Indictments of killer cops like Ray Tensing who murder black men like Samuel Dubose don’t let the rest of us off the hook.
Last night I attended a discussion and showing of the film Selma at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Given the recent news of police killing people of color like Dubose, I couldn’t help but draw parallels over the 1965 shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson.
For years, state trooper James Bonard Fowler claimed Jackson was reaching for his gun and the shooting was done in self-defense, but in 2010, 45 years later, the seventy-seven-year-old confessed to the murder. Historians believe that there would have been no march from Selma to Montgomery and less urgency for the Voting Rights Act had Jackson not been killed. It was the event that precipitated Bloody Sunday that woke white America’s conscience—bringing many to travel to Selma to add their bodies in solidarity against racism and white supremacy.
It made me wonder, what is it going to take today to move Americans, and specifically white people in this country, to take responsibility for what is happening? How many people of color have to be killed to stir us to outrage?
As a white man I know it is easy to compartmentalize oppression happening to others, only caring about it when I choose to. I don’t have to ever fear driving while white. If I do get pulled over, I have never once ever felt I was in danger of being shot. This is not the reality of many people of color in this country.
And it is easy for me to breathe relief when a bad officer gets indicted for one of these murders. It is good for my white conscience, but the words of Dr. King don’t let me off that easy. He says the killer “did not act alone.”
A state trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone.
He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law.
He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician, from governors on down, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.
He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote.
He was murdered by the indifference of every white minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.
And he was murdered by the cowardice of every person who passively accepts the evils of segregation and stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.
It’s never a lone wolf. Racism is a system that wraps its tentacles around me and all white people. When we see obvious white supremacy like Tensing or Fowler, I fear it leads more to progressive whites patting ourselves on the back rather than making us get off our ass and choose to place our bodies in solidarity with people of color who are literally targets.
Do you know the arrest and killing by police statistics of your community? Is it disproportionate by race? What are you doing to interrupt that? If we are indifferent, we are part of the problem.
Do you know local politicians whose rhetoric is directly or indirectly feeding racist hatred? What are you doing to interrupt that? If we are indifferent, we are part of the problem.
Do you know federal politicians who decry murder out of one side of their mouth while supporting the same act with drones all over the world? What are you doing to interrupt that? If we are indifferent, we are part of the problem.
Has your pastor or bishop remained silent on the murder of Samuel Debose and other people of color, perhaps behind the excuses of there being people on both sides of this issue in the pews or that we don’t know all the information yet? What are you doing to interrupt that? If we are indifferent, we are part of the problem.
MLK’s words haunt me because they call me to face the truth that these people are being murdered not by lone bigots, but by the cowardice of every person who passively accepts the evils of racism and white supremacy, and stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.
When I face this truth, I have no choice but to get off the sidelines. Will you join me and encourages others to do the same?
Rev. Andy Oliver is an elder from the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church, currently organizing in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area against racism and other forms of injustice. Contact or follow him on social media at www.andyoliver.me.
Photo Credit: Murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson by Jonathan Frost