Reflecting on Black History Month in February caused me to ponder violent attacks — past and present — and the veiled assaults on black folks and communities.
There are daily reports of violent incidents perpetrated on black people. The media have drawn attention to numerous killings, particularly of young men. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was killed by a policeman Nov. 22 as he was holding a toy gun. On Aug. 29, 17-year-old Lennon Lacey was found hanged in a predominantly white trailer park in Bladenboro, N.C. His death was ruled a suicide, but evidence points to a lynching.
These murders echo the past destruction of young black lives: 14-year-old Emmett Till murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman; 14-year-old George Stinney executed in South Carolina in 1944 for murders he did not commit. A judge overturned Stinney’s conviction on Dec. 19, 2014. Seventy years too late. Till’s assassins confessed after being exonerated.
In the wake of the proliferation of questionable deaths of blacks, many seek answers to the vicious attacks on black people and communities. Many have taken to the streets saying, “Black Lives Matter.”
The echoes of “Black Lives Matter” have been heard throughout African-American history. It began with the holocaust of slavery, where millions were lost in the transport from Africa to America, and continued with resistance to African-Americans gaining freedom and equality.
Lives were lost, identities stolen and families divided by a cruel and unjust system. Years of oppression under Jim Crow in the South and racial oppression in the North affirmed that black lives really didn’t matter.
I witnessed my father fight the Ku Klux Klan for his right to keep his own money. I remember those days, and they weren’t pretty. Only when black folks, joined by like-minded allies, fought to gain their rightful place in society did some semblance of justice prevail.
Black lives have mattered.
Now we are faced with an onslaught of potential annihilation. From violent attacks to legal maneuvering, African-Americans are being dispossessed.
On Feb. 1, the KKK observed Black History month by spray painting “Happy N*gger Month” on a rock at South Point High School in Rock Hill, S.C. Like-minded attitudes have been observed in various places across the U.S.
Many African-Americans hear the message, “We love you in basketball and football. Otherwise, you are expendable.”
Black lives matter.
Many folks, including Christians, ask, “What does this mean? Don’t all lives matter?”
Yes, all lives matter. But the lives of people who are viewed as expendable must be given priority.
We must take steps to assure that the assault on black lives ends. It has been said that those who cannot learn from history are destined to repeat it. History is repeating itself.
Where do we begin? By learning about black oppression. And then joining the efforts to eliminate the assaults on black lives and communities. When we do this, we can truly say that “Black Lives Matter.”
Do black lives matter to you? I hope they do.
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a regional pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.