On Memorial Day, as we celebrated the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in service to the country, George Floyd lay dying on the streets of Minneapolis. On that day, I watched the film Tuskegee Airmen about the first group of black aviators during World War II.
A scene in the film brought home the anxiety felt daily by most African Americans, especially
veterans, about our place in America. The actor, Andre Braugher, as Colonel Benjamin O. Davis,
Jr., Commander of the Fighting 99th, spoke of the challenges of being black and a soldier serving our country. Speaking to a Senate subcommittee, he said:
“I was brought up to believe that, beneath it all, Americans are a decent people with an abiding sense of integrity and fair play…. As a United States Army Officer who gladly puts his life on the line every day, there is no greater conflict within me. How do I feel about my country and how does my country feel about me?”
I live with that same conflict. I was born in 1954, the year the Supreme Court decided the case of Brown v. Board, outlawing segregation in public schools. But it was 16 years (1970) before I attended an integrated school in Arkansas. In 1974, I volunteered for the U.S. Army and trained at Fort Polk, Louisiana (named after a Confederate general).
While serving in Germany, the KKK burned crosses in my company area. I was accused of being a leader of a black militant group, charged with assault and tried in a special court-martial. Although I was acquitted of all charges and received an honorable discharge, the experience had a profound impact on me. The anger I felt at the injustice of it all, inspired me to work with veterans, led me to community organizing, teaching and the law. Despite these benign and malignant examples of racism, I have maintained my belief and hope in America – sentiments I have passed on to my children.
My mother always told me that God works in mysterious ways. The fact that I was tried and acquitted in a criminal justice system that I believed to be unfair was transformative. It showed me that the system can achieve a just result. But I am not naïve. As a black man, I know my situation reflects the exception and not the rule. Recent events, bear this out and pose a challenge to my hopes and dreams for a country that nurtures us all (e.g., Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Amy Cooper, Rayshard Brooks, to name a few).
Racism is a virus in our country and when we have attempted to address it, we have done so only with half-measures, tinkering around the ages, never fully treating the problem. Like a virus, if you don’t take the full course of antibiotics (attacking racism and inequality in all of its socio-economic dimensions), the symptoms will return. We are witnessing the re-segregation of our schools, a resurgence of voter suppression, mass incarceration of black men and women, and the serial killings of black people by law enforcement. Addressing systemic racism in “fits and starts” doesn’t work. The time for half-measures is over.
I am gratified to see citizens of all races and ages in the street protesting for civil rights and equality, especially here in Arkansas. Like it or not, Arkansas, albeit reluctantly, has played a significant role in the advancement of racial justice and equality. Out of the Elaine Massacre in 1919, we got the case of Moore v. Dempsey, one of the first cases where the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to guarantee the constitutional rights of black criminal defendants in state courts. Similarly, we were the tip of the spear in the implementation of Brown v. Board and the integration of public schools (Little Rock Central – 1957).
We have some unfinished business in Arkansas, and we should resist the urge to be just spectators in this national moment. If we believe in equality (and I believe most of us do), we have to stop reacting and be proactive in securing equal rights and justice for all citizens. The Racial Disparities in the Arkansas Criminal Justice System Research Project (UALR William H. Bowen School of Law – 2015) pointed out that significant racial disparities exist throughout our criminal justice system. This will not change by itself. It will only change when we decide to act and lead.
Editor’s note: William Hanson, is the Democratic candidate for U.S Congress in District 4, which covers counties in Arkansas. The opinions expressed are those of the author.