Over 3 days, a 3-century span of black protests

Little Rock Nine Anniversary
Two paratroop officers escort black students from Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., September 27, 1957. School was closing for the weekend.

In a little more than three days, a three-century span of black protests has become news.

On Sunday, the world watched as football players knelt or locked arms in defiance of President Trump’s call for the firing of any NFL players not standing during the playing of the national anthem.

It was the largest show of support for the once-solitary protest of former starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” last year to bring attention to recent police killings of African Americans and other people of color.

On Monday, the eight surviving members of the Little Rock Nine returned to Central High School in Little Rock to remember the 60th anniversary of their historic entrance into the all-white school under the protection of federal troops.

And on Tuesday, here in Philadelphia, hundreds gathered outside City Hall to celebrate the unveiling of a statue of Octavius V. Catto, the 32-year-old 19th-century African American scholar, educator, and military officer killed Oct. 10, 1871, during election-day riots when mobs of white men tried to stop black men from voting.

In a short period of time, it’s a stark reminder of how long people have been fighting racial inequality, a kind of cross-reference of historic and current quests for justice.

“I’m not here to celebrate — we’re not there yet,” wrote Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, in a post on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Facebook page. “And I know willful ignorance is the most deadly sin.”  In much of the nation, the Associated Press reported, public schools are now more segregated than in recent decades.

Richard Watson, a Philadelphia artist who works at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, said he was not surprised that African Americans and others are still protesting decades after he took to the streets at age 19 to march against the segregated policies at Girard College.

“Every man and woman has a sense of obligation to their own person that dictates what they do in this kind of injustice,” said Watson, 71.

On that day in 1965, Watson — who lived only a few blocks from where young protesters were gathered under the leadership of Cecil B. Moore, the fiery lawyer and president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP — had stepped outside to see what was happening.

“I had come from North Carolina. I knew what segregation was. I knew as a young adult what racism was about. I had been stopped by police as a teenager.”

He said his decision to get involved relied on his beliefs about right and wrong.

“It was a volatile mix of something that demands that you either look away and rationalize it, or you reject it.  I knew that young people had a voice in the matter, and police didn’t like what they were saying,” Watson said.

He sees the football and basketball players who have spoken out against the president’s attacks on fellow athletes in the same way. They have made a decision, as he did decades ago, “not to turn their head away from social issues of oppression.”

“They are saying, ‘I’m not going to play this game and pledge allegiance to a flag when your flag doesn’t protect me when I’m not playing your game.’”

Bernard LaFayette, now 77, was a college student in 1960 and a roommate of John Lewis, now a member of the House of Representatives, at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, where he studied nonviolent  protest.

The activist, who spent part of his childhood in Philadelphia, left college temporarily to join the Southern Christian Leadership Council and work with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He also worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which brought him to Selma, Ala., early in 1963 to set up its first voting rights office. There he worked with Amelia Boynton Robinson, the civil rights legend who was beaten during a first attempt to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

LaFayette said he was not dismayed or discouraged that high-profile athletes were still protesting for basic rights in 2017.

“Race is in the fabric of this country,” LaFayette said from his home in Alabama.

“We changed the laws,” he said of his work in the 1960s, “but we didn’t change the hearts of the people. That takes a lot of education.”