On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed. The church, whose congregation was predominantly Black, was also where civil rights leaders regularly met. Four young girls were killed. Their names are Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Denise McNair (11). Several others were injured.
Dudley Randall's poem "Ballad of Birmingham" references the church bombing. In it, a young girl pleads with her mother to allow her to "march the streets of Birmingham/ In a Freedom March today?"
Concerned for her daughter's safety, the mother refuses her request: "'No, baby, no, you may not go/ For I fear those guns will fire. But you may go to the church instead/ And sing in the children's choir.'"
The mother hears the explosion, rushes to the church, "claws through the bits of glass and brick,/ Then lifted out a shoe." The mother's closing lament is heart wrenching: "'O, here's the shoe my baby wore,/ But baby where are you now?'"
Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic where early data suggests Black communities are suffering from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate. "Social conditions, structural racism, and other factors elevate risk for COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths in Black communities," concluded the writers of "Assessing Differential Impacts of COVID-19 on Black Communities," in an article in Annals of Epidemiology.
As coronavirus lingers, peaceful protestors have taken to the streets to protest the racist murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. Many protestors face the decision of peacefully protesting injustice while recognizing that by being in such close proximity to other protestors they could be putting themselves and others at risk of catching or spreading the virus.
They also face the risk of a peaceful protest turning violent. And once again parents find themselves being asked by their children for permission to march the streets in spite of the risks.
"'But,mother, I won't be alone'," said the girl in Randall's poem. "'Other children will go with me,/ And march the streets of Birmingham/ To make our country free.'"
It wasn't until 2000 that charges were brought against two of the white men long suspected of being responsible for bombing the 16th Street Church. Each eventually was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Certainly, parents should worry about the safety of their children. That's the right thing to do.
But parents should also recognize that there are some injustices that are impossible to isolate to one particular setting. A church, a parked car, or an apartment may be no safer than a protest march for some Black Americans. For some parents, it can seem impossible to keep their children, regardless of their age, safe.
It is reasonable to decide not to engage in peaceful
protests out of concern of contracting or spreading coronavirus. For those who
choose not to protest peacefully, however, there remains substantial work to do
to combat racism, to be anti-racist. Doing nothing or hoping to find a safe
haven where racist behavior doesn't exist is not a viable option. Calling out
racist behavior among family, friends, classmates, or colleagues when it occurs
is a start. But it will take actions rather than merely words "to make our
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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