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... and They Dreamed

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opednews.com Headlined to None 1/18/09

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With Martin Luther King Day in the gloaming of Inauguration Day of the first black president of the United States, one can't help but wonder if Dr. King is not doing cartwheels in his grave. Though most people I've talked to hesitate to admit race played a part in their decision, we know better by the congruence of public opinion we have seen butting heads on the national level-and in the South, and namely North Carolina's surprising switch to blue.

And then there is Wilmington. A relatively progressive city, where I had the privilege of following Obama's local campaign's grassroots efforts in action-where even the optimists will admit racism is alive and well here. But is it winning?

Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, which ushered fathomable acts of civil disobedience against racial injustice and racial discrimination, we still find ourselves in a landscape where the usual suspects become the ideal scapegoat. We've even heard the financial meltdown blamed on minorities and seen renditions by some who stamped their own version of Obamanations. Are they all created equal?

Martin Luther King's legacy as one of the greatest orators of our nation's history did not merely preach to the choir. His charismatic call for erasing the divide between blacks and whites still speaks to us today. Though unlike MLK's religious perspective, the similarity of Obama's auspicious message is uncanny. And change: Ready or not here it comes.

In lieu of the giant dent made in our nation's history, it seems altogether appropriate to visit Wilmington's 1898 Memorial, which took 10 years of planning and was erected in the city's main thoroughfare to its downtown district ever so timely at the foothold of the 2008 election. It raises so many questions and one that's particularly unavoidable: Does revisiting such dark corners of the Port City's past step up to how far it's come? The monument memorializes the only successful coup d'état on this nation's record, which is a nasty bump to get over for a black community that has had the wind kicked out of them. So it begs another question: Does this monument now pave the way for a glimmering future?

As I strolled down the south side of 3rd Street from Castle, all the way to Market, and up the north side, I read the plaques posted on each house of the historic district, extracting little clues of the stately stature that once existed here between blacks and whites-from the ranks of merchants to city-council members, enterprising businessmen and property owners who inhabited a unity of success. As an outsider, having just moved to Wilmington a few months back, it's easy to be enamored by the vestiges of the city's progressive past. It's not too far-fetched to want to be whisked there. But to dig into that history and step into the shoes of a black person during the time of 1898 riots proves something quite unfathomable.

On Wednesday, November 10th, 1898, about 500 members of the Democratic Party marched through Wilmington's streets to send fear and terror in the hearts of blacks, along with some whites, who were opposed to White Supremacy rule. They overthrew the government at gunpoint. The only eyewitness memento of the massacre is sketched by a pastor who hailed from Boston and who was supplanted to the coastal city to lead the congregation of Central Baptist Church two years before the atrocities took place. Reverend J. Allen Kirk wrote in a statement presently catalogued at the University of North Carolina's Chapel Hill library:

"Firing began, and it seemed like a mighty battle in war time. The shrieks and screams of children, of mothers, of wives were heard, such as caused the blood of the most inhuman person to creep. Thousands of women, children and men rushed to the swamps and there lay upon the earth in the cold to freeze and starve. The woods were filled with colored people. The streets were dotted with their dead bodies. A white gentleman said that he saw 10 bodies lying in the undertakers office at one time. Some of their bodies were left lying in the streets until up in the next day following the riot. Some were found by the stench and miasma that came forth from their decaying bodies under their houses."

Reading about those streets and alleys, as I readily head down the Riverwalk, the whole picture changes to a baneful scenery. Cape Fear River flows not only a confluence of saltwater but also of blood.

It still deeply wrenches at Inez Campbell, an African-American who is an heir of this lost legacy. Her great, great grandfather was a well-off wood-and-coal dealer. In an effort to understand who she is, she has researched her ancestry to no avail. On the centennial anniversary of the infamous race riots, she took a proactive role in community meetings, joined by scholars and activists who rehashed this discussion that had been shamefully swept under the rug for so many years. The result from the analysis was the formation of the 1898 Race Riot Commission established by the General Assembly.

Talks of economic reparation were discussed and a bill to be drafted, backed by former Representative Thomas E. Wright, who chaired the commission, and who pursued the cause before he was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice in 2007. Campbell noted in a phone interview last Thursday that "reparation does not necessarily need to come in cash but rather in a form that gives me an opportunity to own my own home, such as housing programs or forgivable loans," she said in a heavy sigh of exasperation.

After staging a series of postmortem events, the commission formed the 1898 Foundation. Paul Jefferson, also an African-American who sits on the committee, said, "We recognize the enormity of the problem. How many people have owned that property in question in the intervening years? Simply because of record-keeping, and lack thereof, it's difficult to presently come up with a resolution on providing compensation for the victims of these families."

The committee has reached reconciliation that no one alone is responsible for the racial violence. "But the county and the city recognized the blood on our history, as blacks and whites come together and graduate to our progressive past," Jefferson said.

The committee's goal is to tell the story, involve the citizens of Wilmington by fostering an interracial roundtable and heal the wounds. The memorial stands as a symbol of such community reconciliations.

When asked what she thought about the monument, Inez Campbell exhaled, "It's something ..." and says the exchange has left a bad taste in her mouth because she doesn't feel represented, and she questions whether the commission has her best interests at heart. Still, she hopes that reparation will be agreed upon in however small a way.

Sonya J. Bennetone, secretary and purveyor of historical literature for aforementioned Central Baptist Church, whose great grandmother was a woman of stature in Old Wilmington, quotes her mother in the only recollection she's been able to extract from her: "They done gone and hide in caskets up in the funeral home."

The telling terror of color is embedded deep in the negro psyche. Bennetone echoes Martin Luther King's message of unity notwithstanding. "There's one race and that's the human race," she said, also asserting she was an Edwards supporter before Obama got the nomination. In the heat of the election she became a close ally of Linda Barnett, who spearheaded the Wilmington for Obama campaign. She invited Barnett to church one Sunday, and when she introduced the person behind this effective campaign from the pulpit, the congregation overlooked the only white lady among them.

As an American Bennetone takes her power to vote seriously, and is proud of Martin Luther King's role in the enactment of the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, which abolished requirements for voters to take literacy tests in order to register to vote. But she's appalled that the outdated bill makes it so her voting rights still must be approved by Congress. Thus, the 25-year extension signed by George W. on July 27th, 2006. She reared self-esteem in her son to look people in the eye when he's talking to them but was exacerbated when she was called to the principal's office to pick him up from school because his teacher complained the little boy looked at him "funny."

We may have come a long way but a long way ahead persists. On that note she added, "If white people could be a fly on the wall to hear how black people talk about them, they would shed their stereotypes of black people." Irregardless of privilege, the idea that the blacks sit around bad-mouthing whites behind closed doors is simply not the case. Nor do they teach their children to revel in the differences but take responsibility for their actions, as any parent should do.

Her words spark the same sensibility of Dylan's, "It's Alright, Ma": "So don't fear if you hear/A foreign sound to your ear/It's alright, Ma, I'm only sighing/ ... As some warn victory, some downfall/Private reasons great or small/Can be seen in the eyes of those that call/To make all that should be killed to crawl/While others say don't hate nothing at all/Except hatred."

Having searched high and low for stories of people who have transcended beyond their antecedents, it's apparent that phantoms of segregation still startle us with racial apparitions. To the President-elect's credit, Linda Barnett said, "I honestly never really thought of Obama as a black candidate in the way I may have thought of Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson."

But finding people to go on record to admit such wasn't easy (I'm getting self-conscious just thinking about it). Yet, what became apparent even more so was the notion that most people, to some degree, really want change. They're fed up: blacks, whites-everyone. Hence, people treaded to the polls and checked off the Obama box on November 4th.

Some of them, who inhabited segregation in their teen years as a way of life, when the "hired hands"--no longer called "slaves"--were given houses to live in and food to eat in exchange for work. Where they ate the same food, but didn't sit at the same table. Those owners who saw the black uprising retaliate against whites in the early '60s, who rioted through the city and burned their houses, walked into their shops on Castle Street and killed white shopkeepers in an effort to settle an eye-for-an-eye score. These same folks saw the way of change, and they went with it.

And they're not alone.

Elaine Warshaur--who grew up in a time when "no one knew better" than to segregate 60 years ago--took an all-white bus while black kids walked to school, has seen it coming. Sandy Klein, a most welcoming hostess who opened her home as a weigh station for the Obama campaign--who had to endure a ratty kid who circled his bike past her house, flashing a McCain poster, day in, day out--saw it, too. And there's Kayne Darell, who tirelessly managed and distributed "walk packs" to volunteers. Hillary Stookey, the sallow lady with the prominent English accent from Rhode Island, trekked her rent-a-car all the way to the Greenville projects, knocking on doors in a panic, offering rides to whomever may need them on election day. Even Chris Marlow, "the whitest black kid" studying film at UNCW--who identifies with Ron Paul's libertarian bent--saw it on election morning. So did Stephen Horn, an aspiring journalist studying at Cape Fear Community, who asked how I got this gig. (Stay passionate, Stephen, and it will come.) Peg Rogers from Asbury Park, NJ--she saw it, too.

*(Author's note: The above named were not harmed by toxic material of media exposure.)

Howard Zinn, an historian who advised the student movement in the South during the sit-ins, participated on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, noted in his book, The Southern Mystique, "The most vicious thing about segregation--more deadly than its immediate denial of certain goods and services--is its perpetuation of the mystery of racial difference."

The majority of us want to run away from the stench of racism. Nobody thinks they're guilty of it. But shouldn't we be willing to say he who smelt it dealt it? We've all been conditioned by it. There's no escape. Though it exists on both sides, a certain "breed" prevails above the fray to be sure. And then there were others I talked to (shhhh-not naming names) who more or less sounded off this sentiment:

"A Southern Belle walks into a coffee bar. Orders a coffee. She strikes up a conversation with someone there.

"Someone says: 'How many black friends do you have?'

"Southern Belle looks up at the ceiling, takes a sip of her coffee and says: 'Oh! Come to think of it, I had several.'

"Someone says: 'Had?'

"Southern Belle looks up again, takes a sip of her coffee and says: 'And you know, they were some of the most honest friendships I had!'

"Someone says: 'Did they come to your house?'

"Southern Belle looks up, thinks about it, and nods. 'Sure! Many times, actually!'

"Someone says: 'Did you go to theirs?'

"Southern Belle looks up at the ceiling again, takes a sip of her coffee, looks at her watch, gets up and says: 'Why, yes. I've got to go see about Mammy right now.'"

Reverent Kirk ended his letter from 1898 with a plea that future generations know about the injustice that occurred in his time. And while we've come a very long way since his time, there is still a ways to go in our own time. Shedding the old stereotypes and clichés, the tired jokes and jabs can be a starting point. It's necessary to pull the cobwebs aside and as we look back at those who merely lived with what was accustomed, their perfunctory ways were shattered by the hand of progress. Because someone, somewhere, fathomed life otherwise and thusly inaugurated another perspective.

Reverend Kirk's note made it clear that as a human race, we have a job to fulfill: "It is not to stir up passion but pity. It is not to make enemies but friends ... [and to] revolutionize the fearful sentiment of the South."
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Val Strange is a freelance writer journeying these United States and keeping score. She holds a master's degree in Media Studies from Syracuse University after working in the movie business for over a decade. Her essays appear on several online (more...)
 

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