While standing at a crosswalk waiting for the traffic light signal to change, I watched as a van pulled up beside me with its side door flung open. A group of white men emerged from inside, their fists wrapped around hockey sticks as they screamed in my face, “Nigger!” Within seconds, one of them hopped out of the van and began pacing toward me. I turned and ran away as fast as I could. I was just 12 years old at the time.
Ever since that day, I have thought about dying. Just hours before the attack, I had traveled by city bus from a chocolate hood in Detroit to a vanilla suburb with the best library. I was a child, yet I felt the full weight of centuries of racial terror. I was even too scared to ask for help from the library’s all-white staff.
This fear would change my life, but from then on I was on a path to courage. I was not going to let white supremacy keep me away from an excellent library and learning. It is why we say “Forward Together, Not One Step Back.”
Over the last several months, however, instigators of hate have attempted to impede that progress. In early August, a 21-year-old white male from Allen, Texas, drove 10-hours to El Paso to kill as many Hispanics as he could. Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan has made its presence deeply felt in North Carolina. Armed members held a rally in Hillsborough in late August, and for several weekends in a row, demonstrators with the KKK stood along street corners and paraded in trucks waving Confederate flags downtown.
In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which King responds to the criticism of being an “outsider,” Americans from across the country and the state of North Carolina marched together through Hillsborough last month in a counterprotest to the KKK. Many people think the best way to reply to these far-right neo-fascists, the Klan, and white supremacy is to ignore it. But if we don’t stand up, they will push us back.
About a year after being chased by that racist mob, in the summer of 1984, I confided in my grandfather about it. My grandfather, Alphonso “Al” Lumpkins was a Korean War veteran, who later worked for Boeing and General Motors to take care of a household of seven children. A few years prior to me being attacked, Al had become the first chairman of the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) in St. Louis; he was also a founding member of the National Black United Front (NBUF) headquartered in Chicago.
While sitting at the kitchen table, Grandpa Al told me about an experience he had after coming back home from the war. My grandpa had been detained by law enforcement for reading a book in the white section of a library. “White supremacy must be resisted in all forms. There is nothing in America white supremacy doesn’t touch,” he said. He got up, went into his bedroom and returned to the kitchen while handing a book to me to read, Nigger: An Autobiography by Dick Gregory. For the next 25 years, my grandfather and I read a wide assortment of books and discussed them. It was my grandpa who taught me how to be an anti-racist. The very last lesson my grandfather taught me before losing his fight to cancer in 2009 was, “Don’t let them take us back. Always remember it’s easier going backward than it is moving forward.” I understood exactly what he meant.
We must be anti-racist so we don’t fall back.
Like my grandfather, I am an Airman too. In the early 2000s, my family and I were stationed in Rapid City, South Dakota, a town with a black population of 1%. Our daughter was the sole African American child in her kindergarten class. Toward the end of her winter break, she looked at me square in the eyes and said, “Daddy, I don’t want to go back to school anymore. Nobody plays with me.” I took hold of my daughter and I just hugged her and told her everything will be alright. It would be another two years before my daughter was invited to her first birthday party in that town.
As parents, we are the first line of defense in battling racism. Do most of your friends seem just like you? Do most of your neighbors look like you? Are most of the businesses that you support owned by people who resemble you? Some of us are doing a marvelous job embracing diversity; however, most of us go about our daily lives in racial and ethnic isolation. It’s hard to give our kids the talk when we are not walking the walk. Today, the motto on the Klan’s banner is “Help Make America Great Again.” In the face of white supremacists, it’s not enough that we are inclusive or diverse; we must be anti-racist so we don’t fall back.
In 1966, approximately 1,800 unmasked Klansmen marched in downtown Raleigh during a visit and speech by King. They would go on to assemble throughout the state terrorizing North Carolinian communities. But in their counterprotests in recent weeks, the town of Hillsborough said we’re not going backward. Hillsborough dared to show love, hope, and how to be human. That took fortitude, virtue, and humility. Community leaders and several NAACP branch presidents led the way. Together, we peacefully marched forward as humans. Like King learned every day in this struggle for our humanity, I too am not afraid to die. But I’m not going to die going backward.
We must go forward together.