Let me offer two must see movies about two American heroes – Bryan Stevenson and Dr. Vivian Thomas. Michael P. Jordan plays Stevenson in “Just Mercy” about defending Black death row prisoners who were convicted of crimes they did not commit. Stevenson faced unbelievable push back, but eventually was very successful in saving the lives of wrongfully convicted people.
Mos Def plays Thomas in the movie with Alan Rickman called “Something the Lord Made.” He was the Black surgeon who worked closely with Rickman to devise a medical procedure to save babies who died from lack of adequate blood flow, called Blue Babies. Being a Black man who had been a carpenter, he was not initially allowed to operate on White babies, even at Johns Hopkins. Yet, his carpentry skills gave him very adept hands who could perform this delicate surgery better than his co-founder could.
This movement to whitewash history to paint over the horrible and violent actions of people in power to those who do not have it is misguided and inane. We must learn from history whether it is the atrocities of slavery and the Jim Crow era, the Native American removal and genocide, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, or the discrimination against other groups for perceived sins such as during the Lavendar Scare or Communist witch hunts. And, for those who want to pretend things did not happen, listen to Billie Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit,” go to a civil rights museum close by such as in Greensboro or Washington, or Google Emmet Till or the Birmingham church bombing.
Yet, we must never forget America’s greatness is built on the input of a diverse melting pot of people. We have overcome actions and eras where those in power were none to kind to people who did not look like them (see Tulsa, Wilmington, NC where successful Black business people and elected officials were violently put down, eg). Yet, we did. But, we cannot back track on this progress kowtowing to the narrow-mindedness of pretending those things did not happen.
As a retired white man born and raised in the south, I saw first-hand the impact of racism. I saw how fear was heightened during forced busing to address systemic differences in the separate but equal doctrine, which was not very equal. It should be noted this forced busing in 1971 was to be in compliance with Brown v. Board of Education which was ruled on in 1954. People don’t realize Brown consolidated several cases in the litigation, one of which a Black family who educated Black kids found their home burned to the ground.
I saw first-hand how a Black person was served a to-go order from the back of a restaurant as he or she could not be seated inside the restaurant. I saw first-hand how a person of color was treated in a car accident, where the police blamed that driver when a white person was more to blame. And, I have been to the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC where the museum sits on the site of the first sit in by Black students at a Woolworth counter. One of the most chilling moments in my life is to hear the docent make us close our eyes as she recounted the story of Emmitt Till.
To say we don’t have systemic racism and bigotry is just off the mark, in my view and experience. Of course, we do since before this country was founded. I find people who try to hide these facts to be disingenuous. We must know our history is filled with good and bad behaviors we must learn from. As well-known historian Jon Meacham said in “The Soul of America,” we have made great strides but they come in fits and starts; we also have a lot to answer to for what happened in-between.
If we backtrack, not only is it the wrong thing to do, it is economically harmful to the whole country.