2017-08-10 / Opinion

We shall not be moved

It was Rev. Hutchens C. Bishop, D.D., of New York City who issued the national call to action. He urged the native and the foreign born, and all people united by ties of blood and color, and all who owed allegiance to their maker, to participate in a massive protest. His God was the God of all people and races.

It was to be a nonviolent demonstration, a peaceful parade, a powerful dissent unmistakable in its meaning. The Rev. Bishop said Christ’s spirit needed to be made manifest in the making and execution of the nation’s laws. He explained why.

“We march,” he said, “because, by the grace of God and the force of truth, the dangerous, hampering walls of inhuman injustice must fall. … We march because we want our children to live in a better land and enjoy fairer condition than have fallen to our lot. ... We march because we are thoroughly opposed to “...segregation, discrimination disenfranchisement and the host of evils” that are being forced upon us. He said he expected resistance and hate. But he was unshakable in his resolve that together, the battle for justice could be won. They would succeed “in spite of shallow-brained agitators, scheming pundits and political tricksters who secure a fleeting popularity ... and financial support by promoting the disunion of people who ought to consider themselves as one.”

This isn’t a story taken from the front page of last week’s New York Times. It is a century-old tale about a call-to-conscience protest held in New York City on July 28, 1917. Thousands heeded the call. They were of African descent and came together as the pastor entreated, in a massive, peaceful parade. They demanded racial justice and an end to racial violence in America.

Just weeks before the protest, brutal race riots in East St. Louis claimed the lives of 40 to 250 black people, murdered in their neighborhoods by white mobs. Lurid, eyewitness accounts described the horrific scenes — white “Lady Macbeths” and their children laughing, cheering and participating in the violence, preying upon the blacks fleeing their burning homes. Their white neighbors left them to die in the streets, burned and literally “roasted by the heat of the flames.”

The year was 1917. The horror wasn’t an aberration. Racial violence was endemic in America. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, agreeing with Rev. Bishop, mobilized its membership. The time had come to act.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people showed up, carrying signs of protest. The women and children led the procession, dressed in white. The men followed, attired in funereal black. At the appointed hour, the parade began, moving forward in total silence.

Every footfall, every individual present, stood in witness to the justice of their cause, a demonstration of moral eloquence that required no spoken words. It became known in civil rights history as the “Silent Parade.”

At the time, Florida already had the reputation for being among the worst of the worse in its treatment of blacks. Lynchings of black men and race riots were more common here than almost anywhere else in the nation.

The Rosewood massacre in 1921 in Levy County was among the most infamous attacks. A white mob burned the town to the ground. The violence left eight black men and two whites dead.

Forty years passed. African-Americans were still marching. But the trickle of dissent begun decades earlier by the “Silent Parade” had grown into a mighty torrent. Millions of Americans of all races, economic means and religious faiths joined the cause. The movement for social justice found its following and its faith community.

Interfaith freedom riders hopped buses and traveled to Tallahassee to challenge segregation in public transportation. Local pastors orchestrated a seven-month long boycott of bus services by black riders.

Thirty more years passed. The Florida Legislature asked forgiveness of its state-sanctioned sins from the survivors and descendants of the Rosewood Massacre. Florida was the first state in the country to compensate African-Americans for crimes suffered at the hands of a white mob.

Another quarter of a century and it’s 2017. White nationalism is ascendant. It promotes white supremacy as a legitimate pillar of American life. It spews xenophobia, misogyny and racial hatred.

The religious right is complicit in its rise. The puritanical backsliders sit in pews of the faith community, certain only they know God’s will. But their brand of Christian theology is deeply compromised by intolerance and bigotry toward any they perceive as unworthy of God’s love.

The Rev. Bishop knew these people and the hypocrisy of their faith. They were the same ones who preached and prayed on Sunday and put their hooded robes on Monday, to harass and commit acts of violence against their spiritual brothers and sisters.

The Rev. William Barber II, the founder of the Moral Monday movement, warns no American is safe when the morally indefensible is sanctioned by government and condoned by religious heretics. The Rev. Barber warns, only partly joking: “We’re all colored people now.” ¦

— Leslie Lilly writes frequently on issues of politics, public policy and philanthropy. Email her at llilly@floridaweekly.com and read past blog posts on Tumblr at llilly15. Tumblr.com.

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