Boynton Beach Campus Finalist and Be the Change Scholarship Recipient
Consider a household with a multi-generation of people that have lived through social injustices and civil rights movements. A matriarch, who was born and lived through the segregated Jim Crow Laws of the South. Men, who have marched with or watched the powerful speeches of Dr. King and helped to usher in a movement of Black Power. A generation that watched on live television a recorded video of the brutal beating of an African American citizen at the hands of police officers. A millennial generation in which the images of police brutality have become such a norm in mainstream America that its citizens have become numb to seeing it played out on television. Then there’s a generation who has yet to witness and understand the reality into which she was born. This is the household I live in and those people.... are my family.
I live within a family of five generations of African Americans, all of whom have experienced their own personal injustices in different eras of American history. My grandmother was born in the 1920s in a small northern Florida city called, Live Oak. Live Oak is southern and rural to its core, even today. She is literally living history. She always tells stories of her youth with vivid clarity. One story, for instance, she tells of her first boyfriend, Willie James. Willie James worked for a “Five and Dime” store and used to sing while he worked. The owner’s daughter would hear him singing and one day asked him to write the lyrics down for her. So, he did. When her father heard her singing, he asked her where she got it from, and she of course replied, “Willie James at the store”. The owner was a member of the Klan, so he and his Klansmen went to Willie’s house, dragged him and his father out of their home, took them to their “Special Lynching Place”, castrated, and shot him. All while forcing his father to watch. To worsen the matter, during his funeral the sheriff came into the church and told his parents to “hurry up and put that “N-Word” in the ground. The sheriff then gave his parents 24 hours to pack up and leave the city. While horrific as it is to hear that story, imagine having to live it. She has so many stories of growing up south of the Mason-Dixon Line, that she could write a book.
The next generation is that of my father and uncles. Their stories are centered during a time when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak. A time when leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were strong voices of the black community. Their stories are of boycotts, marches, and sit-ins and the fight for the social injustices has been told for as far back as I can remember. For them, growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, some 20-30 years after Grandma, their conditions were still the same. One of my father’s stories is of his brother being in high school in the early ’70s. My father was about 12 years old and went with his older brother to the library. He tells of them having to go to the library east of the tracks, which was in the white area of town. During this time, the integration of public schools was new, and most parts of the city were still very segregated. The black schools and libraries were not allotted the same access to books and resources so his brother chose to go to the “white library”. At this point, it’s the 70’s so it wasn’t frowned upon. By the time the library was closing, his brother went to check out the book. The librarian, a white woman, told him that he wasn’t allowed to check it out. His brother told her he needed it for a school assignment but she still refused. An older white lady in line behind them became upset that the librarian wouldn’t allow them to check out the book. She argued with the librarian on how absurd that was and decided to check the book out for him. His brother was moved by her generosity and promised her he would return the book as soon as he completed his assignment.
During this period of the integration of schools, my uncle Emmanuel was a part of the first class to be integrated at his high school. Having black students bussed into their schools angered the white students. He tells of fights and riots lasting for more than 3 weeks. They were yelled at and called all sorts of derogatory names. He was also on the football team and while being the best player on the team remembers being cheated out of being MVP. Not because he wasn’t good, but because he wasn’t the right color.
One of the most telling stories is one from my uncle Wilbert. Uncle Wilbert grew up and went to high school in Trenton, NJ. He tells of stories from his time with the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), a Civil Rights Organization which was founded by Dr. King and other black leaders of the Civil Rights movement. He was a senior in high school when Dr. King was murdered. The day after Dr. King’s murder, Uncle Wilbert and other members of his school’s SCLC came together to have the school closed for the days after Dr. King’s death. Their group was willing to do whatever needed to be done to make it happen, but they were determined about their efforts being non-violent out of respect for Dr. King. They were able to set up a meeting with the school superintendent and he decided to allow the schools to close in recognition of Dr. King. After Dr. King’s death, the SCLC organized another March on Washington. As with the first march, thousands of people from all over the US marched to Washington DC. Uncle Wilbert was a Marshall in his area for the March. The Marshall’s helped to organize in their areas and keep order during the march and assist in setting up the shanty towns where they would stay once they entered DC. They marched from Trenton, NJ, and met up with groups from Philadelphia, and Boston to continue into DC. Other groups came from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and other areas and they all met in DC. Uncle Wilbert speaks of all that he learned from being a part of that history. How it shaped who he is and even how he views the social injustices of today. He speaks of the leadership needed now to heal a country that is deeply rooted in the evils of true racism.
The third generation of members of my family is those of my older cousins. They grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and as sad as it is to say, also had to deal with the social injustices of African Americans. This era ushered in the “Age of Technology” and with it came more laws that were subtle in its racism. These laws were those such as the War on Drugs, Stop and Frisk, Over-Policing of African American neighborhoods, and many other “laws” put in place to continue the oppression of black people. I call these laws hidden racism. With hidden racism, the oppressor uses subtle ways of delivering hatred. Police brutality is one of them. An officer’s ability to use their authority to assert harm on an individual is no different from the Klansmen kidnapping Willie James. Except now, they can do it legally. This has always been a known problem in the black community, but America was finally able to witness it through technology and the video camera during the beating of Rodney King in 1991. For the first time, America saw the beating of a black man as it played out on video. But, even with video, the officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing and able to hold no responsibility for their actions. My cousins not only witnessed these images on television but lived them in our neighborhoods.
Then there’s my era, the Millennial generation, the generation of social media. By now, we’ve seen police brutality not only in our neighborhoods, or have heard it from our relatives, but it’s a norm on social media and news feeds around the world. A live and in color public lynching, with the police officers acting as judge and jury instead of protecting and serving the community. It’s shown so much that it’s hard to keep up with the names in hashtags. With the publicly televised murder of George Floyd, and the continual deaths of black men and women being viewed from cell phone videos daily, it leaves this generation asking, how can we win?
The latter generation in my household is that of my child. My daughter, who is 2 years old and cares more about Peppa Pig than social hardships. She’s not old enough to understand the America into which she has been born into. Not old enough to understand that the same inequalities that her great-grandmother’s era fought for have still not been achieved some 70-80 years later. I want her to be able to live Dr. King’s dream of only being judged “not by the color of her skin but by the content of her character”. One of my most important commitments to change will be in raising her to know, see, and judge people by that. I’m committed to showing her how to be a solution to the problem of racism and not the cause. As a student of nursing, I’m committed to helping to bring awareness to the issues of African Americans surrounding health care, especially for black pregnant women. Black women have a 3 to 4 times higher mortality rate than white women. I’m committed as a nursing student to not only become a part of the change but continue to bring awareness to it.
The present-day racism isn’t as blatant as Grandma’s era of Jim Crow Laws, but the motives are the same. The hatred is the same. The system is the same. What this present generation has shown America is that it plans to be on the right side of history. The one common denominator seen in these past few weeks of protest for equality to all the generations of my family is that the fight for equality by people has multiplied in number. People of all ethnicities and races have joined the fight together. And, thanks to the World Wide Web and national and international news stream ability, the world is watching, and the world is participating in the cause. Many cultures are now coming together and fighting for America’s “Justice for All”.