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‘Thank God, We Ain’t What We Was’

Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page

When he talked about race relations, Martin Luther King Jr. used to like to quote an old black minister: “Lord we ain’t what we should be and we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t what we was!” That particular (and perhaps apocryphal) minister was speaking of slavery, but the quote accurately points out, racially speaking, things could be--and have been--worse.

Lynchings used to be painfully common throughout the South (and elsewhere); black men--and sometimes boys--frequently were killed by white men for perceived disrespect. Or for having the temerity to insist on their right to vote, to protect their families, to walk erect and uncowed by others who considered them inferior and expendable. Rarely did the culprits spend time imprisoned for their crimes. Usually they were tried before all-white juries (another civic responsibility denied blacks for decades in some parts of the country) and often given highly visible support from those in power. Myrlie Evers, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, remembers clearly Ross Barnett, then the governor of Mississippi, pointedly coming by to shake hands with her husband’s assassin during what would be the first of three trials. (The first two ended in hung juries.)

The practice of growing trees that bear the “strange fruit” about which Billie Holiday sang so eloquently, mercifully faded like a bad nightmare, thanks to the ceaseless campaigning of the NAACP and other organizations. Lynchings didn’t disappear completely, but they decreased sharply and became the headline-making exception, rather than the rule.

The murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, last month, allegedly by three local white men, is at once horrific and hopeful. That three men could truss a fellow human being, drag him for two miles, dismember his body and spread it across the countryside speaks volumes about the depth of racial hatred that still remains in America, like active land mines waiting to explode. That the town of Jasper acted calmly, swiftly and definitively to seek justice for Byrd’s death speaks volumes about how far we’ve come. Here, after all, is an integrated grand jury comprised mostly of whites, who voted unanimously to indict their neighbors, also white, for killing a black man. And Tuesday, a jury elected to do the same to Mikail Markhasev for the death of Ennis Cosby.

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Neither these nor the 1994 conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for Evers’ murder would have occurred as recently as 30 years ago. That they did says we have made considerable progress in our search to apply equal justice under law to each citizen, regardless of race. It doesn’t always work this way. And the system is far from perfect. But let’s give credit where it’s due: The unanimous decision of the Jasper grand jury and the Mississippi jurors in the Beckwith case indicate that we definitely are not what we used to be. And they give more than a glimmer of hope of what we may ultimately become.


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