By Leslie D. Rose
In the summer of 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. published Why We Can’t Wait, a book about the nonviolent movement against racial segregation in the United States dubbed the beginning of America’s “Negro Revolution.”
Fifty years later, in the summer of 2014, many Americans pressed faces to television screens to watch what felt like old Cronkite or Brinkley footage.
Was it really still 1964?
As black bodies lay in streets for several hours, awareness of brutality based on skin color on the rise, and babies, just 12 years-old, killed while holding toy guns, or teenagers while eating sandwiches and black men denied rights to breathe – I find we need the ghosts of Selma more than ever.
King warned “the American negro” that waiting could mean racial tension would last forever, so moves were made, but in the thick fog of nostalgia, I’m left wondering why we’re still waiting.
The day before opening night, I sat in the movie theatre for the preview screening of Ava Duvernay’s much anticipated film Selma.
Watching the back-and-forth movie footage and actual scenes of people my father’s age fighting for rights blacks held on paper, but were being denied, reminded me that we are still waiting because the hands of desegregation and equal rights were forced upon the powerful, and they’re still living.
For example, my father who is a gainfully employed man who doctors say could live to age 100, was nearly 28 when King was murdered. That means the antagonists of the “Negro Revolution” are not ancient – they’re your parents and grandparents, and I am only 20 years too young to have been there, myself.
While watching Selma, I recalled stories passed down to me – just one generation removed.
In 1953 Baton Rouge was the site of the first black bus boycott in America. In 1963 a sit-in was held at Kress five and dime, now Kress Galleries, in downtown Baton Rouge. In 1964 my aunt graduated from Baton Rouge High School, just one of a handful of black students selected to desegregate the all-white school. My father fought one and half stints in Vietnam and returned home a “nigger.” In 2012 my husband and good friend, both educators, were harassed at a DUI checkpoint by LSU. In 2014 a white police officer resigned after racially charged text messages told how he loved to arrest young, black men with sagging pants near his post at Southern University. Tell me, is it too far fetched that my father, at 75 years old would still be a “nigger” in 2015?
As I watched the film depict an 84-year-old man be beaten and his grandson, a war veteran murdered by a state trooper, I felt sick. Not because my history hurts, but because I’m always fearful of its satirical way of repeating itself.
So with such eerie reminders of hatred, what then does the evolution of “the American negro” do?
We are told to assimilate. Become educated. Outsmart our pasts and we will be respected, but the truth may be, we can’t be respected until we are deemed worthy of human life. What does a living, breathing person have to do to be considered human?
I read in Facebook thread a posting by a white man along the lines that whites are so afraid of black skin because of American history. He said something along the lines of, If whites were treated the way blacks had been over the years from slavery to inequality; we would have burned this country down. I guess we are never quite sure when the black man will take the same logic.
The grandfather of our movement preached non-violence, but there was and still are systems at play that go against everything.
As seen in Selma with the depiction of J. Edgar Hoover, anyone can be made to feel inadequate and torn down, berated. All systemic racism has done to the evolution of the “American negro” is slowed its path.
We are still being given only inches to which we are appreciative, but it’s time we remember that miles mean more.
A walk from Selma to Montgomery is 50 miles; if the march were to happen today, would you go?
This isn’t a question just to my black brothers and sisters, this is for all of us. Selma is an American city, and equality is an American right.
Selma is easily one of the most powerful and important historical depictions ever. I couldn’t imagine garnering enough strength to march, not once and be beaten, but even three times before being successful.
My feet are firmly planted in front of my television screen, because I am afraid of becoming history’s punch line, but I know that a man not afraid to walk 50 miles in someone else’s shoes is a man (or woman) worthy.
Happy birthday, Dr. King.