"My eyes were opened"

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Last week, I spent four days in the Deep South. WRAG and Leadership Greater Washington sponsored a civil rights learning journey that spanned Memphis, Tennessee; several locations in the Mississippi Delta; Jackson, Mississippi; and Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, Alabama. Over the years, I have learned a lot about the Civil Rights Movement and I thought I understood. I didn’t. My version was sanitized. My knowledge was incomplete. I had focused on the structural side of racism. This trip revealed the power of personal hatred combined with government sanctions.

It wasn’t until I was immersed in the historical morass of this trip that I began to understand. I sat in the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, population 7,361, listening to two women in their sixties. They described how, in 1964, their parents were beaten by the Ku Klux Klan and left at night on the side of a dark, country road, seriously injured, but afraid to seek medical care. The Klan was looking for civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, chasing down church members to locate them. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were caught another night and killed. It wasn’t until I heard from Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter, whose efforts led to the arrest and conviction of one of their murderers 41 years later that I began to understand.

It wasn’t until the docent at Medgar Evers’s home in Jackson, Mississippi, described that he had his children sleep on mattresses on the floor, and asked the builder to place the windows higher than normal to lessen the possibility of bullets shot through the windows hitting them. Also at his request, his house was built with a side entrance, under a carport, rather than with a front door. He trained his children to always exit under the carport, on the passenger side of the car, closest to the entrance to their home to lessen the likelihood of being a target, a practice that he didn’t follow on the night he was shot and killed. I saw his blood stain on the driveway. Then, I began to understand.

It wasn’t until I went to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, saw where the bomb was placed right outside the church under a stairwell and learned that the police arrived immediately following the bomb blast that killed four young girls – too immediately, some thought, for them to be responding to a call. Again, I began to understand.

At the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, I saw a haunting photo of a black, imprisoned teenager in 1932 Georgia with his hands and feet bound, lying on the ground curled around an iron post. He looked like a lassoed animal going to slaughter. It was then that I remembered seeing the massive, privately-run, maximum-security prison as we drove through the Mississippi Delta the day before, on our way to the courthouse where Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted. Then everything truly fell into place. In this huge complex, with only slits for windows to let in some light, encircled with barbed wire, human beings were confined.  Not only did I recognize that African-Americans have formed the basis of our country’s economic advancement for centuries, I also recognized their treatment like animals – some would say worse than animals – for centuries. 1619, 1850, 1964, or 2018, the form that the oppression may take is different, but oppression it still is.  Raw violence has evolved, to some degree, into more subtle, nuanced actions, but racially-motivated violence still occurs.

African-American parents still have to try to protect their children, just like Medgar Evers did. While African-Americans can’t be legally turned away from a hospital, health care access and health status still vary considerably by race. And, we still wonder if the government, be that in the form of a police officer, a governor, or a US senator, represents the interests of all Americans.

The depth and insidiousness of the maltreatment of black people in America is far more entrenched than perhaps I understood or believed before I went on this learning journey.  The racism – no, let’s call it what it is – the terrorism that existed with slavery simply evolved into Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. It still evolves today, with the continued advancement of public policies that advantage and disadvantage based on race, and a political and cultural climate that is fostering a more visible white supremacist movement. This combination is toxic and powerful. We must be vigilant, active, and courageous advocates for racial equity and justice.