“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time” — James Baldwin Invariably, the aforementioned quote is resurrected during moments of crisis such as Ferguson, Missouri, to demonstrate that little has change in America. Fertilized by frustration, nihilism, and a simplistic understanding of history, it is easy to see how some could reach the conclusion that the country’s original sin of racism had changed little since Africans, under a forced immigration policy, arrived to American shores in 1619. Others sought to make linear comparisons to the shooting of Michael Brown in…
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time” — James Baldwin
Invariably, the aforementioned quote is resurrected during moments of crisis such as Ferguson, Missouri, to demonstrate that little has change in America. Fertilized by frustration, nihilism, and a simplistic understanding of history, it is easy to see how some could reach the conclusion that the country’s original sin of racism had changed little since Africans, under a forced immigration policy, arrived to American shores in 1619.
Others sought to make linear comparisons to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American who was savagely murdered by whites in Mississippi in 1955.
Some offered to transpose Birmingham 1963 to Ferguson 2014, as if the systematic denial of constitutionally guaranteed rights makes for adequate comparison to this latest tragedy.
But oversimplification is usually a convenient tool justifying one’s own unexamined assumptions. If there is an historical comparison to make, it should be done from the perspective of the lessons learned; and how those lessons can fuel change going forward.
Beyond the needless death of an 18-year-old, it would be further heartbreaking if Ferguson proved to be nothing more than a euphemism added to similar tragedies to recall when the next racially-charged event pricks otherwise apathetic souls into momentary reactionary anger for public consumption.
Though there was justifiable anger of the sheer absurdity of Ferguson, there may have also been an overreliance on justice based on a desired outcome.
Linking justice to a specific outcome can be a fool’s errand pregnant with frustration. Had the grand jury decided to indict officer Darren Wilson in the August killing of Brown, would that suffice? Or would there also require a conviction in order for justice to be served?
If Wilson had been convicted, what then? Do those frustrated return to their pessimistic silos of non-engagement? Assuming the outcome met with the protestors’ approval, it would not change the underlying issues that spawned the frustration.
Too often the anger that understandably propels such efforts becomes the enemy of those who are angry. Anger alone can seductively seduce one into believing that only their position has value, and that their actions are impervious to wrong, allowing the evil they claim to abhor to infiltrate their efforts.
Moreover, anger possesses a finite shelf life. The national anger in the aftermath of the killing of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin lasted a season. The same could engulf the killing of Brown.
But this need not be Ferguson’s epitaph.
One of the valuable contributions of the civil rights movement was that it forced America to move closer the constitutional values that it committed itself. If black lives matter, as the mantra of Ferguson offered, why can’t Ferguson be the epicenter of 21st-century change?
In 1960, the sit-in movement began in Greensboro with four students. By year-end, not only had they broke racial segregation at lunch counters in Greensboro; those efforts were replicated throughout the South laying the foundation for an unprecedented decade that had a major grassroots movement each year from 1960-1968.
By 2016, it should be the goal of Ferguson to have the highest percentage of registered voters in the nation. Those efforts should be supplemented with an equal percentage of voter turnout.
Criteria should be drafted by which all candidates representing Ferguson are held accountable, reflecting the desired change. This could pave the way for transformation that becomes contagious throughout the nation.
The anger exhibited in Ferguson, reverberated in cities across the nation. The passion for change already exists. Will it be cultivated or banished into hibernation?
But this will also require an ongoing commitment. Reactionary anger by itself rarely produces the desired outcome.
Michael Brown’s father stated recently, “I don’t want my son to die in vain.”
Is that not the burden going forward?
Will Ferguson simply be added to the lexicon of American absurdity?
Or will it be inspired by the legacy of Greensboro and elsewhere, to remind the nation that meaningful change should never hinge on a grand-jury decision?
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