**This is a speech I gave at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church for their Black History service on February 12th, 2017.**
I live in the West End neighborhood, and as I was walking on Chapel Hill Rd. yesterday I read this quote by Pauli Murray, posted in a mural on the side of a building –
“It had taken me almost a lifetime to discover that true emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past, in deriving strength from all my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors.”
This expression of the complexities involved in holding multiple histories and perspectives at once, learning from and honoring them all, helped me frame the complexities in our history that I want to talk about today.
Personally, I am most inspired by stories from Black history where people insisted on their dignity and their rights as human beings by directly challenging the systems that oppressed them. From slave revolts to anti-lynching campaigns to lunch counter sit-ins, these are the stories that I want my children to hear when we talk about about Black history. When facing circumstances of extreme injustice, I take inspiration from people chose to resist, to refuse, and to disobey.
In light of this political moment, with the recent election of Donald Trump and the ongoing mainstreaming of white nationalism as a political force, I have been spending more time considering the roots of compliance and non-compliance in situations of injustice. I’m asking myself the question, what motivates this choice? How do people choose to obey or disobey? How can we inspire the resistance that we need from our people in this moment? The same resistance that we saw overthrow Jim Crow and consistently fight back against slavery?
One motivation behind compliance is of course, fear. Following the rules is the easiest way to get along. Most people don’t want to rock the boat or challenge the status quo. Non-compliance can get you hurt or even killed, as we saw in the number of slave revolts that were violently crushed, the extreme attacks on civil rights marchers, and the brutal lynching of any black man accused of even looking to long at a white woman, even when those accusations where entirely fabricated as we see now with Tim Tyson’s new book on the Emmett Till case.
The impact of this history continues to be relevant for our communities today. Black parents have always insisted that their Black children be exceptionally respectful in order to simply survive under white supremacy. Standing out, being non-compliant, or being disrespectful, is risky. These are basic survival strategies for oppressed communities.
Compliance by people belonging to majority racial and religious groups can be very dangerous for oppressed communities. Martin Luther King Jr. is widely quoted as saying “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” We see examples of how this appalling silence enables intense suffering and tragedy throughout our history.
At the time of the civil war, about 2/3rds of white people in the south didn’t own slaves, but the vast majority of them were content to live beside an enslaved population, enjoying the benefits of their white skin while their neighbors kept people in bondage. During Jim Crow, the vast majority of white southerners were not carrying out lynchings or joining the KKK, but they were content to live in separate and unequal spaces, ignoring the suffering of the black community, or shaking their heads sadly and continuing to eat their dinner.
This is what concerns me the most as we move into this political era – the willingness of people to tolerate extreme injustice and suffering as long as they themselves are not affected. In particular for Black people, I believe we will need to organize and motivate our communities to actively challenge that historical survival strategy of keeping our heads down and instead follow the paths of action and resistance of our strongest leaders – Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, and modern heroes like Bree Newsome, who climbed a flagpole to take down the confederate flag at the SC state house after the shooting at Mother Emmanuel church in Charleston.
Why is this so important right now? In the few days following Trump’s executive order on immigration, we saw ordinary people willing to carry out his orders without regard for the safety and well-being of the people in their charge. A federal employee at Dulles airport handcuffed a 5-year-old child, separated him from his mother and detained him alone for several hours. At Kennedy Airport, still other federal employees detained and handcuffed a 65-year-old disabled woman traveling from Qatar. She was held for more than 33 hours and denied use of a wheelchair. A federal employee at Dulles reportedly detained a Somali woman who was traveling with her two children for 20 hours without food. She was handcuffed (even when she went to the bathroom) and threatened with deportation.
This is happening right now in our country.
And since we’re talking about black history, it’s important to point out that three of the countries impacted by Donald Trump’s Muslim ban are in Africa – Libya, Sudan, & Somalia. I want to focus on Somalia for a minute, where millions of people have fled since 1991 when the government there collapsed. Almost ¾ of a million people live in refugee camps Kenya and Ethiopia, some who have been there for many years. What has been greatly underreported is that the number of refugees has been increasing sharply since 2011 due to worsening conditions, famine and terrorism. These people continue tolive in refugee camps, some of which have turned into semi-permanent slums due to the length and difficulty of the process they are forced to go through for resettlement.
Almost all of us believe that if we were put into a situation where a bold moral choice was necessary, that we would make the right choice. The truth is that so many of us don’t. We are so very used to just living our lives that it’s hard for us to stop and take a stand.
I think about how much less of the degradation that Pauli Murray speaks of that Black people would have had to endure if more of those facing these choices were unwilling to be bystanders.
I believe that non-compliance and resistance is like a muscle – you have to practice. Protests, rallies, demonstrations, direct actions, and civil disobedience are opportunities for us to exercise and grow our capacity to resist.
Yesterday at the HKonJ Moral March in Raleigh, tens of thousands of people gathered under the leadership of the NAACP to fight back and assert a positive vision for the world we want to see. At the Women’s March in January, and at many smaller rallies and demonstration, I see that same energy and vision. More and more people are deciding to take a stand and get involved. I believe that it’s these spaces that we can encourage more people to not just be bystanders and to actively intervene when they see situations of injustice.