I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, 100 years from the beginning of the American Civil War and five generations removed from slavery.
For the United States, slavery remains an albatross: from 1619, when 20 African slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, through the profound words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, that “all men are created equal”; and on to the war that began April 12, 1861. The nation slaughtered itself over the question of slavery: 620,000 dead; our worst-ever toll of casualties. On the other hand, many slaves were freed for the first time in American history, though their unfulfilled promise of 40 acres of land and a mule made it pseudo freedom at best.
After the war, Southern states immediately passed laws called Black Codes, which in essence perpetuated the system of slavery by restricting freedoms and forcing African Americans to work for low wages. Former slaves also faced increased lynching, voter suppression, and denial of education.
Fast-forward to the 1960s, during which some of the hurdles that crippled progress among enslaved African Americans continued to plague the nation through Jim Crow laws that enforced local and state segregation. They resulted in African Americans experiencing substandard living, mortgage loan inequities, unequal pay, and disproportionate inadequate healthcare coverage.
Many African Americans, including my grandfather, father, and three uncles, served valiantly in two world wars, although in segregated units. Back home they continued to experience incessant discrimination and segregation in various forms—school systems, public transportation, restrooms, drinking fountains, and many other commercial establishments. Segregation seemed to be sewn into the American fabric like baseball and apple pie.
Beyond this, some elected officials worked feverishly to maintain the notion of “separate but equal.” Alabama’s governor George C. Wallace in his 1963 inaugural address touted, “Segregation now, segregation forever,” to an enthusiastic crowd that applauded his message.
Sadly, many of these same issues are evident in 2020. George Floyd’s death on May 25, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, captured the world’s attention as one of the most inhumane acts we have seen: a police officer’s knee forcibly positioned on Floyd’s neck as he calls out some of his last words, “I can’t breathe”—words that have become a platform for social justice advocacy and protest.
Floyd’s death is a wake-up call for the United States and beyond, prompting thousands to protest current and past horrors of injustice and oppression. A better, brighter future requires being intentional and purposeful about creating a hospitable environment for all. Our children and grandchildren will judge our present actions. Let us show that we can stand united on principle.
I challenge men and women of every ethnicity to be true to themselves, to speak truth to power, to be the voice for those without a voice. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from a Birmingham, Alabama, jail, April 16, 1963: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” How shall we support the cause of righteousness and justice?
Washington Johnson II is assistant director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists; and a captain in the United States Navy.