Protests at colleges, debates over who is being less tolerant, monuments being taken down, fear, anger, labeling, mean-tweets from the president and kneeling before football games.
This is where we are, but how did we get here?
A good place to start are these podcasts by Malcolm Gladwell:
They add perspective to exactly what it was like in the segregated south of the 1950’s and 60’s and help explain where so much of the current frustration is coming from. It is worse than what my middle school teachers taught me.
State Vs. Johnson is a haunting account of the trial of Nathaniel Johnson. Despite even the valiant attempts of civil rights legends Donald L. Hollowell and Vernon Jordan, Johnson was unable to escape the web of injustice spun against him.
The allegations were damning. In January of 1959, Johnson- a black man was accused of brutally assaulting and raping a white woman then threatening her life. There was forensic evidence, eye-witnesses, and worse of all, Nathaniel Johnson confessed.
The problem was it was all a lie, and anyone who truly cared to inspect the evidence and the witnesses would have found glaring proof of Johnson’s innocence and that his confession was most likely coerced.
What did Johnson do? He chose to roll over and get crushed beneath the scales of southern “justice”.
Here is Johnson in his own words when he addressed the court:
“I am not guilty of rape, and the statement I had is a true statement…But the shape of the courtroom to the community and citizens of this town-colored and white- I think I would bring a big confusion between them…and so I want to leave it in y’alls hands and trust you all to do what the Lord and justice of it…”
He was not interested in being responsible for the fallout- the tensions and violence that would ensue if the truth were uncovered. Why? Because Johnson had no power. He lacked the energy and representation to fight that kind of uphill battle. He was a black man in the south and he was painfully aware of where his place was. (Going back to 1936, there was actually a book put out called “The Traveler’s Green Book”, a directory that listed safe and unsafe locations for black people on the road)
Donald L. Hollowell and Vernon Jordan (Jordan was fresh out of law school), were sent in by the NAACP to win a stay of execution for Johnson.
They traveled to Brunswick, Georgia to meet the federal district Judge but all they got back was a cold reply: “justice delayed is justice denied”.
They next dashed to Atlanta to appeal to the Chief Justice of Georgia, the Attorney General and the Governor, but no one was interested in listening. By the time they reached the parole office, it was too late- Johnson had already been sent to the electric chair.
After learning of Johnson’s fate, Jordon remembers walking and contemplating the whole chain of events in sort of a daze. A man had just been sent to the electric chair, he and Hollowell had done everything in their power to stop it but came up short. Nathaniel Johnson was dead.
Vernon Jordon started to just sob uncontrollably, he was so sickened by the whole story that he lost control of himself and urinated all over his new suit. Here was Jordan, a big, strong man. He was tough, composed and almost unflappable, but so shaken to his core was he by the enormity of the forces against him and the toll they had taken that he soiled himself as he walked home crying that hot day in Atlanta.
Years later, Vernon Jordan ruminated: “nobody was interested in justice”.
The next episode, Mr. Hollowell Didn’t Like That picks things up from there. Back then, black lawyers were rare, black lawyers winning was rarer still. Donald L. Hollowell and a generation of activists turned the tide and started winning. They started winning with other black people looking on. Injustice was being exposed and people did not have to stand for it anymore.
At night people would recount what they saw Hollowell do in court that day, act it out and dream of perhaps doing it themselves one day. They had hope. There was little glamor for Hallowell but ever so slowly, the balance of power was shifting.
Some southern white folk did not like this. The status quo was being upended and this particular facet of the southern way of life was finally showing signs of erosion. The white response was to up their game, hit back, elect more hard-line representatives who could maintain their standards and bring the hurt when needed. They would put those black folk (not the word they would use by the way) back in their places.
Like the time Martin Luther King was arrested for his involvement in a sit-in and was locked in a paddy wagon with a German Sheppard for hours.
And much, much worse.
That is just some of the history of our country. How significant a part is it? That is up for debate really. I’m a just a Northerner and a grandchild of Jewish immigrants from places like Lithuania, Hungary and Poland – places that were not always so kind to my family through the centuries. It’s not for me to say how significant anything is.
This past year, protests, labels and libels have dotted our country and it seems like an ever-polarizing divide is taking hold. Our president is a very poor communicator and it seems like both sides have co-opted his words for their cause.
This Sunday, our football games were invaded by political statements made by teams that either kneeled or didn’t, locked arms or abstained from being present during our national anthem. Is it even the best forum and way to protest police violence? I’m actually not sure what the protest was.
Nobody knows what to say anymore, only that this guy – Alejandro Villanueva, could do whatever he wanted as a minority and a former Army Ranger.
Considering all the racial aftershocks and impropriety since the Civil War, the next question being asked today is if there is -or ever was- a place in the United States to honor the heroes of the Confederacy with statues and monuments? What about forts and towns named after Confederate Generals? What about Union Generals that committed war-crimes or were impeached?
I think there is a fear that taking these symbols down will merely be placating protestors from the far left, an act in their view that may only temporarily stave an inevitable labeling of all police officers, southerners, and white people as racist.
Will tearing down these landmarks erase what happened?
Perhaps it would be best to leave those statues in place and put and put up a new marker explaining the context of the monument.
The 99%invisable podcast Notes On An Imagined Plaque suggests just that. It favors a correct and scathing history of a monument dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest.
In another 99%invisable podcast, BackStory: Heyward Shepherd Memorial, this actually happened and neither side was happy.
Donald L. Hollowell and others carried the ball as far as they could, was it far enough? Nathaniel Johnson and scores and scores of men and women like him are dead. People are angry. They are tired of being targeted. Rioting and setting objects ablaze will demonstrate anger but in the end just causes chaos and destruction.
Are we making America great again? Was it ever great? Did it ever stop being great?
While we’re at it, I think it would be a good idea to stop and ask the Native Americans to chime in on how they really feel about America.
I don’t think we’ll ever agree, but amidst disagreement, why can’t there can be empathy rather than animosity?
If not empathy, can we at least settle for some tolerance?