Thursday, October 20, 2016

Why Sing the National Anthem When We’re Still Chanting

“I Am a Man” . . . “Fight the Power” . . . “No Justice, No Peace” . . . “I Have a Dream” . . . “We Shall Overcome” . . . “Can’t We All Just Get Along” . . . “I am Trayvon” . . . “I Can’t Breathe” . . . “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” . . . “Black Lives Matter”.

They're all slogans sparked by injustices. From the 1968 “I Am a Man” slogan protesting the neglect and abuse of black Memphis sanitation workers to the 2013 “Black Lives Matter” slogan protesting the abuse and killings of blacks by public officials and private citizens. Sadly, people-of-color have been chanting these and similar slogans for decades; fighting injustices for well over a century.

Now, generations after “I Am a Man,” people-of-color are now chanting “Black Lives Matter” and saying “No” to the National Anthem. Why? It’s a question with its answers deeply imbedded in the bowels of American history. Answers, America either refuses to acknowledge (or perhaps wishes to forget) or have willfully turned a blind eye to. Unfortunately, my family, like so many others, are a part of that history (shameful as it is) and choose not to forget. That shameful Pandora box reopened—for all the misery and evils to be uncovered—when I went back to a place from my childhood (Metter, Georgia) and reacquainted myself with relatives I hadn’t seen in twenty years.

Black Lives Matter Protesters/iStock by Getty Images
A visit prompted by my need to find out more about a story—theft by deception, white supremacy, racism, murder, revenge, family flight, loss of wealth—passed down from one generation to the next. Its gravity sinking in when the Black Lives Matter and National Anthem debate came into question: “Why Black Lives Matter?” people asked. “It should be All Lives Matter!” they shouted. “I dare Kaepernick not show his patriotism by not standing for the National Anthem.” Responses leaving many dumbfounded since, in all of America’s history, one can easily argue that it has seldom, if ever, been about All Lives Matter; hence the many slogans, chants, and protests from black Americans from one generation to the next.

Former mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young, in his foreword within Walter White’s autobiography “A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White” noted that there was a time in US history where law enforcement was in synergy in the murder-by-lynching of people-of-color.[i] They ignored, enabled, and encouraged murder directed against blacks, and anyone (whites included) who supported Black civil rights.[ii] Today, those who quietly, or actively support “Black Lives Matter” like Kaepernick, have not forgotten this; nor the Negrophobia, Negro laws, or the treatment of Blacks before, during, and since this time.

And with each black and brown death prompting protests and outrage, the question of “Why Black Lives Matter” was broken down into its purest form when I sat down with my 80-year-old cousin (a retired Georgia teacher) who reminded me that, “. . . back then, our [black] lives really didn’t matter much.” She shook her head and looked me dead in the eyes and started to tell the story of the lynching of my great, great uncle Claxton Dekle (pronounced Dee-cul).

The year was 1917. Woodrow Wilson was president and Nathaniel Harris, a confederate army veteran, was the Governor of Georgia. Fifty-four years had passed since slaves were emancipated but blacks lived in trying, if not, disparaging times. People of color faced obstacles from all directions; from the federal to state and local governments; from within all branches of the judicial system; in public transportation, accommodations, education, housing, and employment; as well as navigating all forms of bigotry and hate from their very own countrymen—white, US citizens. “It was an awful time,” she told me.

During this time, President Wilson (pledging allegiance to the “Negro” cause during his presidential campaign) alienated the very black voters that supported his presidency by following the South’s practice of race segregation in the federal government; all while promoting democratic liberties and human rights abroad. Many blacks were demoted, denied employment, or lost their jobs as a result. The 18-million-dollar block-buster movie of the era “Birth of a Nation,” with its incendiary and racist propaganda, vilified blacks and glorified the Ku Klux Klan; prompting the Klan’s resurgence and legitimizing their existence (keeping blacks in their place); setting the tone for the terrorizing of blacks for decades to come. Race riots were common; and the East St. Louis, Missouri Race Riot, on July 2nd, was one of the bloodiest race riots of the year. Black men, women, and children were beaten, shot to death, and lynched as their businesses and homes were burned by a mob of white citizens. Six-thousand blacks fled the city and policemen and the national guard were cited for either turning their heads or participating in the attacks.[iii] Black men and boys (females as well), for financial gain, were constantly targeted and charged with petty or trumped-up charges by local and state law enforcement to supply businesses and private citizens with cheap labor. Often aided by the courts, they were sentenced to work as convict laborers or laborers in the debt peonage system. Black newspapers and magazines reported the laborers’ plight, grievances, as well as the emotional and physical pain and suffering endured while trapped within the two systems; such as the case of four black minors, all under the age of fifteen, reportedly made Alabama state prisoners for allegedly stealing a bicycle.[iv] Black women and girls were criminally assaulted by white men, with little recourse; their voices and rights muted as their attackers were seldom prosecuted. Black men, women and children were murdered-by-lynching for the smallest infractions; including frightening a white person just by their presence as in the reported case of a Starksville, Mississippi man lynched because a white woman was frightened by seeing him approach her.[v]

Despite the horrific circumstances and seemingly unsurmountable challenges of the time, my family had amassed a sizeable amount of land in Emanuel (now Candler) County Georgia. The family had obtained the American dream of the time: 40 acres and a mule.

Mule Plowing Team/Brian Swartz/iStock by Getty Images
However, another mule was exactly what was needed to help plow the growing acreage and great, great-granddaddy Henry Dekle (uncle Claxton’s father) told Uncle Clax to buy one from a local white farmer. Uncle Clax went into Metter, Georgia and bought the mule, however, upon returning home, it was discovered that the mule was blind. He was told to go back and either get another mule or get the family’s money back. When Uncle Clax returned the mule, the farmer would neither take the mule back or return the money; although knowing that the mule was blind when he sold it. As a result, an argument ensued and it’s reported that the farmer hurled “nigger” insults and attacked uncle Clax; in turn, uncle Clax defended himself in a time where it was death to insult or question the word of a white man; let alone cause one physical harm. When Uncle Clax (according to the Atlanta Constitution—not the most kind or unbiased newspaper towards people of color) was getting the better of the farmer, two white bystanders came to the farmer’s aid.[vi]  

I asked my cousin what happened afterwards as all we see in the lynching annals is that Uncle Clax was lynched for murder on December 15. She told me, “From my understanding Clax killed that man—might a killed two or three others—he got away and went home.” When uncle Clax returned to the farm and told what had happened, a mob had formed. They took him and lynched him (with no rights to a trial) as that was the typical punishment for killing a white person (justified or not) during the day. As he hung, the enraged mob riddled his body with bullets. I asked my cousin what happened afterwards and she clasped her hands and held her head down, “They told me they drug him through Metter [for all to see]. . . . After they drug him for so long, it was one white man that told them [the mob] if they didn’t untie that man from that [buggy] and give him back to his people—because he was already dead—that he would start shooting. So they finally untied him and gave him to his people. . . . While they were having the funeral, those white people went to the grave and they meant to kill the whole family. They were hidden in the woods. And this other white man that made them untie [Clax] went to the church and told [the family], ‘Don’t y’all go to the cemetery because they plan to kill all of y’all.’”

The family took heed to the warning and took the necessary precautions; scouting the area and waiting until the following morning to bury uncle Clax. To save the family from further harm, granddaddy Henry and his brother, uncle Benjamin Dekle, changed the family’s name to uncle Benjamin’s wife’s maiden name and left the area (as so many blacks did when their lives were in jeopardy) as there was no protection from the local authorities as they were often known to be, as Mayor Young indicated, in synergy in the murder-by-lynching of blacks. And although tax-paying citizens, and above all else, US citizens, they were afforded no protection or rights from the local authorities or government, and had little-to-no recourse at the state and federal levels; they were on their own. A once hard-working and proud family forced to leave decades of hard work and prosperity behind because their lives were not as important as the man’s whose skin tone lacked pigmentation. I listened to my cousin talk about the hard life the family endured afterwards and the bitterness that evolved as a result, and I understood, in its purest form, why the ‘Black Lives Mater” movement exists: For far too long black lives have been dispensable to white America. And although great strides have been made in the lives of blacks since the lynching of uncle Clax, one must recognize that although the evils, ills, biases and prejudices of yesteryears have been abated in some areas, they still run deep and rampant in others.

Black Lives Matter Protesters/iStock by Getty Images
So when I hear people (Caucasians, Latinos, Asians, even African Americans) say that All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter, I hear the many slogans and chants from previous and present generations tell a different story. I hear America’s history tell a different story. I hear my family’s history tell a different story. The words “All Lives Matter” undoubtedly expressed by those who haven’t had a loved one hung, burned alive, riddled with bullets, weighted down and drowned, dragged behind a car, incarcerated for profit, raped and or sodomized, disenfranchised, experimented upon, tortured, terrorized, denied justice and basic constitutional rights, and forced to live in constant dread and fear with, more-often-than-not, no one to be held accountable. But for those who do remember, the “All Lives Matter” diatribe (although theoretically correct in a perfect world) are just words; words far from being the truth in the imperfect world we live in.

Author, R.L. Byrd

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[i] White, Walter. "Foreword by Andrew Young." Foreword. A Man Called White, the Autobiography of Walter White. Athens, GA: U of Georgia, 1995. ix-x. Print.
[ii] Ibid, ix
[iii] Wang, Tabitah C. "East St. Louis Race Riot: July 2, 1917 | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed." East St. Louis Race Riot: July 2, 1917 | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed., n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
[iv] DuBois, W.E. Burghardt, ed. "Crime." The Crisis Jan. 1913: 118. The Crisis. Google Books. Web. 8 Aug. 2016.
[v] DuBois, W.E. Burghardt, ed. "Courts." The Crisis May 1912: 11. The Crisis. Google Books. Web.   8 Aug. 2016.
[vi] "Lynching Comes Close on Killing in Metter: Negro Who Shot Three White Men Riddled with Bullets by Mob." The Atlanta Constitution, n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016. 16 Dec 1917, Page 7 - The Atlanta Constitution at