On Sunday, March 7, 1965, nearly six hundred marchers assembled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to protest the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young, unarmed black man who was an activist for African-American voting rights. In the tragedy that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” the nonviolent demonstrators were sprayed with tear gas and beaten with billy clubs by Alabama State Troopers as they fought to march across the bridge. The events of “Bloody Sunday” sparked national outrage, with protesters pouring into Selma from around the country for further demonstrations; they also prompted political action, ultimately leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The tragedy was one of the most important events of the civil rights movement; the heroic acts by the protesters on Bloody Sunday are a vital part of the long story of civil rights in America.
But the story of civil rights in America is not over. Last month, thousands of people gathered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedies in Selma. Led by President Barack Obama and Congressman John Lewis, who was beaten on the bridge on Bloody Sunday, the demonstrators walked across the bridge, symbolically completing the march from fifty years ago. But despite the air of hope and optimism, the event was cast against a backdrop of desperation. Two years ago, a Supreme Court decision dismantled a key aspect of the Voting Rights Act, the very legislation that resulted from the protests in Selma. And in the past year, America saw the murders of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, casting a stark reminder to the needless deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson and countless other African-American lives. Indeed, it seems the struggle for racial equality is as much a part of the present as it is a part of our past.
A few years ago, the underlying and often-ignored racial tensions in America were reawakened when Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager, was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator who thought Martin “looked suspicious.” Personally, following the case of Trayvon Martin was the early spark to my convictions about racial equality and social justice. Prior to Martin’s death, my concept of America was only what I had been taught in history books; I knew that racial discrimination had been a part of our nation’s past, but was ignorant of it’s lasting impact. But through absorbing the nation-wide discussions stemming from Trayvon’s death, I became increasingly aware of the systemic racism that has permeated American society and the cultural implications it has caused. Racism, I realized, is not merely buried in history books – it is, sadly, an integral aspect of modern society.
Some, however, refuse to acknowledge this reality, and continue to ignore our society’s inherent racial bias while only admonishing those who call for change. When millions of people demonstrated in cities across the country in protest of the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, carrying signs declaring “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner before he was choked to death by an NYPD officer, they were met with criticism for being, as Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly labeled them, “racial agitators” who “set back race relations in America years” with their “tactics of violence.” Similarly, when the Department of Justice released a scathing report showing a horrific pattern of racial bias within the Ferguson police department, including blatantly racist emails and evidence that police officers arrested African-Americans only to raise revenue, the Lieutenant Governor of Missouri pointed his finger back at the Justice Department, saying “there is more racism in the Justice Department” than anywhere in the St. Louis area; “it is the left,” he says, “[Attorney General] Eric Holder and the Obama-left and their minions who are obsessed with race. The rest of us are moving on beyond it.”
But the painful truth is that the institution of racism exists today in much the same way that it did in the 1960’s. Racism exists in the city blocks where helpless people are detained and victimized by crime and gun violence with no option of escape. Racism exists in our nation’s prison system, where most of the inmates are minority citizens. And perhaps most painfully, racism exists in the messages sent to minority children through the injustices in our society that there will be more barriers to their success than they can overcome, that their hopes and dreams are invalid, their futures held hostage by the color of their skin. Racism, systemic racism, is alive and well in America, but in the post-racial paradox in which we live, many refuse to see it.
So when an African-American student at the University of Virginia is thrown against the pavement by the police, it must be viewed in the context of a larger cultural problem of race relations; when a University of Oklahoma fraternity is caught on video chanting a racist cheer, it must be seen not merely as an isolated incident, but rather as a reflection of the cloud of racism that hangs above our nation. In today’s society, we seem to have a tendency to pinpoint racism as if it exists only in specific places and the minds of certain people. Instead, if we are to truly make progress, we must accept that racism is a prevalent problem in our nation, an issue that is deeply rooted in our society.
Before we, as a nation, blindly accept that we have made progress since the days of Jim Crow and complacently claim to live in a post-racial society, we must deeply analyze the present state of race in America. When we do, we will see that the progress we speak of exists only in our minds as a source of comfort and innocence. To accept this false reality as fact is an injustice to the victims of our innocence, a truly hypocritical action against our national doctrine of liberty and justice for all.
After all, today’s similarities to our nation’s past seem more pronounced than the differences we speak of. In 1955, Emmett Till, an African-American teenager, was beaten, shot, and drowned with a cotton gin fan tied to his neck because he allegedly “threatened” a white woman. At his funeral, his mother, Mamie Till, issued a call for change by leaving her son’s casket open, exposing the deformities caused by his murder. But in the past few years, we’ve seen the murderers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner slip through the cracks of the court system, and with each acquittal, Mamie Till’s hope for change slipped further and further into the foggy abyss of the forgotten past.
Progress? Sadly, it seems not.