Published Together: Keeping the conversation alive

Recently, we said our final goodbyes to two Civil Rights heroes, Rev. C. T. Vivian and the Honorable John R. Lewis. Both of these great men passed away on the same day: July 17, 2020.

Rev. Vivian, a contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helped to organize the first sit-ins in Nashville and the first civil rights march in the early 1960s. In 1961, Vivian also participated in the Freedom Rides. I believe most know but just in case you don’t, the Freedom Rides were bus rides throughout the South that included both black and white passengers who deliberately challenged the segregation laws of Jim Crow.

The Honorable John R. Lewis was a civil rights icon in his own right. Mentored by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis was the last surviving member of the "Big Six": six leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis was also a “Freedom Rider.” Lewis was best known as a fighter for freedom, and as chairman of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) he co-led the March on Selma, also known as, “Bloody Sunday.” He passed away after serving 17 terms as a Congressman and was known as the “Conscience of Congress.”

Both Vivian and Lewis committed their lives to ending racial segregation and fighting racial injustice. As I witnessed Congressman Lewis’ funeral, I wondered, did he ever think, here we are 50 plus years later, still fighting this same fight? Some might say, well … at least we’re not where we were 50 plus years ago. My response is that while the Jim Crow of the twentieth century has faded for many, there are still Jim Crow “patterns of practice” still in existence today.

John Lewis fought until the very end of his life to eradicate these patterns of practice. He encouraged us in a letter he wrote to be released on the day of his funeral (I might add that this was a supreme “boss move”). In his letter, Lewis wrote:

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So, I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

But … how can we “lay down the heavy burdens of hate” if we don’t actively engage in conversations and work that eradicate systemic racism? How can we fight it if we don’t even want to address or acknowledge it?

I so appreciate my friends who enter spaces like this with me to discuss and unpack this subject. Friends who continue to reach out, respond, and actively engage in uncomfortable conversations. What moves this work forward is not only our uncomfortable conversations but also what you say and how you respond in rooms and in conversations where I am not present.
On the other hand, there are so many who have no interest in moving this conversation forward or owning their own biases.

I truly and absolutely miss the two weeks in April when we were all on the same page as a nation. When we were united in prayer and purpose and we all acknowledged that the REAL enemy is this global pandemic and NOT each other. Later, there was another two weeks (immediately following the death of George Floyd) when we were all united in prayer and purpose to fight racism. Folks acknowledged “Black Lives Matter” and posted it (even those who had previously been denouncing it for the last seven years), along with “black squares” and hashtags all over social media. Now, months later, both are being denied, in spite of deaths, evidence, videos, recorded diaries, data, statistics, etc.

For those who were engaged (immediately after the protests) but have stepped off or away ... I encourage you to step back in! This is the only way actual change will occur. Systemic change begins in homes across America. How can we address change in systems, such as healthcare, education, and criminal justice, when we’re not addressing the importance of that change in our own homes?

A few weeks ago, our family unfortunately dealt with a couple of racial incidents that made these conversations hit home. We didn’t take out our cameras and we didn’t share them in conversations with others. We just made our way through them and tried to process but not dwell on them. Anger filled me, then sadness. We didn’t share the stories because we knew some would say, “you should say something, you should report it,” and others would say, “maybe you’re overreacting.”

For those who are saying, “Aren’t we past this?” (meaning racism), I offer the following events which have occurred throughout our nation over the past two weeks:

*A family out for a trip to Dairy Queen was angrily confronted by a man carrying a machete.

*Two moms were on a playdate with their infants when a police cruiser crashed into their vehicle, followed by several other police cars surrounding them. One officer jumped out of his cruiser and pointed a rifle at them. They were handcuffed, separated from their children, and questioned by authorities for roughly 45 minutes, while “their infants, aged six months and 13 months, were left in the back of a hot car wailing.” Eventually, the mothers were released and told it was all a “mistake.”

*Last week, a man who is serving a life (yes, LIFE) sentence in prison for stealing a pair of hedge clippers, received the news that a state Supreme Court has refused to release him. He has already served 23 years in prison.

*A young woman, her 12-year-old sister, 14 and 17-year old nieces, and 6-year-old daughter were out for a fun day at the nail salon when they were handcuffed and “mistakenly” detained and forced to lay on the ground of a parking lot. Later the police admitted this was a mistake but necessary treatment for a “high risk stop.”

*A teen riding his bike to basketball practice was “detained” and falsely imprisoned for riding his bike in his own neighborhood by a man claiming to be a police officer.

Again, these incidents happened over the past two weeks.

I did not indicate the race of any of the above individuals in any of the incidents, however, in every case, the injured person or persons was Black.

Did anything jump out at you in each of the examples above? Four of the five cases above involve children 18 years old and younger. Let that sink in. Children. Children handcuffed, detained, and made to lie down on the ground of parking lots or accosted by strangers with an agenda to do harm. As difficult to see, read, and know that these incidents took place, I am grateful that none of them resulted in death.

The above listed events are only five of the incidents that have occurred throughout our country over a two-week period. Note, for every one of these events there are hundreds more that are never filmed or make it to the national conversation.

In 2017 in Grand Rapids, there was a local 11-year-old girl who was handcuffed and detained on her way to the neighborhood store. The police were searching for her aunt. Her aunt was a 40-year-old Caucasian woman. The 11-year-old was neither Caucasian nor a 40-year-old woman. I will not take time here to present the data and statistics on the effects of childhood trauma, however, I can tell you that these encounters are sure to have lasting effects on these young people. It is reported that the 11-year-old has struggled with the emotional effects of the incident over the past three years. A girl who was extremely shy before the incident has become even more withdrawn.

These events impact communities in far reaching ways. Recently, the governor of Michigan, declared racism a ‘public health crisis’ in the state of Michigan.This declaration requires the gathering of data to develop policies, to engage communities, to communicate and advocate for communities of color, and for all state employees, including the Governor and the entire Executive Office, to participate in bias training. Here is a list of other states who have also declared racism a public health crisis: Ohio, Wisconsin, as well as cities in California, Maryland, and Indiana. If you’re asking yourself “why?”, I refer you back to the examples listed above. I would also encourage you to research the statistics on the disparities in healthcare, employment, income, housing, etc., for the state of Michigan, as well as nationally.

For example, a recent Today show article featured two studies that examine the racial bias Black women face, as it relates to pain management. It also addresses the false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. The two studies explored were a 2016 study titled Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites and 2019 study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine that indicates existing racial bias and barriers in healthcare for Black women. These studies reveal the disparities and implicit bias in medicine that Black women face daily.

If you’re tired of hearing about it … make a commitment to engage. Understand that the way to “make it go away” is not to pretend it doesn’t exist. Acknowledge it and do what it takes to address/prevent it, so that we can eradicate it. If not, the very thing you “want” is the very thing you are working against.

Lewis penned these words…."In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring."

It’s up to us to keep the conversation and this work moving forward.

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Deborah is a veteran educator and consultant for the Grand Rapids Public Schools. She is also an adjunct professor at Grand Valley State University. Deborah is the wife of Executive Director George Bayard of the Grand Rapids African American Museum Archives and serves as a member of the GRAAMA Board of Directors. She also consults with educational institutions and businesses, and facilitates training on a variety of topics, including Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
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