I want to share some personal thoughts about the video that we’ve all seen by now of the murder of George Floyd, an African American, by a white policeman in Minneapolis. At times like this we’re compelled to make our voices of outrage heard. Silence is not an option.
America is in crisis. Our country is in the grip of a worldwide pandemic, 40 million people are jobless, facing income insecurity and an uncertain future, and now our cities are convulsed with rage at yet another incident of racial injustice with fatal consequences.
After 400 years we’re still confronted regularly with news of black lives cut short by violent criminal acts of white racists. And many of these crimes are committed by officers of the law who have betrayed their oath “to protect and to serve.”
History is a stern taskmaster. We know from our past that crises we’re facing today could be a recipe for civil disorder and violence, the breakdown of social cohesion, democratic institutions, and the rule of law—and even a catalyst for revolution. In our country, rare and exceptional leaders have stepped forward at crucial moments like this to keep us on the path of unity and justice—even moving our society closer to the realization of our founding ideals and principles.
When I was a young man in the 1960’s I participated in the civil rights movement. During one demonstration organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in southern Georgia on February 22, 1969, I was walking next to an elderly black man when a jeering white mob spewed racial epithets at us from the roadside, raced cars through our line of march, and threw dead animals and smashed beehives in our path. Suddenly my friend was overcome by the stress of this onslaught. He collapsed on the street at my feet. I can still see his face, contorted with pain. In that time and place there was no police protection for a peaceful protest. March organizers, knowing that no ambulance would ever answer their call, loaded my friend into the back of a station wagon and drove him to the hospital.
The next day, Atlanta newspapers confirmed he had died. Racism had claimed another victim. His name was Willie J. Simmons. There are no monuments to him, but I will always remember his final moments. He was a casualty of the struggle for equal justice—a struggle that continues to this day.
In my youth, I had hoped this dark chapter of our history would end, but the murder of George Floyd proves that, after another half century, it has not ended.
In the days and months ahead, we will choose new leaders—a President, members of Congress, and other officials. This is an important election, not only because the current occupant of the White House is unfit for the office and needs to be replaced, but because leaders of the government of the United States have proven themselves to be incompetent, corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of all our people.
In this year’s election, we need to make a personal commitment to choose leaders who are driven by the mission of service, not selfish pursuits of money, power or celebrity. We need leaders of character and integrity, now more than ever. We need truth-tellers and truth-seekers. We need to elect workhorses, not show horses. We need leaders who are ready to tackle the nation’s legacy of racism and eradicate it from our institutions, including law enforcement. It’s time for an age of reform in America.
In 1969 when I was a 19-year old college student, I could never have imagined that we would still be living in a racially divided, separate and unequal nation of haves and have-nots. Yet, we are. It’s up to each of us to do our duty as citizens to bring this chapter of our history to a close, and begin a new one.
— GARY V. HODGE
The writer is president of Regional Policy Advisors, a former Charles County Commissioner and former executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland