In less than a heartbeat, our national focus has gone from sequestering from a deadly virus to mass social protest, accompanied by some looting and lawlessness. I can’t help a sense of history repeating.
The spring of 1968 was my senior year in college, and I had a choice to make. I could go to Florida with friends and be a typical college kid springbreaker, or join a group of Wesleyan students on a bus to Columbia, South Carolina to stay at a black college, and go door to door to register poor black residents to vote. We went door to door in the poor “Black Bottom” neighborhoods. Columbia calls itself an All-American city. We came with clipboards and registration forms.
Several civil rights workers had already been murdered for doing the same thing we were. We survived, and the worst we suffered was taunts by some locals who saw us as outside agitators. I learned a lot that spring break. I had never previously been immersed in black culture and as white kid from a small overwhelmingly white town in upstate New York, it wasn’t entire comfortable. But I learned to adapt and understand what until then had been a foreign environment for me. It was eye opening and transformational.
Our trip to Allen University and Benedict College, where we stayed in all-black dorms, took place several weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and a couple of months before the assassination of New Yorker Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The previous spring I served for two weeks as an intern in RFK’s Washington office. Both Dr. King’s death and RFK’s death affected me deeply. It was at that point I devoted my life’s work to changing our country for the better.
I could not help but be moved last Saturday, when I saw several hundred largely young, some black, but mostly white, protesters march on Oswego City Hall, then parade peaceably down Bridge Street. I was moved and impressed by their courage, and grateful that it was a lawful and peaceful demonstration. There was no looting. No fires were set. In one case, a protester handed a flower to a city policeman.
We are learning how to fight against a pandemic of COVID-19. How do you fight a pandemic of racism?
It might help to borrow a chapter from the pandemic playbook. First you identify it, then you quarantine it. Then you trace its source, and you work to develop antibodies against it. What we need is a cure for racism, as well as a treatment for COVID-19. Racism is a systemic malady that has not gone away these last 50 years. It keeps on returning in unwelcome ways like police brutality against black citizens, whose lives matter.
Racism is a deadly disease continuing to eat at the very fabric of our society. The only way to rid ourselves of this epidemic of hate is to identify the symptoms, and work from within to expurgate the toxic venom which lies at its core. Forcibly restricting peaceful, First Amendment-protected protests is not going to help, nor is rioting or looting.
There is a better way. To solve this and a host of other problems, we need true leadership, not vitriolic retribution. This is why elections matter. This is why going door to door 50 years ago to sign up voters mattered then as much as it matters now. The only way to end injustice in America is through the use of the ballot box. It is our most powerful potion that can cure the nation. November beckons.
John T. Sullivan Jr. is a former mayor of Oswego and regular Pall-Times contributing columnist.