‘Strange Fruit’ Is Still Hanging From the Trees

by: Charles Chavis Special to the AFRO
/ (Courtesy Photo/charleschavis.com) /
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For the past two Sundays, the world has been witness to a climactic moment in our nation’s history. Players from across the NFL expressed their dissent towards racial division and disunity. Some players, kneeled, some sat some raised fists and some linked arms.

Last year, I was asked to participate in a panel discussion at a local college on Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem. As a scholar of racial violence in the United States, I have always looked at each episode through the eyes of the victim first, whose life had been cut off.

Black protest in sports did not start with kneeling; it began when the first Black athletes began participating in sports. Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, is often viewed as the pinnacle representation of such participation. However, people often forget other African American boxers that fought alongside Johnson, such as Joe Gans of Baltimore, Md. Black participation is equated to activism when you take into consideration what was taking place in the nation during that time.

Charles L. Chavis

In 1902, Baltimore’s native son Joe Gans became the first Black World Boxing Champion of the 20th century. The success of Gans inspired blacks from across the globe as Gans seemingly made a tremendous stride towards equality. At least 85 African Americans were lynched in the same year.

What has changed since then? Over one hundred years later in 2015, 102 unarmed Black people were killed by the police. Only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime, according to mappingpoliceviolence.org.

Not only has the assault on Black and brown lives continued, they have remained consistent for the most part. Anytime people of color in United States history have spoken truth to power or protested nonviolently, there has been a faction of people that fail to consider the suffering of their fellow man and woman. Minorities have always been used as the scapegoats for what is wrong with America. As a result, citizens overlook and discount Black suffering. The most disrespectful thing about the dehumanizing and divisive responses to Colin Kaepernick’s protest is the attempt to spread division amongst two populations. The act of taking a knee is not a protest against veterans.

Instead of critiquing the way that African American Athletes protest racial injustice these dissenters should actually use their anger and not just focus on symbolic expressions of patriotic gratitude. For years the United States has praised the military with her words, her performances and her traditions, but she has yet to tangibly show our military the respect they deserve. This same thing can be said about the ways in which African Americans have been treated historically, when it is convenient we are lifted up as representations of success, equality and diversity, meanwhile Black bodies continue to swing from the branches of our democracy.

We should examine these issues separately and collectively as issues that should not be tolerated in this country. A country that has yet to realize the true meaning of its creed, “that all men are created equal.” That is the point of the protest; that is the point of kneeling during the national anthem. The protest is to draw a line in the sand and capture the attention of the world so that we can address what is wrong in our nation.

This year is already on pace to be one of the deadliest years measured for the number of individuals that are killed by the police with no signs of the crisis slowing down. Just ask the families of Jayson Negron, Jordan Edwards and Darius Smith – all young boys gunned down by police.

Acclaimed jazz vocalist Billy Holiday first sang of “strange fruit swinging from southern trees” 78 year-ago. As the prison industrial complex has become the news system of Jim Crow segregation, today, the bullet has replaced the noose and in this current age, as Americans, regardless of color or creed we must ask ourselves if we can stand the killing of unarmed Black men and women. If not then we must once and for all deal with this by-products of our nations original sin.

Charles Chavis is the 2017-2018 Benjamin A. Quarles Doctoral Fellow at Morgan State University.

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