The Past is not Dead, It’s not even Past

8/21/2014, 5:20 p.m.

Remembrance of things past is never more than a click away nowadays, particularly for those veteran civil- and human-rights activists of the ‘60s and ‘70s who fought against Jim Crow racism in the South or dared to defy the draconian system of apartheid in South Africa. Those images of bygone days are now seemingly everywhere in the wake of the chokehold homicide of Eric Garner in early August on Staten Island and the more recent “execution” of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

To see the destructive potential, the absolute militarization of the police force in Ferguson, is a chilling reminder of Birmingham, Ala, when Bull Connor was the orchestrator of brutality, who unleashed his goon squad to administer blasts from fire hoses and sic dogs on protesters, armed only with an understanding that discrimination relegated them to a second-class citizenship under laws that in the tradition of Dred Scott declared that Black people had no rights that white folks were bound to respect.

The phalanx of policemen heavily protected by riot gear, with high-powered weapons, gas masks, and stun grenades—and backed by armored vehicles and the National Guard—were images straight from Soweto and Sharpeville, where hundreds of demonstrators, fed up with an inhuman, immoral and barbaric system sacrificed their lives to bring down the walls of segregation.

We are outraged again that unarmed Black men are either the victims of illegal tactics, including a policy outlawed by the NYPD since 1993, or gunned down because they refused to immediately follow the commands of an apparent impatient officer who sought no other alternative but to shoot to kill.

The senseless killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, sadly, are not aberrations. These young men’s tragic encounters are the stuff the media thrives on, though there are countless other incidents of similar loss and sorrow that never make the 24-hour news cycle. There are hundreds of other young men and women of color who are only a minor infraction away from being another statistic.

Bull Connor, Lester Maddox, George Wallace and Ross Barnett—these gatekeepers of white supremacy are no longer with us, but some of the terrible things they represented are still DNA-deep in our troubled society, and nowhere is this more evident than the current standoff we see nightly from Ferguson.

It is good to know that Attorney General Eric Holder is now in Ferguson and that there appears to be some action to impanel a grand jury. But these steps do not get at the core of a nationwide problem that is systemic.

As we learned from the great prophet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., justice delayed is justice denied, and it is unfathomable that the law-enforcement officials in Ferguson took so long to reveal the name of the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. One thing that has clearly motivated the protesters is the lack of transparency. Michael Brown’s body lay in the streets for all to see, but the shooter was spirited away until he could be revealed along with the supposed image of the victim robbing a store, an obvious ploy to justify the officer’s action.

We applaud the fact that a full investigation is underway; that the Brown family has secured its own independent autopsy, and the creaky gears of justice are moving toward what we hope is the truth. But not until police officers who violate the law are arrested, tried, convicted, and properly punished for their misdeeds can we expect a cessation of their disregard for human life.

We are also concerned about the absence of solid leadership in Ferguson, a city with all vestiges of the Deep South, those “sundown” towns, where a Black person’s life was at the mercy of lynch law and the Ku Klux Klan. It is incredible that in a town where the population is 60 percent African American that Blacks are virtually invisible on the police force, where out of 53 officers, only three are Black. This is the kind of glowing disparity that is a recipe for disaster. And, once again, this situation is not an anomaly.

Who to blame and what’s to be done are the burning questions of the day, and we have no easy answers here other than a continuing vigilance to the excess of injustice that seems to exist in every niche and sinecure of our society. Racism in America is like roaches, you think you’ve stamped it out in one place, in one era, only to discover its resurgence elsewhere; just when the nation was excited about a Black president, we discover that his presence, his executive authority has only brought the haters out in the open.

The only weapon we have here are our words and to some extent our deeds. We all have to do more to rid the country of the persistent inequities in education, industry, the criminal justice system, and certainly in the media where we are eternally committed to shed light and join those who are willing to place their bodies on the ramparts and against those who would deny our rights and opportunities in America.

William Faulkner’s famous line, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past,” is apropos, but our only wish is that Ferguson is more about the past than what looms ahead.