“In the end it is not the words of our enemies that we will remember, but the silence of our friends.” ~ Martin Luther King
What happened in Charlottesville on August 12th shook me to my core, as it did many of us.
I found myself unable to sleep. After tossing and turning all night, I finally gave up and opened Facebook on my iPad at 4:45 a.m.
The first thing I saw was a newly created event page for a solidarity rally and a call for speakers and participants. I live in Arlington, Virginia, a small county that is overwhelmingly white. I am not. This is the speech I gave there on Sunday, August 13th.
“Yesterday, while I was at a baby shower celebrating the eminent birth of a beautiful bi-racial baby boy as well as a couple who didn’t let race get in the way of their love, a tragedy was unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I wanted to speak here today because—well, frankly—I desperately need to feel encouraged. I have been an activist since I was 18 years old and for the last 51 years I have always felt encouraged. I joined the Black Panther Party when I was 19 and have participated in, and been a part of, many movements including the Black Power Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War movement, and the Women’s and Environmental movements.
In all these years, I have never felt that things weren’t getting better. No matter how long it took there has always been progress. Now the feeling that things are slipping backward is threatening all that I have believed in.
As a black person in a still white dominated society, I have always known that true racial justice can and will only be achieved when white people decide that they will be a part of the solution. That’s just the truth. And the good news is, many white people have been and continue to be a part of the solution.
What happened in Charlottesville yesterday was a travesty. But the response to the racist hatred being spewed into a peaceful college town was overwhelming and powerful.
My experience has always been that there are many more white people willing to stand up for justice than those who want to perpetuate injustice. I’m not naïve and in these times it seems to me that this belief may be overstated.
I’ll tell you a story. I was raised in Oakland, California. The summer I was 18 I got an unusual job for a girl, let alone a black girl. I was hired to sell Encyclopedia Britannica door to door. Because of the Vietnam War draft, many of the young men who would have been hired for this job weren’t available so the company started hiring young women. I was the only black person hired.
At 18, no one had ever referred to me by a racial epithet, nor had I ever been overtly racially discriminated against. That all changed when I got this job. We would be driven out to suburban and even rural communities to go door-to-door. In about my second week, a little boy came to the door when I knocked, looked at me and yelled back to his mother, “Mom, there’s a nigger at the door.”
I ran from the door crying and radioed my supervisor to pick me up immediately. He was a young white man and, to his credit, he consoled me and then sent me back out saying that was just one stupid family and most people weren’t like that. He was right.
Once we stopped in a Denny’s for dinner before going door to door. There was me and my six or seven white colleagues. The waitress came over and asked who wanted coffee. Then she turned the cups right side up and poured coffee into each cup except mine. She left my cup turned down and proceeded to pour hot coffee on top of the cup all while looking at me with utter hatred. Then she apologized and turned the cup right side up. Everyone was mortified.
So my white colleagues decided we would all order and eat our food and then walk out without paying. And that’s what we did.
These were not activists. They were just good decent young people—who proved to be the rule rather than the exception.
Since the election, many of my white liberal and progressive friends have bemoaned the fact that they have Donald Trump voters as friends and family members. In most instances, they have tried hard to not let this change their relationships.
Well, now I feel I have to say to my white friends and to all white people who consider themselves good decent people—that conciliatory attitude is going to have to change.
After what happened yesterday and the fact that these Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Alt-Right activists have been encouraged by the administration’s mouthpieces like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, you have no choice but to take a stand and speak up.
You can do it with love, empathy, and compassion. But you must do it. You must reach out to your friends and family members who voted for Trump and get them to discuss what is happening. It may be painful, and some relationships may fracture and not withstand the discussion.
But our entire nation is seriously at risk of fracturing irreparably. So if you consider yourself a good, decent human being, the ball is in your court. Minorities and marginalized groups cannot do this without the activist participation of the majority.
If you hear friends, co-workers, or even family members saying things that you know are wrong, racist, xenophobic, or homophobic, you have to speak up. Most of them won’t say these things in front of us. When I was growing up, old Southern black folks used to say they preferred the white folks down South because they knew where they stood. Up North, white folks will smile in your face while doing everything they can to keep you down.
Coming to rallies is good. Giving money to justice causes is good. But taking a stand with your friends, family, and co-workers who by their very vote for the man occupying the White House, gave rise to what happened yesterday will be a true test of your commitment to justice.
In today’s Washington Post, there is an article called “War and Peace is All About Trump—Who Knew,” that quotes Tolstoy asking the question, “What moves events? Is it, as commonly assumed, ‘great men’ such as Napoleon and Czar Alexander I? Or is it the separate decisions of thousands of individuals: soldiers, peasants, shop keepers, Lords?”
The Post article goes on to say, “It is the latter Tolstoy says. Their actions flow together in a force that czars and generals can only pretend to control.” That is you. That is us.”
Author: Gayle Fleming
Image: elephant journal Instagram
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Danielle Beutell
Social Editor: Danielle Beutell