A few thoughts about things that seem far away …
A long time before this very long week, on August 11, 1897, a white woman stepped in front of a crowd of farmers in Tybee Island, Georgia, and spoke about her so-called troubles.
Rebecca Felton was born wealthy, on a 700-plus-acre farm where her family kept people enslaved. She married a doctor and they had a farm, too, where they also kept people enslaved. That farm was nearly destroyed in the Civil War, and the emancipation of those people was, to her, less a human issue than an economic hardship. She fumed over it for three decades, even as her husband was elected to the U.S. House and she became one of the South’s most notable speakers and citizens.
As she looked out in the crowd that night, she was frustrated with the direction of the country, frustrated with men in particular. She’d seen a shift toward liberal policies in the early 1890s — specifically the emerging political alliance between poor whites and poor blacks in the midst of the first Great Depression.
She knew exactly how to stoke her white audience. She mocked white liberals who were “honey-snuggling” with black men at the polls while white women on farms throughout the South were “scared to death if left alone” with black men. The portrait of innocent white woman being preyed upon by the “black rapist” riled her audience. So she went for it all, taking the speech to its racist crescendo, saying that if the government of the United States wouldn’t protect these white women, then white men had to “lynch, a thousand times a week, if necessary.”
The speech was published in newspapers from New York to San Francisco. But it didn’t make its way to papers in North Carolina’s largest city — Wilmington, at the time — until the next year. In August 1898, at the height of a coordinated white supremacy campaign in North Carolina, the Wilmington Morning Star published it.
In his office across town, the editor of the black newspaper, the Daily Record, had read enough.
Alex Manly was the mixed-race grandson of former governor Charles Manly and an enslaved woman on Charles’s farm. In an era when many multiracial people chose to “pass for white,” Manly didn’t. Instead he insisted on being called black.
Manly came to Wilmington, where black citizens had an outsized influence, to start his publishing career. It seemed like the place to be: 10 of the city’s 11 restaurants were owned by black people, and the black male literacy rate was higher than that of white males.
A frustrated Manly responded to Felton’s words with an editorial that altered the course of North Carolina. In it, he argued that crimes against black women were far more prevalent — something he knew personally. And he called on white citizens to stand against violence, all violence:
If the papers and speakers of the other race would condemn the commission of crime because it is crime and not try to make it appear that the Negroes were the only criminals, they would find their strongest allies in the intelligent Negroes themselves; and together the whites and blacks would root the evil out of both races.
The white men of North Carolina took the words as an insult. In cities across the state, they gathered and formed militias. But they waited four months to act. The reason: They knew the most important response would be at the polls.
That November, white Democrats spread news of the dangerous black men in newspapers around the state. They fabricated stories of sexual assaults. They lied about stones being thrown at old white women. They made black men criminals, even if they weren’t, to justify their deaths.
It worked. That fall, they swept nearly every contest in North Carolina. It was hardly a just election. In some polling places throughout eastern North Carolina, white men entered with guns to push out the poll workers and stuff ballots.
Two days later, the same victorious white men were still angry. They marched to the black newspaper office and burned it. They overthrew the mayor and police chief, who weren’t up for elections until the next year. At the end of that day, a Thursday, they put badges on drunken racists and made them armed guards of the city with the largest black population in the state. And they killed.
That day, they lynched at least 22 black people, in the only coup to take place on U.S. soil.
One could make the case that no single event is more important to the history of our state.
Those black people who weren’t killed fled. Those who had horses and buggies were lucky; they went north to Maryland and New Jersey, to raise a new generation. Many more fled on foot, destination still untraced. Leaders at the time said they had no way of knowing how many died in the swamps and pine forests of North Carolina, a generation of people lost, a generation of black prosperity vanished.
What does that have to do with 2020?
In a season when a black young man named Ahmaud Arbery in, yes, coastal Georgia, was gunned down and killed by white men because they simply had a hunch he was a thief?
In a month when a sheriff’s deputy in, yes, Wilmington, was arrested and charged with leading a large group of white men and women, many of whom were armed, to the home of a young black man who’d done nothing wrong?
In a week when a white woman in New York was hysterical as she called police to say she was being threatened in a park by an African-American man, who was there to look at birds?
And in a week when a police officer in Minnesota kneeled on the neck of a black man named George Floyd for nine minutes, despite pleas from people around him to stop, leaving Floyd dead?
At a time when white people show up armed to state capitols to protest stay-home orders without worrying about their safety, and black people can get tear-gassed when they protest the death of an innocent man?
In an age when it took 110 years to honor the black people who died in Wilmington that November 1898?
In an age when 100 years later there’s a historical marker in Georgia in honor of Rebecca Felton that tells the part of the story of how, after a politician died while in office in 1920, she went on from that lynching speech to become the first woman ever to serve in the United States Senate?
Or maybe a lot.
So what does it have to do with Charlotte?
A city that had its most recent protests in 2016 for Keith Scott, just two months after Minnesota did for Philando Castile?
Where 27,000 families are in need of affordable housing? Where violent crime is up, kids of all races are bored, adults of all races are tense, and tens of thousands of people lost their jobs this spring, many of them black and brown people?
Where a black woman named Sharmae Reddick stood in a long line in hopes of obtaining an affordable apartment in January and told me, “It’s just sad that Charlotte has gotten to this, where they don’t have affordable housing for people like us, of color. When I heard about this place, that it was based on income, I was so happy. But then to come out here and see this. It makes me want to cry, actually break down and cry.”
If you don’t think it’s rumbling in Charlotte, you’re one of the lucky ones.
Thankfully, we have a proactive police department, with proactive officers. Not perfect, but proactive.
Chief Kerr Putney, who’s retiring, has done quite a bit of work on the deescalation front. Many would argue not enough. Others would say just enough. Inarguably, he spent much of his first few years in office holding community conversations — even with people who disagreed with him. He’s doing so again today, in a conversation that’ll be aired on CMPD’s Facebook page this afternoon.
Putney’s been criticized for defending his officers too much; a pretty sharp contrast to his predecessor, Rodney Monroe, who lost the trust of some officers because he filed charges against the officer in the Ferrell case.
“What we want to do is seek justice. Our policy reflects that. We’re going to hold people accountable,” Putney said this week, responding to questions about Minneapolis. “Our people deescalate better than most and I think that’s a tribute to what we’re doing to better train them. … Can I give you assurances that we’re never going to use more force than necessary? I wish I could. But what I can tell you here locally we’ve done a lot some of which I’ve highlighted just now to make us as good as we possibly can be. As good as we humanly can be.”
So what does it have to do with the people around you, in your social and professional circles?
Here’s a little snippet of those in mine.
“I still haven’t been able to watch the whole video,” Braxton Winston, a city councilman, told me Thursday.
“Please, please, please don’t videotape me dying,” Greg Jackson, founder of Heal Charlotte, told me on the phone.
“Hey man, I’m going to head to South Minneapolis tomorrow,” Alvin Jacobs, a photographer, texted to me Wednesday.
All three black men were prominent figures during the 2016 protests here. Jackson famously had a face-to-face standoff with a CMPD major named Mike Campagna. As Jackson laid into Campagna about police brutality, Campagna listened. Then the officer responded, and the activist listened, too. A relationship grew from there, and within a few months Jackson was working with the police department on implicit bias training.
Winston, meanwhile, had his picture ricochet around the world as a shirtless protester with his fist held high during the protests. He was arrested that week on charges that were later dropped. A year later he was elected to city council, with the backing of some of the most influential people in town, white and black. Two years later he was elected again.
“This one feels different,” Winston told me of the Floyd death. “But with all of them since 2016 I’ve had a feeling of numbness. But still rage. I’m in a different situation now. I’m part of the system that needs to be part of the change. Every time it happens I feel like I haven’t done enough.”
Jackson, who’ll be on the panel discussion with chief Putney today, along with activist Cass Ottley, was more angry than I’ve heard him in four years. Mostly, he says, he’s conflicted about the videotapes. He’s not sure why the people filming deaths like Floyd’s aren’t doing more to save that life instead.
“The filming is for white America. It’s catering to them. It’s feeding into this fake ignorance like we need to see it to believe it, and it’s so damn frustrating,” he told me. I asked him if he thought the people filming should’ve tackled the officer in Minnesota, and he said, “I’d rather have five people arrested than one person dead.”
And then he said something else to me.
“The whole point of having white allies,” he said, “is to have someone use their white privilege to speak a language to white people in power that I can’t speak.”
Jacobs, whose work from 2016 was featured in the Levine Museum of the New South, got on a plane on Wednesday evening.
He’s 45 years old and a colleague who’s taken pictures for Axios Charlotte. He was headed to where a black man was killed, because he didn’t know what else to do.
In another decade, I’m certain Alvin will be known widely as a photographer who documented most of the civil unrest in the 2010s. People may not see it now, because they still see the events as one individual instance after another. But Alvin’s been to Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlottesville. A few weeks ago he texted me with the image of a poster that had Ahmaud Arbrey’s image on it, and the dates and events of the protest, and Alvin said said he was going.
I hadn’t heard how it went, not until this week, when Alvin texted again on Wednesday morning:
“Hey man, I’m going to head to South Minneapolis tomorrow.”
I asked him if he made pictures in Georgia, and he responded, “I did, and tired as f**k, man.”
It’s tough to work on this and feel like you’re not making progress.
He texted me to say he’d landed Wednesday night, I turned on the news to see images of buildings burning in Minneapolis. It broke my heart. Alvin sees it as a necessary step. We’re different people, from different races and places. He sees the lives; I still see the property.
I flipped the channel at that moment, to a Fox News interview with a man from Hickory, North Carolina, who was talking about freedom, too. He wanted freedom to open his axe-throwing business. His lawyer was on the show with him, and they directed their frustration at Governor Roy Cooper, who still says it’s not safe to go to axe-throwing arenas, not because of the axes but because of the coronavirus.
While they talked my phone lit up.
“Headed to the Auto Zone that’s on fire,” Alvin wrote. “It’s crazy right now, man.” And so I flipped it back to the protests.
So what does this have to do with you?
I suppose that’s up to you to decide.
For me it’s something like this.
The man in Minnesota under that knee? His name was George. My son’s name is George. Every time I heard the name this week, I thought of two people. Different people. Different lives. And under no circumstance could I picture my white son struggling for air under the knee of a white officer. I won’t have to teach him to ask for a bag with every purchase at a convenience store, even if it’s just a pack of gum, just for evidence that he didn’t steal it.
My George was in a gray bouncer seat on Thursday morning, one day shy of 12 weeks old, kicking his legs in an outfit with red crab dressed as a pirate on it. He’s the best human being in the world, if you ask me.
Since he arrived I’ve been overrun by feelings I didn’t know existed. One of the strangest is the level of concern for him. I’ve never wanted to protect anything more. But the difference between me and my black friends with kids is that I can turn my back on the world and focus on his cries, never having to think about what’s coming up from behind.
I sat with my George on Thursday morning, my head under the dangly things in his bouncer. He smiled. Damn I love his smile. No doubt the other George’s mom loved his smile, too, the same mom he called to with his last words, “Momma! Momma! I’m through.”
It was just before 8 a.m. yesterday and time for some tummy work; it’s when George lays on his tummy. Complicated exercise for newborns.
I rolled backward on the hardwood floor with him on my chest and let him wiggle, face down. The dog clicked and clacked his way over and licked my face while my wife ate her morning smoothie in the kitchen behind me. What did I do to deserve any of this? Every time George kicked I knew he was a little closer to crawling, a little closer to walking, a little closer to running, a little closer to learning how to ride a bike, or fire a shotgun, or cast a line, or jump out of a plane, and all the things I’ve been lucky enough to do, testing the limits of my fear without knowing real fear at all.
That’s what we did for 10 or so minutes yesterday morning, me on my back and my son on my chest, his neck still all wobbly as he picked his head up dropped it, up and dropped it, in and out with big hopeful breaths.