My father will celebrate his 70th birthday next month. Just as rings mark the age of trees, my father’s life can be marked by the progression of civil rights for black Americans. He and many of his generation have stood tall for decades as winds of oppression taunt them.
And like the oak trees in Memphis, the ones that finally give up during a bad storm, wiping out power for hours and blocking roads, my father is tired. But unlike those trees, my father and his counterparts, have not given up, even when the storm refuses to let up.
In 1955, when Brown v. Board of Education II was decided, requiring segregated schools to integrate “with all deliberate speed,” my father was a 7-year-old boy, living in Evanston, Illinois.
His summers were spent traveling to Alabama to visit my grandfather’s family. Those summertime trips from Illinois to Alabama consisted of roadside breaks to use the bathroom, eat dinner and rest. This was the experience of many black families traveling across the south. Jim Crow laws and violent racism meant there were not many places for them to stop and rest or eat as they traveled.
In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, my dad was 17 years old. He was a freshman at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His right to vote wasn’t protected, but he did have a 25 percent chance of being sent to Vietnam and not returning home alive. That was the share of combat deaths made up by black soldiers.
In 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed. My dad was 20 years old. He still lived in Washington and was wrapping up his studies while living on the upper floor of his aunt and uncle’s home. Within a year, my father would return to Illinois with a college degree in hand. But before the Fair Housing Act was passed, this meant little as Chicago was home to some of the most flagrant examples of predatory mortgage lending and redlining in the country.
In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. prohibited the use of employment tests to discriminate against black workers seeking promotions. By then, my father was 23 years old and already working as an accountant at a firm in Downtown Chicago. His chances to move up the corporate ladder were not secure before he began his first post-college job.
At the age of 32 in 1980, my father married my mother and became my brother’s second dad. In 1982, I was born. Before he ever became a husband, a father, a home owner and a business owner, my dad’s entire life was marked by his country’s refusal to see him as a whole person. His path into adulthood followed the progression of civil rights for black Americans. As he experienced the successes and defeats of life, so did the fight for equality.
The 1980s and 1990s brought a false lull to the movement. Some leaders of the ’60s and ’70s were dead. Others moved from the front line for various reasons. Some leaders, such as Jesse Jackson, who founded Rainbow Push, remained active but the sense of urgency was not the same. Many middle-class black Americans believed the activism of the ’60s and ’70s had resolved the racial inequality they grew up experiencing.
But in truth, the ’80s and ’90s were still a period of eroding civil rights for blacks. The War on Drugs and rise in mass incarceration removed black men from their homes at record numbers. During my childhood, my father had a 1 in 3 chance of being imprisoned for a low-level infraction. Anything from a conviction for writing a bad check to smoking a joint could have destroyed our family structure. But for too many, the impact of these “tough on crime” policies weren’t realized until after the damage was widespread.
My dad was a month from his 68th birthday when Donald Trump was elected. Trump’s election was a blaring alarm clock that we could no longer hit snooze on and ignore. In addition to the myriad of statements he has made and policies the president has pushed attacking marginalized identities, voters’ rights have been pushed back in states across the country.
Here in Shelby County, the county election commission has been sued twice by the NAACP for attempting to subvert equal voting practices.
In Georgia, facing a tight race for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams, the Republican candidate, Secretary of State Brian Kemp (who oversees elections) is doing everything except demanding a straw poll to disenfranchise voters. Two days before the election, he announced that he’s investigating the state Democratic Party, but offered no evidence for the reason for the probe. Voting was considered a final frontier for the civil rights movement, but once again, our access to the ballot is in danger.
My dad is a quiet man but a voracious reader and tweeter. We often toss around headlines and tweets during our time together. “Did you read…?” begins most of our conversations.
As much as we enjoy dissecting the news of the day, lately these talks have a melancholy feel to them. “You’ve got to keep pushing, Tam,” he will say in the midst of our political banter. “This hatred cannot continue into another generation.”
He’s often referring to the political rhetoric of President Trump and the alt-right. He is angered and saddened by the violence such as the shootings at The Tree of Life Temple in Pittsburgh last week which took 11 lives, including that of a Holocaust survivor and at a Kentucky Kroger store that killed two elderly black people, both allegedly committed by white men who subscribed to alt-right ideology.
The generation he’s speaking of includes my two nieces. The oldest is 12. She has seen the aftermath and upheaval that followed the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, watched Confederate statues debated and removed and read The Hate U Give. Her life is starting to have some of the same rings as my dad, her Grandy. So he encourages me to fight for her generation’s freedom. He doesn’t want the stress of racial inequality marking their lives as they have his and mine.
This past weekend at 69 years and 11 months old, he arrived at one of the largest churches in my district, First Baptist Broad and joined me at one of his first political rallies in decades.
Protests and rallies are not my dad’s thing as much as they are mine. As my involvement in the neo-civil rights movement has increased, he has shown a bit more interest in them, including being a marshal during Memphis’ March For Our Lives.
On Saturday, he stood quietly, ate some chips and listened to me address the crowd gathered by the Democratic Women of Shelby County.
After I spoke, I introduced my father to people in the crowd. He told everyone he spoke with that there is grave urgency for us to vote. The danger of Trump acolyte, Marsha Blackburn, becoming the next senator of our state, signal a return to the restrictions he faced growing up during the Civil Rights Era and he believes we must fight with all we have against all forms of injustice whether political or social.
My dad lived through the most defining period of black life in America and is now living through its reoccurrence. Like the trees ringed with age, he is strong, resilient and proud. I trust his word and so should you.
On Tuesday, Nov. 6, use the rights so many fought for and go vote. Then on Nov. 7, hold everyone who wins, whether you voted for them or not, accountable to ending racial injustice in our country.
Where do we go from here?
Vote. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 6. Go to vote.org to find out your polling site. In Shelby County, polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Tami Sawyer is Shelby County Commissioner for District 7 and a social justice advocate.
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