I’m always hesitant to include videos in my writing, especially if they’re longer than five minutes or so. Most of our attention spans have been so addled by TikTok and Instagram Stories, that anything longer than that just doesn’t seem worth paying attention to (my attention span can barely make it through an entire .gif). But the video above held my attention. In fact, I can confidently say that this video of Representative John J. Deberry Jr. of Memphis, Tennessee, speaking about racial equality and civil rights, is the most valuable ten minutes of attention that you’re going to pay today.
If you’ve grown tired of seeing politicians and celebrities and other public figures too afraid to say that violence and hatred, even if they come in response to racism, are poisonous, this will be a breath of fresh air. If you haven’t grown tired of it. If you believe that the violence we’re seeing is an inevitable or even necessary response to the racial problems we face, I beg you to take the time to listen to this speech. There’s no false outrage here. No moralising or victimising. Just a man with the courage to point out what is wrong.
He speaks with a passion born of the fact that he cares deeply about these issues. This is a man who has experienced the horrific injustices that many of the people rioting and supporting violence use to justify their actions. This is a man who was forced to sit at the back of the bus, who was denied access to white-only spaces and water fountains, who had to use the back doors when entering public buildings. He didn’t just read about these things, he lived them.
And yet, or perhaps because of that fact, he is able to say clearly what so many seem too frightened to admit; there is no justification for the violence we’re seeing. No amount of rage or hurt makes it ok, or anymore likely to solve these problems. This is a man who has seen, first hand, the power of dignity, compassion, and determined, peaceful protest to change the world. Perhaps we haven’t seen enough of that in recent years. Perhaps we’ve lost faith in that power. Perhaps we no longer believe that we can change the hearts and minds with kindness and compassion. But as Rep. Deberry himself puts it:
“I saw men and women stand with courage and integrity and class, and they changed the world. They changed the world because what the world could see in them, was the lie that was being told about them.”
That black people are violent, and lawless, and stupid, is the lie that is being told about us. It’s the lie that’s been told about us from the start. It’s the lie that justified the belief that we were good for nothing more than to be worked to death as slaves. It’s the lie that convinced generations that the black community’s struggles with crime and poverty were a result of laziness and weakness, not discrimination and the legacy of Jim Crow. It’s the lie that encourages policemen to put their knees on our necks and bullets in our backs.
It’s a lie that’s so often repeated, that some black people have even begun to believe it themselves. So they act it out on the streets, and on their neighbour’s businesses, and on anybody who dares to disagree with them. I believe we’re better than this, and clearly, Rep. Deberry does too. We have the right to be angry. We have the right to demand justice. We have the right to expect to be judged by the content of our character, but the way that we pursue those rights is a reflection of that character.
This struggle isn’t just about hearts and minds, it’s about our souls. It’s about how to build a society which we can be proud to leave to our children. The status quo is clearly not the answer, but neither is a world which is divisive and violent and fuelled by rage. That rage needs to be put aside, not for the sake of those who want to oppress us, but for the sake of the people who will follow in our footsteps.
When we look back at Rep. Deberry’s generation, we see men and women who we can be proud of. Men and women who we can aspire to be like. Men and women who maintained their dignity during hard times, so that they could pave the way for us to live in easier ones. We see men and women who exposed the lie that had been told about them. What will the next generation see when they look at us?