From a distance, change can often appear almost stationary, but, viewed with the perspective of time and wisdom, the transformation can appear more dramatic. And that view from 35,000 feet mistakenly offers a timeline that, for some, would indicate that the progress made equates to a job completed. That’s almost never the case.
I was born in one capital of the Confederacy and moved to another at a young age where I spent the remainder of seven decades witnessing a racial awakening in America long overdue. Throughout that period, there have been periods of remarkable change with landmark legislation that finally offered a guarantee of equality for all Americans. There also have been lapses where the job seemed complete, but, in reality, was sadly lacking in substance and recognition of a centuries-old curse that would require more than legislation to solve.
As a young child in Montgomery, Alabama, I ran barefoot down the sidewalks as a young pastor Martin Luther King Jr. led marchers down Dexter Avenue demanding equal treatment under the law. It was confusing to a young boy who had no personal experience with bigotry or racism. As I grew older, I realized by failure to recognize obvious racism and abusive behavior was just a mechanism for me to ignore a problem I did not want to acknowledge.
That began a personal journey of racial awareness that continues today. I was raised in moonlit magnolias of the Lost Cause and had grown up in a region of America impaled with the legacy of defeat. But, it took years to couple these concepts with the reality of countless memorials, statues and exhibits that glorified or celebrated that lost vision of victory or the history in our textbooks that strategically placed blame for the Civil War on Northern aggression and states’ rights.
Even with the enlightened education and what I considered a progressive view on racial equality, it never bothered me to ride down Monument Avenue past numerous memorials to the South’s fallen heroes. As I studied as a photographer, the statues and magnificent vistas of Monument Avenue were the subjects of some of my earliest photos, at least the ones I’m willing to share with anyone.
As I walked around the Lee Monument several days ago, I engaged in conversation with a man who stood silently and stared at the graffiti-covered base of a man who he called a national hero.
“They are trying to tear down the last bastions of our heritage, our culture, our legacy,” he said.
I didn’t respond. It was too obvious and so far from reality, it was a conversation not worth having in that environment.
That reality is that these statues and their removal are a positive symbolic gesture, a peace offering long overdue. Sadly, they are only the scab of an infected wound that still delivers injustice, insult and inequality to those still searching for guarantees penned centuries ago.
The financial and cultural impacts of racism are systematic, and, while progress might seem significant to those who view it from a perch of longevity, the real struggle for equality for all Americans continues and intensifies.
This generation will no longer accept overlooked indignities or institutional racism. Issues and symbols that I conveniently ignored can no longer be overlooked. Our pace is far too slow for a new generation that will confront and resolve issues that we now know won’t just disappear.
Can all the ills of hundreds of years of suppression be alleviated with one march or protest or the removal of one misguided monument? No. But, it may represent the beginning of real change for millions of Americans.
Or, maybe we’ll forget the name of George Floyd and continue on a path of silent indignation to a problem we’ve never really wanted to deal with. I hope that’s not the case.
And, there’s no doubt that this time feels different, almost generational in its scope to gather momentum and transform long-held beliefs and generate real change, and hope.
A friend told me he’s less optimistic about the current movement, but I must disagree with his conclusion.
“They’ll move the statues and we’ll go back to the way it was,” he said.
Not this time, I thought.