By Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead
In 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in response to the violent racial attacks that were happening throughout the country, stated that the problem this country was facing was neither a Negro problem nor a Southern problem; it was an American problem. Speaking before a Joint Session of Congress, Johnson argued that this nation had to work together to overcome the “crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” He was preparing Congress (and the world) to receive his Bill (which would later become the 1965 Voting Rights Act) that was designed to eliminate illegal barriers that prevented black people from exercising their legal right to vote. Unfortunately, by laying the problem at the foot of America writ large, Johnson did what so many presidents had done before, and after him, he let white people off of the hook. This blamelessness is what has allowed white people—from plantation owners to members of the KKK to white nationalists—to act with impunity and to go forward believing that they are acting in the best interest of this country.
This denial by white people of a black person’s right to vote, which included implanting poll taxes and literacy tests, along with threats of and actual acts of violence, was not a new problem. It was not a Negro problem. It was a white problem, and it had been a white problem since the first 20 Africans arrived in this country in 1619. Although it is not known whether they were enslaved or indentured servants; this ambiguity, about the legal and social status of black people in this country, naturally lent itself to open-ended questions and debates around citizenship. What does it mean to be an American? Who has the right to claim this country as their own? These are not easy questions to answer in a country that is still wrestling with both the legacy of slavery and the brutal slaughter, mistreatment, and, forced relocation of Native people. It is hard to answer while living in a country whose history is replete with stories of public lynching’s and beatings, acts of white domestic terror, and rape, designed to frighten black people into submission by reminding them, over and over again, like Langston Hughes once wrote, that America never will be America to them. Black people are still fighting to be recognized, fighting to be seen, fighting to prove to white people that our lives, just like their lives, matter. Hughes goes on to write that one day, America will be. Racism and oppression and white nationalism have never been black problems; they have been and will continue to be—until they are recognized and dealt with—white problems.
I thought about this, earlier this week when my family visited the Lorraine Motel. I spent the morning ambling through the exhibits, vacillating between feeling great anguish and overwhelming anger. I came upon an elderly black couple, beautiful and dignified, walking slowly, backs slightly bent, heads held high. They stopped at each exhibit, speaking to each other in hushed tones, dabbing their eyes with white linen handkerchiefs. At the Montgomery Bus Boycott, they boarded the bus and placed their hands gently on the shoulder of the statue of Rosa Parks. When they walked past the bus from the Freedom Rides, the man smiled as tears ran down his face. I never bothered them or spoke to them or tried to rush past them; I just smiled whenever I caught their eyes. I sat down at the exhibit for Brown v. Board of Education, thinking about the courage of the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges, and I could not stop myself from weeping. I felt a gentle hand rub my back, and when I looked up, the woman, with a smile on her face and tears in eyes, caught my eye and nodded her head. At the Selma to Montgomery March exhibit, I stood next to them as the man read the words of President Johnson. When he finished reading, he looked at his wife and said, “It wasn’t a Negro problem or an American problem; it was a white problem.” She laughed and said, “It still is.” As they walked away, all I could think about was that Johnson and this couple were both right: all of the racial issues that we are struggling with are white problems, but because this country belongs to all of us, they are American problems, and it will take all of us to solve them.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead ([email protected]; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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