Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 25, 2016
I delivered these remarks at the “Battle of Ideas Festival” organized by the Institute of Ideas and held at the Barbican Center, London, England. The panel, entitled, “From Black Panthers to #Black Lives Matter: Race in America” was sponsored by Newsweek, the European edition. These remarks, “A Footnote to History,” were delivered on Saturday, October 22, 2016.
It’s great to be on a panel that allows me to reflect on the various ways in which I have had to come to terms with race in America over the last 52 years. It is true that the anti-police protests, demonstrations and riots that broke out in Ferguson, Missouri after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown led to the #Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2014. Some of us have been part of this struggle for a much longer time.
I will illustrate this contention by pointing to an event that took place in 1989. Hillary Clinton is an alumna of Wellesley College. On December 10, 2014, I addressed the Wellesley College Council. I drew their attention to the tremendous outpouring of sympathy that occurred, even at our college, when a middle-class white woman, a young investment banker at Salomon Brothers with degrees from Wellesley College and Yale University, was raped as she was jogging through Central Park, New York.
Five black and Latino young men were held and imprisoned for the crime. The police coined a new term, “wilding,” to describe the beating of random victims. On May 4, 1989, Wellesley College faculty spent a considerable time debating this horrible crime. I listened to the despicable manner in which my colleagues described these youths. The minutes of the council on that day read:
“President [Nannerl] Kohane reported that members of the Economics Department, the Alumnae Office and she [meaning President Kohane] have been in close touch with the family of the Wellesley College graduate who was attacked recently in Central Park. The family wishes to express gratitude to members of the College community for all the support they have received and for the respect for their privacy.
“There will be a twenty-minute prayer service at 12:15 in the Houghton Memorial Chapel on Wednesday, May 10, to which all members of the College community are invited to pray for the alumna’s continuing recovery. Later when her condition stabilizes, members of the College Community might wish to do something collectively for the alumna and her family.”
I noted then: “Quite clearly, this was a definite affirmation that white lives matter.” In 2002, the convictions of the young men were vacated after a rapist confessed to the crime. They received US 41 million dollars for wrongful conviction.
I ended my remarks to the council with the following declaration: BLACK LIVES MATTER; ALLOW US TO BREATHE.
Enter Donald Trump. On May 1, 1989, he took out a full-page advertisement in four New York newspapers calling for a return of the death penalty. He wanted the “criminals of every age” who were accused of beating and raping a jogger in Central Park 12 days earlier “to be afraid” (New York Times, October 23, 2002).
When Mayor Edward Koch stated “that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts,” Mr. Trump replied: “I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
The exoneration of these five black young men did not change Trump’s stance. Michael W. Warren, a lawyer for these men, called on Trump to apologize for how he described these young men. Naturally, the word “apology” is not part of his vocabulary. This led Carol Taylor to remark:
“Of course, he won’t apologize, because he’s a rich white colorist male who is wallowing in the unearned privilege of his white skin color. Donald Trump don’t be chump. For dissing black boys so bad, where’s your full-page apology ad?”
Such dissing of black males and females has been a full-time occupation for white people in America. I arrived in New York from Trinidad and Tobago in 1964. In February 1965, Brother Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seal created the Black Panther Party as the revolutionary arm of the Black Liberation Struggle. Anyone who lived in New York or in any of the major cities in the USA would see them in their all-black attire willing and ready to protect the lives of black people. That was their self-imposed mission.
Over the last fifty years, the onslaught against black people has continued. My wife and I fought against it in our own ways. My daughters and their husbands have continued to devote themselves to this life-giving struggle, which we thought would be won by now.
During the Mozambican struggle for independence, FRELIMO coined the phrase, “A luta continua” (in English, “the struggle continues”). Regardless of who wins the US elections next month, for black people in the USA, the struggle for black liberation continues. #Black Lives Matter is a continuation of that struggle writ large.