“Has that ever happened to you?”
His face looked at me with the most serious expression I’d seen from this gentle man.
“Three times,” he said.
My friend, the late Calvin Milton Jones, had just sent me a copy of Dick Gregory’s talk to a Tavis Smiley “State of Black Union” convention center audience. Gregory, the comedian and activist, wondered aloud, that if Bill Clinton was truly “our first black president,” would he know (at 4 min,20 sec.) how it felt to be a black man, driving down the road, and hear a police siren:
“Mr. President, do you know what it feels like to be a black person, to be a congresslady, to be a lieutenant governor with 12 doctor’s degrees, and driving down the street, and hear the police siren, and you start squeezing that steering wheel tight, and they pass by you, and you Thank God! Damn! You didn’t do nothin’ in the first place. Do you know what it is to be black?”
The primarily black audience was in howls, cheering with a standing ovation at Gregory’s presentation. And I realized then that the expression, “driving while black,” was so real and so common that an entire audience of hundreds had reacted, knowingly and in unison, with raucous laughter at Gregory’s searing remarks.
After I watched it, I walked over to Calvin’s office and asked him, “Has that ever happened to you?”
He looked me straight in the eye, “Three times” … on the way to and from Washington and his hometown in North Carolina.
So this gentle and generous man … who arrived at the office at close to five o’clock every morning -- even the day before he died, sick with pneumonia -- to turn on the lights, make the coffee, check the phone and computer systems, arrange the conference rooms to be sure everything was in place for the days’ meetings … told me, with those words, that he had been stopped by police officers on three separate occasions, just because they knew they could taunt another black man.
This man who wouldn’t harm a soul, who cut all the lawns in his neighborhood, because he didn’t want it to look unkempt; who, unasked, often waxed neighbors’ cars; and who would give you the shirt off his back, if you were in need … this man had been pulled over three times for no other reason than the color of his skin.
Imagine how it must feel to look up into the eyes of a uniformed man, who, you and he know, could change your life in an instant.
And now we have young Trayvon Martin, killed by a single shot from the gun of a self-appointed ‘neighborhood watchman,’ who said Trayvon was, “suspicious … looks black” and, chasing Trayvon against orders, told 911, “They always get away.” But “they” (Trayvon) did not get away; and the man who hunted him down wasn’t even arrested.
Walking while black?
Author Donna Britt, commenting on the shooting death of Trayvon, said, “I don't know what this child could have done to be safe, except not be black.”
Being, while black.
These two men, going about their business, are stopped for being “suspicious,” for being black men living in the world’s lone superpower; which the rest of us tell ourselves is “the land of the free” … the “sweet land of liberty” … that exists, “under God … with liberty and justice for all.”
Perhaps it is … for some.
Unfortunately, Sandra Bland’s murder validated this common occurrence, which we learned about only because her stop was exposed via dashcam video that cops tried to alter -- after she died in their jail. Sandra’s death shows that Driving While Black can lead to death.