An open letter on why ‘Black Lives Matter’ to young white people: the historical case

I know that we’ve got a lot of white people in this country – and in this area in particular – who get very upset when they hear the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

Oftentimes these folks respond by saying “All Lives Matter,” or “Blue Lives Matter,” or maybe they just shake their heads, angrily and walk away. Nevertheless, I hope that you will consider listening to what I have to say before you crumple up this issue of The Pacer and slam it into the trash – consider, and weigh the evidence that I present here on its merits.

First, I hope you will acknowledge with me that in the history of this country black lives have not mattered. Black people, alone among the millions of people who came to this country, did not choose to come here. White people, or more specifically, rich white people, brought them to these shores in order to work tobacco, sugar, rice and, of course, cotton plantations: free labor for nearly two and a half centuries.

Through those long years the stolen, unpaid labor of these millions of people created the great wealth not only of the South, but of the North too, the North which bought, sold and transported slaves and the product of their labor.

Imagine, if you can, the life of a slave; put yourself in the position of that slave: no control over your time, up before dawn, working in the hot fields the whole of the day, eating on the go, to drop into a slumber late in the evening, only to start all over the following day. Be slow in getting up, break a tool while working, respond uncertainly to your master’s questions and be cruelly whipped, or be forced to whip your own brother or sister. Worse still: to be separated at a moment’s notice from your children, or your parents, or your wife, or your husband, they, or you, sold off to another master; to be the object of your master’s lust as a young female slave, and from whom you have no protection; or simply to be killed for any reason whatsoever.

Please do tell me that you can see that for longer than black people have been freed from slavery, their lives counted for nothing, that black lives did not matter.

And after slavery, more of the same: segregation, a system which denied you all rights, which constantly told you of your inferiority, made you bow and scrape before all white people, and which denied your children an education.

Perhaps you think that you are stronger than this, that you would not have allowed other people to continually humiliate you. Certainly, numerous black men and women resisted and tried to stand tall. But those who made the attempt too often fell victim to brutal lynch mobs – two hundred and fifty men and women lynched each and every year for thirty years in the early segregation era. Yes, lynched – not in some far away country, but right here in Martin, Tennessee, off Ralston Road; in Greenfield, just down the road; in Union City; and in Dyersburg – where hundreds of the town’s best citizens watched as the mob gouged the victim’s eyes out with hot pokers and burnt the whole of his back with hot irons, taking three hours to kill the man. Not one member of that lynch mob, or any lynch mob, ever faced repercussions for the murders they’d committed. Surely a society in which it was possible to do such things counted black lives as of no matter.

So, yes, from a strictly historical perspective, black people are entirely justified in demanding that this country acknowledge that Black Lives Do Matter. Equally important: it is necessary for the mental and emotional well-being of America’s white population, and of American society as a whole, that we not only acknowledge but proclaim that Black Lives Matter. Any other response on our part will guarantee that this country will not know peace, that we will continue to live the lie that white people are better than black people. And here’s the thing: I doubt that you could find a single white person in this country over thirty years of age who doesn’t know that white supremacy is a lie, is a hoax, a hoax whose façade can only be maintained with violence and more violence. Violence against others, yes, but a far more fearful violence against our own souls.

Here ends my first letter to you. I hope to write again, soon, with a look at how the Black Lives Matter demand first came to be articulated, and the evidence that says that here, today, in this country, Black Lives continue to not Matter for American society and its institutions.

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