In 2021, the struggle for civil rights seems totally different, Charleston pastor says | Kanawha Valley

2020 was a tough year for the American civil rights movement.

Civil rights giants John Lewis and Rev. CT Vivian both died on July 17th. The Rev. Joe Lowery, who helped Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, died only four months earlier.

All three have worked closely with King in the struggle for racial justice over the years, and for decades after King was assassinated, these leaders still served as lights in that struggle, said Rev. Ron English, who served as senior pastor in for 21 years the First Baptist Church of Charleston.

The links between the English and the King family are known in the community. Born in Atlanta in 1944, the Englishman grew up in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King’s father served as senior pastor for 44 years. The two families were close, and English said a prayer at the king’s funeral in April 1968.

Towards the end of his prayer, English urged the congregation to deepen their commitment to the king’s teachings and to adhere strictly to nonviolence as the basis for change.

Now, nearly 53 years later, COVID-19 is killing black Americans disproportionately, and with the mass protests against racial justice last summer in response to the assassination of George Floyd, English said 2020 once again created the forum to drive systemic change.

But as the number of long-standing influential civil rights icons is decreasing, the Englishman profoundly lacks these voices in this time of crisis.

“The leadership that was rooted in the pattern of nonviolence, which was truly a way to go from harm to healing, is void at this moment,” said English.

The crisis will present itself and find leaders like King, English said, but these people are difficult to find today.

“What impressed me was their moral compass and their moral beliefs were part of how they made a difference – and we don’t have that kind of moral awareness and leadership at the national level,” he said. “This is a vacuum that I hope will be filled.”

One person who could fill the vacuum is Georgia’s newly elected Senator, Rev. Raphael Warnock. Warnock is the state’s first black Senator and remains a senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta. The senator said he plans to return home every weekend to continue the service.

Warnock directed the funerals for both English parents. Since 2005 he has headed the historic church, in which more than 6,000 people live today.

The last time Warnock entered the U.S. Capitol before taking office was in 2017 when he was arrested for prayer in the rotunda. He and other religious leaders protested against a House Republican bill that cut a range of social services for the poor.

Warnock believes King’s commitment to sustained nonviolent protest is a way to achieve racial justice, but there are few other rulers in power in 2021 who are committed to ensuring that they share the same beliefs, English said.

After Warnock won his race, English posted a photo on Facebook he took in 2015 of Warnock, Lewis and longtime civil rights activist Julian Bond in a back office in Ebenezer Baptist. He congratulated his colleague and welcomed him to the famous community of good trouble.

Warnock is just a man fighting for systemic change. In order to get things done, English said, other rulers must rise as well.

“That’s where the void is, in my opinion, and I really don’t know where or how to fix that void,” said English. “We may look at it for a while before the problems get so profound that we see that they cannot be solved simply by legislation.”

English, who recently assumed the office of president of the NAACP in Charleston, at least knows where the fight begins.

Organization and collaboration at the community level with constant communication and planning by groups and individuals within communities are only the basis for creating change.

Just look at how Warnock was chosen.

“I didn’t think he would win. I really didn’t, ”said English the first time he heard Warnock was diving into the hotly contested Senate race. And with all eyes on Georgia, Warnock knocked out his opponent by nearly 93,000 votes on Jan. 6.

Behind Warnock’s victory was a team of black organizers who laid the foundations and voted nationwide. At the forefront of this battle was former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who worked tirelessly to turn Georgia blue in the two years after her narrow defeat.

English said Abram’s commitment to the community brought Warnock over the line.

“Your genius was really what his platform informed and how it organized and how that came together at the right time for the right cause,” said English. “So I think many of the issues he will address regarding poverty, social justice and racial inequality will depend largely on how the impact of Stacey Abrams helped bring about this victory.”

English said when he was a young man he drove late at night through Stone Mountain, east of Atlanta, which at the time was heavy territory for the Ku Klux Klan. Then the blue lights started blinking behind him.

“A soldier stopped for no reason, and when I got out of the car and asked why he was stopping me, he hit my hand with a flashlight, almost broke my finger and said, ‘N ***** I don ‘I don’t have to have a reason to stop you,’ he told me to get in the car.

When police stopped black men near Stone Mountain, English people said they hadn’t always made it behind bars.

“I was glad when we got to prison because black men who got into the backseat of a soldier’s car were often never heard again,” he said.

Thanks to the work of King, Lewis and other civil rights activists, this downright criminal racism is less common. But after the school separation was ordered in 1954, English said much of the country had turned away from the systemic racism that still plagues black communities, particularly in the deep south.

English recalling conversations with King towards the end of his life, English said that King said more than once that “his dream had become a nightmare” because of the ongoing evils of racism, militarism and economic depression.

Half a century after England’s most threatening interactions with the police, black communities still distrust law enforcement agencies. English said he was happy to build that trust in Charleston, where he worked with officials through emotional intelligence training to help them identify their own prejudices and how their emotions affect them.

Floyd’s death in the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked a nationwide urge for a similar community police system, English said.

Improving police-community relations is only a problem facing black people, but it is a major part of building the health of black communities, according to English. In West Virginia, black communities suffer from high rates of racial health inequality, which the pandemic will only make worse.

“It will really be a challenge for us to encourage the blacks to take the vaccine,” he said.

Building wealth in black communities is the other key to building strong communities. Much like Charleston’s Triangle District – a mostly black community gutted for highway construction in the 1970s – the English youth district in Atlanta was once home to black-owned companies and offered ample opportunities for economic development.

“One of the things that made growing up in Atlanta unique – Auburn Avenue in Atlanta was like Black Wall Street. All we needed was on Auburn Avenue, ”he said. “It was really that close to meeting the needs of everyday people. That part of Atlanta was just a desirable place. “

Auburn Avenue is right next to Ebenezer Baptist, but you won’t find the same congregation in Atlanta today.

“Gentrification in this area really got a lot of people out there,” said English. “That’s one of the sad parts when I go home and don’t see the rooms and places I grew up with.”

With a new spirit and dynamic behind achieving racial justice, English said there is so much work to be done across the board. The past four years have compounded the systemic racism that exists in America today, he said.

“The good news about what’s happening now is that it’s getting more and more obvious. It’s getting more and more open and you can’t heal what you don’t reveal, ”said English.

Like the fire that King and these leaders kindled half a century ago, English said he was seeing communities again desperate for change. And now it’s up to us to hit the moment the way they did.

“There’s an ongoing pattern that unfolds in the story that after that kind of explosion it makes a difference in how the healing can take place,” said English, “and if you don’t know the extent and depth of the damage, you cannot move towards healing. “

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