In 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knelt and led 250 marchers in prayer after they were arrested for trying to get African Americans registered to vote in Selma, Alabama.
In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee on the sideline to call attention to police killings of African Americans. He was blackballed from the National Football League.
The two events were more than 50 years apart. Both were peaceful, nonviolent. And the reaction from many white people was the same — derision and scorn.
Here we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and, once again, we are wrestling with America’s long-simmering original sin of racism.
What the hell is going on?
The toll from the recent carnage in Louisville alone is devastatingly senseless: Two African Americans fatally shot by police, seven others of unknown race wounded by unidentified assailants, untold millions in property damage and heartbreak.
Breonna Taylor, a black woman who worked as an emergency room technician was shot eight times March 13 when she and her boyfriend were awakened during an early morning raid by police with a no-knock warrant. The case still is under investigation.
This week, West End businessman David McAtee was killed in an encounter with Louisville police and National Guard troops in a case that has taken two stunning twists in 24 hours.
It was announced just hours after the shooting that Louisville police didn’t have official video because their body cameras weren’t activated, prompting the firing of police chief Steve Conrad. Now, police have produced videos from inside McAtee’s barbecue business and another nearby business that reportedly show McAtee firing a handgun into the air.
Haven’t we all had enough of this by now?
Black people — and not enough white people — are angry, frustrated, afraid and tired.
As the late civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer once said: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
People are angry about the repeated killings of black people by police. Again.
They are frustrated about the inaction. Again.
They are afraid of the police and don’t trust the institutions that can do something about it. Again.
Mostly, black folks are tired of white people saying racism doesn’t exist.
When I arrived in Louisville 23 years ago, the then-head of what serves as Louisville’s chamber of commerce told me over lunch he didn’t know anybody who had been discriminated against. He went on to say that he didn’t know anybody who knew anybody who had been discriminated against.
That’s the problem with ignorance. He didn’t realize he was espousing racism as he spoke.
Racism comes in many forms and use of the n-word is just one of them. Unfortunately, the N-word is the standard most white people default to when they try to identify what racism is.
No one should actually have to say this in 2020, but if you don’t believe racism is a major problem in America, you are complicit.
If you don’t believe the concerns over the Louisville killings and others around the country are legitimate and should be heard, you are complicit.
If you don’t believe Donald Trump is an underlying condition of ramped-up racism in this country, you are complicit.
Policing is a tough job, and most police officers try to do a good job. But we might ask the question of whether there are more bad seeds than anyone wants to acknowledge. Whether it’s because of racism, poor training, general incompetence or all of the above, we need to find out.
This country has made some well-intentioned attempts at racial conciliation, but no commitment to sustainability.
I recently dug out the Kerner Commission report that was done at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 as race riots erupted in major cities across the country.
The 11-member commission included then-Kentucky Commerce Commissioner Katherine Graham Peden. Its work took seven months and to this day represents the best and most detailed government examination of the racial divide in this country and how to deal with it.
Johnson directed the committee to answer three questions:
- What happened?
- Why did it happen?
- What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?
It laid bare white racism and pointedly blamed it for inequities in housing, education, jobs and more.
It singled out the news media for heavy criticism: “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspectives.”
There was one problem, though. Johnson, who aides and historians say was prone to using the N-word himself, didn’t like the conclusion and ignored it. In a 2018 story on the 50th anniversary of the report, The Washington Post talked with people close to Johnson who recalled he was angered by the report and fumed that the unrest was caused by agitators. Sound familiar?
One month after the Kerner report, rioting broke out in 100 cities across the country in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King.
The Post reported that “white racism” was mentioned in only the summary of the report of about 600 pages.
Johnson is given credit for his 1964 State of the Union speech that addressed many of the country’s issues. Sadly, many of those same issues persist.
For example, the African American achievement gap in reading decreased by half during the 1970s and early 1980s. But the reading gap has grown again and is 30% larger than it was 30 years ago, according to a 2018 story in The Washington Post.
Those gains were largely wiped out by budget cuts by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in their war on the welfare state.
So here we are again and what the hell are we going to do?
This week, USA TODAY reported that the King Center, set up by Coretta Scott King to honor her late husband, published King’s “Other America” speech on Twitter. In it, King talked about his support for nonviolent tactics in the “struggle for freedom and justice” and expressed his disapproval for rioting.
“But in the final analysis,” King wrote, “a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”
It’s time for all of us to listen. If we don’t get it at this point, we really are in trouble.
Bennie Ivory is a former executive editor of The Courier Journal.