We’ve come a long way, says Khadijah Costley White, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
August 28, 1955, was the day that a black boy, visiting relatives in the South, was murdered. In the middle of the night, he was pulled, probably screaming, from his great-uncle’s house. His relatives, too, were likely shouting, begging the two white men to spare the child, praying that God would pull Emmett out of their death-grasp.
But, God didn’t answer that night, as those two men beat that boy mercilessly, pushed some object deep into his eye, shot him in the head, and anchored him to the bottom of the Tallahatchie River using a cotton gin and barbed wire. After a joke of a trial in front of an all-white jury, his killers were set free.
And so, 50 years ago today, a gay black anti-war activist and another black union organizer chose this day to organize a march, in honor of a murder that had galvanized a nation of black children to stand up and fight for their right to exist without terror and oppression. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom happened on this day because of Emmett Till.
But, just last month, America set free yet another killer of a black boy visiting relatives in a small southern town.
So forgive me if I don’t feel like celebrating today.
I wanted to write a brilliant essay on the march, a lengthy historical nod to the heroes of the civil rights movement, and a stirring reflection on what we have gained and lost in the last 50 years. But I can’t, because all that occurs to me on this gray morning is NO.
NO I do not want a President who stands on the precipice of invading yet another country filled with brown people, who gives orders for drone strikes that kill children and women indiscriminately, who lets stand a major divide in black/white unemployment, incarceration, housing, drug sentencing—I do not want this man standing on a stage and commemorating this day.
NO I do not want to stand idly by, watching a cadre of fancy men, donned in suits, driven in cars, and living in houses paid for by public money to tell us what we should be grateful for. I live in Philadelphia, just another city where the public schooling of black and brown children is fast-disappearing, less than 60 years after the Supreme Court knocked down “Separate, but Equal” as America’s education hallmark. Nearly 81% of the children affected by the school closings in Philly are black. In Pennsylvania, $42,000 a year is spent on the average prison inmate, but only $14, 000 (at most) is given to children in city schools. And, soon, if the trends in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and other places around the country continue, brick-and-mortar schools with classrooms and in-the-flesh teachers might be something that black kids only hear about from the white kids who attended them. In Philadelphia, “cyber-public” schools are pushing forward in a landscape filled with the shells of now-emptied school buildings. And prisons are eating up more and more of our kids, brothers, mothers, and dads.
So, all that I can think of is NO. As people of color are enduring fresh attacks on their rights to vote, schools, housing, and fair wages, as a brave trans-woman soldier begins her 35-year sentence in a dark solitary cell, as we all feel powerless while waiting for yet another senseless, futile war to begin, as I think of Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, and Tarika Wilson, and New York City’s mayor admitting that he might care about Stop-and-Frisk if he had black children, as immigrant families are being separated at an unprecedented rate, and as I imagine all of the ego, doublespeak, and unmitigated gall that it would take for any elected politician to take a stage and speak on this day, it’s hard to think beyond NO.
This anniversary, I know, aims to remind us of the kinds of incredible, world-shifting change that happens when people come together, strategize, and push back against systems and policies that take too much. But the realities of life in 2013 remind us of exactly what happens when we don’t.
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.