Let’s talk about the ancient history of racism

Racism is ancient history if you define ancient as a clear and present enemy in our world. We learn about the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement in school as definite moments; there is talk about the pushback, but overall they are sweet victories for equality.

As a white kid in a 99.9% white area, this is where it ends. We’re told we’re all equal now and shown black and white photos of a time long ago when we weren’t. We’re encouraged because we live in a better world where color doesn’t matter. We all have the same opportunities. It’s a beautiful thing.

Except this isn’t true. Acting like all of this happened in the long ago past is damaging to our progress today.

Some important dates: The Emancipation Proclamation was signed September 22, 1862 and became official January 1, 1863. The Civil War officially ended May 13, 1865. It took until June 19, 1865 for the message to reach everyone.

This all happened 155-158 years ago. While it was more than a century ago, the first African slaves arrived to the colonies in 1619. That’s an enslavement period of 246 years, nearly a century longer than freedom.

Based on that, we as people living in 2020 are not as far removed from slavery as we think. Especially when you consider the North winning the war didn’t solve everything for the African Americans.

There was the Reconstruction period that lasted 12 years, but then it ended and the Jim Crow era began in 1877 and ended in 1968. The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, so there were four years where freedom was granted and yet some states still enforced segregation and other racist laws.

Essentially, we’ve only been “equal” for 56 years. That is not that long ago. My parents are 58 and 56, so it is technically in their lifetime. But let’s step away from the timeline to a specific moment.

The 16th Street Church Bombing in Birmingham happened 57 years ago today, September 15. Now a bombing in Birmingham at that time wasn’t super noteworthy given the presence and enthusiasm of the KKK, but this one stands out.

On a Sunday morning, a group of white supremacists planted 19 sticks of dynamite on the east side of the church. Bomb threats were received, but again, these weren’t uncommon at the time so they were ignored.

Carolyn Maull was 14 and had just left five of her friends in the women’s bathroom when she went to deliver the Sunday school reports as they changed into their choir robes. She heard the phone ring in the office and went to pick it up. A voice responded to her greeting with “three minutes.”

Less than a minute later, the dynamite exploded.

Four of her five friends in the bathroom were killed in the explosion. The fifth was seriously wounded and spent two months in the hospital. Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Carol Denise McNair (11) lost their lives in a senseless act of hate.

The 16th Street Church was an active part of the Civil Rights Movement, and a few months prior to the bombing, a children’s march was organized there. Carolyn Maull had participated and been sprayed by a firehose that ripped hair out of her head.

People hated the idea of integration and equality so much that they turned firehoses on children and bombed a busy church on a Sunday morning.

This happened 57 years ago. That is not ancient history.

The point of sharing this isn’t to make people feel bad and get stuck in white guilt. Or lash out and say we aren’t the same anymore. I’m only trying to say it didn’t happen that long ago, so it isn’t suprising we still have issues today.

For more than 240 years, African Americans were seen as lower because of their position as slaves. One document freeing them didn’t change generations of reinforcement. By the time civil rights rolled around, we’re hitting nearly 350 years of bias.

If we expect that 50 years can erase 350, we will be disappointed.

Now, this doesn’t excuse people who only know these beliefs based on how or where they’re raised. It doesn’t allow white people to live in a privileged, colorblind world that ignores the truth. We all have the opportunity to learn and grow and change, and that is a beautiful thing.

We have to accept that dismantling the system takes time. We can’t get defensive and claim equality without reading the statistics and doing our research because we think the world should be better.

The four men responsible for the 16th Street Church bombing were known Klansmen, but didn’t face convictions until years after. The first was sentenced in 1977, two in 2001-2002, and the fourth died before he was charged.

These men, and the thousands others like them, terrorized Black people simply because of the perceived superiority of white people. Many of them are still alive today, the same age as our grandparents.

What this means is hate at that level isn’t a part of our past; it’s a very present threat to our reality. People who planted bombs in homes, lynched Black men and women, and dedicated their lives to the “law” and locking up as many Black people as possible are still alive, living with those beliefs.

They are still alive today.

I’ve read accounts from Nazis who were appalled at what they did, and others who stood by their actions based on their own beliefs. Logically, we can assume the same is true for our own racist terrorists. Even with a 50/50 split, we have a lot of people believing what they did is right and teaching younger generations the same.

Younger generations like our parents and our peers.

What is our responsibility? To be aware and to see the facts. To not be lulled into a sense of complacency because we don’t experience what’s happening directly. We can listen to the struggles of others and stand with them. White guilt is not the goal, because there’s no action there. It’s also not about living in shame about what our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. may have done.

Don’t deny what the protestors say because you don’t think it’s true. Don’t focus on the looting and forget what is compelling people to anger. Don’t cling to institutions over human lives.

Act in love, always. Recognize you can say Black Lives Matter and not be actively endorsing the organization or hating the police. Research what it means to defund the police before you get mad.

Stop seeking out stories that reinforce your own beliefs so you can be comfortable.

Racism is uncomfortable. This fight is uncomfortable. But it matters so someday we can say all lives matter and it be truly represented in the treatment of everyone, regardless of who you are and what you look like.

I spent my life doing everything you shouldn’t because I was raised to believe in equality and see that if Black people are imprisoned at higher rates, it must be their fault. That is what the world teaches without active conversations about race. I wanted another side to the stories because I couldn’t believe they were true. I know what it’s like to realize I can’t live in a comfortable world anymore.

Now is the time for this fight to belong to all of us so when we reach the 100th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we have a real reason to celebrate.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

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