“There are no good times to be black in America, but some times are worse than others”
It was a restless and troubling time and this nation was facing a profound crisis of national identity. Would it be, in earnest, what it’s most precious and defining documents proclaimed, a nation where all men and women were created equal or were those words and the freedoms they conferred applied to a select few? Since the inception of the American republic, laws and customs belied this noble narrative of democracy.
In the Deep South, men who represented the law were engaged in the most vile and violent actions seeking to deny black Americans the most basic of democratic liberties, the right to vote. Bombings, lynching, shootings and dogs were ever-present reminders that America’s democratic promise had not been fully realized for its black citizens. Hooded men slithered through the night to reinforce the notion of an America for whites only. In the land of former slave-holders and the formerly enslaved, white and black Americans were pitted against one another in a brutal tug-of-war for fundamental civil rights.
And yet, in the summer of 1964, it was the coming together of white and black Americans in the sweltering hear of Mississippi that set this nation on a more just path for all Americans. Black Americans in the South refused to be cowered into submission and young, black and white Americans would leave the relative safety of the North to join them in confronting an entrenched way of life. They left anxious and unsettled parents who knew fully the danger that lurked in the Southern night. This land had already claimed Emmett Louis Till eight years earlier and Medgar Evers one year earlier. Violence was ubiquitous. Those fears were justified as the brutal reality of dogged racism found expression. Many would be beaten mercilessly and three would give their lives and become the public faces of this unrelenting struggle, though they were not the only ones to sacrifice their lives.
I imagine some parents beseeching their idealistic children to reconsider this journey south. I also imagine parents expressing heartfelt pride and admiration for the courage and conviction of their children. This was, in many ways, not their fight and yet it was a fight for all Americans who believed in justice and the ideals expressed in the United States Constitution. Powerful lessons were learned in the summer of 1964. Black Americans learned that not all white Americans were rabid racists and that most were decent people who believed in justice for all. In turn, white Americans learned that black Americans were not docile subjects of an unjust system but were instead strategic in their protest and bravely willing to face the consequences of demanding their rights as American citizens.
In the summer of 1964, I was a sixth grader living and spending carefree days safely in Brooklyn, New York. My life was comfortable and far removed from the racial realities of the South. I moved about freely sampling all that the New York City offered; I was oblivious to any real struggle of folk who looked like me and lived in the same America. I had not yet developed an activism or consciousness borne of my experience as a black boy which begs my utter admiration for those who, slightly older than me, understood and committed to real action. They boarded the buses going southward to join the struggle for civil and human rights.
This is my homage and thank you to those who put their lives on the line and compelled this nation to honor the words…“we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” Thank you to the countess, unnamed and uncelebrated black folks for their courage and ultimate sacrifice and to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner whose murders made the struggle a national imperative and articulated the consequences of unbridled hatred.