This month, on June 19th—Juneteenth—many in the black community will celebrate the end of slavery. In a twisted chain of events, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were the last in the country to learn their freedom had been granted. While emancipation was effective on January 1, 1863, Union soldiers didn’t bring the message to Texas until June 19, 1865, almost two-and-a-half years later. That was the moment.
Will the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin also be remembered as the moment? Will May 25, 2020 stand as the day when America finally understood racism and bias are real, the tipping point, the day leading to racial justice, not just for Floyd, but for all African Americans?
The image of Chauvin, with his hand casually in his pocket as he pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck until he died, could be the picture marking a racial epiphany for America. When I watched the videos of Floyd’s murder, I thought of the grainy images from a century ago of smiling white families, ‘enjoying’ the prospect of a lynching. In case you missed that in history, men, women, and children often came out on a Sunday afternoon to be ‘entertained’ by a human being twisting at the end of a hangman’s rope.
“Black bodies swinging in the summer breeze … Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…” sang Billie Holiday in 1939.
The song’s lyrics originated as a poem – ‘Bitter Fruit’—written by Jewish-American writer, teacher, and songwriter Abel Meeropol. He wrote it in 1937 as a protest against lynching. Although fearing reprisal, Holiday sang the piece with specific rules for that part of her performance. There must be reverence. She would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on her face, and there would be no encore.
Eighty-one years later, was Chauvin—sensing his own limelight—offering a macabre form of sick entertainment, and conscious of it? Mesmerizing the crowd, showing the power he had over George Floyd as he cavalierly murdered an unarmed, handcuffed man? Black oppression is real. Has white America finally got it?
I think—I hope—so. I see and hear a difference in the language used and actions taken. Sadly, the event isn’t substantively different from so many in the past and the marchers with uplifted signs may seem the same, but the responses by those in power seem different. I see chiefs of police kneeling in solidarity with peaceful protesters. News commentators acknowledge that most protesters are nonviolent, but agitators have been brought in to foment hate and destruction. I hear elected officials stating the unrest in their cities and states has been brewing for decades as racism and bias have gone unacknowledged and unaddressed. I see Facebook posts asking how white allies can be engaged. People are looking not just at what happened, but why it happened and they are calling for change.
It is far too early to know where these responses may lead. But I don’t recall this level of what seems to be racial understanding being revealed in the past. Are these just platitudes, idle gestures? Maybe. I hope not. I prefer to think there was a confluence of events, a perfect storm. The pandemic with the resulting unemployment of thousands already underemployed. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February. Breonna Taylor, killed in her home in Louisville in March. The racial profiling of Christian Cooper combined with the killing of George Floyd. All have revealed—powerfully and clearly—racial injustice in America. I feel a difference. I pray this is not merely my hope. This has to be real. America cannot continue as it is.
We know our country has been flawed from its beginning. Founded on racism and bias in favor of wealthy white men. That faulty foundation has remained stable for centuries. The cracks and fissures now seem too large to ignore. We may finally be ready to address the original sin and the decades-long repercussions.
I am fully committed to envisioning and creating a racially just, racially equitable America. The time is now, this is the moment.