The stories of how the global coronavirus pandemic have brought out the best in people were just gathering some momentum when the tragic murder of George Floyd in Minnesota by a white police officer turned things upside down. Battling the virus briefly seemed to unite everyone against a common unseen enemy.
Then, the murder on a Minneapolis street polarized our society again, reminiscent of the nationwide unrest in 1968 that included assassinations of national figures Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
The Minneapolis incident seems particularly hard for me to come to grips with because I was born in that city, just blocks away from the downtown areas that were looted and burned in the rioting. My family migrated to the south suburbs in the 1960s when I was in middle school, but we still made weekly trips to the inner city to visit my grandfather who remained there until he was no longer able to live independently.
I was able to visit the old neighborhood again a few years ago with my Mississippi-born son as I showed him the part of the world where I got my start. Even then, things seemed peaceful for the most part except for a picket line of striking nurses around the hospital on Chicago Avenue where I was born and a basketball game in the street near our old home place alongside 12th Avenue South. The players ignored us as we tried to inch around them while passing down the street between randomly parked cars, some of which looked like they hadn’t been operable in a while.
We got our photo opportunities captured for posterity and were glad to get back on Interstate 35W to beat a hasty retreat back to Bloomington and a stop at the Mall of America, only five miles away from where my parents lived.
When I learned that Amory was going to host a march for racial unity, I was very interested and hopeful that our community could join in the nationwide protest against police brutality but lead by example in gathering and demonstrating in a peaceful and respectful manner complementing our neighbors in Aberdeen who placed a wreath on the steps of City Hall in memory of Mr. Floyd.
I was encouraged by the diversity that was evident and civility that prevailed in Amory. It seemed ironic to me when a gathering of unity on public grounds could be so heterogeneous while the congregations represented are still largely bastions of segregation on Sunday mornings. I must confess that I had a nagging apprehension in the back of my mind about if we could really do this thing without somebody “going off the deep end.”
One of the speakers expressed some fear that he felt while observing someone with Confederate garb taking pictures of people that he speculated could be possible targets of extremists. Later in the program, a young black man got up not far from me and swaggered his way across the open area in front of the stage while removing his shirt. He seemed to be disturbed about something but continued to make his way out of the park as we gritted our teeth.
One speech offered from the stage that could be interpreted as politically controversial was tempered with liberal scriptural references by other speakers, along with spiritually uplifting music. One of the black speakers even gave a public tribute to Amory’s white police chief in appreciation for the chief’s generous gesture of support for a public service project in the black community.
During an interlude of gospel music, once again a young man jumped up from in front of me. This time, though, the man took a lap around the crowd with his arms raised to the strains of the song of victory that was belted out from the stage. Anyone who has ever been to a Pentecostal or Holiness church knew that things were alright then.
After a tremendous keynote address by Rev. Leslie Mabry, Mayor Brad Blalock underscored the messages on the program that preceded him by reminding us that everybody, regardless of their race or ethnicity, has intrinsic value and worth. All humans are born with esteem because they are created in the image of God.
Meanwhile, good reports are coming from the point where all the tension started even as killing and unrest continues throughout the country. Evangelists and church groups are partnering with public-spirited citizens to hold rallies of positivity on the streets and neighborhoods of Minneapolis recovering from death and destruction.
A Twitter post I received even showed a cattle watering tank placed at the point where Floyd was murdered where converts were being baptized and ushered into a new chapter of hope for their lives.
The follow-up rallies in Minneapolis and the events here in Monroe County are clear and practical answers to the question that anchored Rev. Mabry’s message, “What do we do next?” So often people throw up their hands saying, “I can’t change anything.”
The lesson for all of us is rather than focusing on what we can’t do, to identify what we can do and do it. Let’s take time to listen, recognize that injustice still exists and then find a place to pitch in and help.