I was born in 1949 so by the time I was 6, I was able to see the photo of Emmett Till in his casket in 1955 published in Jet Magazine. That same year, I heard the news about the brave leaders in Montgomery, Alabama, who organized against racism in the bus boycott in that city. Two years later when I was 8, I heard on the news about the black high school students hoping for a good education in Little Rock, Arkansas, who were met by ugly crowds of white people. By 1960, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and we watched in our living room while four college students were attacked by crowds of white people when they sat down for lunch at a Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
I was safe at home as an 11-year-old while 6-year-old Ruby Bridges needed federal Marshals to escort her through a gauntlet of angry white adults as she walked to school in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1960. In 1961, my father ran for the school board as the first black person to do so in our little town in New York and I experienced ugly racism up close and personal. On June 11, 1963, Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to keep two black students from registering there, and the very next day we heard about the murder of Medgar Evers, gunned down in his own driveway. In the summer of that year, I was 14 years old when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the march of 250,000 people on the Washington Mall for jobs and freedom for black people. One month later, four little black girls were killed when a bomb was set off at their 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Children’s Sunday. Then two months after that, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. We watched his funeral on television.
By 1964, many young people, black and white, were working to register black people to vote in Mississippi when three of them were murdered for their efforts Neshoba County. The following year another assassination of a black leader took place. Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City, just 50 miles from my home on Long Island. One month later, peaceful marchers were attacked by police on horseback in Selma, Alabama, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In 1968, the final year of my childhood, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. His body laid in state in Sisters Chapel at Spelman College where I was a freshman. The only time I ever saw Dr. King in person was in his casket. I was 19 years old and these were my formative years.
All through this time and in all the years since, unarmed black people have been killed by the police. My people have been the targets of murderous brutality my entire life. The fact is that the police kill an average of 1,000 citizens every year and not all of them are black. The police kill unarmed white people as well. My colleague, Rev. Kent Siladi, always asks churches the same question when he visits them. “What would you do if you were brave?” As I make this provocative statement, I hear his question in my head. What would I do if I were brave? Well, I would I say again, there are precious few good police.
If there were enough good police, there would be no blue veil of silence that condones the brutality of fellow officers. If there were enough good police, the ones who did not fire the fatal shots would not go along with a fabricated story about how yet another black man wound up dead on the street. If there were enough good police, they would tell the whole truth, and they would work to take their murderous colleagues off the streets and into prison cells.
Consider the child abuse problem in the Catholic Church. We have come to understand that the bishops who knew that children were being abused and did nothing to protect them are also culpable. When they merely moved ordained pedophiles from one parish to another for years, we have all agreed that what they did was wrong. Just because the bishops did not actually personally assault these children, our society has not named them as ‘good priests.’ Our society is holding them just as responsible for these crimes as the actual pedophiles that perpetrated the atrocities. Likewise, those police who go along with the lies of their murderous colleagues are also culpable for the continuing brutality on our poorest, darkest citizens. Those sergeants and lieutenants and captains who put the murderer on desk duty for a month and then send them back out to murder again are also culpable.
We are all dismayed at the riots that have taken place this week across America. I deplore the destruction of property and the burning and looting that this latest killing, caught on film so that lying reports of what happened are laid bare, has inspired. But this is what years of brutality unleashes when people are just fed up. As Malcolm X once said, “The chickens have come home to roost.” And I am tired. I am weary. I am worn. My heart is heavy and I cannot keep quiet and just write the socially acceptable statement that church leaders write every time yet another atrocity is visited upon black people in this country. What would I do if I were brave? I would say there are precious few good police and there won’t be enough good police until they are as outraged when an unarmed black person is killed as I am. There will not be enough until they break the code of silence and write truthful reports. There will not be enough until police officers are willing to testify in court to the truth of what happened when an unarmed person is killed by one of their own.
There are precious few good police.
The Rev. Marilyn Kendrix is Bridge Conference Minister. Kendrix, a 2013 graduate of Yale Divinity, earned that school’s Henry Hallam Tweedy Prize for exceptional promise in pastoral leadership, the highest prize conferred on a graduating student ...