Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Carving a path toward justice: Part 1

History professor Bobby Donaldson addresses the meaning and historical backdrop of the George Floyd protests.

Bobby Donaldson is an associate professor of history and African American Studies and director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina. In a three-part question-and-answer series, Donaldson presents both his scholarly insights and his personal perspective as they relate to protests over the death of George Floyd.

What is your historical perspective on the current protests?

Despite my training, I am unable to be objective and detached as I contemplate the questions before me. These days, it is hard to summon the strength and the language to explain what it means to be Black in America. From my perspective, this is not a time for objectivity and detachment.

We have been down these troubled and dark roads before. But I draw hope and inspiration from the great numbers of citizens and activists, especially young people, who in recent days have stood up, raised their voices and marched, demanding change in our nation. Despite the headlines, the vast majority have committed themselves to that long tradition of peaceful, non-violent protest. Despite public threats and ridicule, they continue to demonstrate with righteous indignation, courage and a steadfast belief that change must and will come. Despite the headlines, we are seeing in nearly every corner of this nation multiracial and, in some cases, multigenerational coalitions of people sickened and mobilized by the torrent of African American deaths at the hands of law enforcement. What some, including the president, have dismissed as “mobs” and “riots” I see as a determined fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness among people who are dissatisfied about where we are as a nation. They are amplifying their grievances. They are not looking for empty apologies and platitudes. They are demanding justice, durable and substantive changes.

I believe we must come to grips with our history in order to confront and repair the challenges of today and to chart a path forward.

Bobby Donaldson

American democracy is at work on the streets of this nation. The protesters believe and I believe we can be a better nation, a better people. But first we need to identify, acknowledge and confess the wrongs, the maladies, the illnesses and the enduring roots of racism and injustice, which are not hiding on the sidelines of history. Today, as at times in the past, they are center stage.

Not surprisingly, I believe we must come to grips with our history in order to confront and repair the challenges of today and to chart a path forward. Our Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina seeks to document, teach and share the long tradition of civil rights struggle in South Carolina and around the country. Through programming, exhibits and archival collections, and training sessions, we work to bring history to life and inspire an informed dialogue about today’s social justice issues. We seek to do similar work with the Columbia SC 63 initiative, which documents and promotes the individuals, organizations, events and especially the places that played a key role in the long Black Freedom Movement.

The pursuit of justice and peace has never been easy. Our history and democratic experiment, in the nation and certainly here in South Carolina, have been riddled with violence and clashes. The pages of the past and our own collective memories show that there are no simple answers to profound and systemic problems. But the past several days are a striking reminder of what we know all too well. These problems do not go away by just ignoring or silencing them. On the contrary, the wounds fester and the conditions worsen. George Floyd’s horrific death provided a pulse check for so many citizens. And, rather than sitting silently, many mobilized and echoed the amazing words of the Mississippi freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer: “We are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Published records show the names and birthdates of people arrested in the protests. Young people, many of whom were not born when Rodney King’s savage beating in Los Angeles was filmed in 1991. Some were in middle school and high school when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, Eric Garner in New York in July 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014, Walter Scott in North Charleston in April 2015, Sandra Bland in southeast Texas in July 2015, and the terrible night in June 2015 when Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church made national news. They remember the calls for reconciliation, atonement and forgiveness. They remember the short-lived moment of national healing. They remember an African American president singing “Amazing Grace” as he worked to heal a nation wounded by police brutality and gun violence.

That litany of heart-wrenching examples has been joined by Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery in a horrific execution filmed by a cell phone, Breonna Taylor and now George Floyd.

Young people, including my 13-year-old daughter, looked at their phones and saw George Floyd die before their eyes constrained by handcuffs, flat on a street as a cavalier, cocky, white policeman with a mocking posture forced a knee down on Floyd’s neck, looked right at the camera and appeared to enjoy squeezing the life out of a black man. It was a brutal scene. And everybody saw it. And many saw it again and again, asking the questions, why, and, what are we going to do about it? It was their Emmett Till moment.

People have been quoting — and misquoting — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words to support their view of the protests. What did he say that is relevant to this moment?

In my judgement what we are witnessing has been simmering, boiling and now the top is off.

In January, I was the Martin Luther King Jr. Day speaker for the city of Columbia and at the University of South Carolina Aiken. I then gave a series of Black History Month talks. In my addresses, full of hope and promise, I mentioned Dr. King’s last book. I could not see that history would bend so tragically in only a short period of time.

Not long after appearing in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1967, Dr. King published his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? In it, he writes, “Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten. A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness, but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present. America owes a debt of justice, which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness — justice.”

We must learn to live together as brothers or die together as fools. Instead of ‘Burn, baby, burn,’ I’m going to say, ‘Build, baby, build!'

Martin Luther King Jr.

In the summer of 1967, Dr. King spoke in Charleston, asking in a continuation of his book, which was released in June, “Where do we go from here? Community or chaos?” Visitors who entered the hall to hear Dr. King walked past Mr. Esau Jenkins’ Volkswagen van emblazoned with the slogan, “Love is Progress. Hate is Expensive.”

At the rally, Dr. King said, “The conditions in our cities cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of economic and political power. We’ve got to place domestic concerns on high priority and place war on low priority,” adding, “I’m not going to preach black supremacy because I’m so sick of white supremacy. I’m not going to hate because I’ve seen so much hate. We must learn to live together as brothers or die together as fools. Instead of ‘Burn, baby, burn,’ I’m going to say, ‘Build, baby, build!”

He cautioned, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.” 

Dr. King often said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Well, people are now saying how long do we have to wait before justice moves in my direction and lifts up my family, my home, my school, my job? Some believe, with good reason, that justice is now in reverse and bending toward a political and economic captivity, where there is no way out, no matter how hard you try. They are asking: Who controls the bending? They are asking: Who shapes the timing?

The protesters are now grappling for a tool, a sign, a way forward to improve their circumstance, to set right that which is wrong and to carve a path.

The Center for Civil Rights History and Research works to inform that search with the lessons from our history.

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