BENICIA BLACK LIVES MATTER
“The time is always right to do the right thing. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)
“The stones that the builder rejected are now the cornerstones of this experiment called America…When the rejected get together, we can in fact redeem America from hate and discrimination. When the rejected join hands, our togetherness becomes the instrument of redemption, and we can revive and ensure that the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and equal protection under the law, and care for the common good will never be taken away or forfeited for anybody, any time, anywhere.”
– The Bishop Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, III (2017)
February 6, 2023
By Sheri Leigh, a member of Benicia Black Lives Matter
February has been designated as Black History Month. It’s interesting that the public education system and the national government now sanction a month to focus on the history of Black people when Black history has been part of American and world history all along, as have women’s history, gay history, and the histories of other marginalized groups. Ideally, the history of these groups shouldn’t have to be singled out for special consideration. However, the designation does provide a good opportunity for everyone to reflect on the historical progress and continuing challenges Blacks and People of Color and marginalized groups face. Let’s take a moment to consider what progressive and much needed changes the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King’s efforts precipitated and the challenges he faced in the process, and compare that to where we are today.
The late Reverend King is much revered by many. With his organization and leadership skills, he orchestrated several momentous demonstrations that ultimately led to legislative changes that helped Black Americans access civil rights and made significant progress towards an equitable society. The ensuing Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were two of the most powerful pieces of legislation that brought an end to legal segregation, voting suppression, and an imbalanced workplace based on race. Dr. King’s efforts were not only directed towards rights for Black people, he also focused on jobs for everyone. One of the goals of his March on Washington in 1963 was to train and place unemployed workers, and the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967 sought to address solutions to poverty in general through better employment and housing. Dr. King embraced personal responsibility, urging people to judge others by their personal qualities, rather than by the color of their skin. This is why we honor Martin Luther King with a special day of commemoration. But what about his challenges?
Dr. King was largely despised while he lived. His leadership threatened the way of life for the white community and many of them, acting out of fear of losing their social advantages, treated him with utter disdain and hatred. He was arrested 29 times. The FBI pronounced him a threat to National Security. He was dismissed by other leaders of his own faith, both Black and white, who publicly (and with great hypocrisy) claimed that the Church should not involve itself in social issues. Despite his commitment to non-violent tactics, the marches he led were met with vehement and aggressive attacks, sometimes by white bystanders and sometimes by law enforcement. His marchers were frequently assaulted by activated fire hoses and trained attack dogs. Some were targeting children who were peaceably marching for the right to an equitable life in this country. Dr. King was stabbed, his home was bombed, and he was the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt ten years before James Earl Ray finally shot and killed King on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
But one of the most difficult challenges Dr. King faced was among his own race. Some members of the Black community preferred to keep the status quo in order to remain safe. Others believed that King’s commitment to non-violence was a strategy intended to bring a “Christian” ideology to his efforts and to wake up the consciousness of white “Christians,” rather than as an authentic practice. King’s early partnership with organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) served to strengthen this viewpoint. The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper, claimed that “King was tragically misleading Black Americans.” A few prominent Black organizations, including the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), did not agree with the passive protesting model. Several factions of Civil Rights advocates agreed with CORE and promoted defending themselves against the rampant violence inflicted on them by white individuals and mobs during the protests, as well as at other times, particularly when police stood by and did nothing to protect the protestors. As the “Black Power” slogan gained momentum, a rift developed between the followers of Dr. King and those who sought justice by fighting back. For a time, King was one of the most hated men of his time within his own community.
It was a complicated and dangerous time, and Dr. King was angry, as he had every right to be. What he endured was unfathomable. Yet he continued to channel his anger into leading a national, non-violent movement and making passionate speeches, which, seventy years later, we are still quoting. Today, he is recognized as the primary leader of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. With his tremendous oratory and leadership skills, and his untiring commitment to civil rights and equity, he instigated tremendous advancement for People of Color in this country. Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize of 1964 as a tribute to the enormity of his efforts.
Today, there is still rampant and unnecessary violence against Black people. With the well publicized murders of Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and just last month, Tyre Nichols, to name a few – all Black and all killed by law enforcement officers for dubious reasons- it is obvious there is still a serious lack of decorum and training in many prominent law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. Most states, including California, grant qualified immunity to law enforcement agents, keeping them protected from prosecution when they have injured or killed someone while on duty unless there is reason to believe that they knowingly violated that victim’s constitutional rights. This violation is often difficult to prove. It’s no wonder many People of Color don’t feel safe around those sworn to “protect” us. Systemic racism in schools, government agencies, and financial institutions remain a considerable roadblock to many individuals and families of Color towards obtaining equal opportunity and economic and social advancement.
The critical work of Dr. King continues to be carried out by leaders such as Bishop Doctor William J. Barber III, who is leading a campaign very similar to what Dr. King did in the 1960s. Dr. Barber is President of his growing non-profit organization, Repairers of the Breach, and a Senior Lecturer at several universities, including the Yale Divinity School. He is also Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. He served as President of the North Carolina NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) from 2006 -2017 and continues his work there on the Board of Directors. Through his organization, Repairers of the Breach, Dr. Barber is committed to a movement he calls Moral Fusion, which emphasizes grassroots protesting through non-violent civil disobedience and change through education, voting rights and engagement, much like Dr. King. And like Dr. King, Dr. Barber is focusing his efforts primarily in the deep South, where the damaging history of race-based slavery has created lasting racial discrimination and tension.
Black history, which is a significant part of American history, today is much like the history of seventy years ago. Although legislatively, we have come a long way, Blacks and other marginalized groups are still fighting every day to be free from discrimination, and for social and financial equity, public respect, and the right to a safe and happy life. The question is, what can we do, collectively and as individuals, to bring an end to this imbalance and injustice?
Benicia Black Lives Matters hopes that you will join us for our free upcoming Black History Month event on Sunday, February 19. We are sponsoring a children’s Scavenger Hunt to learn about Black historical figures along First Street from 1 – 4pm. The hunt will culminate at the Benicia library. For the first clue and more details on the Scavenger Hunt, please email: BBLMEducationTeam@gmail.com. There will also be a short program and a movie screening of the documentary, “We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest,” at the library in the Dona Benicia room from 3:30 – 5pm. Everyone is invited and welcome!