Quotes, from civil rights and thought leaders of the past, are trending on social media. James Baldwin, Nelson Mandela, Fannie Lou Hamer and Dick Gregory are just some of the names I’ve seen mentioned in connection to defeating racism and systemic oppression. This group of cultural icons are being introduced to a new generation of leaders, re-read by others and affirmed by followers of their teachings on issues of race, inclusion and equity. Like others, I’ve invoked Hamer’s “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” because I understood what Baldwin meant when he said “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.” When Gregory uttered, “Every door of racial prejudice I can kick down, is one less door that my children have to kick down,” it deepened my appreciation for the fight for integration, open housing, voting rights and civil rights. When Mandela professed that “to be free is not merely to cast off ones’ chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” it embodied my decision to be a lawyer and public servant.
However, it has been Dr. Martin Luther King’s belief that “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” that has resonated with me the most, in this period of civil unrest. Racism, in all its forms, is an inconvenient truth. Whether in honestly telling the story of the destruction of Black Wall Street, or in acknowledging that this country has never financially or morally redressed for the enslavement of Black people, it has become easier for many to ignore, sentimentalize or rewrite America’s ugly past and persistence of racial discrimination. For the first time, in a long time there is a collective challenge to that past. Whether in calls for the dismantling of “qualified immunity” for police officers, which the Supreme Court developed as part of its interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act), or in how we allocate public dollars. We are being challenged as a nation to rethink whose history we are honoring. We’ve been forced to acknowledge that confederate statues exalt those that supported renouncing their existing agreement with other states of the United States and who attempted to establish a new nation, in which the authority of the central government would be strictly limited and, most importantly to me, that the institution of slavery would be preserved.
These debates are not new. Racism is not new. The manner in which George Floyd, of Minneapolis was murdered is not new. We’ve seen excessive and questionable use of force before of unarmed black people, for years. When communities of color have decried these incidents, most often, we’ve done so on our own or with a few allies. The overwhelming silence of our friends was not lost on us. The press releases criticizing such offenses were scarce or non-existent…until statues started falling.