The Greatest Apology to Black Men Is Changed Behavior
By Dirk A. Butler
Vice President, Community Impact and Engagement, United Way of the National Capital Area, resident of Bowie, MD
To process what’s been going on in the country and experiences that have happened in my own life, I’ve been having conversations with my brothers at work, friends, family, and people with whom I grew up. Collectively, we’ve come to identify that people don’t love Black men. They don’t care for us, don’t cheer for us, and don’t love us; therefore, it’s easy for them to extinguish our lives.
While it hurts to know that you’re not loved, what’s even more damaging is knowing that you can’t express that hurt. You can’t take a moment to be vulnerable. You’re trapped in an incessant cycle of pain that we’ve learned to ignore. The result of that pain is self-destruction, and that’s what systemic oppression wants. And when you see that pain in the Black men murdered, the sense of powerlessness and fear, that realization of not being loved turns from theoretical to a hard fact.
The debilitating paradox of wanting to be soft and vulnerable but toughening our callous is what Black men face. Some of us are just now waking up to our truths and our fears: we’re afraid of being shot, sent to prison or killed for something we didn’t do. We want a system that uplifts us from being miseducated, living beneath our potential, and curtailing our chances at success.
There’s never been a sanctioned place for Black men to process those fears and emotions. As we march, protest and try to lift liberation and justice, know that the solution is much deeper than systemic and policy change. Black men need catharsis—an opportunity to feel, to soften, and to heal. To hear that society and the country as a whole have failed them and the many generations prior at every turn—educationally, academically, economically, mortally. The hurt and trauma we’ve experienced is not a perceived conspiracy but historically documented. We need a space of public discourse to work through the traumas that America has enacted on us. Then, we can begin to heal.
As humans, each of us knows the first step to recovery starts with an apology. As small children, as soon as we can speak the words, we are asked to apologize for our faults. It’s uncomfortable and we fumble, but the lesson learned is accountability for our actions, words, or wrongdoing. The greatest apology my brothers and sisters can receive at this point is changed behavior. A change in behavior of how you view and work with Black men and women. Help us finally and rightfully see ourselves differently—having equal power, worth and value. Let this changed behavior be the beacon after the spotlight of our work for change begins to wane. Let your actions show us that you are here to persevere and stay steadfast. Continue to show us that you are on the right side of history, the right side of the work fighting for equity and the right side of humanity.
This piece is part of a collection of stories told by African American male colleagues at United Way NCA. To hear more, please visit: https://unitedwaynca.org/podcast
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Van Hollen, Cardin Introduce John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act
WASHINGTON (July 23, 2020)—U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin (both D-Md.) have joined Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in introducing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bipartisan bill to restore the landmark Voting Rights Act, end the scourge of minority voter suppression, and help preserve the legacy of John Lewis—one of America’s greatest civil rights heroes.
In 2013, the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted critical voter protections within the Voting Rights Act, crippling the federal government’s ability to prevent discriminatory changes to state voting laws and procedures. In the wake of Shelby County, states across the country unleashed a torrent of voter suppression schemes that have systematically disenfranchised minority voters. These patently discriminatory efforts to restrict access to the ballot box undermine the progress and equality that John Lewis fought hard over the decades to achieve, from his time as a civil rights movement leader to his tenure in Congress. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore and modernize the Voting Rights Act, as well as provide the federal government with other critical tools to combat what has become a full-fledged assault on Americans’ right to vote.
“John Lewis fought his whole life for every single American’s right to participate in our democracy. While Majority Leader McConnell praised Lewis’s work after his death, he has still refused to allow a vote on the bill Lewis championed to restore the Voting Rights Act and knock down barriers to voting that disproportionately disenfranchise people of color,” said Senator Van Hollen. “The House version of this bill has been on McConnell’s desk for almost eight months—to truly honor Lewis’s legacy and life’s work, the Senate must act.”
“In order to fully honor John Lewis’ life and legacy and the historic struggle to guarantee voting rights for all Americans, we must restore the monumental bill he and so many others risked their lives to secure,” said Senator Cardin. “The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, is a chance for us to make clear yet again that we cannot stand by as voter suppression and the disenfranchisement of communities of color infringes upon the rights of citizens and our democratic values. Actions speak louder than words; the Senate must pass this bill to continue our late colleagues’ life’s work and hold our nation true to its most fundamental promise.”
Calling on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to allow a vote on this vital bipartisan legislation, Senator Leahy said: “John called voting ‘the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.’ He was right. And that’s why we cannot stand idly by while states engage in flagrant suppression schemes to take this tool away from marginalized communities. The House already passed the companion to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in December. Now we must do our part. We cannot claim to honor the life of John Lewis if we refuse to carry on his life’s work.”
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To Be Equal: In John Lewis’ Honor, “Speak Out for the Heritage of Equality and Justice” and Restore the Voting Rights Act
“Although the court did not deny that voter discrimination still exists, it gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law. Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote. I want to say to them, Come and walk in my shoes.”
—Congressman John Lewis, reacting to the U.S Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013
For those of us whose work is focused on racial justice and voting rights, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act felt like a punch to the gut.
For John Lewis, it can only have felt like a knife to the heart.
When Lewis died last week at the age of 80, every tribute mentioned that his skull was fractured by an Alabama state trooper on March 7, 1965, as he led 600 peaceful marchers out of Selma, Alabama, on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery.
By then, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the organization Lewis led, had been working to register Black voters in the south for three years. He called the Selma Campaign “the single event that gave birth to the Voting Rights Act”—landmark legislation that was seven decades in the making.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 enshrined the doctrine of “separate but equal” and unleashed the Jim Crow era of legal segregation across the south. But these laws could not survive unless Black people were prohibited from voting and electing anti-segregation lawmakers. It was the decision Williams v. Mississippi in 1898 that allowed the disenfranchisement of Black citizens through poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses that exempted white voters from these restrictions.
Even if they could navigate the nearly impossible restrictions, Black people could be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, boycotted and denied loans for registering to vote.
The rise of “Citizenship Schools” that helped Black registrants study for the literacy test prompted Alabama officials to Alabama changed the test 4 times in less than two years. In her memoir, Witness to Change, my mother, Sybil Haydel Morial, described the humiliation of Clara, a woman she had tutored: “That mean man was so ugly to me. He told me I wasn’t smart enough to vote. I know I had the right identification, I read the Preamble [to the Constitution] without any mistakes and I passed that citizenship test. My age in years, months and days was right, because you helped me figure it out. Mrs. Morial, will I ever be able to vote?”
But far more than these onerous literacy tests, it was the threat of violence that kept Black people from voting. “If economic pressure proved insufficient, the Ku Klux Klan was ready with violence and mayhem. Cross-burnings. Night riders. Beatings. Rapes. Church bombings. Arson of businesses and homes. Murder and mob lynchings, drive-by shootings and sniper assassinations,” according to the Civil Rights Movement Archive.
John Lewis knew he was taking his life in his hands, not just that day on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, but every day he spent working to register Black voters. But, he told an interviewer in 2015, “We didn’t have a choice. I think we had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history, and we couldn’t—we couldn’t turn back. We had to go forward. We became like trees planted by the rivers of water. We were anchored. And I thought we would die. I first thought we would be arrested and go to jail, but I thought it was a real possibility that some of us would die on that bridge.”
John Lewis paid for the Voting Rights Act with his own blood. The Supreme Court made a mockery of his sacrifice when it gutted the Act, saying the country had changed and states no longer needed federal oversight to protect Black voters from discrimination. States across the nation wasted no time in showing the Court how wrong it was, enacting a torrent of racially-motivated voter suppression laws. Shelby v. Holder, a blatant violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, will live in infamy among the Court’s most grievous mistakes, along with Plessy v. Ferguson, Williams v. Mississippi and Dred Scott v. Sandford.
In December, Lewis presided over the House of Representatives as it passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act, to repair the damage of Shelby. The Senate’s continued refusal to pass the bill would be an insult to Lewis’ memory.
In his words, “We must confront the fact that there are forces in our society that want to reverse that democratic legacy. They do not want to be subject to the will of the people, but prefer a society where the wealthy have a greater say in the future of America than their numbers would dictate. They want to eliminate checks and balances and pave a route to a freewheeling environment for corporations to make money, even at the expense of the least and most vulnerable among us. All we have to do is say no to this tyranny and begin to stand up and speak out for the heritage of equality and justice most Americans believe in.”
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ChildWatch: Lessons from Geese: Standing By Each Other in Difficult Times
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we human beings had as much sense of community as geese? During an Outward Bound experience in Maine, participants read these lessons we humans can learn from geese that bear repeating, considering and sharing in these trying times.
Lessons from Geese
As each goose flaps its wings it creates an “uplift” for the birds that follow. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds 71 percent greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.
People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.
When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.
If we have as much sense as a goose we stay in formation with those headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give our help to others.
When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to the point position.
It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. As with geese, people are interdependent on each other’s skills, capabilities and unique arrangements of gifts, talents or resources.
The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater. The power of encouragement (to stand by one’s heart or core values and encourage the heart and core of others) is the quality of honking we seek.
When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.
If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.
Lessons from Geese was transcribed from a speech by Angeles Arrien at the 1991 Organizational Development Network. It was based on the work of Milton Olson and shared with Outward Bound alumni.
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