If I Will Not Stand Against White Supremacy, Who Will?
Prepared Remarks to the congregation at Joynes Road Church of God, May 26, 2019
Rev. Green, members of the congregation: thank you for letting me speak before you this fine day. You’ve given me the privilege of showing me who you are, and I truly appreciate the opportunity to tell you more about who I am.
I want to open with a quote from civil rights leader and U.S. Senator John Lewis that you are no doubt familiar with: “if not us, who? If not now, when?”
I am not a native Virginian, I’m actually from the southernmost tip of Indiana, where the Ohio and Wabash rivers come together and make the borders between Kentucky and Illinois. There’s a city of 100,000 there called Evansville, most of the surrounding area is sparsely populated farmland. It was German immigrants who settled the land after the native Miami people were driven from the land in the 1800's. They gave the land new names like Darmstat, Vanderberg, St. Phillips, and yes, Wadesville.
There was not a single black family in Posey county, where my father was raised and where I spent my first few years. We later moved into the city, where I went to school and played with a more diverse population of children. When I was 10, my mother and I moved to Virginia. We lived in downtown Portsmouth for a year, after which time my father and little brother joined us and we moved to Smithfield.
It’s taken me 22 years since leaving the place to really understand it: my next door neighbor attended the local segregation academy, opened during the time of massive resistance to Brown vs. Board of Education. The public high school that I attended was self-segregated, with the mostly white, presumably college-bound honors students like myself in their advanced placement classes, away from the kids who were likely bound for a diploma, destined to work at the pork processing plant or fast food joint in town.
What took me a long time to process was the casual racism that I encountered from the day I moved to that place from my white peers. Looking back, I’m ashamed that I didn’t push back more when they made the racist jokes about black people, but as they say, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and what person is not ashamed of some of the things that they did growing up.
In Evansville, I was the oldest of 7 cousins, and on Sundays we attended the local Nazarene church with my Grandmother and aunts. My grandfather lived an hour away in Boonsville, a place dotted by strip mines and oil derricks. He lived there with his second wife and my other aunts — actually several years my senior. I accompanied him to church one time that I can remember, a small Pentecostal church, with maybe a dozen people gathered in prayer and song.
My grandfather passed away over a 20 years ago, and I remember a few things about him. The one conversation that I still recall he told me, “Mike, you can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from building a nest in your hair.” And while I’ve often carried that aphorism with me into adulthood, my grandfather’s life has affected me in other ways as well. They say that religion can make a good man better, but that it can also make a bad man worse. A year or two before my father passed away, one of my uncles passed away from leukemia. My aunt, after some time, began dating again, and began seeing a man named Mike. My grandfather would not have it. Mike, you see, was black. My grandfather justified his hate with various verses of the bible, eventually disowning his daughter. They remained estranged until his death, and my family still deals with the fallout of this day.
After leaving Indiana I was pretty much done with religion. I spent my time fighting against those who would use their dogma to deny science, or to hate people who looked different, dressed different, or loved different. I studied the history of the worlds religions: Christianity and Judaism, but also Buddhism, Islam and Hindu.
It wasn’t until 2017 that I came back to church. I sat a white man amongst a sea of black faces, listening to the music and the prayer, remembering the community that I had been missing: the calls to care for those that were sick, to be with those who had lost love ones. And as I sat there, the memories of my childhood and my family came back to me — and I wept. I cried like a motherless child for five solid minutes after that service was over, as that wave of emotion flooded over me. I think before I had finished no less than half a dozen aunties had laid their hands on me.
And I felt no judgement.
Of course, that is the story of my life. As a blond haired, blue eyed, white American male, I have effectively won the life lottery — easy mode. Able to go anywhere, and talk to anyone , without the fear of being judged or discriminated against. And I recognize that this is not the case for so many people. Over my life I’ve had run ins with the law, been fired from jobs, evicted, had my car repossessed, lived on the couches of friends for months, and relied on unemployment and other government assistance.
I confess this to you today as a man who has since crawled back up to find success in my career and family life. I cannot honestly tell you how much of that success I can attribute to my character and work ethic, or, what I feel is more likely, whether I owe that to a political and societal system that gives people that look like me every advantage — easy mode — and takes away so much from everyone else.
Over the last decades I’ve seen the leaders of our nation, men who have benefited from this system, try to bar the way for others to have the same opportunities — effectively pulling the ladder up after had climbed it. In 2015, when I moved from E. Pembroke to Fox Hill into the 91st, I learned that my representative in the House of Delegates had voted against Medicaid expansion year after year — part of a larger ideological resistance to everything our first black president had done. I looked around to see who would challenge him on it and found none. After asking myself that question, “if not me, who?” and finding no answer, I launched down the path which brings me to you here now.
When I did this in 2017, I did not understand the impact of the sacrifice that I was making of myself and my family. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Now that I not only understand what this sacrifice means and also the responsibility that is inherent in it, I feel that I have too.
The historical significance of this seat has become apparent to me. This 91st district contains Fort Monroe, and as I’ve attended these various Arrival Day events over the past few months, it has only reinforced the job that I must do. The next session of the General Assembly will be it’s 401st.
Genesis 15:13 International Standard Version says:
“Then the LORD told Abram, “You can be certain about this: Your descendants will be foreigners in a land that isn’t theirs. They will be slaves there and will be oppressed for 400 years.”
400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and now this reactionary period of white nationalism, white supremacy and hate. Some might argue whether our current president is an aberration in an otherwise healthy system, or whether his presence is indicative of a more unhealthy rot at the core of it. Put me in this latter camp.
American sociologist and black intellectual Kelly Miller, who was born in 1863 said:
“I see that the path of progress has never taken a straight line, but has always been a zigzag course amid the conflicting forces of right and wrong, truth and error, justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy. “
During the last two years we’ve seen pictures of white white students making Nazi salutes for class pictures, an increase of hate crimes and racially charged speech. When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality seems like oppression. And parts of white America are struggling to reconcile with this change, and are beset by opiod addiction and a decline in life expectancy.
It’s my commitment to progressive values that guides my political inclinations and forces me to stand up against the hate perpetrated not just by torch-wielding neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, but also against the quiet oppression of a system built on the original sins of America: genocide of the American Indians, and enslavement of the African people. It’s these values that will guide my actions in office, and our agenda: a living wage for all workers, and end to an unjust drug war and criminal justice system that has devastated the African American community, and end to the systemic bias that takes black youth from our school systems and into our prison system, to end for-profit prisons, to end a cash bail system that makes it easier for the innocent to plead guilty than get a fair day in court; and end to the systemic repression of the right of African Americans to participate in our democratic system in a meaningful way.
To that end, I would like to publicly announce my support for efforts to remove the name of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee from our cities and streets. These men, whose names have been glorified and memorialized in opposition to the civil rights of African Americans, have no place in a just America, have no place on the names of our schools, their statues deserve no place in the streets of Richmond, and their busts and portraits deserve no place in the halls of the General Assembly or Washington DC. Today in 2019, Virginia cities still do not have the right to remove these statues. That will change. Governor Northam’s office has recently requested public comments regarding the removal of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Arch on Fort Monroe, and I have submitted my comments that this relic of great resistance should come down.
I’ve spent these last few weeks touring the churches of Hampton: Buddhist centers, Hindu temple, black baptists, white baptists, Episcopalian, several churches of god, and hopefully soon I can visit with our Islamic and and Jewish houses. I’ve witnessed the way they all bring their communities together. And I’ve been honored and welcomed and blessed to visit with them all.
It will be my role in Richmond — my honor — to represent all the people of the 91st district, and to serve as a champion for justice — racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice, and as a voice for the powerless, the downtrodden, the oppressed. As a white person I recognize that it is my duty and responsibility to stand up against the voices and symbols of white supremacy. As a human being I understand that it is my duty to stand up for each and every citizen of this planet, to protect the earth from those that would destroy it in the name of profit.
If I thought there was someone else willing to take this responsibility I would not be here before you now. If not me, then who? If not us, then who? If not now, then when? Now is the time for change, now is the time to close the door on 400 years of oppression, to forgive the sins of our past, and move toward a new future with all people as one. With your help we will get there, with the power of our faith we will get there, and with god’s power we will get there, together, as one people, Amen.