More than a few good men, the fight for racial justice and equality seeks interracial enlistment and engagement.
After the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the Rev. Jim Wallis joined in the protests that followed. Wallis is the president and founder of Sojourners, a faith-based social justice organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Wallis traveled from D.C. to Ferguson to speak out against police brutality against African-Americans. He also did multiple media interviews.
“If white Christians would act more like Christians instead of like white people, black parents would have less fear for their children,” Wallis said during a November radio interview.
Wallis, by the way, is white.
In 2017, the term de jour for Wallis and others like him was “allies.” The Sojourners website even published an essay addressing the phenomenon titled “For Our White Friends
Desiring to Be Allies.”
But history indicates that there have always been white allies helping black people through their American struggle. William Lloyd Garrison was one of the earliest examples. The well-known abolitionist published 1,820 issues of his anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator over 35 years, not even allowing a relationship-ending philosophical riff between him and the legendary Frederick Douglass to dissuade him.
Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble was another Civil War-era white ally. The British actress and abolitionist was very open about her opposition to slavery—even after she discovered that Pierce Butler, the American she had married, was a slave master.
The list of historic white allies includes John Brown, the Civil War-era abolitionist who was hung after leading an attack on Harper’s Ferry, a military arsenal; Viola Liuzzo, the housewife from Detroit who was supporting blacks in Alabama protesting for the right to vote when she was killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1965; and the Rev. Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who also was in Alabama supporting voting rights in 1965 when he was killed in a brutal storefront altercation.
New Battles and New Soldiers
Five decades later, despite dramatic changes in laws and social policies, African-Americans are still suffering disturbing institutional practices and actions, particularly some utilized by law enforcement. Victor White, III, a 22-year-old from Iberia Parish, Louisiana was killed in police custody on March 22, 2014. The coroner ruled that a self-inflicted gunshot took White’s life. The young man was in the back of a police cruiser—with his hands shackled behind his back—when he supposedly shot himself.
A few months later, 43-year-old Eric Garner was killed by New York police while being apprehended on a Staten Island street. An NYPD officer put Garner in a chokehold, and the city medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. The deaths of White and Garner made the national news. So did John Crawford’s. And Tamir Rice’s. All at the hands of the police, and under circumstances that have angered and disturbed many African-Americans and others.
These tragedies certainly helped to catalyze the current white ally movement, along with the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by civilian vigilante George Zimmerman. But the final match to light that fire had to have been Charlottesville.
On the night of August 11, 2017, white supremacists and anti-supremacist counter-demonstrators clashed violently at the base of the Thomas Jefferson statue on the University of Virginia campus. The next day there were more protests and more violence, culminating in the killing of social justice advocate and white ally Heather Heyer.
End to White Silence
Five days later, this event announcement was posted on Facebook for a meeting, “Spotting White Supremacy: Capacity Building for White Allies.” The cover photo for the post featured these words: “White silence is violence. #BlackLivesMatter.” Facebook indicated that more than 2,000 people expressed interest, and that 317 attended the event.
It was also after Charlottesville that Rob Lee, a United Church of Christ Pastor from Winston Salem, North Carolina, was invited to appear on the MTV Video Music Awards. Lee is the great-great-great-great-nephew of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee.
“We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate,” he said that night. “As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin. Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on.”
Lee also affirmed the Black Lives Matter movement in his remarks. Unfortunately for him, criticisms came swiftly from some members of his own congregation, Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, North Carolina – so much so that Lee decided to resign his pastorate just days after his VMA speech.
“I didn’t see it (the speech) as divisive,” Lee told Message. “I saw it as a potential for us to come together.”
Lee’s journey is a fascinating one, and not just because of his decision to speak out on MTV against his controversial ancestor. As a child, he used to have a Confederate flag hanging in his bedroom.
“I was proud of Robert E. Lee,” he said.
He credits Bertha Hamilton, his confirmation mentor in the United Methodist Church, for challenging his thinking about celebrating the Confederacy and its flag. Hamilton is an African-American woman who he described in an essay as “a humble servant and someone in whom I see the face of God.”
“She asked me why I did that,” Lee recalled. “She made me ask the questions of myself that society would eventually ask of me.”
Hamilton’s questions helped Lee find his ministerial and social justice calling early. “I knew that God had called me to minister to those who were feeling oppressed by a system,” he said.
Many white Americans don’t seem to relate to claims of oppression by African-Americans. In fact, a majority of whites feel that they are subject to oppression, according to an October 2017 poll conducted by National Public Radio (NPR), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“If you apply for a job, they seem to give the blacks the first crack at it,” Tim Hershman of Akron, Ohio, told NPR. “If you want any help from the government, if you’re white, you don’t get it. If you’re black, you get it.”
No matter what view one has of race relations and social justice in the United States, it appears there always will be at least one conflicting view—just as there has been since 1619 when the first African slaves were brought here in chains. But just as there have always been horrific race-based injustices, there have always been brave voices to oppose them. Black voices, such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman. White voices such as Brown, Kemble, Garrison, Liuzzo and Daniels—and now, a new generation of white allies such as Wallis and Lee, speaking to modern Americans in search of healing and truth.
DAVID PERSON is the owner of DavidPersonMedia, LLC. Since 1986, he has been working as a broadcaster, journalist, documentary director, and media consultant. His work has been featured on NPR, Tom Joyner’s BlackAmericaWeb website and public radio stations across the nation.