Wissot: The color of our skin still overshadows the content of our character
Fifty nine years ago this coming August, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
To date, that day has not arrived and that dream has not been fulfilled.
MLK’s dream was predicated on the idea that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” His faith in a moral universe eventually bore fruit with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts. He pleaded for the enactment of both in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Throughout our checkered history, racial progress followed by racist reactions have functioned like rival teams. After slavery was abolished, segregation replaced it; after the 15th Amendment enfranchised newly emancipated black slaves, Jim Crow laws were passed in the South that stripped them of their voting rights. The forces fighting for racial equality have been constantly opposed by forces equally determined to see them fail.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, hope spread that we were on the verge of a post-racial, colorblind America. Two years later, the rise of the Tea Party proved how premature that hope was. The silly patriotic costumes the Tea Partiers wore at their rallies were irrelevant. The racist posters of Obama depicted as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose were not.
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Donald Trump’s presidency provided further evidence of how much farther the arc of the moral universe had to bend before racial justice could be achieved. It was never a good day for communities of color when the president of the United States was racking up Facebook “likes” and attracting Twitter followers from the ranks of the Proud Boys, the Wolverine Watchmen Militia and the Boogaloo Bois.
In 2020, Democrats in Georgia succeeded in defeating Trump and electing both a Black and a Jewish candidate to the U.S. Senate for the first time in its history. These milestones took place in a state famous for Stone Mountain, the modern birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and site of the largest monument to the Confederacy in the country.
Georgia Republicans, sensing their political dominance threatened, then passed some of the most sweeping voter suppression laws in the country. These laws weren’t passed because of rampant Black voting fraud in the 2020 election, as multiple state audits and court challenges disproved. They were passed because Trump didn’t accumulate enough white votes to win and failed to coerce Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into “finding” the 11,780 phantom votes he needed to secure a dishonest victory.
Two court cases last year seemed to signal to African Americans that racial progress is being made in the midst of racist opposition..
The George Floyd murder verdict in Minneapolis sent a clear message to rogue cops that murdering a Black man in cold blood while witnesses with video phones plead for them to stop would no longer lead to a get out of jail free card.
In Brunswick, Georgia, three white men in a pickup truck were convicted by an all white jury of gunning down a Black man in what amounted to a drive by execution. The black victim was guilty of committing an unforgivable indiscretion: wandering into a white neighborhood without permission from the white residents.
Compare those two verdicts to what happened in 1955 to a 15-year-old black boy in Money, Mississippi. Emmett Till was murdered and his body brutally mutilated by two white men who took offense at his allegedly whistling at a white woman in a grocery store. The two men were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury, and then, in an act of brazen arrogance, admitted five months later in a story published in Look magazine that they had murdered Till. They reportedly were paid $4,000 for their confession.
MLK’s call for an end to state-sanctioned racism in 1963 resurrected a disturbing memory for me. Three years earlier, when I was 15, I traveled to the South for the first time from my home in New Jersey.
While crossing Chesapeake Bay on a ferry bound for Virginia, I had to use the restroom. The words “Whites Only” and ”Colored Only” on two separate mens’ room doors served as my introduction to segregation. I finished using my dark and dingy racially assigned restroom before sneaking a peak into the “colored only” facility. What can best be described as sewer stench cut short my visit. Separate the restrooms were. Equal they definitely weren’t.
MLK, in his historic speech, referred to the obligation the country had to all of its citizens after Jefferson penned the immortal words “all men are created equal.” King viewed those words as “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” His chief complaint was “that America has defaulted on this note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation,” King said, “America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
Despite this failure on the country’s part, King remained optimistic as he exclaimed with adamant conviction “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
On this MLK holiday weekend, we are still impatiently waiting for the country to deposit sufficient funds in the bank of justice.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.