What we’re about to say doesn’t apply to every reader of the Orlando Sentinel. However, it does apply to some. Too many, unfortunately.
Despite some 250 years of government-sanctioned slavery; despite an abysmal failure to deliver on post-emancipation promises; despite decades of restrictive, demeaning, inhuman Jim Crow laws; despite the years of willingness on the part of many in authority to simply ignore any law that might provide even a semblance of equality and justice for Blacks …
Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s official endorsement of “separate but equal”; despite hundreds of lynchings; despite poll taxes, impossible qualifying tests, violence and murders to keep Blacks from voting; despite ongoing voter suppression through slightly more subtle but scarcely less effective other means; despite a system full of seemingly face-neutral laws that in fact disadvantage Blacks …
Despite law-enforcement’s too-frequent profiling, harassment and violence toward Blacks; despite a totally disproportionate conviction and incarceration rate for Blacks; despite a rise in white-supremacist organizations; despite the fact that much of our nation experienced nearly nine minutes of horror as they watched a Black man being executed at the hands of police officers …
Despite the fact that Blacks and non-Blacks by the hundreds of thousands took to the streets to issue a generally peaceful but nevertheless unflinching call for racism to be comprehensively addressed once and for all; despite all this and much more, a significant number of people refuse to engage in — and some even actively oppose — seriously addressing our nation’s still-unresolved racial inequities and injustices, claiming that their inaction is because they’re so outraged by the violence, vandalism and arson a relatively small percentage of protesters have engaged in.
In this context, we invite you to join us for a brief journey back to our nation’s beginnings.
In 1770, the citizens of Boston were chafing because of unjust treatment from their British overlords. On March 5, in what later became known as the Boston Massacre, frustrated colonists began throwing snowballs at the British soldiers guarding the Boston Customs House. Long story short: The soldiers opened fire on the unarmed protesters, killing five colonists and wounding six.
The massacre, combined with not having a voice in the process of governing, plus anger over taxes — especially a hated tax on tea — created a seething cauldron that the British failed to adequately address.
On December 16, 1773, numerous Bostonians had had it. Determined to make an emphatic statement about their degree of outrage, a large group of men and boys boarded a trading ship — the Dartmouth — and chopped open 342 crates of tea, dumping the tea and the ruined crates into the harbor.
Most of us learned the rudiments of this story early in our elementary education. Remember how the story always elicited stern lectures from teachers about property rights and the criminality and immorality of deliberately destroying an innocent third party’s assets simply to demonstrate collective outrage?
You don’t remember that? Of course you don’t. Because no such stern lectures were delivered. The story is always told with admiration and pride.
But let today’s protesters follow the template set by our national forebears, and suddenly such actions disqualify from serious consideration the entire issue of lingering racial injustice, and renders the Black Lives Matter movement moot and extreme.
Why the double standard?
Vandalism, arson and violence should be condemned. Whether in 1773 or 2020. And not only do we condemn such behavior, but so do the overwhelming majority of clergy, community leaders and people of goodwill with whom we interact daily, whatever their skin color.
Criminal behavior should always be labeled for what it is: criminal. But the criminal behavior of a relatively small percentage of protesters should never be used to justify indifference toward our collective responsibility to secure “liberty and justice for all.” Not in 1773. And not in 2020.
Rev. Dr. James Morris is pastor of the Carter Tabernacle CME Church in Orlando and presiding elder of the Central Florida District. Pastor James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.