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Thinking about racial justice

Iconic image of the 1967 riot from the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal.

I saw “I Am Not your Negro” at the Zinema with students and faculty in the Writing Studies major at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The movie blends archival footage of author James Baldwin with language from one of his unfinished manuscripts. The movie threads in contemporary images of racial injustice in the United States to remind us that we still have a long way to go to earn racial equality.

A significant portion of the movie is in color, which startled me. The 1960s were a long time ago for me because the world was clearly in black and white then. (The 1980s were in color because that was when my family bought our first color TV.)  In my imagination, Baldwin and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King lived in an alien, black-and-white world.  

Seeing the civil rights struggle in color in the movie reduced my sense of historical distance.  Including contemporary footage of protests in Ferguson amid scenes of protests in the 1960s reinforced my feeling that the world of the civil rights movement is our world, today, too.

I grew up in Milwaukee, not Duluth, so the most heated parts of the Civil Rights movement were part of my family’s memory. In the early 1960s, Milwaukee’s Third Street was a vibrant commercial corridor for affluent (white) families.  My grandparents still had memories of the neighborhood, just six blocks from their home, as it was before “the riots.”

In 1967, protests grew into riots over four days. Broken windows. Four deaths, hundreds of injuries. Fires. More than a thousand arrests. The mayor asked for the National Guard, established a curfew and forbade the sale of alcohol. It was for my white family a traumatic event. It was the moment their neighborhood changed irrevocably and the moment their world turned upside down.

They had a story, repeated often from the front porch where they sat after dinner in retirement.

In 1967, a policeman approached them. Their home was on the intersection of Holton and North, a major intersection with shops and a gas station. From their upstairs bedroom window, you could see at least a block in all directions. The police wanted to position snipers in their upstairs bedroom. This way they could control the riot in case it moved from Third Street toward Holton. My grandparents said no. At times, as they retold the story, it was with some small pride. They had done the right thing.

My grandfather thought himself a hero after this small but defiant act to protect the protesters and it was a step. He made the decision due to multiple factors, some which may never be known.  But one factor was less than heroic. He felt pressure from the neighbors to stay out of it. He wasn’t taking a side on behalf of protesters. He was hoping not to take a side at all.  

And in any case, this one choice does not erase the pervasive racism members of my family continued to exhibit in language and actions after the riots. Their world turned upside down and they would have given anything to live in the world they remembered, before the riots, when people of color were invisible to them.  

“I Am Not Your Negro” reminds me that although many legal actions have been taken to reduce institutional racism, it still is pervasive today. The film is a reminder that the work of creating racial justice isn’t done. My family’s story reminds me that we can’t step aside and let that work happen.  There is work to do.

David Beard

David Beard is associate professor of rhetoric and director of the Master of Liberal Studies program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.