By Terri Lee Freeman, Museum President
I have always looked at the glass as half full as opposed to empty. But even so, I consider myself more of a pragmatist than an optimist. As an African American woman, I’ve experienced how ugly the world can be. I’ve experienced both blatant and more insidious racism. I’ve been called a nigger. I’ve been assumed to be the assistant to my white CFO when, in fact, I was the CEO. I’ve watched white men who held my same position, with less academic and practical experience, be given double the salary. This reality is not just mine. Many African American women and men can speak to the micro- (and macro) aggressions they experience daily. But this week has been another particularly bad week for African Americans and a week when all Americans should hang their heads in shame.
Just as we were moving toward hopeful justice for Ahmaud Arbery, killed by three white vigilantes, this week we literally watched the murder of George Floyd by an overzealous police officer who placed his knee on a hand-cuffed Mr. Floyd’s neck. To do what, further restrain him or kill him? We are haunted by George Floyd’s words on the video, as we have heard them before from Eric Garner, also murdered at the hand of the police. “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” Onlookers urged the police to ease up and reiterated that Mr. Floyd could not breathe, but to no avail.
Criminals should be punished, but surely the alleged crime of forgery did not merit a death sentence. Nor did the crime of selling single cigarettes, or being a passenger in a car even with a permit to carry a firearm (the 2nd Amendment applies to us too, right?), or being a boy playing with a toy gun in a park, or walking in your neighborhood with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea in your pocket. All crimes apparently punishable by death if you are a black man in America.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, along comes Amy Cooper who blatantly, and quite dramatically, lied to the police that her life was being threatened by Christian Cooper, an African American man birdwatching in Central Park. She was the one breaking the law. Thankfully, her lie backfired. But for far too many African American men their murder has been precipitated by a false accusation from a white woman. In 1955, Emmett Till’s 14-year old brutalized body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River after a white woman in Money, Mississippi accused him of whistling at her in a neighborhood store. She lied.
These are the very real issues black men face daily. When will this madness end?! When will we be afforded true justice? When will we stop being seen as threats to whiteness? Or is it hate not fear that motivates white people to endanger our lives? I am no more a threat to your whiteness than you are to my blackness!
When will America get a grip and extend the constitutional freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to us? If you consider yourself an accomplice in the fight for justice and against discrimination, we need you now more than ever! We can no longer simply be outraged when these incidents occur. If you say nothing in the face of these constant wrongs you become complicit in oppression.
I have the honor of working in a place that stands as a monument to the many African Americans and other allies who died for our rights and freedoms. We cannot allow their sacrifice, or the sacrifice of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and so many others to be in vain. We must call this behavior what it is…criminal.