Civil Rights generation sees echoes of Jim Crow in Capitol attack

WASHINGTON – Shirley Ann Queen remembers being 10 years old when Mr. Horton, the white owner of the land her grandparents sharecropped in Kershaw County, South Carolina, approached the front porch.

Queen’s grandmother Aurelia Patterson was known to Horton simply as “Bae,” a name he “fabricated” for her.

On that warm Carolina day in 1955 her grandmother sat in one of her high-backed rocking chairs, recalled Queen, who was visiting her grandmother from Washington, D.C. “And he would approach the porch and say, ‘Hey, Bae.’ And she would respond, ‘Hello, Mr. Horton.’ Well, this didn’t set well with me. At an early age, young family members were taught to respond to adults appropriately. On that day, I found his greeting unacceptable and disrespectful. It really bothered me.”

Sixty-six years later, Queen goes by the married name Marshall. Now 76, she sat mesmerized by what she saw on television two weeks ago: an armed mob rushing the U.S. Capitol, spewing racial slurs and separatist sentiments while waving the Confederate flag. The images, she said, reminded her of the disrespect her grandparents had experienced in large and small ways and that she would later come to recognise in her own adult life. “I was devastated. It was unbelievable,” says Marshall, who lives in Columbia, Maryland. “I was not surprised. It came out of the racists and they’ve been empowered. And I knew they were always there, and my earlier memories came from my grandmother that they were there.”

As the nation recognizes the life of the late civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Marshall and so many other Black Americans of her generation are recalling the racial inequality of their youth and the civil unrest of the 1950s and 1960s. And while many of them acknowledge the strides that Black Americans have made, they say the deep-seated racism and sense of superiority that defined Jim Crow still exists today and that recent events are evidence of it. “They simply are not comfortable with Black people unless they are cleaning their homes,” said Marshall. “They want power at any cost.”

“It’s depressing to see that some of what happened in the ’60s is still prevalent today,” said Josephine Elizabeth Hobson, 82. Hobson was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Upstate New York, in a small village in Tioga County called Waverly. What she remembers most about Waverly was that people would lock their door, but then leave the key under a mat or flower pot, and that she was the only Black child in any of her classes – from first grade to 12th.

“When I saw the Confederate flag, I said, ‘Oh My God.’ I couldn’t believe it proudly being waved in the Capitol,” said Hobson, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Like in the ’50s and the ’60s, we were fighting, and we knew who the enemy was because they were very obvious. They wanted to be known.”

What struck Hobson the most about the attack on the Capitol, she said, was there seemed to be so little help offered. “I found out later that the president of the United States was watching it on TV. And he did nothing, nothing to help the people he knew, including the vice president of the United States. I mean, who do you call? If the president is sitting by watching, who do you call?”

Hobson said that during Jim Crow “people gave lip service to Civil Rights” and that kept them in line. Politicians on Capitol Hill and in the White House, she said, recognized King and what he was fighting for and paved the way for the March on Washington and, eventually, a memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. 

During that era, Hobson said there was always someone that you could call. But not on January 6.

“Looking at the TV, there was no one to help.” she said. “I kept looking for the National Guard, the Navy, something. That’s what scared me. There was no one to call. At least we had someone to call. They may not have been able to stop it, but we had someone to reach out to. Those people in Congress had no one to reach out to.”

Like Marshall, Hobson’s great-grandparents were slaves. The seniors interviewed for this story over the past week thrived in their professions, many of them hold doctorate degrees and nearly all spent significant time in the North, often visiting relatives in the South throughout their childhood. For them, recent events make them apprehensive and disgusted, but not surprised.

“It’s not that I’m afraid,” said Hobson. “Sometimes I feel so sad that it’s still so prevalent and so bold.” She recalls visiting her grandparents in Albany, Georgia, when she was about 5 or 6 years old. 

At the time, Hobson’s grandfather took her to a small country store where he gave her money to buy what she liked. “I said [to the clerk], ‘I want a Coke,’” remembers Hobson. “And the storekeeper said, ‘You mean a Mr. Coca-Cola?’ And my grandfather stepped in and said, ‘She’s from the North, she’s not accustomed to our ways,’ or something like that, I remember.”

Marshall and Hobson’s experiences may seem farfetched to today’s generation, but consider this:

The Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation in schools and public places, was passed 57 years ago – when Madonna was 6 years old. It was also the year Michelle Obama was born. The Voting Rights Act was passed the same year Janet Jackson was born, in 1966. In 2013, the U.S. Census decided to stop using the term “Negro” on the census and other survey forms.

Kelsey Collie, who will turn 86 in February, remembers all of it. Born in Miami, Fl. in 1935, he left at age 18 to pursue a degree in theater in the North.

“I too am sad because to see the Confederate flag and one of our Capitol officers being beaten with the American flag, that was very sad,” said Collie, who lives in Washington, D.C. “I was not at all shocked because I knew that white people were capable of doing the kinds of things that are just the opposite of what I believe Black people who were protesting would do.”

While he’s witnessed many protests in his lifetime, the Capitol insurrection did not remind him of the protests of the ’60s, Collie said. “What it did remind me of was that now the chickens have come home to roost. What African Americans have been trying to get at for a long time, trying to talk about and get them to understand is some of the systemic rights [Blacks deserve] like voting rights, equal pay. When we protested back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, it was not to destroy, but to bring attention to. I don’t think that we ever thought of going to the Capitol. That was sacrosanct.”

But now, Collie said, “D.C. looks like a war zone. And that is sad. It’s really ridiculous that people who claim to have everything are still battling for more. It’s like gimme, gimme, gimme. The people who are protesting at the capitol. It’s never enough. When is it going to end? What they wanted was ultimately lives. And ultimately you don’t have that right. What is this? This is not the America that I was taught that we had. And that’s not the kind of place that I want to live in.”

Appearing at Shiloh Baptist Church’s 30th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, former Virginia Gov. L. Douglass Wilder told the attendees on Facebook Live that Black Americans must be the heroes in their homes and work to strengthen their families. Wilder, who turned 90 on Sunday, also noted that the nation has a long way to go to heal the wounds of slavery. “Make America Great Again? America has never been great for some of us.” 

But the hope is that America will get better and one day meet Martin Luther King’s call for the country to live out the true meaning of its creed. King, who was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, would be 92 years old today.

Related: ‘Welcome to history’: MLK’s legacy lives on in a march for Black lives

“I really support his [Martin Luther King’s] vision for America, because I am one who believes in love thy neighbor. I take that seriously. I think that the word ‘love’ is taken as a weakness,” said Marshall, a member of Shiloh Baptist Church who attended the MLK breakfast and who also was present at the 1963 March on Washington. 

Ironically, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is closed today — on the national observance of King’s birthday — in anticipation of more racial unrest in the capital during the Presidential Inauguration on Wednesday. Bracing for protests, tens of thousands of National Guardsmen have been deployed as downtown streets and surrounding areas have been closed and buildings have been boarded up.

“There are 20,000 soldiers in D.C.,” lamented Hobson, of Raleigh, N.C. Many of the people expected to protest, she said, are fueled by racism. “One of the things I think about is prejudice and bigotry, which I equate with stupidity. When you are confronting stupidity you think you have to fight. With stupidity there is no hope. I can fight against ignorance because you can use the tools of knowledge to teach people.”

Alison Bethel McKenzie is vice president of corps excellence for Report for America. An award-winning, veteran journalist and a Southerner, she has worked in senior-level editorial positions at The Boston Globe, The Detroit News, Legal Times, the Poughkeepsie Journal and the Nassau Guardian (The Bahamas). She is the former Washington Bureau Chief for The Detroit News and was executive director of the Society for Professional Journalists and the International Press Institute in Vienna. Alison was also a Knight Fellow for the International Center for Journalists and a visiting professor of print and investigative journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include additional information from Shirley Marshall.