By Lacey Williams
I grew up in a household that did not celebrate Black History Month. Though I knew about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Black History Month did not mean much to me because it was for black people and I am white.
It wasn’t until college that I began to realize the amazing gift our country was given through the civil rights movement. We were given the opportunity to reconcile our constitutional values of equality with our actions, once and for all. People in power were forced to admit the absurdity of “separate but equal.” It was black people who pushed white people forward.
I think it is telling that people like my younger self have a hard time seeing themselves in the history of the movement for civil rights, or of racism in general. Despite our reluctance to see these as “white issues,” the truth is that we were always there. It may just be that it’s hard to admit our place honestly.
In the Jim Crow South, we were the ones benefiting from American Apartheid. States used money allotted for the educational welfare of all children to ensure that white students had access to superior facilities and resources, while giving the scraps to black schools. Whites had access to better jobs because black people were actively denied. We had better housing because red lines were drawn. While we had access to safety, black folks were terrorized through violence and lynching.
Racism is not just a system of denying; it is also one of conferring. White people were conferred supremacy while black folks were denied dignity.
When the history of the civil rights movement is told like a story, it is easy to discern the heroes and villains. You have your Dr. Kings, your Rosa Parks, your Dorothy Counts, all taking up the mantle of progress and doing what they thought had to be done. You also have your Bull Connors, your White Citizens’ Councils, your Strom Thurmonds, using violence and rhetoric to oppress.
But this story has other characters that go beyond the heroes and villains. Most modern whites are descended from the nameless faces in the crowds that were witnesses to this history. Connor may have released the dogs in Birmingham, Ala., but we watched them bite from the safety of our homes. South Carolina’s Thurmond may have filibustered the Civil Rights Act, but we nodded in agreement while reading our daily papers. We are captured in the iconic photograph of young Dorothy Counts, dressed in finely pressed linens, walking to a new school for the first time, proud to be the first African-American to integrate a white school in Charlotte. We are the ones spitting on her, screaming obscenities, and the ones watching from our yards, actively refusing to intervene.
It is true that not all whites acted with hate or carried the same views as the segregationists. But when I look at the pictures of the marches and rallies, I don’t see us. It is only in the pictures of violence and hate that I see us represented in full force.
The question I often ask myself is, “Who would I be?” If in December 1955, I was riding a downtown bus in Montgomery, heading in the direction of history, what would my role be? Would I be the bus driver who notified police that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat? Would I be the arresting officer blindly enforcing unjust laws? Would I be the mayor fighting tooth and nail against integration? Or would I have been the homemaker who borrowed her husband’s car to aid the resulting boycott? In a sea of white faces involved, who would I have been? Then I realize, chances are I would have been the white person seated across the aisle from Ms. Parks, who raised her paper to avoid being witness at all.
But this is the wrong question to ask. The right question is, “Who am I now?” Who am I in the struggle for racial justice when our schools are more segregated today than on the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated? Who am I today when a person can be detained indefinitely because he is Muslim? Who am I today when we are amending our North Carolina Constitution to say that a family with same-gender parents is not really a family? Who am I today when we dehumanize and subjugate the immigrants who pick our food and build our infrastructure?
The struggle for a better America, like Black History Month, doesn’t just belong to the oppressed; the enormity of what has been accomplished and the dreams left unrealized cannot be captured in a month. We owe it to each other to see our true selves in the struggles of the past and to commit our best selves to the struggles of the present.
The question now is: Who are you?
[Originally published in Creative Loafing Charlotte. Posted with permission.]