The sting of the N-word and a perfect gentleman

The late Pauline Knight Ofosu took part in the Nashville Student Movement and the Freedom Rides in 1960 and 1961.

The late Pauline Knight Ofosu took part in the Nashville Student Movement and the Freedom Rides in 1960 and 1961.

A man goes into a church and shoots nine people while they are studying the word of God. Young black men are being murdered for playing their music too loud or walking home from the store with a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.

The deaths of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin, teenagers killed in Florida by white men who weren’t comfortable in their presence, upset me to no end. That could have been my grandson or my teenage nephews. The thought of them being targeted simply because of their skin color makes me very angry.

The Charleston murders have shaken our collective core. How could a 21-year-old man hate people he didn’t know? How could his parents, who had to know he was disturbed, purchase a .45 caliber handgun for him as a birthday present? When will this country get serious about addressing mental illness? When will people of color no longer be the targets of racists?

On Sunday, our pastor spoke about the kind of hate that breeds prejudice and racism. Children aren’t born with hate in their hearts, it is a learned behavior.

While running some errands in Kennesaw, GA after church, I attempted to turn into a shopping center but held up traffic for a few seconds because I was in the wrong lane.  The kid behind me, who looked to be in his late teens or early 20s, was furious.   “You f…ing nigger!” he yelled while pulling around me.

Being addressed in that way stung me, but it wasn’t about to ruin my day. My Dad has cancer and my thoughts are on him and the rest of my family.

My first encounter with the “n-word” was much more traumatic because I didn’t understand what the word meant. I did know by the way my 5-year-old classmates said it that it wasn’t a term of endearment!  Me and another black girl were the only people of color at this catholic school in Winchester, KY. Shortly thereafter, my parents moved our family to Lexington, where the schools were integrated and there were never any problems of that sort.

One of the scariest times I was called a nigger was in the parking lot of a Stein Mart in Lexington. I was in my late 20s and must have been walking too slowly across the parking lot while crossing in front of a man in a big truck.  “Nigger bitch,” he proclaimed loudly. We were 20 feet away from each other and I was terrified. In this instance, and the one earlier this week, I was happy the men didn’t have guns because they may have shot me.  All because they were angry and I happened to be the wrong skin color.

Let that marinade for a minute. How ridiculous to hate someone you don’t know simply because they appear different from you.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looked forward to the day when his children would be judged by their character, rather than their skin color.

I have to ask, are we there yet?

And speaking of character, the day after my encounter with that misguided young thug in Kennesaw, I had an encounter with an elderly white man. I left my jacket on the back of my chair in a restaurant and he bolted out into the parking lot to give it to me.

“You left your jacket,” he said, holding it up for me to put my arms in it. “I just didn’t want you to miss it later.”

It was a great reminder that there are good and bad people in every race. Let’s all start by being kinder to one another.

Words matter — especially one with the history of the n-word.  But we can choose to give it power or we can elect to take away its power by ignoring it.

A few years ago, I interviewed the late Pauline Knight Ofosu, a 1961 Freedom Rider who took part in the Nashville Student Movement a year earlier. She and other protestors were trained in the way of Muhatma Ghandi.

While protesting outside a movie theater, a white man spit in her face. Her reaction was to ask him for a hankie to wipe his spit off her.  He was completely disarmed – – so much so that he walked away without saying another word.

Now how’s that for taking away his power?

Pauline Knight in 1961. She and other Freedom Riders were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi for “breach of the peace.” pauline

It’s winter in Baltimore: “Makes me wanna holler…”

I can’t wrap my head around what is happening in Baltimore.

On the day of Freddie Gray’s homegoing — and despite his family’s pleas for peace — some people turned a protest into burning and looting businesses. These people set fire to a structure that, when finished, would have provided affordable housing to 60 senior citizens.

Misguided people took what started as a protest about 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death in police custody and turned it into an opportunity to destroy property, steal and attack the police.  Come on people, do you really think this will help anyone? Do you lack the discipline and self-control needed to refrain from making a bad situation worse?

If you think these acts will assist in unraveling the mystery of Freddie Gray’s death, you are delusional. Why not channel your anger and frustration into something positive, like rebuilding that senior center? There is no excuse for this nonsense.  Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that riots are the language of the unheard. If that’s true, then the jobless, the under-educated and the hopeless need a new vocabulary. When Dr. King and his associates protested, they were respectful, strategic and most importantly non-violent.

Rioting, to my knowledge, has never worked.  The First Amendment, which guarantees free speech and the right to assemble, does not cover arson and looting. Those are crimes that will land you in jail. Further, these acts will only serve to distract from getting to the bottom of what happened to Freddie Gray on April 12.

Gray’s death needs to be investigated and the cause of his death should be resolved truthfully. Let’s pray that fact won’t get lost in the streets of Baltimore.

Thankfully, God always has a ram in the bush, as was the case in Ferguson, Mo. after the death of Michael Brown.  The Baltimore ministers, Nation of Islam members, Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers and others who are helping to restore calm are standing in a dangerous gap.  Some of these men and women live in the community and are aware of its problems and what it will take to fix them.

One such man is Pastor Donte’ Hickman of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore. In an interview with CNN last night Pastor Hickman said the burning of the church’s senior center caused him to hit the reset button.  “We were seeking to restore people while we bought property,” he said of the building project.

“I see revival…..I see us now coming back bigger and better than before,” he said. “I am a man of faith. Every negative is just our opportunity to fight back with another positive.”

Finally, a voice of reason in a sea of despair.

And speaking of boldness, how about the mother who saw her teenage son on TV taking part in the riots? She went down to the scene, slapped him across his head and pulled him out of the crowd before the police had a chance to put her child in jail. I could see my mother doing that. In fact, one time she did something similar — but that’s another blog for a different day.

That’s what’s missing in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in New York and all cities where unrest has taken hold: adults who care enough to snatch some kids up and put them on the right path before the next riot begins.

Rev. C.T. Vivian…what a way to start the day!

revct

When it comes to brilliance and boldness, Rev. C.T. Vivian has few peers. I could listen to the man drop knowledge all day long. And I love the way he refers to everyone as “my brother” and “my sister.”

Thursday, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Rev. Vivian chatting it up with Ryan Cameron and the rest of the V-103 morning crew. Rev. Vivian was one of the key figures in the Nashville Student Movement, the 1961 Freedom Rides and many other protests in the 1960s. He was holding court on the radio as only he can. Someone asked him about the use of the N-word, and I liked what he had to say. People will stop using it when we when are completely free, he said. By his estimation, we’re about half way there. The journey, he said, is about fulfilling our humanity; a phrase I’ve heard him use before.

I wish there was a way to expose every young person to Rev. Vivian. I’ve got to believe they’d be inspired by his passion and motivated by the fact that at 89 years young he is still going hard. His current job is national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the nation’s oldest Civil Rights organizations. He and Dr. Bernard LaFayette, the SCLC’s chairman of the board, worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 60s to desegregate public facilities and to push for major civil rights legislation. Later, they held voter registration campaigns in some of the most segregated cities in the south.

Last month, I spent a few hours with Rev. Vivian and Dr. LaFayette at Morehouse College in a training session on nonviolent social change. It was a Friday night and only a few student leaders at the Atlanta University Center decided to show up. What a missed opportunity! Whenever I’m around Rev. Vivian, I like to be quiet and listen. Each time we talk, I learn something new. At this gathering, he talked about how Malcolm X was sent to meet with Ku Klux Klan members. Nation of Islam leaders wanted the Klan’s help in obtaining land to create a separate nation for black Muslims. Both groups believed in the separation of the races but why in the world would any black organization or religious group want to join forces with the Klan, a group whose members terrorized and murdered black folks?

Rev. Vivian is living, breathing history. Next month, the longtime Atlanta resident will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor a president can bestow. Rev. Vivian — who punctuates every other sentence with “Right?” — told us President Barack Obama is well read when it comes to the strategies and tactics used during the Civil Rights Movement. Obama asked Vivian how they were able to succeed with the non violent protests. The key, said Rev. Vivian, is believing in something so passionately you are willing to die for it.

Back in 1965, in Selma, Ala. Rev. Vivian was punched in the face by the town’s sheriff when he tried to register black voters. But a bloody face didn’t stop the him from continuing to challenge the sheriff.

When a celebration was being planned in Jackson, Miss. in 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Rev. Vivian told me he planned to boycott the event because of then-Gov. Haley Barbour’s racial politics. Furthermore, he said, he didn’t want to be used by Mississippi officials intent on showing how far they’d come since the days they jailed hundreds of Freedom Riders in a state prison for “Breach of the Peace.”

I’m sure Rev. Vivian will have a few choice words for the Washington crowd when he receives the Presidential Medal next month. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say.

“Today We March”

My friend Rosemary posted this on her Facebook page yesterday. The three words reminded me of something the Rev. Dr. Bernice King said her mother, Coretta Scott King, was fond of saying.  Freedom has to be won anew by every generation.

It’s a powerful thought to ponder in a year where we’ve seen a nagging truth on display in a Florida courtroom in the trial of George Zimmerman. In the end, a jury decided Zimmerman’s right to use his gun in self-defense outweighed Trayvon Martin’s right to walk home from a store in his father’s gated community.  In the same month, a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was repealed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The parallels of 1963 and 2013 are uncanny. Perhaps its why  I can’t sleep this morning. I am in Washington, waiting for the march to commence.  In 1963, leaders called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In 2013, the March on Washington is still about jobs and equality. It is also about education.

To be sure, personal responsibility plays a huge role in the outcome of one’s life.  Every man, woman and child must assume that responsibility for their own future.   But when drugs and violence continue to flood our communities, that can’t happen for everyone. When young black men in prison outnumber those in college, that absolutely cannot happen for all people. When efforts to level a playing field that has been woefully lopsided for generations are repealed or marginalized, all people will not realize freedom.

In 2013,  Jim Crow exists in the form of mandatory sentencing laws that result in longer sentences for black men. Jim Crow plays out in attitudes that say a child can’t learn because of the circumstances he or she is born into.

Today, the National Mall will once again be filled with black and white people who believe Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech may one day be reality.  In it, Dr. King envisioned a world where his four children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Imagine a day when the George Zimmermans of the world would stop and offer the Trayvon Martins of the world an act of good will.  “Hey young man,” George might say. “Can I give you a ride home so you can get out of this rain?”  “Yes Sir,” Trayvon might say in return.  “My father lives right down the block. I appreciate your kindness.”

And since we are dreaming, let’s imagine George getting to know Trayvon and realizing they have more in common than either of them realizes.  Perhaps George will see Trayvon as a human being with loving parents and dreams for his future. A college degree. A wife and children. Grandchildren. A long and happy life.

That’s what Dr. King meant when he said his dream was deeply rooted in the American dream.

So today, 50 years later, we march. For jobs. For freedom. For judgement based on character rather than skin color.

“Can we all get along?”

detroit kids

This 1973 photograph gives me hope. In fact, children have always been our best hope to turn the tide of anger and division resulting from years of negative acts and thoughts about people who happen to be different from us.
The innocence conveyed in this photograph is a powerful reminder that prejudice is a learned behavior. No one is born with hate in their hearts. A child’s first teachers are parents. They determine their child’s attitudes until they are old enough to form their own opinions.

I first experienced prejudice at the age of 5, when children at the Catholic school I attended hurled the N-word in my direction on a daily basis. I didn’t even know what the word meant, but I knew by the looks on their faces and the way they spit out the word that it wasn’t good.

An 81-year-old woman I met recently put the hurt of the N-word in context for me. If someone doesn’t call me by name, she explained, it’s as if I am invisible or don’t exist.
I’d never thought of it that way. For people of her generation, it will never be okay for anyone to use that word.
Back in 1973, Joseph Crachiola was a photographer for the Macomb (Mich.) Daily. As he was driving around Mount Clemens, a suburb of Detroit, he saw these children playing together in an alley without a care in the world, according to an article on npr.org.

In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, Crachiola reposted the photograph on his Facebook page. “For me, it still stands as one of my most meaningful pictures. It makes me wonder… At what point do we begin to mistrust one another?,” he wrote. “When do we begin to judge one another based on gender or race? I have always wondered what happened to these children. I wonder if they are still friends.”

We’ve been talking about race relations quite a bit lately. I’d like to see us spend more time talking about how we get past the hurt and resentment that has dogged our great country for years.

For me, the answer is simple. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Respect and honor people’s differences. Don’t prejudge an entire race of people based on the actions of a few. Let go of the past and move forward together.

It’s time, ya’ll. It’s time.

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1964 speech in St. Louis.

“Can we all get along?” Rodney King, a Los Angeles construction worker whose 1991 beating by the police was captured on videotape. The officers struck King more than 50 times with their batons after a traffic stop. The officers’ acquittal in 1992 sparked three days of rioting. Fifty-five people were killed and 2,000 were injured. King said these words at a press conference during the riots.