OPINION: The fight for racial equality is personal to me

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By EVERETT KELLEY
President
American Federation of Government Employees

EVERETT KELLEY is the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union representing federal and D.C. government employees. He assumed the presidency in February 2020. – AFGE photo

In seeing protestors on the streets fighting for racial justice, I can’t help but think back on the history that brought us to this moment. I can’t help but think of the struggles my black brothers and sisters have endured over the years. I can’t help but feel a quiver in my heart, and the tears well up in my eyes. Because to me, this fight is personal.   

When I see these protests, my mind wanders back to the Deep South, to Central Alabama where I grew up. My mother worked there in the kitchen of the Ole Hickory Restaurant. When I was about three years old, I was taken there to visit her at her job. Like any child, when I saw my mother, I broke out running for her. But when I got to the front door, they stopped me. Because I was black, if I wanted to see my mother, I had to go around to the back door.

As a 10-year old boy walking down the dirt road in Goodwater, AL, I remember dodging the rocks and racial slurs that were thrown at us because we were black.

At 13, when the schools were integrated, my family moved to Sylacauga, AL, for a better life. We moved into the “projects,” and it’s there where I started to experience a different kind of racism.   

A GOOD STUDENT, BUT BLACK
In school, I was considered a smart kid. I was a good student and excelled in my classes. I had an excellent reputation. But I was black. So, when my friend and I decided to try out for the football team, it didn’t take long for the coach to accuse us of stealing from the lockers. Not because there was any reason to believe we had stolen anything – we hadn’t – but because of the color of our skin.   

My senior year of high school, I continued to excel academically. I was an honor student and a member of the Senior Scholastic Society. I was excited to continue my education and went to see our school’s guidance counselor to get some help and advice. When I got to the office, he told me I shouldn’t attend college. He said that it would be better if I got a trade because the “people from the projects” weren’t a good fit for college.   

Of course, “people from the projects” was just code for black people. And this guidance counselor was part of a system of racism in the South, a system meant to keep black people uneducated and oppressed.   

A MILITARY SERVICEMAN, BUT BLACK
When I first put on a military uniform, I hoped that my fellow Americans would see beyond the color of my skin and respect my service to our shared country.

But while traveling through Mississippi to visit our families, wearing our Army uniforms, my friends and I were stopped by the police. They saw my Cadillac, they saw a black man driving it, and they pulled us over to explain why “black boys” were driving a Cadillac and how we got it.

It wasn’t much better in the North than it was in the South. In New York, a police officer pulled me over in that same Cadillac, but this time, he took me to jail and I was ordered to pay the police $85 for my freedom. Again, just for being a black man driving that car.   

A UNION LEADER, BUT BLACK
After leaving the army, I went to work at Anniston Army Depot, where I joined AFGE Local 1945. I believed that the union was an organization where justice and human rights were the main priority and the reason for the union’s existence. But when I became president of that local, I was met with total opposition as the first black local union president.   

As a black man in charge of our union, my house was shot into, my house and cars were egged, bottles full of urine were placed in my mailbox, dead cats were placed in my driveway, fictitious advertisements were placed in local papers putting my cars and home up for sale, supervisors worked to spread false rumors about me and my personal character in an attempt to damage my reputation and my marriage, and my wife was fired from her non-union job because of my union activism.   

When I see these protesters in the streets, I think of all that – and I think of how far we’ve still got to go.   

As the national president of AFGE in 2020, I recognize that racism still exists – sometimes in the places we least expect it. Sometimes in the places we thought would be safe havens from racism. And I am on a mission to change that.   

Because it’s not acceptable that black and white Americans are treated differently. It’s not right that people who look like me find ourselves under suspicion just for driving a car or going on a run – something white Americans do every day without any consequences.   

For generations, black parents have had to give their black children “The Talk” on how to interact with the police. My parents gave it to me. I gave it to my sons. And I’ve reiterated it to my grandsons. But it’s dehumanizing to know that any interaction with the police could turn violent just because of the color of your skin – no matter how good a student you are, no matter what sort of status you attain in life. And that dehumanization has been at the heart of every single major unrest around race in American history.   

This fight didn’t begin last week – it’s been happening for hundreds of years, generation after generation.

LET'S REMEMBER OUR HISTORY

  • In 1898 in Wilmington, N. C., a black man was falsely accused of assaulting a white woman.
  • In 1906 in Atlanta, Ga., a black man was falsely accused of assaulting a white woman.   
  • In 1917 in East St. Louis, a black man was rumored to have killed a white man.   
  • The Red Summer of 1919 saw 26 U.S. cities erupt over racial unrest as police refused to arrest the killers of a black man named Eugene Williams who was hit in the head by a rock for swimming in the “Whites Only” area of Lake Michigan.   
  • In 1921, the wealthiest community in the country, the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Ok., was destroyed by white rioters after a white woman accused a black man of grabbing her arm in the elevator.   
  • In 1965, a black motorist was pulled over by a white patrolman, and a pregnant woman was injured in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles.   
  • In 1967, years of disenfranchisement and racial profiling led to unrest in Newark, N.J.
  • In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., who had preached and practiced nonviolent protest in his crusade for civil rights, was assassinated, sparking riots in 125 cities.   
  • In 1992, Rodney King was pulled over for reckless driving and video showed police officers severely beating him, sparking days of rioting in Los Angeles.   
  • In 2014, a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18- year-old teenager, sparking outrage and days of protests.   
  • In 2015, Freddie Gray died of a spinal cord injury suffered while in police custody.   
  • In 2020, we see the same dehumanization and false accusations that we’ve seen for over 100 years. We see Ahmaud Arbery who was jogging in an all-white community when he was chased down and murdered by two white men. We see Breonna Taylor killed while sleeping in her apartment as officers executed a “no knock” warrant, shooting her eight times in her own bed. We see George Floyd, pinned to the ground with an officer’s knee on his neck, asphyxiating him.   

Now, all Americans are getting to see something that I’ve seen first-hand. It’s a view of the racism I’ve seen my entire life – that this country has seen for as long as it has been in existence. Now, together, we have a chance to change it.   

LET'S BUILD A BETTER FUTURE TOGETHER
The battle against racism in this country didn’t start with the killing of George Floyd, but for the first time in a long time, it feels like real change is possible.

Coming together in solidarity, without respect for race, religion, sex, age, ability, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity, we can finally start to put an end to this system of oppression.   

I applaud the young people that have taken to the streets and taken a stand. They are following in the great tradition of youth activism in this country. They are tired of seeing black lives snuffed out in the streets with no accountability and no change. And they have taken to the streets to do what’s necessary to push our nation forward to build a stronger, more equal, more just America. They are doing what it takes, and so must we if we want to see real change in this moment.   

I encourage all of us to remember the lessons of the past as well. We should all be reminded that these problems are tough – and the forces who benefit from keeping things the same are even tougher. As a seasoned leader in the Labor Movement, I’ve seen us try and fail to overcome these racial divides before. I’ve seen where we’ve stumbled and fallen short. And I’m committed to using that knowledge to help make this movement a success today and doing my part to secure a better future for us all.

And if we work together, the old and the young, the history and the future, if we combine our knowledge, our experience and our passion, if we stand in solidarity across the generations, then we will achieve victory together.   

History cannot deny the future because it is coming. Likewise, the future cannot deny history because our history is our foundation. From our shared history, we must move forward and build a better future together. Only together can we win.

For me, this is a moment of great hope.

Leaders like me, we need to keep listening and respecting our young leaders and helping them lead us where we want to go.

Our young leaders need to continue to remember the lessons of history and seek wisdom from them.

And if we combine our wisdom, our passion, and our power – then we will overcome. Because we are better together.

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