By Barney Blakeney
With the fourth observance of the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church still fresh in my mind I recently saw equal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson on one of the network morning news programs. Stevenson is a lawyer, social justice activist, a clinical professor at New York University School of Law and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. I still was fuming at the dog and pony show so many in this community put on to exploit the massacre. Stevenson said some things that helped me get a grip.
Stevenson initiated the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. that opened in April 2018 which honors the names of each of the over 4,000 African Americans lynched in the South from 1877 to 1950. Many lynchings were conducted in front of mobs and crowds in county courthouse squares. On the program I saw, Stevenson said while the North won the Civil War, the South won the narrative that defines and gives life to the notion of white supremacy that has continued to play out through slavery, the Jim Crow era and today in post Jim Crow inequality and injustice. It’s a narrative that says Blacks are less than human.
Stevenson noted the Supreme Court decree that Blacks legally could be counted as three-fifths of a person. It’s a narrative that says since Blacks are less than human and certainly less than white people, they need not be educated or treated humanely. It’s a narrative that says Blacks are not equal to whites in any aspect. And it’s a narrative that motivated Dylann Roof to walk into Emanuel as church members studied the Bible, calmly shoot them to death then calmly walk away. The video recording of Roof exiting the church after massacring his victims says a lot about the depth and influence of that narrative.
I guess I’m a lot like my mother, I tend to deal with bad things inwardly – never let ‘em see you sweat, as the saying goes. But social consciousness requires that I speak out about stuff. So watching all the various activities that are being conducted in the name of observing the Emanuel massacre “makes me wanna holler, throw up both my hands.” And I get angry that some folks think this is some game where we trot our butts out every year June 17 and talk about social justice.
The Emanuel massacre observance reminds me that social justice and the American struggle for equality is ongoing. Tragedies like Emanuel mark our failure to do win that struggle. ‘Cum by yah’ discussions may help, but it might help more if we do real work on things like police reform.
Some 20 years ago in 2000 police shot Edward Snowden, a Black man, as he hid from a group of whites who accosted him while trying to return video tapes to a store in North Charleston. In 2003 Asberry Wylder, a diagnosed mentally ill person accused of stealing a package of luncheon meat, was backed across six traffic lanes on Rivers Avenue before being shot by officers. In 2013 Charleston County Sheriff deputies shot and killed Darryl Drayton, another mentally ill Black man, officers say threatened them with a knife. Seven months before Roof went into Emanuel’s Bible study North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott five times in the back as Scott ran away after a routine traffic stop.
In recent weeks constituents of Charleston County School District continue to challenge disparities in public education that disenfranchise Black children. Disparities have existed since South Carolina’s 1835 law making it illegal to educate Black people. From the beginning of their experience in public schools Asian and White students outperform Black students in every area, according to results of Pre-K and kindergarten readiness assessments.
However, the most distressing disparities are in the number of student suspensions and expulsions. During the 2014-2015 school year there were about 8,000 suspensions in Charleston County schools. Black males accounted for about 4,500 of those suspensions. Black females accounted for another 2,000 suspensions or about 6,500 of the total number of suspensions. Among elementary school students, Black students accounted for about 1,900 of the 2,200 suspensions. And at the high school level where there were about 2,900 suspensions, Black students accounted for about 2,300 of them.
Stevenson said we’re all complicit in the inequities and social injustices that produce the lynching of Blacks and tragedies like the Emanuel massacres. They are not the result of acts by any one person or group, he said. I think that complicity extends to those of us who daily go about the business as usual which produces the outcomes we experience. We can’t just be passionate about injustice every June 17. We must make that outrage part of our DNA, part of our mental make-up.
I’m encouraged by things such as the group that’s prevented the July 10 temporary raising of the Confederate Flag at the S.C. Statehouse this year. Each year since the flag came down after the Emanuel massacre the South Carolina Secessionist Party temporarily has raised it on the anniversary of the date it was removed.
Showing Up for Racial Justice Columbia founder Sarah Keeling told The State newspaper she applied for the permit the minute it was available so the Secessionist Party couldn’t gather. Officials review requests to hold events in part to prevent conflicts with other groups. According to one news report Keeling had that intention for years before she finally was successful in being the first to get the permit last year.
That’s an example of the forethought and [persistence that must come if we’re to successfully win the struggle against inequity and social injustice. Dialogue and discussion have their place, but ultimately, it will take action – planned actions to win this fight!