In the days after 9/11, it was common to hear people say that it was the first time Americans had really experienced terrorism on their own soil. Those sentiments were historically wrong, and willfully put aside acts that were organized on a large scale, had a political goal, and were committed with the specific intention of being nightmarishly memorable. The death cult that was lynching furnished this country with such spectacles for a half century. (The tallies vary, but, by some estimates, there were thirty-three hundred lynchings in the decades between the end of Reconstruction and the civil-rights era.) We know intuitively, not abstractly, about terrorism’s theatrical intent. The sight of Michael Brown, sprawled on Canfield Drive for four hours in the August sun, dead at the hands of an officer who was unnamed for a week, recalled that memory. It had the effect of reminding that crowd of spontaneous mourners of their own refuted humanity. A single death can be understood as a collective threat. The media didn’t whip up these concerns among the black population; history did that.I suspect that this pretty much nails what it is that white people have a hard time understanding about the reaction of African Americans to the death of Michael Brown. We've allowed ourselves to be oblivious to the terror we never experienced and how events today trigger all that for those who did.
Perhaps we can fire up our mirror neurons of empathy if we image that, for a moment on 9/11/01, we felt the terror that African Americans felt for decades of slavery and lynchings. Many of us feel that terror triggered when we see video of that awful day in September. And we've done some pretty dumb things as a result...everything from invading the wrong country to freaking out over the building of a mosque in New York City.
The fear that terror instills can be debilitating and/or dangerous. And so I'm reminded of what HamdenRice wrote a few years ago about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.Understanding the fear and the triggers and the true legacy of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. would go a long way to helping us understand the events we're witnessing today. And it might also give us some lessons about how to deal with our own fears.
He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south...
It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.
You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth's.
It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.
This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people...
The question is, how did Dr. King do this—and of course, he didn't do it alone...
So what did they do?
They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.
Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.
If we do it all together, we'll be okay.