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I was surprised by the intensity and ferocity of the demonstrations in the wake of the death of George Floyd, particularly those in nearby Richmond and Fredericksburg, Virginia, and I found myself wondering how we have come to this point.
I realized, though, that I needed help with that question, and sought it out. I am the product of a white, middle class family from the Midwest. I attended schools that were integrated in theory, but where there were few or no Black students in attendance. I’m a seventy-five-year-old former newspaper editor who considers himself reasonably enlightened, but I stipulate that I have no idea what it was like to grow up as a Black man or woman in America—and especially in rural areas, where I have spent much of my time since moving to Virginia in 1972.
Still, seeing images of angry protestors clashing with police lines and statues being defaced or toppled, and hearing so many voices raised against systemic racism, I get flashbacks of times when I was on the edges of the history of race relations in this country.
On January 21, 1965, in my junior year at Penn State, I was among 8,000 students who heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. This was six months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed and just weeks after Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent campaign against racial inequality. As we walked over to hear the speech at Rec Hall, I recall a lot of jocularity among my mostly white classmates. Walking back to the dorm we were a quieter group, each locked in our own thoughts about Dr. King’s words.
When I graduated in 1966, I was called up by the Vietnam War draft, so I went down to the recruiting office and volunteered. Commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, in 1967, I was assigned to a training battalion at Fort Eustis, Virginia. When our new battalion commander, Lt. Col. William Smith arrived, he spotted my journalism degree and invited me to be his chief personnel and administrative officer. For the next year, my office was next to that of this truly inspirational Black man who already had two combat tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot.
In truth, this was my first prolonged encounter with a Black man, and Colonel Smith impressed me with his firm belief that anyone, regardless of race could succeed through hard work and dedication—in the military, at least. I suppose this experience gave me a somewhat one-sided outlook on race relations, since I had little input from Blacks who tried and failed to break through, or from those who had given up in the face of systemic racism.
April 5, 1968
On Friday, April 5, 1968, I sat at a window table in a restaurant in Washington DC with a fellow lieutenant. Having dispatched the official portion of our task that day we were having a late lunch and discussing sights we wanted to see during our anticipated weekend in the nation’s capital. We asked the proprietor why traffic was so heavy in midafternoon. He replied that Martin Luther King had been shot the night before, and that businesses and government offices were shutting down early in anticipation of riots. When daylight faded, we cautiously picked our way through eerily empty streets to the safety of Andrews Air Force Base. The restaurant owner’s predictions were correct—there was widespread violence, looting, and burned out buildings that night and the next. On the way out of town Sunday morning, we drove through some of the devastated neighborhoods. At that time, as now, I had difficulty understanding the rage that triggered the widespread destruction.
Another memory is of covering a voter registration drive in a predominantly Black church in Chesapeake, Virginia in 1984. The mayor of Chesapeake, my fiancée, and I were the only white people in attendance to hear the Reverend Jesse Jackson tell the audience about David and Goliath, and tell them that votes were like stones laying on the ground, just waiting for someone to pick them up and sling them.
These and other images flashed through my mind as I watched the demonstrations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and the vandalizing of statues of Confederate warriors that have dotted the Virginia landscape for 120 years or more.
I could not help but wonder: After the Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action, the election of so many Black mayors, the first Black Governor of Virginia, and the first Black President of the United States, how have we come to this point in 2020? To address the question, I needed to get outside of myself. I have no way of knowing firsthand what it was like growing up Black in Caroline County or America.
But others do.
Dr. Alphine W. Jefferson is one of them. I met him in his office at Randolph-Macon College in nearby Ashland, on a campus deserted due to COVID-19. The middle child of five, Jefferson was born in 1950 on his family’s small farm near Frog Level, a tiny crossroads community that straddles the Caroline and Hanover County line.
He said he did not know what racism was as a boy, a comment echoed by many who grew up in rural mixed-race communities around here. His father could not read or write and his mother had a 7th grade education. The family moved to Baltimore in search of economic and educational opportunities, came back to Frog Level for a few years, then returned to Baltimore again. Alphine spent nine years of his youth in each place and attended segregated schools in both.
Jefferson is medically colorblind and fought a persistent stutter for the first fourteen years of his life. One teacher tried to tell his mother that her son was “retarded” because he could not color correctly. Yet he graduated from Baltimore’s all-Black Frederick Douglas High School and went on to obtain an A.B. degree from the University of Chicago and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Duke. He has dedicated his life to studying racism in America and to teaching—African and American History at Northern Illinois; Black and Urban History at Southern Methodist University; Black Studies and History at The College of Wooster; as well as other places, including multicultural education at a prison. Unlike many rural Black families that moved to the city, his never sold their family farm. Jefferson returned to Virginia and lives in the restored family farmhouse in Frog Level. For the past fifteen years, he has been a professor at Randolph-Macon College and is Black Studies Director there. He has organized Juneteenth celebrations on campus and in the community for the last decade.
Jefferson admitted he was as surprised as I was over the intensity and ferocity of the widespread demonstrations in reaction to George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota on May 25.
But in retrospect he sees a number of factors that help to explain the upheaval:
- “Very few humans alive could watch that eight minutes of video of a policeman kneeling on George Floyd’s neck and not react to it,” Jefferson said. “Many whites had not encountered something that obvious, that suggests that level of pathology.”
- “We have been confined in our homes due to COVID-19. Lots of people were glad to have an excuse, an excuse to go outside and to react,” Jefferson said.
- A third factor is economics, Jefferson said, with real wages declining since 1973 while wealth at the top grows exponentially. He cited “an egregious example” of a CEO who made $52 million last year, “which comes out to $20,000 a minute. We live in a society that is absolutely hypocritical to argue that $15 an hour is too much when corporate America is making thousands of dollars a minute. This is one of the major areas of anger that is simmering beneath the surface today,” Jefferson said.
- Another factor, in Jefferson’s view: “Madison Avenue constantly feeds an appetite for consumption; it urges us to make unwise decisions with our money. Debt is the new slavery.”
- Technology, particularly social media: “People have multiple overlapping connections and then find themselves in the street because of instant communication.… People can plan an event and determine which people can show up. [Issues] are hijacked by other people. Many of those who demonstrated did not come out to tear down statues,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson is one Black man who does not condone the removal or desecration of the many statues in Virginia that commemorate Confederate soldiers and which have been a focus of sometimes-violent clashes in nearby Richmond and Fredericksburg, and more peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Ashland and Bowling Green, with law enforcement officers participating.
“We need somebody who is Black and has studied this for years to say it,” Jefferson said. “Tearing down the monuments is a dumb idea.” Jefferson sees such efforts as ahistorical and self-righteous. “I oppose the destruction and taking down of Confederate statues because we are destroying important primary sources in our national history. These monuments exist in a particular and specific historical context and timeframe. Thus, when we remove them, we are altering history. I say leave them and let those who care, study their creation and use that information for positive change.”
Jefferson says instead we should seek to understand why “these emblems of honor from a long lost past exist; and, why have they produced so much anger and hatred today.” The efforts to destroy Confederate Monuments, he argues, “focus attention away from the real problems of discrimination, inequality and systematic preferential treatment for America’s ruling elite,” Jefferson added.
The Varieties of Racism
Jefferson said he tells his beginning students that there are three types of racism in America. The first, he said, is Individual: “I hate you because you are Black, or I do not like you because you are Black.” The second is Institutional. Jefferson gave as an example of this as “what Jews experienced trying to get into Harvard decades earlier,” regardless of their qualifications. The third is Systemic Racism: “If you are excluded from those spaces where all the business decisions are made, where money exchange happens, the spaces where corporate elites meet and the inner workings of the government occurs, then you can never be equal,” he said.
The Role of Housing
A considerable amount of Jefferson’s research and published writings have to do with housing patterns and how that is also at the core of systemic racism. In one article, “Rhetoric vs. Reality,” (1984) he wrote:
“Blacks are the inheritors of ghettos, not their creators. Until it is widely known and clearly understood that ghettos are the product of the financial institutions, law firms, and real estate agencies, which benefit from the dual housing market, then whites and blacks will continue to live separately.”
At the conclusion of that article, Dr. Jefferson wrote: “America does not grant to its black minority the guarantees of its Constitution. The rhetoric does not translate into reality for the majority of the population.”
And still doesn’t. Thus, perhaps, the rage.
As Dr. King said in that speech I attended fifty-five years ago, “We have come a long, long way in the struggle for racial justice, but we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved.”
Next week, Chapter 22: Macon-Bibb County votes while a nation protests
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.
Greg Glassner is a Caroline County resident with more than forty years of experience in the newspaper business, the majority of it as editor of community weeklies in Virginia. He was editor of the Herald-Progress in Ashland for eight years, retiring in 2012. He also served as interim editor of the Caroline Progress in Bowling Green for six months in 2015, and wrote a weekly column and feature stories for both papers until they ceased publication in March 2018. A US Army veteran who saw service in Southeast Asia, Glassner is the author of five books, including biographies of US Attorney General William Wirt and Virginia Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith.