[In May and June of 2020, a time of pandemic isolation, economic collapse, and intense partisan rivalry, videos of Minneapolis cops lynching George Floyd — a Black man with his hands cuffed behind his back — sparked nationwide mass protests against widespread police brutality and systemic racism in America. ]
When I was born in the 50s, in Montgomery, AL, black people there had decided that segregation, discrimination, and lynching were unacceptable. Though some black people who spoke up had disappeared, other black people still had the faith and the courage to believe that they could right these wrongs if they took a stand and spoke up, and they did. Unfortunately, they were unable to right all of the facets of these wrongs then.
The brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others are evidence that more wrongs must be righted. Their murders are reasons why our generation must also take a stand. We must do our share of the work to stop the wrongs.
As a 12-year-old, I learned that we were protected from many wrongs because of the law, so I asked, what is this law? I learned that the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were laws that ensured rights for all people, to include black people. I then asked, "What does it mean to have rights?" Clearly black people who experienced discrimination and lynching were robbed of their rights. Well, I heard many answers, some of which I will share. I suspect that many people who are in the streets protesting now might want to ask and answer this question for themselves. Therefore, I am putting the question to you the readers. I encourage you to answer this question for yourself. Then, think about other people in the country and see if you believe that these rights apply to them, too. My answers are here.
What is the right to life? The right to life is, by law, my entitlement to my own life. This means that I get to own and value my life. I stand in solidarity with others who value their right to life, regardless of color, national origin, race, religion, and sex. Even though I know this and I am certain that all people know this, for years, the lives of black people and other people of color were devalued by others, who also devalued and threatened their right to life. This devaluing even meant that they could and did take life. When black people took a stand, they were saying that this taking of life had to stop. Black Lives Matter. Those who take lives must be held accountable.
Well, this understanding did not start with me. I learned this from my great grandmothers who also knew that Black Lives Matter. All of them were born into slavery. On my father's side, one great grandmother lived in SC, and the other in AL. On my mother's side, one great grandmother grew up in AL. The other great grandmother moved with her parents to AL from SC. They knew the sheer horrors of life in these southern states, so they took their lives seriously and taught their children to do the same.
Understanding the right to life, my great grandmothers learned all that they could about how to work with my great grandfathers, to take care of themselves, their children, and grandchildren. From generation to generation they shared the wisdom: Know things to say. Not say. Know places to go. Not go. Know things to do. Not do. And above all, know who to be. And not be.
When they got land, they used it. They taught their children how to tend chickens, raise cows and hogs, and care for gardens filled with lush vegetables and sweet melons. They used peanut rotation to keep the land healthy. These lessons made it possible to have provisions, and for them to make a living by peddling all of the overflow of fresh goods from a wagon in the city. They also taught them to value education — formal and experiential. Because of their belief, I learned early the value of a quality education.
Being lawful, taxpaying citizens, they did not fit the spoken and written derogatory stereotypes of black people. Yet, they were subjected to unjust laws that made it possible for white people to cheat them and other black people, harm them, burn them out, and take their lives, without consequences.
Despite this hostile culture, these grandmothers survived and they taught us to survive. They ensured that we understood that we are precious and valuable people unto ourselves. We are worth cherishing.
To own property, have safe and decent housing, enough food, formal education, work and a living wage to provide for the family, healthcare, and the right to vote, is the wealth of life. Yet, this is not the reality for many capable black people who struggle to find a way out of poverty. Some never understand how to value their lives. This is evident in the black homicide rates in cities across the nation, where gangs, drugs, and weapons are substitutes for education, economic opportunity, job skills, and tools. The life of crime in the streets and ultimately incarceration, with sentencing disparities, robs black people of life. This self-inflicted violence is as bad as the practices of hate filled perpetrators and the violence of rogue law enforcers. All of this must stop.
I know that when hate filled groups establish norms that take the right to life from black people, they are wrong. This scourge will possibly remain into the foreseeable future, unless laws, institutions, and enforcement change. I stand for this change. I stand with others seeking this change.
Somewhere in America every day we must protest to hold people accountable for murders. God forbid that more lives should be taken by lawless people, especially those sworn to protect and defend.
What is the right to liberty? Liberty means freedom. Freedom is my right and yours to be present in the world as we choose, provided that we do not infringe on the rights of others.
Thinking back to the 60s, I am grateful to protesters who marched, held sit ins, and boycotted businesses and the government that violated the right to liberty for black people. These protesters challenged being detained without good reason and being imprisoned. Nevertheless, laws intended to get tough on crime, resulted in communities being dumping grounds for drugs and weapons. The arrest, trials, and sentences filled prisons with people of color and disenfranchised them. It does not appear that there was an interest in getting tough on crime, but rather a desire to rob uneducated black people of their liberty. The community did not make or grow drugs and they certainly did not manufacture weapons. So how did they get there? They were sent in by many of the same wealthy people with the planes, trains, and trucks that arranged for the distribution. Many of the drugs are now being openly sold, further enriching the wealthy. Legal reform is necessary. Laws must change and the courts must hear cases to restore rights to those disenfranchised.
In spite of some legal reform, a seedy undercurrent in the culture remains, further abusing power individually, in corporations, and the government. These abuses have increased with the changing race demographics among people of color. The abuses include white people who unnecessarily call in law enforcement, hoping to have black people harmed or killed. For immigrants, the abuses are practices and laws that restrict entry and push people out. To restrict, they close borders, build miles of border walls, and deny refugee and asylum requests. To push people out, they stop and arrest with or without ID, separate families, cage children, and limit access to services. All of these practices are ways that the right to liberty may be taken. May the response always be to pursue every legal means to prevent more of the same.
What is the right to the pursuit of happiness? Simply, I get to choose to pursue what will make me happy. Again, I cannot infringe on the right of another to pursue their happiness.
For years, the pursuit of happiness for a black person with a dream was often limited because of racism. If you wanted the best of anything — to vote, be admitted to a top college, get a good paying job, start a business, buy a well-built home, buy a quality car, travel abroad, get good medical care, and the like — obstacles, open and concealed -- were present. The 1964 Voter Rights and 1965 Civil Rights Acts created the possibility to realize some of the dreams, but the laws were often undermined by individuals and institutions.
With more than 50 years of data, we have case after case showing that when the dream opportunity, product or service was not possible due to discrimination or other excuses, a legal battle ensued. In many instances, the NAACP Legal Defense Team took a stand and led the fight.
Though I am at times weary just thinking about the years of standing against injustice, I know that many conditions that restrict happiness are unacceptable must not be tolerated. I do not believe that discrimination, police violence, and killings in churches, stores, and schools must always be with us. I do not believe that we must endure children in cages. I do not believe that we should accept contaminated water. I do not believe that we must continue to walk pass statues of people who unlawfully harmed and took the lives of enslaved and free black people.
We must stop accepting, tolerating, and doing nothing about individual and institutional racism, the denial of rights, and other forms of injustice. This country and the world need more and more protests to heighten awareness regarding such injustice and to focus all actions on systemic change. In massive numbers, we must vote to rid the nation of corrupt people, and vote to elect law-abiding officials who will serve with integrity and represent the best interests of all people. In so doing, the nation may heal and right itself.
Many plans that restrict happiness and perpetuate the unacceptable strategies must be stopped. The Redmap plan must be exposed and stopped. Unlawful gerrymandering of voting districts, voter suppression, the appointment of judges with extreme discriminatory views, Citizens United, confederate statues must come down in public spaces, law enforcement must be defunded to create agencies that truly are peacekeeping servants of the people. Together we must challenge, change, or end all of these and other strategies, unethical and immoral activities that are corrosive in the culture. We must end the theft of America's democracy from We the People.
I am inspired by the courage and actions of those who came before me, and I come with the wisdom and skill of my fore parents. My faith moves me to continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with allies, knowing that our efforts to heal our country may be a model for the world.
I stand now for all of our rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Across the generations and around the world, I stand. I stand for justice, a result of which may be peace. In so doing, I ask that you stand and join me in carrying a torch, lighting the way for the future of this country and the world, for We the People.
Copyright © Rubye Howard Braye, 2020
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