“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
“The ill-conceived protests cannot be presented with the sensible way of presenting a grievance.”
Where did this quote come from?
It came, slightly altered, from a 1963 newspaper article condemning the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, the event where Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his famous “I Have A Dream Speech.”
You know, the one where he says that he dreams that one day children of all colors will join together, hand in hand.
You remember, right?
Do you also recall the beginning of that speech?
The part where he says, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note [of equality] so far as her citizens of color are concerned.”
Or, do you remember where he continues to call for nonviolence, but he takes on the voice of whites opposed to civil right, asking, “When will you be satisfied?”
Do you remember how he responds? No, well, he says, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
Reading about the 17-year old who fatally shot 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum and 26-year-old Anthony Huber; got water from officers at the scene; walked past them after shooting two more people as individuals tried to subdue him, my mind started racing.
After hearing the the police chief’s comments claiming that if people weren’t out after curfew this wouldn’t happen; that the 17-year old was “involved in the use of firearms to resolve whatever conflict was in place,” my mind started racing, tracing lines from the present to the past.
After hearing a commentator ask, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”, my mind kept moving backwards, tracing the patterns.
After hearing the Vice President’s words at the Republican National Convention, “The violence must stop, whether in Minneapolis, Portland or Kenosha, too many heroes have died defending our freedom to see Americans strike each other down. We will have law and order on the streets of this country for every American of every race and creed and color,” my mind inched even further into the past.
Do you want to know where my mind drifted?
I went to 1848 and John C. Calhoun’s speech on the Oregon Bill. In that speech, he stated, “With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black, and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious, and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.”
I went to 1861 and Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens’ “Cornerstone Address” when he used Biblical imagery and reasoning to justify enslavement of individuals and the laws. He said, “Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders ‘is become the chief of the corner’ — the real “corner-stone’ — in our new edifice.”
I went to 1861 and the chapter in Harriett Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl where she discusses the fears that enslavers had over Nat Turner’s rebellion: “It was a grand opportunity for the low whites, who had no negroes of their own to scourge. . . . All day long these unfeeling wretches went round, like a troop of demons, terrifying and tormenting the helpless. At night, they formed themselves into patrol bands, and went wherever they chose among the colored people, acting out their brutal will. Many women hid themselves in woods and swamps, to keep out of their way. If any of the husbands or fathers told of these outrages, they were tied up to the public whipping post, and cruelly scourged for telling lies about white men. The consternation was universal. No two people that had the slightest tinge of color in their faces dared to be seen talking together.”
I went to 1868 and the Bossier Massacre where over 160 African Americans were murdered in a violent act of voter suppression and no prosecutions occurred even though the authorities and the Freedmen’s Bureau knew the killers. Earlier in the year, when voters went to ratify the 1868 Louisiana Constitution, the Bossier Banner ran an article entitled “White Men to the Rescue!” which read, in part, “If you don’t want negro equality forced upon you, go to the polls and vote against the proposed Constitution, framed by the social banditi, domestic bastards, catamites, scalawags, slubberdegullions, cow thieves and jay-hawkers of Louisiana.”
I went to 1895 and Ida B. Wells’ The Red Record. Describing the lynching of Paul Hill, Paul Archer, William Archer, and Emma Fair in Alabama, she wrote, “Then these lynchers went quietly away and the bodies of the woman and three men were taken out and buried with as little ceremony as men would bury hogs.”
I went to 1896 and Justice Henry Billings Brown’s majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson. There, he wrote, “The object of the [Fourteenth] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
I went to 1961 in Montgomery when citizens attacked Freedom Riders as officers stood by or joined in. I went to the picture of a bloodied John Lewis and a bloodied James Zwerg. I went to a burned out bus on the side of the road.
I went to 1963 and the bombing of the 16th street Baptist Church where Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were murdered.
I went to 1965 and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. You know, the bridge where officers tear gassed and beat marchers senseless.
I went to 2015 when officers apprehended the murderer of Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was the church’s pastor and a South Carolina state senator, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson. Oh yeah, the officers took the killer for Burger King afterwards.
I went to August 8, 2020, when officers in Bossier City shot at 34-year-old Jonathan Jefferson 16 times, killing him in his front yard. He was bipolar and had schizophrenia.
I went to August 15, 2020, when 56-year-old Jeff Booker shot a sheriff’s deputy in the shoulder, had a standoff with officers, and was apprehended in DeSoto Parish. Booker has a history of mental illness and drug abuse.
I went to August 21, 2020, when officers in Lafayette shot 31-year-old Trayford Pellerin 11 times. He has a history of mental illness and drug related arrests.
I went to backwards from there to July 24, 2019, when 47-year-old Jason Pike barricaded himself in his home and shot at deputies. He was apprehended.
My mind went to a lot of places, too many to document here.
But I have a question for you.
Do you see a pattern?
My point is multifaceted.
For one, as William Faulkner succinctly put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The other is that a true discussion of our history and what happened during the Civil Rights era, during Jim Crow, during Reconstruction, during the Civil War, during America’s founding, during colonization, and on needs to occur.
Remember, enslavers wrapped their desire to enslaver others in the cloak of Christianity and Divine Providence.
Remember, powerful, wealthy whites told poor whites they were “upper class” because they were white.
Remember, slave patrols consisted of poor white and existed to squash rebellion.
Remember, voter suppression has always occurred.
Remember, people knew who committed lynchings, who killed individuals and left their bodies hanging from the trees.
Remember, the Civil Rights era was not peaceful.
Remember, police, north and south, brutalized marchers.
Remember, the Civil Rights Movement occurred less than a generation ago.
Remember, Ross Barnett, George Wallace, Bull Connor, and more proclaimed they were keeping order while the marchers marched to say, “I am not inferior. I am human.”
They marched to say, “Do not kill me. I am human.”
All I can say is ”The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”