Thursday, December 04, 2014

Ferguson and the Legacy of Bombingham

The last year or so I have watched incidents of racially-based police brutality and violence and have not added my own voice and my own perspective. The reason for this is simple. I'm weary of conflicts predicated on black versus white. Ferguson and the others to come may be novel concepts to much of America, but to me, it's only the beginning of another round of hostilities.

I won't stand in the way of progress, nor will I criticize those who march and take active roles addressing senseless violence against black men. You might say I have no heart for the fighting, because the events of most of my life have been an exasperating series of Fergusons or Trayvon Martins. I've felt unduly persecuted by residents of the rest of the country, a chip on my shoulder, and have noted with a kind of previously secret righteousness that none of these offenses and abuses have occurred in the Deep South.

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that has greatly rehabilitated its image in fifty years, but only to an extent. The city's tragic history of race relations needs no further mention. Suffice it to say that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which we remember to the current day, was only one of fifty in a twenty-year stretch.

In the aftermath, politicians both black and white manipulated public sentiment in Pavlovian fashion, waving the bloody shirt in front of two distinct communities with pronounced biases and mistrust of the other. Resentment is what exists now, the sort of resentment that will only prevent subsequent healing and ensure that reforms proceed at a snail's pace.

The city, like so many others, re-segregated following Civil Rights. White wealth has enriched many communities while the city of Birmingham, now majority African-American, continues to decline. While there has been a mild Renaissance in recent years, revitalizing Birmingham will take time and money, both in copious quantity.

Whites are weary of the same refrain, the same grainy black and white videos queued up again. In my own life, I admit that I've heard a few offensive epithets thrown around, but I've mostly encountered people who have learned their lesson in the most painful way possible.

But achievement aside, learning a lesson does not imply that subsequent growth and active discourse is forthcoming. People sometimes freeze in their tracks, believing themselves to be persecuted and forever the focal point of the blame. I am sure this is a view held by many whites to this day. We will only invoke a racist past as much as absolutely necessary, burying as many painful truths as possible.

The Modern Sign Company was a sign shop owned by Merle Snow and located at the corner of 3rd Avenue North and 16th Street North in Birmingham. It is only a few blocks away from the 16th Street Baptist Church and was a haven of violent extremists, namely the Ku Klux Klan. One will find no plaque present there, nor busloads of tourists commemorating a historical event, though it is most assuredly a significant location to be preserved for posterity.
During the 1950's and 60's the shop produced countless Confederate flags which were a popular symbol of resistance to Federal court rulings in favor of racial integration. Snow allowed members of the Ku Klux Klan and the National States' Rights Party to use the shop's equipment at cost to produce picket signs, bumper stickers and placards. The shop became a meeting place and was sometimes used to establish alibis for Klan operatives suspected of violent crimes. Investigators suspect that the bomb used in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church two blocks away on September 15, 1963 was assembled at the shop.
In 1974, the black comedian Richard Pryor released a Grammy-winning comedy album entitled That Nigger's Crazy. Forty years later, we've been dealing with the same problem.
Cops put a hurtin’ on your ass, man. You know, they really degrade you. White folks don’t believe that shit, they don’t believe cops degrade. 'Ah, come on, those beatings, those people are resisting arrest. I'm tired of this harassment of police officers.’ That’s 'cause the police live in your neighborhood, see, and you be knowin' 'em as Officer Timpson.
’Hello, Officer Timpson, going bowling tonight? Yes, nice new Pinto you have.' Niggers don’t know them like that. See, white folks get a ticket, they pull over, 'Hey, Officer, yes, glad to be of help, cheerio!'
A nigger got to be talkin’ 'bout, ’I am reaching into my pocket for my license! ’Cause I don't wanna be no motherfucking accident!’ Police degrade. I don’t know, you know, it’s — often you wonder why a nigger don’t go completely mad. No, you do.
You get your shit together, you work all week, right? And then you get dressed and you make — maybe say you can’t make $125 a week, you get $80, if you’re lucky. Right? And you go out, get clean and be driving with this old lady going out to a club, and the police pull over.
'Get out of the car! There was a robbery! A nigger looked just like you! Put your hands up, take your pants down, spread your cheeks!' Now, what nigger feel like having fun after that? ’Let’s just go home, baby.’ You go home and beat your kids and shit. You goin’ take that shit out on somebody.
How we address this issue as a nation is absolutely crucial. Some would brush it under the rug, their own way of managing bad news. Others would proceed forward, but cautiously and without addressing the complete problem. Our fault as Americans was believing that past actions were sufficient and the problem had been solved. Hurricane Katrina revealed the persistence and prevalence of black poverty. Ferguson revealed the racism of the criminal justice system and officers of the supposed peace.

We cannot play duck and cover with the truth. I've looked at well-meaning protesters on television and in person and have felt a deep sadness that they are missing the full picture. We are not all Trayvon Martin, which is the entire point. White allies need to refocus. They are not playing with a full deck and until they are, there simply won't be any real resolution.

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