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Brown/My Turn: Silencing freedom’s bell

One of my cherished personal possessions is a small postcard that I mailed to my parents in the late summer of 1963. Written from camp, the note asks them if it was possible for me and my sister to attend the upcoming March on Washington.

My parents refused. To be fair, nobody, not even the planners, knew what would ensue on Aug. 28, 1963. The Civil Rights movement had just reached its apogee with the demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala., where the entire world saw Americans of African descent beaten, assaulted by police dogs and flattened by high-pressure fire hoses. The planned march would either be an ecstatic celebration of the power of nonviolent struggle or descend into violence itself.

Malcolm X, the most feared black leader at the time, disparaged the march as the “Farce on Washington” and made it clear that his militant Nation of Islam would not support it. That the main speaker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver one of the most profound speeches in human history wasn’t foreseen, even by King himself.

Despite their liberal leanings, it was beyond my parents to allow their children to put themselves into such an unpredictable situation. There was no discussion about us attending as a full family. I never went.

Nowadays, I always shake my head in disbelief when white people tell black people that racism is a thing of the past. If anything, it is making a resurgence but in more subtle ways. True, the Klan rarely burns crosses on lawns or routinely lynches African-American men but there are other ways to deny people their rights. The Trayvon Martin verdict (followed by the vicious jubilation of white conservatives), voter suppression laws throughout the South engineered to prevent minorities from balloting and the spew of race-themed hatred from right-wing media are just some of the examples.

It is a characteristic of the oppressor to delude themselves into thinking that the oppressed enjoy being brutalized. A careful reading of American history shows that a significant portion of the white population believed that slavery was beneficial to the enslaved; that racial segregation was fair and equal; and that if black men were murdered, they deserved it.

This last amplifies how black and white Americans inhabit two different worlds. There is a ritual among African-American families called “the Talk” in which parents sit their male children down and warn them that they can be killed on the streets of their country for no other reason than being young black teen — even if they follow orders and act correctly when confronted by law enforcement, they might be arbitrarily slain by the George Zimmermans of our society. This is a conversation I never had with my white teenage son when he came of age. His skin color made him safe

This discrepancy is nothing new to the black community, which has witnessed centuries of unjust killings at the hands of their fellow citizens. The list of atrocities committed against them is too numerous to list here although one does hinge on this essay. Merely a week after the 1963 March on Washington, four little girls in Birmingham were killed when their 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. This was only one of hundreds of black churches that were bombed or burned in the South during the Civil Rights era. White Americans choose to forget that their black neighbors have endured acts of terrorism more deadly and despicable than the recent Boston Marathon bombings.

Centuries of injustice were on King’s mind when he stepped up to the podium as the final speaker that hot summer day. He began with a prepared text, calling the United States to account for its failure to live up to the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence followed by rote phrases about the success of nonviolence and the necessity of full citizen rights for African-Americans. Hitting a point in the speech where the written words no longer fit the majesty of the moment, King cut himself loose and began to preach. Spurred on by the great singer Mahalia Jackson who urged, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin,” he did just that. His ending was a passionate moral call to arms for renewed inspiration. His dream for the future was based on a fruition that would be gained once the mountaintop was reached, a victory that was never in doubt. He demanded that “Let Freedom Ring” throughout the length and breadth of a country he knew would rise to the task.

Fifty years later, the Supreme Court, Congress and Republican-controlled state houses are determined to still that bell. These are people who would never publicly use the “N-Word” but have learned that polite, legal racism has a longer shelf life. Whether they succeed or not depends on whether we, as a nation, honor King’s dream or merely give it lip service.

Daniel A. Brown has lived in Franklin County since 1970 as an artist, writer, amateur historian, and photographer. He welcomes feedback at dbrown1793@gmail.com.

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