WHAT a difference four decades can make. That’s what I thought as I watched the counter-protest in Boston, Mass, where 40,000 people came out to voice opposition to hate, bigotry and white supremacy—the underpinnings of the recent “free speech rally” in that city. That demonstration was organized by so-called white nationalists and others who may resist such unsavory labels but seem to have adopted aspects of the group’s agenda.
The counter-protesters in Boston received accolades from across the country for producing a positive event, with the right tone and tenor. I join in that salute--although I remain conflicted about the fate of confederate statues.
The event in Boston stood in stark and welcomed contrast to the previous rally in Charlottesville, Va., which could more aptly be described as a riot. There, one person died and dozens were injured in a violent clash between neo-Nazis, alt-right members and other citizens who sought, like those in Boston, to uphold the values written into the American Constitution that “all men are created equal.”
That Boston should serve as a Waterloo, albeit temporary, for racists is ironic. After all, it has its own sullied and dark racial history.
Those of us who lived through the Jim Crow Era remember the racial skirmishes following the U.S. Supreme Court 1954 desegregation ruling commonly known as Brown versus Board of Education. The order forced public school systems nationally to begin ripping the down the barriers and historical divisions between black and whites in most of those institutions. While the focus was on the south, there were northern cities where venom flowed uninterrupted.
In 1965, a Massachusetts court instigated passage of The Racial Imbalance Act, which mandated any school with more than 50 percent minority students desegregate or risk losing state funds. By 1974, major neighborhoods in Boston had become cauldrons of racial hatred in the American north.
Parents of public school students where busing had been imposed as a method of integration, demonstrated nearly every day. Some created the “Restore Our Alienated Rights” movement, which had many of the hallmarks of the current Alt-Right group. In one instance attackers of an African-American lawyer used an American flag as their weapon of choice. A white teen stabbed a black teen to death. Meanwhile, whites moved en masse to the suburbs. Many never came back to the city.
Is that ugly history at the center of the Boston’s stand against racism? Maybe, Maybe not. The Boston public school population is mostly comprised of families of color; whites are there in only small numbers.
Perhaps the impetus for the clear stand against hatred may be more global. The city was rocked in 2014 by a terrorist attack. During the Boston Marathon two bombs were detonated, killing three people and injuring dozens more. The image of the carnage, with blood and bodies on the city streets, is seared in the memories of many who were in Boston that day and others, like me, who saw it on television or computer screens.
Undoubtedly that memory flashed as many Bostonians watched in horror as neo Nazis, white nationalists and others marched through Charlottesville shouting, “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” Some whites participating in the rally beat a young black man so severely, he needed multiple stitches in his head, his arm was broken, his lip split. He told television reporters there was so much blood he was certain he wouldn’t live. Thankfully he did.
Before the Charlottesville race riot, I confess I didn’t support removing confederate statues. I believed such action a form of censorship, of white-washing history. However, diabolical, repugnant and inhumane it was, slavery was, and remains, part of this country’s history Destroying statues and flags won’t change that nor will it alter the fact that the Civil War was fought, in part, because some wanted to retain it as a critical system for their economic advancement and wealth.
Blacks who have studied African history should know and understand the dangers of censorship. Conquering colonizers went through parts of the continent destroying or disfiguring sculptures and other cultural iconography that served as witness to the intellectual sophistication and advanced technical knowledge of blacks in ancient civilizations. They redacted from books, historical documents and museums the critical role played by Africans, African Americans, and black in the Diaspora in building world civilizations, including the United States.
The justifications for the removal—personal safety, emotional pain—seem faulty and weak, although I appreciate the fact that seeing Robert E. Lee, other confederate soldiers or folks like Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney in our environment stirs anger and re-opens old wounds. Still, I keep asking myself, if the destruction of our history was wrong when it was done by whites, is it not wrong if we, African Americans, engage in a similar exercise?
Political leaders and activists have said we need to have a national conversation about race in America—one that would extend beyond the national mall in Washington, D.C.; one that would also go inside elementary, middle and high schools. What would be the structure, the contours of such a conversation? Would it be a collection of people seated around a table, or in an auditorium sharing their views in a calm and measured manner?
I believe the country has been engaged in such a dialogue for decades, perhaps since the end of the Civil War through the protests to end separate and unequal education, through that day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Alabama bus, prompting a citywide boycott and the Civil Rights Movement, filled with scenes of police leading vicious dogs to attack innocent African Americans. A sermon by the pastor of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama sparked more conversation. Dillon Roof’s murder of nine parishioners in Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, SC instigated more talk.
The election of Donald Trump has caused much soul searching. The riot in Charlottesville, still more. With each action, we are pushed forward whether we like it or not. We are made to further understand each other, to grapple with our differences, eventually finding a place of common ground before the next upheaval; the next fight for the future.
As Susan Bro, the mother of the young woman Heather Heyer who died in Charlottesville, said with force and confidence: “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what: You just magnified her.”
The conversation continues with determination. The light shines through. And, just as Boston has arrived at a place better than where it was in 1974, so shall the nation—with or without Confederate statues.