“The whole race question seems to have reached a sort of impasse, a blind alley, of which no one could see the outlet. The Black has become a target at which anyone might try a shot.”
These words are starkly contemporary, befitting the times in which we live. But they come from a 1901 book written by Black author Charles Chesnutt, just five years after Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of racial segregation. His book, The Marrow of Tradition, is about a particularly virulent community spread of racism. It depicts an 1898 white supremacist uprising in Wilmington, N.C., a majority Black city, and the riot that ensued. The violent assaults on unarmed Black men culminated in a militarized campaign that restored power to white Democrats through voter suppression.
The riot was triggered by an editorial written by Alexander Manly (the Black owner of the Wilmington Record) in August 1898. In it, he vehemently protested a call for lynching made in a speech by Rebecca Latimer Felton (who would go on to become the first female U.S. senator). “When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin,” she declared, “nor justice in the courthouse to promptly punish crime … Then I say lynch, a thousand times a week …”
We are fortunate to live in better times today. And yet, Congress is still unable to amass the votes needed to pass an anti-lynching law, and people of color continue to be slaughtered and denied opportunities. The past still lingers with us.
I’m a Black woman, born in the 1960s. I sailed through the post-MLK and JFK 1970s with an Afro pick in my pocket and an opinion on every subject. I still do. I have never experienced the horror of a family member’s life violently cut short. But I have felt visceral fear. My memories include seeing the “Go Back to Africa” tickets that my father, the late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, received when we became the first Black people to move into a white Philadelphia suburb. It includes watching as walkie talkie toting bodyguards patrolled our backyard to keep us safe after my father publicly denounced the brutal, racist policies of Philadelphia police chief Frank Rizzo.
My father spent his life speaking up against injustice and working to improve the lives of poor people who had been denied opportunities and justice. If he were still with us, he would enthusiastically support today’s protests for reform and be excited by the participation of marchers drawn from all ethnicities, Black, brown, and white.
But his concern, born out of long experience, would be that these robust protests may fail to deliver the long-term, systemic change we all yearn for. Not lip service change, but the kind of transformational change that drives home — just as that cop’s knee drove George Floyd home — the need to deal, once and for all, with the underlying causes of the inequities that date back to the time of Charles Chesnutt and before. Police reform is vital, but so is tackling inferior education, substandard health care, income disparities, and de facto segregation suffered by so many people of color.
As my father said so presciently 45 years ago, the fate of all Americans rides upon our mutual success in overcoming present problems, and these problems require a total commitment that looks down the road to total solutions. I believe we have at last reached the moment when that total commitment is in sight, and that Blacks and whites will have more than token conversations among themselves or on TV panel shows.
Tackling inequities such as police brutality, education, and health care will not be easy. The roots of these inequities are as deep as stately Southern magnolia trees. But we need to tear down those ancient trees and kneel together to plant new seeds.
Julie Sullivan is the daughter of civil rights leader, the late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan. She is a clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University, where she teaches culture and ethics.