The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion White supremacy is doing well for itself

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit a memorial across the street from the scene of May 14's deadly shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, on May 17. (Heather Ainsworth for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

White hatred of Black people was captured in the photograph of Emmett Till that I saw in the Sept. 15, 1955, edition of Jet magazine. I was 15 years old. Fourteen-year-old Emmett was laid out in a coffin. Though his body was decomposed, I could see his crushed skull, the bullet hole in his head, his gouged-out eye. His small frame had been freed from the barbed wire that had tied it to a 75-pound cotton gin exhaust fan so it would sink to the bottom of the Tallahatchie River.

Emmett, a Chicago kid visiting family in Mississippi, had committed an unpardonable sin. While hanging out with his cousins, Emmett, on a dare, is supposed to have approached a White woman working in a small grocery store. She believed the Black boy’s greeting was too familiar. Three days later, her relatives pulled Emmett out of his great-uncle’s house. They stripped him naked, beat him beyond recognition, shot him in the head and dumped his body into the Tallahatchie.

I’ll take visions of his murdered, mutilated body to my grave.

But I’m also making room for other visions of White hatred that, I fear, will accompany me to glory.

Because there’s no way I’m going leave this Earth without searing memories of four Black girls dying when the Ku Klux Klan bombed a church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. Of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers being assassinated outside his home in Jackson, Miss., that same year. Of the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County, Miss. — and the gut-wrenching horror of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination in Memphis.

And the memories, the bodies, keep piling up. It was on June 17, 2015 — though it seems like only yesterday — that nine Black worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., Bible study were gunned down by a 21-year-old white supremacist. That hate-filled slaughter is as wrenching to me today as last Saturday’s savage attack by an 18-year-old white supremacist on unsuspecting Black people in Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo.

President Biden visited Buffalo this week. There he declared, “In America, evil will not win, I promise you. Hate will not prevail. White supremacy will not have the last word.”

Well, Mr. President, as I stand in the autumn years of my life and look around, white supremacy seems to be doing all right for itself.

The racially stratified Buffalo that I occasionally visited during the early ’60s when on leave from my Fort Niagara military post has now taken its place on the listed sites of atrocities in Black American history.

“This is not who we are,” Biden has said many times. Oh, no?

Lest we forget:

  • Colfax, La., where in 1873 more than 60 Black men were killed trying to vote.
  • Aug. 14 to 16, 1908, when a mob of 5,000 descended upon Black people in Springfield, Ill.
  • July 29 and 30, 1910, and the massacre in the small, predominantly Black town of Slocum, Tex.
  • July 19, 1919, when White mobs here in D.C. attacked Black soldiers returning from World War I.

“Not who we are”?

How about the Elaine Massacre of Black farmers in Arkansas on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 1919? The Nov. 2, 1920, Ocoee Massacre of Blacks going to vote in Florida?

Remember the May 31 and June 1, 1921, Tulsa Massacre that destroyed a thriving Black community in Oklahoma?

Are we to forget the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, the 2012 Sikh Temple of Wisconsin Massacre, the deadly hate crimes against Blacks in Kentucky and Jews in Pittsburgh in October 2018?

So no, I’m not moved in the least by Biden’s argument that such attacks are the handiwork of people who “are just deranged, who are susceptible, who are — who are just lost and don’t know what to do, and they’re easily taken — they’re easily sucked in.”

There are too many of them, and all were motivated by one single thing: racial hatred.

Own that reality.

And remember: Racial resentment also prompted the owners of Glen Echo amusement park in Maryland to keep people of color on the outside looking in until 1961.

Disgust with Black faces is what prompted the good White leaders in Ocean City, Md., and other Eastern Shore beaches to enact laws prescribing where Black people couldn’t set foot.

Disdain for Black people produced racially restricted swimming pools, hotels, shops, restaurants, bars, theaters and schools — all part of my upbringing.

White loathing of Black people was at the heart of legal and de facto segregation — including the voter suppression schemes now being crafted in states across this country.

National Urban League president Marc Morial’s plea that Biden use “the bully pulpit and moral power of the presidency” to bring down white supremacy has a nice ring to it. But that burden is not Biden’s alone.

White supremacy is America’s burden. You know it. I know it. Millions more Americans know it, too.

Own up and get on it. Or keep sending ambulances, and building makeshift memorials.