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History Repeating Itself: John Hope Franklin, The Voting Rights Act, and Officer Robert Powell

This week I finished reading Helene Cooper’s memoir about her pre-Samuel K. Doe childhood in Liberia, “The House at Sugar Beach.” In it, Ms. Cooper describes and then mourns the loss of her privileged childhood as part of the “Congo People” – Liberians descended from freed African American slaves who settled there – at the hands of a coup d’etat engineered by Samuel K. Doe. She also traces her ancestors on both sides of her elite family to some of the original African American settlers. I felt both proud and jealous of Ms. Cooper, proud because she could trace her ancestors back that far; jealous because I couldn’t. I thought to myself, “They may have stolen your childhood, but at least they didn’t steal your history.” I personally cannot trace my family back more than three generations.

For the rest of us of African American descent whose history was stolen, it was given back to us in the form of a gift: John Hope Franklin’s 1947 seminal work, “From Slavery to Freedom.” This week we lost this great American historian upon whose shoulders all African Americans stand today. His work with Thurgood Marshall’s team to craft the arguments that would ultimately prevail in Brown v. Board of Education would only be the starting point for other barriers he would break down: The first African American to chair a department in a predominantly white university; the Presidential Medal of Freedom; his chairmanship of President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, among many. I can’t even begin to list all his accomplishments which lifted up all African Americans. I just know he can’t be replaced.

And then there are those who would attempt to "erase" our racism in subtle, law-encoated ways. Conservatives are now mounting a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which gives the federal government oversight of changes to state election laws in states that traditionally discriminated against minorities. An Austin, Texas utility district has challenged this “pre-clearance” section as unconstitutional and no longer needed, saying that the election of the nation’s first African American president is evidence that Section 5 pre-clearance is no longer needed. “The America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when Section 5 was first enacted in 1965,” wrote Gregory S. Coleman, a former Texas solicitor general who brought the suit on behalf of a tiny utilities district in Austin, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1, that is covered by the law. The pre-clearance requirements of Section 5 apply to nine states – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – as well as counties and towns in other states.

Mind you, the America that elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is still the same America that has Texas in it, last I checked. And just as Mr. Coleman and other conservatives mount their effort to erase the racism of the past that still runs into the present, Officer Robert Powell of the Dallas Police Department served up quite a healthy reminder that racism is alive and well in, of all places, Texas, where black men get dragged to their deaths – remember James Byrd?

Officer Powell came to the public’s attention yesterday as the officer who detained African American NFL player Ryan Moats for running a red light on the way to take his wife and father-in-law to his mother-in-law’s death bed at a hospital. While Moats pleaded the exigency of his circumstances – his mother-in-law was dying and he was running out of time to see her, Officer Powell, who is white, decided that he would exert his power and chastise Moats for his “bad attitude.” I think Officer Powell’s words should just speak for themselves:

Excerpts from Officer Robert Powell and Ryan Moats:

Moats: You really want to go through this right now? My mother-in-law is dying. Right now! ... I got seconds before she's dying, man!

Powell: If my mom was dying I'd probably be a little upset too, but when I saw flashing red and blues, I would stop.

Moats: Did I not stop at the red light?

Powell: You stopped, then you drove through the red light.

Moats: I stopped, I checked the traffic, I waved the traffic off, then I turned.

Powell: This is not an emergency vehicle. You do not have the right to control the traffic.

Moats: OK. All right ... just go ahead and check my insurance so I can go ahead and go. If you're gonna give me a ticket, give me a ticket. I really don't care, just ...

Powell: Your attitude says that you need one.

Moats: I don't have an attitude. All I'm asking you is just to hurry up. Cause you're standing here talking to me...

Powell: Shut your mouth and listen.

Moats: Shut my mouth? Is that how you talk to me, too?

Powell: Shut your mouth and listen. If you want to keep this going, I'll just put you in handcuffs, and I'll take you to jail for running a red light.

Moats: OK. All right.

Powell: I can do that.

Moats: OK.

Powell: State law says I can.

Moats: Yes, sir. Go ahead.

Powell: If you don't settle down that's what I'm gonna do.

Moats: Yes, sir.

Powell: All right, If you don't settle down, your truck's illegally parked – I'll tow that as well.

Moats: Yes, sir.

Powell: OK, I can screw you over. I'd rather not do that. Your attitude will dictate everything that happens, and right now, your attitude sucks.

Moats: Yes, sir.

Powell: OK, I turned my red and blues on as you were going over the bridge ...

Moats: You think I'm gonna stop when my wife's mother is dying?

Powell: You are required to stop. What you're doing does not matter. Red and blues, you have to stop. I can charge you with fleeing right now.

Moats: Yes, sir. ...

Powell: I can take you to jail. I can tow your truck. I can charge you with fleeing.

Moats: Yes, sir, you can. I understand.

Powell: I can make your night very difficult.

Moats: I hope you'll be a great person and not do that.

And the funny thing is, Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle not only apologized for Officer Powell’s behavior, but praised Moats for his, noting, "At no time did Mr. Moats identify himself as an NFL football player or expect any kind of special consideration. He handled himself very, very well." In other words, by not availing himself of his status, which I’m sure any white Southerner would have done in a heartbeat in the same situation, e.g., “Do you know who I am?”, Moats was to be commended for remaining subservient, although he had little choice since it is reported that Powell had at one point drawn his gun.

And they don’t need Section 5 pre-clearance down in Texas anymore. Yeah, right.

I know better because I know my history. Because of John Hope Franklin.


VwsRMyLife said…
there will be a need for certain types of policies for a long time to come.

just like losing weight. it took a certain amount of time to put it on, don't look for the cottage cheese to come off any faster.

I also want to add that just because the first African American president was elected does not mean that we can no longer look to our history as a means to containing certain folks in sure is nice to have a black man in 'power', but we have to look at what he still has to face now that he is there.

officer Powell has me so pissed right now i can barely speak.

it is people like him who silently sit behind the scene, sabotaging the dreams of young blacks everywhere we turn.

it's not just whites either. i work with people who think that 'we' meaning black people cannot stand on our own and succeed. they believe that we are being ignorant to our own limits by wanting to do better. give us a chance by giving us support please.

i know that we need to have rules to keep certain people at bay in their racist ways, but we also have to reign ourselves in when it comes to stomping on our own progress.

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