Hope and Despair and Last Week’s Killings
In honor of John Lennon who sang, “Imagine all the people living life in peace.”
Published in ChicagoNow, July 11, 2016
Yesterday at the beach, while building the “world’s best sand castle,” our ten-year-old granddaughter asked my husband, “Will the police shoot my cousins?” She meant her African American cousins, ages six and two. My husband’s white privilege left him totally unprepared for this question. He had never thought about how he should answer. He reassured her that her cousins would be safe and that their parents would take care of them.
I’m glad she didn’t ask me because I was still struggling with powerful emotions. As the grandmother of two young black grandsons, I worry. In ten years, the oldest will get a driver’s license. Will our country still be in such an awful place that a policeman might pull him over for a broken taillight and end up shooting him when he reaches for his identification? Will he be judged by the color of his skin rather than the content of his character?
Last week’s killings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile make me fear the answer to my last question could still be yes. Both men had guns that they were legally entitled to be carrying. From what I know of the facts right now, neither man reached for his gun, but the police feared that could happen. So, they killed them.
On July 5, Baton Rouge, LA police killed Sterling, a father of five, for selling CDs outside a convenience store. On July 6, a Minneapolis-area police officer killed Castile, in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old, after pulling him over for a broken tail light.
As I tried to wrap my head around these senseless killings in which fear of black men and the presence of guns escalated minor events into tragedy, on July 8 in Dallas, during a peaceful protest of those killings, a hate-filled sniper added to last week’s killings. The deaths of policemen Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens were a madman’s eye-for-an-eye revenge, once again based solely on the color of their skin. But this time, that color was white.
In my search for answers, I turned to back to August of 1963, when Martin Luther King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech. Remembering some of his dreams, in light of his assassination April 4, 1968, made me feel a mixture of hope and despair.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Aside from it being the year I was married, 1968 was a year of turmoil and tragedy. I remember it as an emotional roller coaster. I had some hope mixed with great sorrow when Robert Kennedy announced the assassination of Dr. King in Indianapolis, saying in part,
We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Yes, I hoped. We can do that. Just two months later, on June 6, 1968, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. Cities burned, protests abounded, the war in Vietnam continued, and Richard Nixon became President. As 1968 drew to a close, I despaired. And for almost fifty years, I have alternated between the same mixture of hope and despair.
I am having a hard time finding the hope after last week’s killings. Words like heartsick, depressed, and discouraged come closer to how I feel. We have just lived through one of the worst weeks I can remember in a long time, and believe me, I can remember quite a few terrible ones during my lifetime. And about those guns, the ones legally carried by Sterling and Castile, the one used by Micah Johnson to slaughter policemen in Dallas, the ones in the hands of gang members on the streets of Chicago, and yes, the ones used by police to handle routine violations. I can’t even. I come out of last week feeling great sorrow that a few people who turned to guns as solutions have created so much chaos and misery.
I think about what Dr. King often said:
Violence begets violence; hate begets hate; and toughness begets a greater toughness. It is all a descending spiral, and the end is destruction — for everybody. Along the way of life, someone must have enough sense and morality to cut off the chain of hate.
My fellow Americans, please cut off the chain of hate so I can tell my grandchildren that life will get better. My grandkids are truly a rainbow of love: Three white, three half Korean, and two black. Their future is in all of our hands. So, I ask all of us to join together to make this country a better place for their generation. And to remember the chant during the Democratic convention back in August of 1968: "The whole world is watching."