“Bottom line, it’s our attitude. At some point we decide that we believe that all people are created equal or that they are not. It’s really that simple and that complex. But that’s where it starts.” – Journeys of Conscience, Curtis L. Ivery
I wish to state my position of advocacy and support for the new birth in freedom and racial justice that is so explosively being expressed on the streets of our cities. I state this position as a father and grandfather, the chancellor of the Wayne County Community College District, and a long-time social and racial justice activist. I have dedicated my life and career—both of which have been impacted by racism and discrimination—to local, state, and national efforts to increase educational and career success for African Americans and other disenfranchised and marginalized groups who have been historically denied full access to higher education and the American dream. My experiences with bias have made me aware of and responsive to the perils we unfortunately continue to grapple with today. At the same time, what is happening on the streets of America today renews my faith that this nation is indeed entering a new and hopeful period of civil rights reform.
I see this new birth in freedom and racial justice as a turning point, a fork in the road, in the history of the United States and all its educational, economic, and social institutions. I have renewed faith that the America, at long last, will give full expression to the high calling of President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: “We here highly revolve that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth in freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
I share with my fellow advocates of racial, social and economic justice a deep sense of despair, outrage, and grief at the recent shocking and senseless murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other unarmed African Americans who have died as a result of police brutality. I stand with those protesting peacefully in the streets and in a rightful call to end the violence caused by police officers whose duty is to protect us. At the same time, I condemn the violence and destruction of those vandals and/or imposters who infiltrate the peaceful protests around the nation and threaten to hijack the compelling message and intent of this historic racial justice movement. I stand with those who have suffered personal and property losses due to the violence and destruction of the infiltrators. However, it is vital that we maintain a steady, persistent, and accelerated focus on the call to action by the collective force of those diverse advocates on the streets who are determined to abolish the injustices that have prevailed far too long.
Although the deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed African Americans sparked the current rebellion or uprising on the streets and became the symbol for this new birth in freedom and racial justice, these horrific events are by no means isolated incidents. Nor are they a surprise. Human rights violations are not an anomaly in the lives of African Americans, and they did not begin recently. The legacy of systematic repression is one that African Americans have been forced to endure for generations. Black men, women and children have learned to bury their true feelings to create the surface impression that all is well, when in fact, seething beneath the surface is a deep resentment of the disproportionate burdens of discrimination, racial profiling, and the high toll of health, education, and economic disparities. This is a legacy of dreams crushed and democratic ideals unfulfilled.
It is a well-documented fact that the judicial system closed its eyes while Black men were being lynched in record numbers (totaling 3,446 between 1882 and 1968.). It is common knowledge that lawmakers often refused to prosecute Ku Klux Klan members who slaughtered innocent Black people or burned crosses on their lawns. But what has not been widely broadcast is the hidden angst African Americans shoulder every day. The image of strength that has become a cultural hallmark is a carefully cultivated projection of Black faith and fortitude. But smiling faces tell lies. Within their hearts is a penetrating anxiety. Within is a memory of wrongs that were never righted and a belief that their hurts do not matter. This unspoken tension permeates black households, particularly those with a man-child. From the moment he leaves the house in the morning until he returns that night, the average Black mother nurses fear in her heart.
Today’s marching, chanting, and banner-waving racial justice advocates who are flooding the streets are casting a spotlight on problems that have been buried and pain that has been overlooked. They are expressing a rage that has been simmering beneath the surface and placing mounting pressure on a society that has historically refused to honor and respect the dignity of Black life. The recent unjust and appalling death of George Floyd in the hands of the police was more than the last straw. This one event became the tinder that ignited the flames and sparked a new birth in freedom and racial justice.
Two plagues have surfaced – one of the pandemic and the other of bigotry. In both cases, America has failed to protect all citizens and guarantee equal rights. The COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic distress of our citizens has added even greater fuel to the fire. More than 38.6 million Americans are unemployed due to the pandemic and many are unsure if their jobs will ever be restored. Once again, African Americans have been disproportionately impacted. As they struggle to pay for rent and food, they are not oblivious to the fact that their government-issued stimulus checks were no match for the billion-dollar bailouts that went to the wealthy. These same people have looked on in horror as innocent, unarmed Black men have been beaten or shot by the police, falsely arrested or made the target of 911 emergency calls for the simple acts of sitting in Starbucks, standing in the hallway of their own apartment buildings, or bird watching in New York’s Central Park. As these images are flashed by the media only to repeat themselves again and again, the scabs of injustice are peeled back and long standing inequities are exposed.
Even in the face of the evils enumerated above, I am hopeful. I believe, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is slow, but it bends toward justice.” I am hopeful for a better tomorrow because of a diverse and energized band of racial justice advocates emerging from the streets who do not accept band aids to cover open wounds. They are seeking immediate solutions. They are demanding collective action. America has been awakened in a way that many thought they would never experience in their lifetime. Like the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the end of Apartheid in South Africa, this is a historically significant moment in time. The world is watching and, in some instances, joining in as citizens of the United States take a stand for an all-inclusive society.
At Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD), we stand as a unified voice, in cooperation with our community partners, for the reform of the criminal justice system. Through our criminal justice, law enforcement, and corrections programs, we are preparing policing professionals who embody the principles of common humanity, cultural awareness, and ethical conduct. In a larger sense, we reiterate our commitment to what we believe is one of the core ingredients of social equity: education. Ignorance is the source of hatred and prejudice, and education continues to be the path upon which we can travel to a higher level of awareness and engagement. The heart and soul of WCCCD is its open-door philosophy and its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are committed to educational and career success for all students regardless of their socio-economic status, racial, or ethnical groupings. Our special calling is to provide higher education access and success for persons of color and other marginalized populations. WCCCD stands firmly on a foundation of equality and fairness and will continue working and leading by example.
In one of his most impassioned speeches, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It uplifts me and the staff at WCCCD to know that there is an undeniable and unstoppable groundswell of persons of all races, genders, creeds, and national origins who are powerfully embracing and activating these words.
Curtis L. Ivery
Dr. Curtis L. Ivery is the Chancellor of Wayne County Community College District
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