”There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Wilde
Human progress is often slow but has never stopped, the march for justice is often plodding but is ever expanding and, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., taught us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Hopefully, America will one day resolve the legacy of white supremacy, but centuries of power will not easily be relinquished. Only time will tell if those who stand in opposition will topple under the weight of an idea whose time has come.
It is important to continually recite the historical impact of racism, because few were ever taught its unvarnished history and how its tentacles intersect with all aspects of life. As historian Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote in his seminal work, “Before the Mayflower,” African American “roots in the American soil are deeper than the roots of the Puritans who arrived on the celebrated Mayflower a year after a ‘Dutch man-of-war’ deposited twenty Negroes at Jamestown.” The progeny of Africa, both free and slave, have always been a part of the American freedom experiment. Nevertheless, the shadow of slavery haunts American democracy.
Early America did not end the peculiar institution of slavery even with the introduction of the Declaration of Independence, which had the lofty preamble of: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ...” Both the Declaration and the Constitution squandered the opportunity for equality, and it took a civil war to finally end the atrocities of slavery, and we continue to deal with its legacy.
Importantly, while the Union won the war, Southern secessionists and white supremacy won the peace. After the Civil War, laws known as the “Black Codes,” limited the mobility and access of the freed slaves and those who had never been enslaved. Through these and other laws of discrimination, African Americans survived in a second-class citizenship and the power of white supremacy ruled in the South, as well as the North.
White supremacy limited the lives of African Americans through the lack of educational access, the imposition of menial jobs and abuse by the policing authorities. This supremacy manifested itself across the political spectrum. From the lynching and exploitation, from traditionally racist elements, to the paternalism and gradualism of more progressive views.
Monuments, streets and military facilities named for Confederate generals were the emblems of white supremacy. These emblems were constant reminders of the limited freedom for African Americans.
There is a renewed national conversation regarding the removal of Confederate monuments and names from streets and military facilities around the nations. Although President Donald Trump, along with other purveyors of white supremacy, refuse to entertain the conversation, no one can stop the cascade of truth.
In West Virginia, it’s past time for the removal of the name of Stonewall Jackson from schools and parks, and his statue transferred from the Capitol grounds to a museum. Gov. Jim Justice, known for racial insensitivity, can make some amends by removing the monuments. If the governor of Virginia, the heart of the Confederacy, can remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, the governor of West Virginia, which was never part of the Confederacy, should muster the courage to remove Stonewall Jackson and assist in changing the names of schools and parks.
Importantly, one of the most consistent enforcers of white supremacy has been the policing authorities. Few realize that the slave patrols and night watches designed to enforce slavery by capturing and dehumanizing slaves, evolved into the modern police departments that continue to control the mobility and access of the underrepresented. The abuse of the African American community by police is not a new phenomenon, and today’s police dysfunctions are rooted in past atrocities.
We have reached an inflection point with the many publicized police killings of unarmed African Americans. These killings are not new, but the advent of cellphone cameras makes it easy to document, with video evidence, what African Americans have been saying since the end of slavery: The policing authorities too often utilize unreasonable force upon people of color.
We are finally having a national conversation about police misconduct and the need to completely restructure policing is an idea whose time has come. It is no longer enough to deal with fringe issues or to contemplate minor changes like training. Only a complete restructure of policing will suffice.
It is encouraging to see groups accept the gravity of the moment in ways that were unthinkable just months ago. The NFL apologized for not listening to the protest of its players related to racism and police misconduct, NASCAR and branches of the military prohibited the display of the Confederate flag, and communities all over the nation are discussing how to reconstruct or disestablish the police force.
Locally, the Charleston Police Department had its own police-brutality incident on Oct. 14, 2019. Two Charleston police officers escaped appropriate discipline after being filmed using excessive force against an unarmed African American woman named Freda Gilmore. The video shocked the conscience of the area, put the Charleston police force under national scrutiny and an angry community demanded change. Charleston Mayor Amy Schuler Goodwin promised swift action and major changes.
Nevertheless, Ms. Gilmore’s lawsuit against the city is still unresolved, the promised police reforms stalled until national events brought renewed questions to the mayor from numerous community organizations.
Considering the problems with policing in Charleston, it was shocking to read the original, tone-deaf joint statement that Mayor Goodwin and Police Chief Tyke Hunt issued about police restructuring in Charleston. After a preamble advocating for a culture of diversity, the joint statement went on to say: “The conversations around completely defunding the police department are not productive and will not be a part of our ongoing conversations with folks around the city as we review policy, procedure, and community relations moving forward.”
This statement reveals the type of privilege that has impeded policing reform throughout the American experience. Reasonable people can disagree about how far the movement to restructure the policing authority should go, but no “civil servant” — president, governor, mayor or police chief — has the right to decide what will or will not be a part of the discussion to end the abuses of policing, the bastion of the enforcement of white supremacy.
The “folks” in the Kanawha Valley will decide the parameters of the conversation about restructuring or even defunding the police department.
Although the mayor released a subsequent statement that was much more reasonable and engendered some community support, because it advocated for the need to listen, the original statement is revealing. We need a complete review and revamping of the policing authority.
The current reform movement to combat the legacy of white supremacy and the accompanying police misconduct is an idea whose time has come, and no amount of obfuscation, from the left or right, will stop it.