Tag Archives: civil rights

The Moderate Protester

Some of what’s said at protests makes me uncomfortable. Why, as a leader, It’s not my job to “police” others’ anger

My maternal grandfather, the late Oscar Stewart, served seventeen years as the chief of police at Texas Christian University. A black man in charge of the TCU campus police force, the flags at TCU flew at half-staff when he died, in 2013. While in college I drove to Fort Worth and spent a weekend with him. We played a couple rounds of golf, his favorite post-basketball pastime; on the course we ran into some of his white former police colleagues. They shook my hand and, laughing, told me to root for Missouri less–and TCU more. I was 20, six feet tall, and black, yet those chuckling white, Texas-accented men on the golf course made no attempt to make me feel less human.

I struggle when I hear protestors chant “fuck the police.” I struggle when all cops get thrown under the proverbial bus. I understand, though, where that feeling comes from. My life experience–having lots of white friends and being treated mostly well in society–must not be used, by myself or anyone else, as a weapon against other black and brown folks speaking their truths.
Since Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown on August 9th, I’ve emerged as one of Denver’s leaders in the fight to end systemic police violence and brutality. We’ve held rallies, forums, protests at grocery stores, and marches through the streets.

You name it, and we’ve heard it. There are those who believe in respectability politics—that “black people must love ourselves before the police or white people can love us.” There are those who want us to “be more like Martin and less like Malcolm.” We are often implored to “stop killing each other first.” Self-proclaimed leaders have called for calm, for us not to show too much passion, because it will scare moderate white people away from our side.

And we’ve heard that all police are evil, that voting is useless, that black pastors are worthless, that “we should be openly violent in return.”

Never mind that calm protest has never changed anything. Never mind that black people who kill other black people get thrown in jail, unlike cops who kill unarmed teenagers. Never mind that we needed both Dr. King and Malcolm X, and that they were not as far apart as their posthumous caricatures suggest. Never mind that passionate nonviolent protest—and, frankly, the looting—is what made Ferguson into a national story in the first place.

This is not an argument for moderation. We have had enough of that.

Those of us with a propensity towards moderation—towards decorum, towards respectability—I implore you–us–to hold it in. Black people are being killed. This is no time to be calm. This is a time to disrupt, a time to move beyond silence.
Some have called on myself and other leaders to “control the message” at these events. We have our opinions on what works best, but rather than unilaterally deciding, I invite a broader, truly democratic conversation on best practices.

As soon as we in leadership positions tell other people how to feel, we are lost.
If you don’t like “fuck the police” as a chant, get some friends together and start “black lives matter.” If large numbers of people would rather chant the former, be honest with yourself that maybe that’s not the rally for you. That’s okay. There are events at which I don’t feel comfortable.

And lastly, to my white protesting family: By now, you’ve likely read articles about why “all lives matter” isn’t the point. Black lives are the ones in question. I ask you, here, to evaluate how often you take the bullhorn or microphone. If you’re frustrated with black people who don’t seem radical enough, remember that we are more likely to have police retaliate against us and/or keep us in jail longer.

But at an event, I’m not going to tell you what to do. If you want to do that work on your own, it will be warmly welcomed.

It is often said that we have to work together for this movement to work. Indeed. But “working together” doesn’t mean silencing anyone who disagrees with us. Working together doesn’t mean men silencing women. Working together doesn’t mean older civil rights activists running over younger ones. Working together doesn’t mean white people taking the mic or otherwise telling black folks how to respond.

Working together means understanding not just how each of us is disadvantaged but also how we are privileged. Working together means knowing when to talk, and when to listen. Working together means having hard conversations.

I am a moderate protester. It is an honor to march with ‘radicals’ as well as (relative) conservatives. We are showing up, and it’s a start—though we have more work to do, both within and without.

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Who Are My People? A Black Unitarian Universalist on Selma and Ferguson

“Man, I don’t have any people. I’m with everybody, Julius.”
–Louie Lastik, Remember the Titans

Wintertime in Houston sneaks up on you. As children we sweated in our Halloween costumes and, some years, played the big Thanksgiving Day basketball game in shorts. That first 40-degree day in early December alerted us it was time to ask our parents for money for Christmas shopping.

It was such a 40-degree day in my ninth year, a Sunday, when an adult said words that still stick with me.
“It means so much that your family worships here with us, Kenneth. It shows how far your people have come.”

Baffled doesn’t quite say it.
I thought the folks at church were my people.

I am a proud lifelong Unitarian Universalist. My roommates will tell you that some days I sing Spirit of Life to myself as I make breakfast. Coming of Age and YRUU summer camps brought me ever-mingled comfort and stress.

I am also black. The struggle for black freedom has long held a grip on my soul. In adolescence not even complicated high school romance got me feeling quite like Toni Morrison and Lorraine Hansberry could.

I love being Unitarian Universalist—I think.
I love being black—I know.

During college I joined a great UU congregation. They were thrilled to have me, and I them. Older adults had me over for dinner and looked out for me on campus. When my mom died, church staff and members alike wrote cards and weren’t afraid to ask me how I was doing.
There were also only two black men active in the church, and the other gentleman’s first name was my last. Though he was older than my father, it took some folks two years to stop getting us confused. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes it hurt, but it always reminded me that I was not fully at home.

In Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue, UU minister and scholar Rosemary Bray McNatt relays the story of the time she talked for an hour with Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. King.
Mrs. King told Rev. Bray McNatt, “Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston.”

Mrs. King continued, “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”

The first time I read that, during my failed attempt to do seminary and become a UU minister, tears came down my face like a mighty stream. Night after night I read that passage from Rev. Bray McNatt’s chapter in the book. Night after night I wept.

I cried because I understood. I understood why they would choose to root themselves in a black church, and with a suffering God who could help black people and tell them He would never forsake them or give up on them, even in death.

I teared up also because I’ve often wished I could leave UUism. Sometimes I feel so alone because of race. I need church, though; almost by default, this faith is my religious home. I believe in God, but don’t call God ‘He.’ Unless Jesus somehow finds me, I cannot in good conscience join a Christian church.

Experience has taught me that being black and UU means feeling great most of the time, yet waiting for the next microaggression, the next moment of non-belonging. It is to feel profoundly uncomfortable in the midst of the familiar.

Growing up I needed to figure out how to navigate a mostly white society that accepted me quite warmly, so long as I did little to rock the boat. I had no real black community to help me out, save for a few friends and two extended family members. Talking about race with many white UUs too often means shouldering their insecurities, patiently answering their questions, making the fight for racial justice appear warm and inviting.

It isn’t.

On Facebook I am quite active; on Twitter, I have few followers and mostly listen/read. I follow young adult activists who fight for racial equality, champion black feminism, and struggle for change. Mostly they are people of color, often also members of the LGBTQ community. They are not conciliatory. They regularly call white people out, challenge PoC men’s sexism, and support one another.
They live out theologian Allan Boesak’s words from The Courage to be Black: “No one person has the right to take our life into their hands, and to exercise the power to give our life to us or to withhold it from us.”

For them the way is clear and straightforward, albeit difficult. For them white people, even (or perhaps especially) well-meaning white liberals, mostly get in the way, re-center themselves, and derail conversations. These folks are mostly done with the mainstream society that blindly trusts conventional authority. I mostly agree with their analysis and support them with favorites, retweets, and small financial contributions.

All the community they need is with each other.

Nothing is so straightforward for me. Most people in my life are white. I cannot so easily dismiss them, nor do I want to. White individuals have caused me stress, and others have been there for me. White people have told me awful race jokes I never again want to hear, and white people have marched alongside me at rallies and protests.

Some may read this as internalized racial oppression. It is. I am shaped by my upbringing. Many privileged black folks revel in being accepted by white America, in opting out of blackness (see: Raven Symone and Pharrell). I want no such thing. I am black and proud; being authentically black, for me, means something a bit different.

When Mike Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in August, something fundamentally shifted within. I felt called to act, to organize rallies and vigils in Denver.

Planning those rallies terrified me, but not because I feared the inevitable white backlash. I worried that I wasn’t “black enough.” I thought my being a Unitarian Universalist would put me on the margins of the movement.

I was wrong.

A black, Christian pastor I met at a Denver rally said to me, “As long as you’re not ashamed of your blackness, you can be one of them and one of us at the same time.”

And so it is.

At rallies for racial justice in Denver, UU ministers and laypeople have shown up. I have looked out and seen “my people.” They are black folks and white UUs.

This is, it seems, less true nationally. Our faith has a complicated racial history, and a less than stellar record on race presently. St. Louis-area UUs put out a call for ministers and UUs to come to Ferguson, to be present for Ferguson October. Some, like Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley and Rev. Julie Taylor, were there and proved vital. But not enough.

Hundreds of UUs are planning to go to Selma, AL in March 2015 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed writes in The Selma Awakening that, after years of absence, UUs came through and journeyed to Selma. Rev. Morrison-Reed argues that in Selma, “Unitarian Universalists’ values in practice snapped into alignment with their espoused values.”

Last summer I went to Selma as part of a moving road trip through the South. With a friend I walked from Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a muggy June evening. On the way we stopped at the marker honoring Rev. James Reeb, the white, Unitarian minister from Boston who was killed after answering Dr. King’s call for clergy to come to Selma.

Kneeling in front of Rev. Reeb’s marker drove me—to tears, and to an understanding of history’s importance. Finally, after ignoring the race problem for years, we showed up in Selma. But fifty years later, if we UUs show up in Selma in 2015 but not in Ferguson right now, and not for all those black and brown victims of police violence in the sadly inevitable future, we will not have learned from our past.

The harrowing truth is that I could be the next Mike Brown. My household had two parents. I have a college degree and a job. My pants don’t sag. When I’m out protesting or canvassing, though, none of that matters. I cannot opt out of blackness, and I do not want to. In the wrong situation, though, my respectable nature may not save me—from a racist police officer or citizen, nor from the ensuing character assassination. I would go from the decent, reasonably friendly guy some of you know to a mentally deranged (I have depression) Harvard dropout who was “no angel” and deserved what he got.

I know some of my people—black people—would come to my defense. Some UUs and other friends would, too. But would there be a broad movement on my behalf? Or would faith members send my dad and sisters thoughts and prayers before moving on?

These questions keep me up at night.

There are so many things to fight—and fight for—in the world. We mostly do a great job on climate justice and immigration. Our LGBTQ work has saved and changed lives. Black lives, too, are worth fighting for. When the next Ferguson happens—and sadly, it will—we can and must do more. We have to show up, be willing to follow others, and be willing to change ourselves.

Unitarian Universalists, you are my people. And UUs, my ‘other’ people—of which some of you are—need you. We need you to show up. We need you to listen and go beyond platitudes. Not everyone can travel hundreds of miles, but we can all do something—something beyond what we thought we could do. Oct. 22 is National Day Against Police Brutality, and several cities are hosting events.

The next call to action for racial justice has arrived. My people: Will we answer?

My people want to know.

How Long is 50 Years? My Civil Rights Trip Through the South

“Darnell! It’s so good to see you, honey. Give me a hug.”
My plate of collared greens, cornbread and two kinds of casserole still minutes away, I had only the glass of sweet tea to feebly distract me from the table to our immediate left.
Darnell, a young black man, had emerged from the kitchen, cleaning supplies and all,  at a popular diner in downtown Oxford, MS–much to the delight of the middle-aged white woman I’d only been vaguely aware of thirty seconds prior.

had previously noticed the man who turned out to be Darnell. He’d looked tired, even bored–but now his expression looked intimately familiar, as though he’d studied my face to learn its proper form. As the woman talked excitedly to him and introduced him to her group, tears approached my eyes. Her warmth and her friendliness reminded me of my now-deceased mother, and, at first glance, showed how far America has come from the days of Jim Crow. Fifty years is a long time, I thought.

And then I kept looking–at the woman, at her table, at Darnell, at the patrons in the restaurant, at our nation–and the question, sitting everywhere and waiting to be acknowledged, found me.

How long, really, is fifty years?

I left Denver Monday morning, June 2, with my friend Jen. We stayed a night in Oklahoma City before driving to Arkansas and beginning our tour through the South. Jen and I–twenty-somethings, a white woman and a black man–started with a pretty specific itinerary and ideas about what we’d find.
Over the ensuing thirteen days, we walked through parks and museums, looked at statues and rivers, and wandered small towns and big cities. Our reasons for going were complementary yet not identical, which worked for us.

I grew up “southern-ish,” spending my first fourteen years in the Houston metro area and my college days at the University of Missouri. Living in Denver and Boston helped teach me that neither the history of racial discrimination nor its present effects are limited to the South. Yet I suspected that I might find in Montgomery and Birmingham answers, and questions, that I wouldn’t find in Houston or Columbia.

And so we journeyed. The question–how long is fifty years?– proved omnipresent.

We didn’t need to travel the South to know this, but even so: America has changed. A young black man and a young white woman toured the South without major incident. We clicked with a white historian at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery and danced to an unforgettable cover of ‘Proud Mary’ with an integrated, middle-aged crowd on Beale Street in Memphis.
We toured famous black Baptist churches, large UU congregations, and worshipped at a black Bible church. We walked the elaborate, glitzy National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and stood alone in Money, Mississippi, at the marker where Emmett Till was abducted and killed in 1955.
We stayed with a white mentor of mine in Oklahoma City and a black mentor of mine in Little Rock. We took photos for white families in Athens and black families in the Smokies. We stayed with a black rower in Clemson and a white basketball stud in Atlanta. An older white woman offered me a tissue as I teared up inside the elder King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

And fifty-two years after James Meredith overcame a violent scene to become the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss, Jen and I sat in the Oxford, MS diner with white and black Ole Miss football players eating together on one side of us, and, among others, the woman who so liked Darnell on the other.

I looked at Jen and knew she, too, had her eyes on the scene. We’d found it: the personification of post-racial America. Then I shook my head and looked around. Patrons filled nearly all the restaurant’s tables, yet the only visibly black folks in the place were Darnell, myself, and an Ole Miss football player. I again looked at Darnell’s face, and again registered the familiarity of his facial expression.

His expression was a mask, a mask I put on too often.
At once, I understood: fifty years is a long time, but it’s not long enough.

The 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery did not start right at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, famously the site of Bloody Sunday. They began less than a mile away, at Brown Chapel A.M.E. church.
The marker at the church reads:
The demonstration that led to the most important advance in civil rights for millions of Black Americans began here March 21, 1965…This is a tribute to those who planned, encouraged, marched, were jailed, beaten, and died to change Black Americans from second class to first class citizens.

Brown Chapel stands in a mostly black housing project on, predictably, MLK Street. The walk hundreds made for freedom fifty years ago is now littered, metaphorically and otherwise, with evidence that the march both lifted millions up, and left millions behind. So many of us in suburbia grew up looking at pictures of the Brown Chapel steps in textbooks. Freedom was won there, we were told. The view out from the steps narrates a far more complex tale.

We walked silently from the church steps down MLK Street, past the James Reeb memorial and over to the Pettus bridge. Walking over the river and under the bride’s infamous sign, the font unchanged in fifty years, brought me more than goosebumps and tears. Darnell’s mask–my mask–swam to the front of my mind. The mask and the shoddy neighborhood surrounding Brown Chapel; the bridge and the simplistic tale of civil rights permeating our country’s racial discourse; my own racial frustrations and the disdain some people in my life have for me whenever I mention them–everything felt connected.

We grow up being told that racism is a matter of the mind and heart. Being racist is an individual action. Racists are somewhere, and someone, else. Racism, and racists, are mostly a thing of the past. And we grow up learning that Rosa Parks and Dr. King challenged white folks’ hearts and changed them. It’s clear that things are different, and we must acknowledge that. Jen and I can travel together, tour SEC campuses together, and sit on the steps of the Alabama state capitol together. Fifty years is a long time.

Fifty years has gotten us here: to the mask I saw on Darnell and know well myself. We are welcome, conditionally. We’re welcome in mainstream society, and welcomed, if. We’re welcome if our diction is like mine. We’re welcome if we smile a lot. We’re welcome if we don’t show anger. We’re welcome if we assimilate, if we don’t speak up too much or talk too loud. So many black folks are never given the tools to learn or the education to make it, and then people ask why they never made it, why they won’t do anything with their lives.

The next fifty years won’t automatically bring improvement. Contrary to popular belief, racism won’t end “one funeral at a time,” as ‘old racists’ die off. The next fifty years won’t be about the racial prejudice in our hearts or in our minds. The next fifty years will be about the racism in our policies, in our housing laws, in our school zones. Most of us don’t hate each other anymore–we just don’t know each other. We don’t understand each other.

And as someone who spends a lot of time as the only black person in spaces, I wear a mask. I wear a mask that talks sports and The West Wing, 90’s TV shows and Star Wars. My mask smiles often and patiently explains why something hurt me. My mask loves ultimate and doesn’t mind that I’m one of a handful of black players. My mask isn’t a lie, but it’s far from the whole truth.

I wear the mask to hide my loneliness, my weariness at always sticking out, my sadness that my attempts to change things get cast as race-baiting or ‘holding onto the past.’ I wear the mask to get along, to get through the days and weeks. I wear the mask because, in a strange way, it’s comfortable. I know it well, and it knows me.

The mask, which some black folks know well and I suspect Darnell at Ole Miss had on, gets to come off sometimes. It comes off when I talk with a handful of friends, most of them black. It comes off when I call my Aunt Michelle, a professor in California. And it came off in Selma, halfway between Brown Chapel and the Pettus Bridge, as I wept in front of the memorial for Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who was killed trying to help the march.

What we have to fight–redlining, police brutality, microaggressions, sexism, educational inequality, mass incarceration–it is different from what Rev. Reeb and others battled. It may feel less urgent to many.
Kneeling in front of Reeb’s marker just steps from the Bloody Sunday bridge allowed me to feel my purpose. In my own way–with patience and clarity and love of all people–I am supposed to continue the struggle. I am supposed to continue the march. Luckily, there are plenty of people from all races and backgrounds, gender identities and personality types, who are already walking.

We all have our roles. Mine is to ask, and try to answer, again and again:

Just how long is fifty years?

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