The poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by civil rights activist and writer James Weldon Johnson in 1900. His brother, composer John Rosamond Johnson, set it to music in 1905. It has become “The Black National Anthem.” For the last week, I have found it running through my head, in conjunction with other thoughts: How do we harness the energy and the magnitude of the protests and channel that into specific, concrete, lasting change? Where does art, symbolism and dialogue meet specific actions?
The enormity of what we have witnessed as a nation, and experienced as a city, is profound. I also keep wondering: What would our community conversations look like if that intense energy were channeled into local issues like healthcare equity, access to education, the school-to-prison pipeline, and cash bail?
All of these issues are pertinent right now in New Hanover County. Though I am impressed with white allies who say they are listening or making space, I have to wonder how much of that silence is consent and compliance by inaction rather than heavy lifting. If white privilege includes getting voices heard more easily, well, in order for us allies to become true advocates, we must raise our voices on these issues:
Healthcare access isn’t really sexy—it doesn’t fit comfortably on a sign or a poster. Yet, it is essential, real and necessary.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported prior to COVID-19 that black Americans were dying at a disproportionately high rate to whites from diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Access to health care during the pandemic has made the inequity even more striking. American Public Media (APM) Research Lab reported black American mortality rates from COVID-19 are 2.3 times higher than whites and Asians. Just the same, black American infant mortality is reported twice that of white infants. We who really believe Black Lives Matter must advocate for access to health care for all stages of life, from cradle to grave.
New Hanover Regional Medical Center is a community-owned hospital that came into existence shortly after Dr. Hubert A. Eaton (who desegregated Wilmington College before it became UNCW) led a lawsuit by black American physicians against then-segregated James Walker Memorial Hospital for physicians’ privileges (the scope in which black physicians could practice in the hospital). The first proposal for New Hanover Memorial Hospital failed because the black community was (justifiably) skeptical of the promise that the new “community” hospital actually would serve African Americans, and they would have to pay for something they would be prohibited or limited from using. The issue forced the white power structure at the time to make concessions, promises and ultimately build some (admittedly tenuous) bridges, in order to get the bond to pass the second time it was on the ballot.
According to the Healing Through Time exhibit in NHRMC’s lobby, “When New Hanover opened in 1967, Community Hospital and James Walker Memorial Hospital both closed, and New Hanover Memorial merged the black and white hospitals without incident, a civil rights milestone for the region.” When considering the political climate in 1967, that is pretty remarkable.
Once again the future of New Hanover Regional Medical Center is in the lurch. As a community, we must participate to ensure health care is a human right. Unfortunately, we live in a country that treats healthcare as a commodity. A privately owned hospital owes its allegiance to the balance sheet, the profit margin and the CEO’s salary. That CEO will probably not live here. They may not even visit. Discharging patients with a quick fix and a prescription that will run out and bring them back to the emergency room sooner, generates more income for a private hospital group than addressing patient health and long-term positive outcomes—especially for chronic health conditions. A patient’s ability to pay comes more sharply into focus as costs rise and care decreases. If African Americans are already receiving a disproportionately poorer quality of health care across the nation, then losing a hospital that is, ultimately, answerable to the people is not going to improve that situation.
Please, research the Save Our Hospital movement, and consider getting involved and voicing concerns regarding equal access to quality health care in our community.
For far too long, this country—and New Hanover County, specifically—has used access to education as a weapon. We are standing in a city and state where it was once illegal for the black community to learn to read or write. A “literacy test” was used as one of many tactics to keep black Americans from exercising their rights to vote and participate in our democracy. Black schools were woefully underfunded throughout the era of official school segregation. Then, an actual physical battle using children as the soldiers on the front lines was necessary to integrate schools: Who can forget the picture of Ruby Bridges getting escorted to class by Federal Marshals? Though that image was immortalized by Norman Rockwell, it was far from isolated as across the country. The children integrating schools bore the brunt of the adults’ plans. The Swann case in Charlotte in 1971 mandated school busing as the method or achieving school integration.
After decades of fragile balance, with the Supreme Court overturning Brown v. Board of Education, our school board embarked upon a course of “neighborhood schools” that have effectively resegregated our elementary schools. In the last two years, the school redistricting map has been in play. Roughly 3,700 to 4,000 students are expected to be moved with the school redistricting. Somehow, when initial community partners were selected to work on redistricting maps, three white people were chosen to represent the community. Apparently, there are no people of color in this community that deserved representation and voices in the process of choosing where their children would go to school, and what quality of education said children would receive. How tone deaf is it that? This is the city of the Wilmington Ten! As a result of the justifiable public outcry, the community partners committee was adjusted, but it would not have been without significant pushback. It is clear not all schools in New Hanover County provide the same education to all students. Getting involved with community and citizen response and oversight processes are ways to effect change.
Even as I write this, Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, is getting stonewalled in her attempts to join the Board of Trustees for Cape Fear Community College—and it’s not the first time. She applied before, sent in her résumé showing her experience as a social worker, and went through the full interview process. Yet, when they reached back out, it was to say they were looking for an engineer. She wrote an open letter to CFCC Board of Trustees last week after getting passed over once again, which in part stated:
“This was a waste of my time, but [at least] you could say a minority was interviewed. Because I was clear at that time about being transparent in the applicant interview process, I was blindsided when this occurred again.
“There is a lack of transparency in the process. I recommend that henceforth when you are seeking a position that you inform the school board prior to posting what type of experience you are looking for. The subterfuge must end. Students are on 3rd Street trying to bring change and equity, [yet] it appears by these subtle ploys you do not want it to occur within the Board of Trustees at Cape Fear Community College. If you were looking for a nurse, you would not interview a teacher. The time is now to be clear and transparent each time you post for a position through the schools. You know your vacancy needs in advance.”
Getting back to my earlier point: We must speak out when we see things are off.
Part of why I respect and admire local author and UNCW professor Clyde Edgerton so much is he is prepared to utilize his local celebrity—and, frankly, his very privileged status as a white male—to lead a fight. The last several years of Clyde’s time have been given over to a fight with New Hanover County Schools. He called out a principal for actively filling a coveted school program with white children and working to prevent children of color from applying to join. That issue, which seemed so small to so many and wasn’t worthy of a march or protest, was one Clyde wasn’t willing to let slide.
All of these pieces add up to the whole and help put an end to systemic racism that typifies our education system. Without pushback, it will (and does) snowball quickly. We can’t be stronger united, as long as unfairly distributed resources exist only to benefit a select few. We must be prepared to take on the fight with the school board directly because there is still a lot to be done.
Please, do not discount the power of making a difference one person at a time, and volunteering with organizations that provide tutoring, meals, activities and enrichment for students. Indeed, that might be the most important contribution any of us can make.
When we do reach out to correct injustices in education, we close the gap in the school-to-prison pipeline. Basically, that means minorities—disproportionately young black men—are often treated with harsher punishments, many times for minor or zero infractions. When criminalizing youth with strict disciplinary policies and practices, inevitably, we also break their confidence and progress. This often sets up a path that could very well lead them to prison. Improving educational opportunities and outcomes help correct this path.
Thankfully, ILM also has LINC (Leading Into New Communities), which works to educate young people, and help those who have been imprisoned find an empowered, healthy and economical way to re-enter public life and become productive members in our community. Volunteering with them would be a great way to spend energy and time fighting for the cause.
At the same time, the injustices of our cash bail system ensure wealthy, comfortable people can pay their way out from behind bars. Yet, people without the same economic advantages sometimes sit in jail because they can’t raise a couple of hundred dollars.
Donating funds to a bail movement is worthwhile. Locally, as protests continue, Wilm-Protest on Venmo accepts donations, which go toward anyone arrested during ILM protests led by the lowercase leaders. Monies not needed for bail bonds go toward funds for resources at the protests, which will continue through June 6, 2021.
All of this will mean little, however, if we do not put a halt to the aggressive and insidious voter suppression campaign that North Carolina has perpetrated for over 200 years. Since the beginning of our nation and state, North Carolina has sought to limit who can vote by race, religion and gender. Catholics and Jewish people legally have been prohibited from voting here, as have people of color (including Native Americans) and, of course, women. Voter ID laws, gerrymandering districts, limiting early voting, and reducing polling locations are but a few examples of the weaponization of the ballot box.
Right now, especially, voting can feel insignificant. However, imagine your non-vote being the one that allows the school board to decide your child’s quality of education. Or imagine not choosing the right county commissioner to decide the fate of our local healthcare system. Or what if only one senator is holding up the passage of the bill that would finally make lynching a federal hate crime, and you sat out the vote?
Currently, the senate needs to pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. If passed into law, it would finally make lynching a federal hate crime. It has passed the House of Representatives and, as of press, is held up by Senator Rand Paul (L), who wants it amended. This would send it back to the House for another vote. If ever there was a moment when Congress could take a step toward healing the country, it is right now, with this legislation. Let your voice be heard and petition your local representatives. (Incidentally, James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” campaigned for the passage of the Dyer Antilynching Bill, which was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1918.)
Our elected officials have power over policy, and they will determine who get the resources to have a decent quality of life. We have to choose those representatives wisely to make sure they represent minorities, too. Activism for equal rights is a marathon, not a sprint. Silence is not support; it is consent to the status quo.