to kill an unarmed Black boy issue) need to honest with themselves about what they think about Blacks. In our society the burden of proof seems to be on Black men to prove that they aren’t dangerous – rather than on society to prove that a specific Black man (or even boy) is dangerous. Technology has allowed us to see videos which show inappropriate force used by police. This has always happened – civilians just didn’t have the ease in which to capture it.
Yes, we should respect police. But we should hold them to a high standard of conduct. On my way back to Omaha I stopped in Ferguson. There is a plaque in the cement near where Michael Brown was shot. His father wrote it – his father is not looking for vengeance. He wasn’t looking for riots. He wanted justice. He wanted the life of his son to be valued and respected. He wanted the police to show contrition. I was struck by the normality of the street – the balloons on the sign for the apartment complex where he lived. It was hopeful and optimistic. The fight for freedom must always have some optimism, because – in order to fight and sacrifice – one must be optimistic enough to think that the world will eventually recognize the justice of your movement. So while Ferguson and Baltimore did have violence – I think that these were positive developments on the whole. We still have a long way to go before we reach Dr. King’s “promised land” – but I, for one, believe enough in this country to think that we will eventually get there.