14339473020_f52d762211_z“Hands” by Marjan Lazarevski via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I became a student of the history of freedom after slavery in 2008 as Barack Obama was running successfully to become president of the United States. I wished very much to be free just to watch the campaign unfold as it was the most interesting test that has occurred in my lifetime of whether our society can practice what it preaches. It was a chance to see one measure of how deeply we have adjusted to being a very diverse society. Still, a great deal of what I was studying spoke to me about what was going on then—voter repression, high numbers of threats of violence, blackface images, hate mongering of a kind the young students in classrooms with me had never seen outside of history books and the omnipresent arrest and murder of young black people. Even from my roost among books about freedpeople, I could sense, hear, and read the great trepidation African Americans shared about the election unearthing the kinds of responses we know too well and have  shared across the country as trauma. Over the past six years, we have seen a resurgence of open bigotry that many genuinely thought, I guess, was gone. It is as if the election freed up the wild fears of “black domination” that swirled in 1865, or the violent reactions to integration sixty years ago.

My first encounter with Americans who would violently resist our taking ordinary places beside whites was the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. I was eight years old and I saw on television the mob waiting for the students who would become the Little Rock Nine. Other people I know had earlier lessons. I could name a dozen activists from the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement who were traumatized by the murder of Emmett Till. One thing we learned as young people was that the haters didn’t mind the death of children or the aged; they were not fighting enemies—but attacking citizens for being citizens like themselves.

“What we have all seen since the shooting in June is that the spiritual practice of that congregation is no work in progress; they are way ahead of us. They have shown that forgiveness, which is often taken for weakness in this culture, is a necessary tool to keep up the good fight that life requires.”

Our young people do not know that over many years the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina sheltered some thousands of the unknown souls in the South who fought their fight long ago and ever since. It is not taught in their schools. We are now 150 years from the onset of legal freedom from slavery and it was the generation who reopened that church and others who survived the Civil War that gave us the songs that said, “before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.” They invented “souls to the polls,” not because it was a nice idea but because those men first eligible to vote in the South had to be protected by a large group against being murdered for trying to vote. I had to tell my students this semester that the citizens of Selma were not fighting for the right to vote but the ability to exercise a right the ancestors had already won. They fought every form of voter repression we are facing now except the requirement of an ID from a motor vehicle agency. People who lived under constant threat rebuilt Emanuel A. M. E. in 1865, and helped elect the first black officeholders in that state, all of whom had to take care to stay alive. What we have all seen since the shooting in June is that the spiritual practice of that congregation is no work in progress; they are way ahead of us. They have shown that forgiveness, which is often taken for weakness in this culture, is a necessary tool to keep up the good fight that life requires. They have learned from long practice that we owe to the martyrs to “run on, see what the end gon’ be.” To run on you have to fight for justice while setting aside the hate that tears down one’s will, one’s health and one’s clarity.

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  • Alexis Scott July 5, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    Thank you, Thulani, for your insight and knowledge through your mastery of language and history.

    “What we have all seen since the shooting in June is that the spiritual practice of that congregation is no work in progress; they are way ahead of us. They have shown that forgiveness, which is often taken for weakness in this culture, is a necessary tool to keep up the good fight that life requires.”

    You inspire us to continue to do the work.

    Reply
  • Susan Mikolasy July 4, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    Let freedom ring! Thank you so much for those willing to speak up against injustice. It is an honor to know of and about these people. Truly!

    Reply
  • Harris Schrank July 4, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    Thulani Davis’s insightful reflections, on this Independence Day, serve to remind us of what we as a nation have achieved, and what we have yet to achieve, to ensure independence for all. Events leading up to this day – in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and even at the Supreme Court – show progress toward liberty and equality has been uneven at best. And as Professor Davis points out, there are vast generational divides among us. The elderly and not-so-elderly among us can recall, and many have experienced, state-enforced discrimination unfamiliar to today’s youth. And battles thought to have been won long ago, like the right to vote, still need to be fought to secure those victories. On this Independence Day we surely have cause to celebrate. But Dr. Davis shows us we’ve a long way to go in our quest to make “perfect” our so-imperfect Union.

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