Hands of the Strong: Get Off My Shoulders!

“Get Off My Shoulders!  There is Work to Be Done.”

Amelia Boynton Robinson, 103, back in Selma with President Obama
Amelia Boynton Robinson, 103, back in Selma with President Obama

No one said it better.  “Get off my shoulders!  There is work to be done.”  Amelia Boynton Robinson was responding to those who sought to honor her by saying they were “standing on her shoulders.”  In March 1965 she nearly lost her life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  Severely beaten, unconscious, she was left for dead.  On March 7, 2015, at age 103, this time in a wheel chair and holding the hand of President Obama, she crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.


“Get off my shoulders” she says, “There is work to be done.”

images-5Work to be done?  In 2015?  Yes, there is.  Don’t we have an African American President?  Isn’t this a Post-Racial society?  Well, yes our president is African American… but NO this is not a post racial society.

Today, less than a week after the remembrance of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” we see video of members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a song full of racial vitriol and threat.  What is happening?  From Ferguson, Missouri there is the tragic shooting of two police officers at a rally outside the police station.  What is this about?

Yes, Ms. Boynton Robinson, THERE IS WORK TO BE DONE.

Racism continues to plague our society.  There are many causes, many reasons.  Racism remains because some view it too simplistically and some see it as overwhelmingly complex.  Some seem to imply that by simply cleaning up our language and no longer tolerating certain words (or by ending fraternity songs), we will eliminate racism.  I hear former congressman and television personality Joe Scarborough opining that the use of such language wasn’t a part of his experience growing up in the south or attending the University of Alabama.   There was racism around but he seemed to suggest he didn’t participate.  Really?  The implication seems to be that if we would all just clean up our language, we could end racism.  We might eliminate blatant, red-neck racist words but, while laudable, that would not be sufficient.  Language, while important, is one of the least essential elements contributing to the persistence of racism.

Language and behavior are not always aligned.  Prejudice and discrimination can be distinct realms.  Sociologists for decades have shown that what people say and how they act don’t always match.  It is possible for one to have pure language and only noble thoughts (good luck with that) and still act in ways that exclude, belittle and diminish another. 

Racism can also appear to be overwhelming as it is so complex.  Prejudice and discrimination are only two elements in this wicked brew.  There are also deeply embedded institutional and cultural patterns.    We could elect an African American president and still see the dismantling of voters rights in our nation.  This is the other side of our dilemma — we can treat racism as so complex that there is little we individually can do about it.  This is when the words “get off my shoulders” take on special meaning.  We are to keep moving ahead against the forces of injustice, despite the complexities.

For example, how will we now see the situation in Ferguson?  There is absolutely no justification for the shooting of two police officers simply because they are seeking to keep a demonstration peaceful.  My prayers are with those men who were shot — and their families.  It is also my hope that arrests are made soon.  The irony, of course, is that the rally on the evening of March 11, 2015 should have been one of celebration.  The U. S. Justice Department had documented the on-going patterns of discrimination and institutional damages against the black citizen in Ferguson over many years.  Changes were being made, judges and officials are being replaced by persons committed to making change.

And what happens now?  More violence.  This time directed toward the police — police there from other municipalities.  Is this what we have come to?  Are we really so caught up in an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice that anyone could think such a shooting is justified?  Faced with such patterns of revenge, I am astonished that the shooting of these officers in Ferguson did not result in greater violence.  The restraint of the police officials on the scene is, in my view, nothing short of remarkable — and is doubly worthy of praise. 

Now the question my friend — should the protests in Ferguson continue, even after these shootings?  It is not my call.  Others on the scene who are committed to nonviolence need to make this tough decision.  However, if there are citizens who still feel their voices have not been heard, then…  yes, the right to peaceful protest remains essential.  Such are the complexities of dealing with race in our time.  What is on display in Ferguson requires deeper thought and careful study.  The killing of Michael Brown this summer only tore the scab off of a wound that runs decades deep.  I commend to the reader the exceptional research done by Richard Rothstein on housing and job discrimination in St. Louis over the past century. These decades-old practices of racial discrimination helped established the template for the challenges we face today.  What is true of St. Louis is true of every city in our nation.  This report can be found at: http://s3.epi.org/files/2014/making-of-ferguson-final.pdf.

A video interview with Mr. Rothstein can be seen at: http://www.epi.org/event/the-making-of-ferguson-with-sherrilyn-ifill-and-richard-rothstein/

The mystery of why racism persists may lie in our temptation to view it too simply — or to become overwhelmed by the complexities of continuing institutional and cultural realities.  Most of us live our lives in places where we don’t easily see how we can make a difference.  We can be careful in our language and be nice to others but is there more?  We are more comfortable standing on the shoulders of others rather than seeing the work around us to be done.  This work may be as simple as greeting a friend, or as challenging as joining a protest march. 

Many of you make a difference every day, in your places of work or play.  Sometimes it is a smile, sometimes an appreciative or corrective word, sometimes it is making a donation, sometimes it is writing an elected official, sometimes it is joining a project that affirms racial justice.

This past fall a group of friends gathered in Chicago to celebrate my spouse Elaine’s birthday.  I watched and listened remembering the ways Elaine has learned and acted to seek racial justice.  Like Joe Scarborough, she grew up in north Florida.  She too was taught not to say ugly racist words.  However, she looks back with astonishment on the reality of discrimination, segregation and Jim Crow laws in Tallahassee where she grew up.  I have been privileged to watch as Elaine has journeyed ahead in her own ways, seeking to end discrimination and promote racial justice.  Her work over the years as teacher, school board member, advocate for justice and her life as friend to so many signals an abiding witness to the work that still is to be done. 

Recently I was surprised when Elaine said she had arranged to volunteer in a school nearby.  I was proud for her and I also chuckled to myself when thinking about the witness Elaine will be making.    

Dr. Adrienne Mims and Dr. Elaine Amerson, September 28, 2014.

There is work that we all have to do.  Won’t you join?