Like many of you, I have been struggling with thoughts and words to address the events that have recently impacted our nation and our great city of Chicago. Some of us may be shocked by the images coming through social media and news footage, but we should not feign surprise. If anything, we should be asking why it took so long to face a reckoning that has been kicked down the long road of history, generation after generation. We have been sitting atop the tinderbox for a very long time, blowing out the matches tossed our way, but now we are — literally — out of breath.
Nothing about this is new to us as Black Americans. Our communities always fare worse, no matter if the affliction is economic, medical, environmental, legal, political or otherwise. In the wise words of Reverend Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., we are now dealing with two pandemics: the pandemic of COVID-19 and the pandemic of 1619. We never effectively treated, much less cured, the original sin of slavery and racism in this nation. Now we’re in the advanced stages of this illness and facing a life or death scenario for our society.
Chicago has long been the epicenter of Black leadership and the struggle for positive change, and also the stage for many transformative events in American history. This very history provides perspective on what we are seeing today and why the current events hold such significance in our city:
In July, 1919, a 17-year-old Black boy named Eugene Williams gathered with his friends at the 29th St. beach, and while floating on a makeshift raft, accidentally drifted into the “white” part of the water. He was attacked by white beachgoers who stoned him, and he drowned. Police refused to arrest his attackers. Eugene’s murder set off the Red Summer of 1919, which started in Chicago and spread to multiple cities throughout the United States. White mobs attacked Black homes and businesses in the segregated neighborhoods of Chicago’s south side, destroying properties in large areas, leaving vacant swaths of land, some of which sits fallow to this day because of race-based economic neglect.
In August, 1955, a 14-year-old Black boy from the south side named Emmett Till went to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi. He was accused of whistling at a white woman (his accuser recanted her story more than six decades later). Emmett was dragged from his relatives’ home in the middle of the night, beaten, blinded, shot and dumped into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan tied around his body. His mother, Mamie Till (Mobley) demanded the return of her only child’s body and held an open casket funeral in Chicago for the world to see. That one brave act, of a mother displaying the racial violence and viciousness inflicted upon her child, helped spark the civil rights movement.
On August 28, 1968, during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, thousands of Vietnam War protesters gathered on the streets. Then Mayor Richard J. Daley deployed a total of 27,000 police personnel to “preserve order.” Earlier that same year, when riots erupted after the April 4, 1968 assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Daley issued his infamous “shoot to kill” order against arsonists and a “shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting.” The war protestors outside the convention that August were tear-gassed and beaten, along with members of the press. The resulting riot was televised and turned the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War.
On October 20, 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was murdered by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke while walking away from him. Sixteen shots for 17 years of life. Van Dyke was arrested, tried and became the city’s first patrolman in more than 50 years to be convicted of murder.
Experts often speak about post-traumatic stress disorder being experienced in our communities, much like war veterans, felt especially by our youth. But what we’re dealing with is trauma that is never “post,” of a war that never ends, of layer upon layer of poverty, violence, food insecurity, substandard housing and health care…and now a pandemic that is killing Black people in disproportionately high numbers as a direct result of these inequities. All of this is driving a hopelessness and despair, now being fueled by a racist president and his enablers who give voice and permission to white supremacists. Our trauma is ongoing, and not surprisingly has finally manifested itself in anger, rage and sometimes self-destructive actions. Will the voices be heard? Will we act collectively as Americans to demand change and hold our nation to a higher standard?
The restoration of hope and the pursuit of peace start with an acknowledgment of and apology for the wrongdoing, whether committed decades ago or last week. It starts with recognition of the systemic and individual racism that has formed the basis of laws and policies designed to preserve white supremacy, because they are all part of the same cloth, whether that cloth is used to make a confederate flag, a KKK hood or a red cap.
But there is another cloth, the flag that represents these United States of America, which is in need of attention. It is that flag which Black Americans have fought and died under since the Revolutionary War with an incessant hope that it would, someday, represent the same promise for Black Americans as it does for the majority.
It is the flag proudly carried by our Black troops from Illinois in WWI as they fought for democracy on the Western Front – marching with the French army because our own was segregated. That actual flag, carried by Black soldiers of the 370th Regiment in France in 1918 is on display at the DuSable Museum right now, part of our WWI Centennial exhibit, “Clearing a Path for Democracy: Citizen Soldiers of the Fighting 8th.”
And just as the physical flag that hangs in our museum had to be delicately conserved and protected, our symbolic flag has some stains that need to be treated and some holes that need repair. In this overall historical context, the president’s recent threat to activate U.S. military forces against us is truly beyond all comprehension and belief.
There are many goals to work towards, beginning with justice for George Floyd. But there must be political engagement and organization along with the protests. Among other things, we must:
- Support a policy creating national standards for law enforcement practices and tactics
- Shift liability for damages inflicted by bad police away from the taxpaying public, perhaps by requiring the FOP to provide professional liability insurance for its members
- Improve vetting and background checks for those seeking to become officers
- Educate, educate, educate
- Support EQUAL FUNDING for Black institutions and organizations
- Get Out And VOTE.
To overcome the illness we must all be part of the cure.
For almost 60 years, the DuSable Museum of African American History has served as the keeper and presenter of history, art and culture, educating all people through stories of Black accomplishment and excellence. We are the nation’s oldest independent Black history museum, and a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate. Clearly, our mission is more important now than ever before. We are part of the cure. Will you please join us?
Perri L. Irmer
President and CEO