Sharing life, learning experiences

Published 6:20 pm Friday, May 28, 2021

By Mel Brinkley

When a friend of mine launched into a diatribe about athletes kneeling instead of standing during the national anthem, I decided I had to say something. My response came from two life experiences.

Life Experience Number One: When integration became mandatory in Virginia in 1970, most of my childhood friends migrated to a private, all white, Christian — according to their definition — high school. In my first few weeks of being one of the first white students in an inner city high school called John F. Kennedy, a Black student invited me to look at a book with him. After I realized what kind of book Calvin was sharing with me, I said in a shocked voice, “I didn’t have anything to do with any of this.” The book contained pictures of lynchings. The spectators photographed at those lynchings were all white people, who appeared to be clearly confident that any photographs taken of them at the scene of a first-degree murder would never be used to implicate them as perpetrators or accomplices.

I had never had to critically think about the criminal aspects of American history, nor had I ever been in the vulnerable situation where I was in the minority.

Later, I learned that according to a Tuskegee University study in the years from 1882 to 1968, 4,743 people were lynched in the United States, of which 3,446 were African Americans and 1,297 were white. Of those lynchings, less than 1% were investigated by law enforcement and prosecuted in a court of law. Most defendants in those rare trials received a light sentence or were acquitted by a jury of their peers, which was always white.

Life Experience Number Two: I was deployed as a United Nations peacekeeper to the Former Republic of Yugoslavia in 1995. The murders, rapes, torture, and other horrors committed by one ethnic group against another was clinically categorized as “ethnic cleansing” — as if something disgusting was being sanitized.

While talking to people in overcrowded refugee camps and orphanages, I slowly realized this tragedy could happen anywhere. All it would take is for one group to treat another group as subhuman. This was exactly what Calvin showed me through that grim book of his.

The same components that contributed to the self-evisceration of the former Republic of Yugoslavia: racial hatred; lawlessness; highly-armed, paramilitary terrorists organizations; and xenophobic and belligerent political leaders are, unfortunately, part of the political landscape of the United States today. The unprecedented anarchy that happened in our Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, proves that these elements are, unfortunately, alive and well in our country.

My response to my friend’s irritation with the athletes who knelt during the National Anthem was basically: “All Americans have the right to peacefully protest. It’s in our constitution, a document I took an oath to protect from all enemies, both foreign and domestic, when I joined the United States military in 1975.”

Denigrating people is often camouflaged as a joke or locker room talk or innocent banter or letting off steam. Whatever we call it, it’s wrong. How we treat people, not only by our actions but also by our words, matters. After Jan. 6, 2021, I’ve had to constantly remind myself to speak clearly, calmly and compassionately when the rhetoric heats up.

Long ago, someone asked an itinerant rabbi, “Who is my neighbor?” I like to re-imagine that particular rabbi offering a shorter answer than the one he gave — the parable about the Good Samaritan. Not because it’s flawed, far from it, but because it’s hard to get people to listen to the whole parable these days. Shorter attention spans and even shorter tempers have, unfortunately, become our culture’s reality in the era of the internet and social unrest.

I think Fred Rogers had the parable of the Good Samaritan summarized about as succinctly as possible when he used to sing to his audience this question: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Hopefully, your answer to that question is “Yes,” whether you kneel or stand during the National Anthem. God knows if we don’t do a better job of respecting each other, we might not have a nation to celebrate with an anthem.

Mel Brinkley is a native of Suffolk who currently lives in California.