Viral Days

Righteousness Like a Mighty Stream

After a historian’s lifetime of confronting racism, signs of change

By Allison Blakely | July 20, 2020
A protestor speaks to a line of Seattle Police Department officers during a Seattle, WA protest against the killing of George Floyd (Derek Simeone, Flickr/dereksimeone)
A protestor speaks to a line of Seattle Police Department officers during a Seattle, WA protest against the killing of George Floyd (Derek Simeone, Flickr/dereksimeone)

In his 1951 suite of poems, “A Dream Deferred,” Langston Hughes pondered how long it would take for African Americans to become included in the American Dream. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., in his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial before a quarter of a million people, said that his dream was deeply rooted in the American Dream, and reminded his listeners of “the fierce urgency of now.” He also emphasized “the unspeakable horror of police brutality.” Elsewhere, echoing the 19th-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, King counseled patience and faith that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”

Do the unprecedented, spontaneous, massive demonstrations sparked by the video of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on May 25 raise the question of whether the dream is coming to pass sooner than anyone expected? If not, what does explain those countless marches of thousands, day and night for weeks, in cities and towns across the land and abroad?

Viewing the George Floyd police lynching for the first time transported me back to the notorious lynching in police custody of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. We were almost the same age when I saw the pictures of his mutilated remains in JET magazine. Those are the only other images I can recall in the history of the Civil Rights Movement that had an impact comparable to that of George Floyd’s neck under the knee of officer Derek Chauvin.

Having been born into a family of sharecroppers in Alabama, I was by the time of Till’s murder already very familiar with racism in both the South and the North. Among my earliest childhood memories is sprinting barefooted on a dirt road in the coal mining company town of Praco, as we pretended to be racing cars. White children in buses passing by on a main road would sometimes snarl racist epithets and hurl things out the windows at us. My single mother, who had just a sixth-grade education, moved me at age six from the care of relatives in Alabama to Portland, Oregon, where she had worked in the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II. Her main objective was to provide a good education for me and my older sister.

While always enjoying school, I had by the early 1950s stopped joining my classmates in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which was part of our routine at the beginning of the school day. The initiative to insert under God into the Pledge had caused me to pay close attention to its words for the first time. Having been raised in Christian churches, and still participating in the Boy Scouts, I had no objection to adding the word God; what I challenged from that time forward was the closing line, “with liberty and justice for all.” It was painfully obvious to me that this statement was simply not true. For example, not until the early 1950s did Oregon pass an equal accommodations law, which then took some time to implement. This meant that even after I had moved to Portland from Alabama, Blacks had been allowed seating only in the balcony in movie theaters, to use just one example most galling to children.

Later, my experience in an otherwise excellent public high school was marred by an unforgettable session with the vice principal, who called me in during my senior year to discuss my college plans. She told me that she had heard that I was applying to some of the leading universities in the country and wanted to talk to me in order to prevent me from making a big mistake and suffering deep disappointment. She offered this advice despite my serving as president of the school’s National Honor Society chapter. Even her own nephews and nieces were only applying to state colleges and junior colleges, she told me, and gave me examples of what the school’s most successful Black students and stellar athletes had achieved, for example, becoming bus drivers and mailmen at a time when it was difficult for Blacks to obtain even such respectable jobs as those. One reason this memory remains so vivid is that, more than half a century later, Black students in my college classes continued to share similar stories about their high school counselors.

The vice principal did not deter me from pursuing a successful college career. It was in graduate school at Berkeley for most of the 1960s that I became intensively engaged in the Civil Rights, antiwar, and free speech movements. This experience first made me aware of the broad extent of interracial collaboration in social justice movements, as well as some possible problems, since I became vice president of the Berkeley Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, chapter, which was troubled by questions about whether whites should have leadership roles.

My most painful life experiences with racism occurred while on active duty as an Army officer, having been commissioned in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. I had decided to serve because there was a draft, and I believed that everyone able to do so should serve. I had decided to become an officer because of horror stories I had heard about the treatment of Black soldiers by racist noncommissioned officers. Upon my graduation, the Army was considerate enough to grant me a four-year delay from active duty so that I could accept a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship that could not be postponed. Unfortunately, by the time my delay expired, the Vietnam war had accelerated, I had been promoted to first lieutenant in Army intelligence, with infantry as the combat arm I was to serve in; and I had become very active in the antiwar movement. I have never quite let go of the anger and hurt I experienced half a century ago when, upon completing my infantry officer basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, a major general named York, speaking at graduation, exhorted us to go off to Vietnam and prove to “those yellow bastards” that the white race had not “gone soft.” And he received a standing ovation from all but me and one close friend I had made, who was white. Even the few other Black officers stood and applauded. Then, a week later, on the drive up to Baltimore for Army Intelligence School training, I was refused a hamburger at a roadside café, rudely ushered out, and told to go around to the Negro window in the back, even though some white friends with me were in uniform. Note that this was after the passage of some of the federal civil rights laws of the 1960s. Needless to say, we all passed up our hamburgers.

I was refused an apartment near the Army base that provided the main economic opportunity for many people in the surrounding, blue-collar neighborhood of Dundalk in Baltimore; and this was in response to an ad that had not stated “whites only,” as some still did in the newspapers at that time in Baltimore and Washington. But the greatest insult came from the Army, which refused to remove that renter’s name from its list of available housing. In fairness to the southern city of Baltimore and the U.S. Army, I should note that a similar slight had also happened to me in Berkeley, when the University of California declined to remove the name of a renter who had not only refused me housing but also made racist remarks at a special hearing convened in response to my formal complaint.

My orders assigning me to Vietnam arrived during the several months of intelligence school training. My objections to the war were that I considered it racist, immoral, and senseless because even with our obvious military superiority, we could never achieve our political objectives without the permanent occupation of Vietnam to prop up an American puppet government. I went when assigned because none of my other alternatives was acceptable to me.

Even in Vietnam, my eventual advancement to the rank of captain brought me more resentment—because I was a rare Black intelligence officer—than respect. Keep in mind that this was 20 years after the U.S. military was finally integrated, a breakthrough of comparable importance to today’s gains, and also thought to be a cause for celebration. But it was in Vietnam that I learned I should never allow racism to lead me to become consumed by hatred for anyone.

In my 11th month there, I was wounded in a nighttime rocket attack at a base camp of the First Infantry Division near the town of Lai Khe, just days before the full-blown onset of the Tet Offensive in 1968. I was buried for more than two hours in the rubble of a collapsed building where 10 people were killed and 20 wounded. Both my legs were pinned under a large wall fragment. When I alerted the colonel supervising the rescue that the fragment was beginning to crack as they were jacking it up to free me, he said they might need to cut off my legs to get me out, and offered me morphine, which I declined. Instead, a total stranger, a young soldier with a strong southern-white accent, stuck his head down into danger and scratched out space beneath my legs with his bare hands so that I could be freed. I couldn’t help wondering whether he could see my color, and immediately felt ashamed that I had even thought about that. He probably saved my legs and maybe my life; but due to my injuries and the surrounding chaos, I never learned his identity and had no opportunity to thank him.

It was while I was on furlough stateside, six weeks later, after completing my tour abroad, that news of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. shattered any chance I had of recuperation from my emotional ordeal. I’d had the good fortune to interact with him for two days at an international youth congress in 1959. There this young man—he was 30 and I was 19—impressed me more than anyone I had met before, especially when I asked him if I should join his movement and he advised me to go back and finish college. The bloody race riots that erupted in dozens of cities across the United States in the wake of his assassination plunged me back into the malaise I thought I had left behind in the war zone. This feeling was only aggravated by the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

During my first year back at Berkeley to finish my PhD degree and resume my antiwar activities, California Governor Ronald Reagan sent, on May 15, 1969, first State Highway Patrolmen and later more than 2,000 National Guardsmen to Berkeley in response to the People’s Park protests. He declared a state of emergency and placed the city under occupation, patrolled by the National Guard for two weeks. The confrontation included the use of tear gas, dropped on the campus from the air by a helicopter and deployed in canisters off campus by troops. The soldiers used rifles with fixed bayonets for crowd control. I had never faced or seen fixed bayonets during my entire year in Vietnam. The police and guardsmen at times fired shotguns at the crowd, resulting in the death of one bystander and the hospitalization of 100 others.

I had never imagined that such a cruel and violent military attack could occur in the United States, except in Black towns or neighborhoods. The juxtaposition of this experience to what I had seen and felt in Vietnam exposed to me just how thin the line is between a state of war guided by martial law, with conventional morality suspended, and a state of what is supposed to be civilized, peaceful society. It dawned on me that my earlier belief that our government would only wage such brutal warfare against a colored people was too simplistic, and that the underlying issue was not just race and color; it was also about cultural difference in a much broader sense. Some of the Guardsmen sent to Berkeley were recent Vietnam veterans; and some of the injured civilians later interviewed told of their dismay at being loudly cursed as “filthy hippies,” regardless of how they were dressed or conducted themselves.

It is hard to find words to describe the effect on me of the scene at Lafayette Park, in Washington, D.C., on the evening of June 1, 2020, which caused myriad historical analogies to swirl around in my brain. The most graphic of these was the dramatization in the film Dr. Zhivago of the massacre called Bloody Sunday in January 1905, in the early stages of the Russian Revolution. In retrospect, Bloody Sunday may be viewed as a decisive event, emblematic of the growing estrangement of Tsar Nicholas II from the Russian people, that would lead to the fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Although the movie took liberal artistic license by situating in Moscow the massacre of a peaceful workers march that had occurred in St. Petersburg, and employed cavalry using sabers to cut down marchers, instead of the riflemen at the real event, it rang true. The drama concocted by President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr in Lafayette Park featured police on foot armed with plastic shields and face guards, backed up by a line of mounted officers. Suddenly the leading phalanx charged under cover of a barrage of tear gas, smoke canisters, and pepper balls, striking bystanders with batons, whether they were standing still or running to get away.

But it was when I viewed in that news footage the stately line of mounted police quickening their pace, in unison, that tears welled up in my eyes. I thought that I had become too jaded to react in such a fashion. I was carried back in time, not only to Berkeley in ’69 but also to the Russian Revolution. When the assault in Lafayette Park was immediately followed by the president’s sacrilegious photo-op stroll across the square to St. John’s Church, I remembered that the peaceful Russian protest had been led by one Father Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest whose only offense was daring to organize a labor union and march toward the Winter Palace.

Was there no one among our president’s advisers to tell him that our Civil Rights Movement already has its Bloody Sunday: in Selma in 1965, where as a young man John Lewis, the celebrated congressman who died July 17, suffered a fractured skull along with scores of others wounded? That clash helped strengthen support for the major Civil Rights legislation during the ’60s. The president’s cluelessness renders all the more enigmatic his tweet of June 11 declaring, “THOSE THAT DENY THEIR HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT!” This vulgarization of the philosopher George Santayana’s maxim suggests that someone close to him does feed him pithy insights at times. Is it perhaps William Barr, who on May 11 responded to a reporter’s question about how history would treat his efforts to exonerate Michael Flynn by quoting that “history is written by the winners”? He might profit from the advice of another serious student of law, philosophy, and history, Karl Marx, who in criticizing a 19th-century would-be dictator wrote that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.”

What we are now encountering is at the very least a profound “aha moment” in Civil Rights history, for it seems possible that the African-American Dream and the American Dream that King spoke of have now truly merged. The national and international scope of what on the surface is resounding, empathetic support for the Black Lives Matter cause suggests an undercurrent long in progress that has been insufficiently noticed by the broad public. The guiding narrative remains the one sketched by King, inspired by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. What has been happening during the past half century is best understood as a predictable result of the tensions within a democracy founded as a slave society and later riven by civil war. That our democracy has always been a work in progress explains how we could have unexpectedly enjoyed two terms of a Black president in the early 21st century, followed immediately by the election of the first unapologetically racist president since Woodrow Wilson. The racially diverse and youthful composition of the Black Lives Matter demonstrators reflects both the current profile of many members of American society and an indication that their collective will represents the wave of the future. Along with the massive scale and pervasiveness of the marches, the most striking characteristic is that whites comprise the majority.

These serpentine human streams winding through cities and over bridges, and their signs and speeches, suggest that all the protestors feel their dreams are being trampled upon. If their efforts are not just another episodic eruption of public indignation at government misconduct, we might be witnessing the beginning of the time King envisioned, when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He would surely marvel at the impressive number of Black mayors and police chiefs that news coverage of the pandemic and expanded Black Lives Matter movement have brought to public attention, yes even in Alabama and Mississippi, states King singled out for their injustices in his day.

Those opposing the marches and related demonstrations also recognize a new reality, one that it is not narrowly defined by racism. Today, white supremacists are confronted with their worst nightmare: a democratic society becoming more majority-minority with every passing day. President Trump and his chief enablers are absolutely right in comprehending that a political party resting on white supremacy and the taking for granted of white privilege can now only remain in power by undermining the rule of law and all democratic institutions, and especially by suppressing the vote. If white liberals and independents share the views of those protesting, the majority of those now calling themselves Republicans will rarely win fair, democratic elections.

It is important to stress that racism is for many conservatives primarily a convenient tool for preserving wealth and power, which is what is really at stake. This was the essence of the Jim Crow system, in which color replaced the chains of slavery as the main device for social control and economic exploitation. We can now appreciate in fuller measure W.E.B. Du Bois’s prophetic warning in his 1903 anthology The Souls of Black Folks: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line. … The relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” Color has continued to be a biasing marker that subsumes culture and other forms of otherness now well into the 21st century, somewhat fading, but not erased. This helps explain the global resonance of the marches in the United States ignited by the George Floyd travesty.

Like the current novel coronavirus pandemic, our age-old racism pandemic will continue to cause some senseless deaths even after society acquires greater knowledge of how to control it. In both cases, an actual cure will likely take years. But, meanwhile, am I really seeing transformative police reform measures underway; summary firings of abusive policemen; tens of thousands of people marching for social justice in cities large and small all over the United States and Europe; Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand; statues of Confederate generals and Christopher Columbus toppled in American cities; and statues of slave traders taken down and thrown into rivers in Europe? Even if some of this is mainly symbolic, it represents a quantum leap forward. If I’m dreaming, please don’t wake me!

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