As Mike Andrelczyk reported in last week’s Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline, local veterans of the civil rights movement of the 1960s see similarities between their protests and those now being held on streets across Lancaster County this summer. They carried signs reading “We Feel the Heat Too” and “Democracy for Everyone.” They also called for racial equality and police accountability and an end to systemic racism. And now, Andrelczyk wrote, some “feel that the tide is turning, and real change is coming.”
If you’re thinking that yes, maybe, things finally may be changing in America, consider what happened Thursday evening before Major League Baseball’s first game of its pandemic-shortened season: The players and coaches of the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees held a long black ribbon of cloth and knelt as one before the national anthem to honor African Americans, including George Floyd, who have been killed by police.
The idea for the cloth and a moment of unity among the players — “men from 25 nations on six continents,” as an accompanying video put it — came from Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who is Black, and his wife, Maria. The moment was to be replicated in every MLB Opening Day ceremony.
A color line had held in America’s pastime for decades — generations — until 1947.
More than seven decades later, players of varying races held a literal black line, made of black cloth, to champion racial justice.
It was illustrative of two things: Progress toward racial justice has been slow. And the logjam so long in place, blocking progress, seems to have been broken this summer.
Or at least it seems to have shifted a bit, to allow for some movement.
The change-resistant Pennsylvania General Assembly has passed police reform bills enabling the establishment of a statewide database of police misconduct, and requiring police departments to provide staff with anti-bias, use-of-force and deescalation training.
Students and alumni of school districts, including Manheim Township and Manheim Central, are challenging school administrators to address the racism they’ve observed in those educational systems.
Last week, the School District of Lancaster board voted unanimously to strip from one of its middle schools the name of slave-owning Revolutionary War Gen. Edward Hand.
In Virginia, the Fairfax County school board voted to rename Robert E. Lee High School in honor of the late Congressman John Lewis.
Debates are being waged all across the country about policing, and about systemic racism and its emblems — monuments and statues honoring Confederate leaders and slave-owning historical figures.
Millersville University professor emeritus Leroy Hopkins was among the Lancaster residents who joined protests in 1963 of the segregated Rocky Springs pool. He believes something feels different this summer.
“There’s a sense of a paradigm shift,” Hopkins told Andrelczyk. “When they start tearing down statues of Confederate generals — I didn’t think I’d live to see this kind of change.”
Elizabeth Ford is a retired early childhood advocate and education management administrator who lives in Mountville. She told Andrelczyk she was just 15 when she participated in the 1963 protests.
“We had protests in the streets. We had people that were fighting against unfair housing. We had protests against unfair employment. It wasn’t just that we were protesting because we couldn’t swim in a swimming pool at Rocky Springs,” Ford recalled.
Still, she remembers the ferocity of some of the white county residents upset by the notion of integrating that pool. “You would hear white people screaming at us. ‘Go home (N-word),’ ‘You don’t belong here’ and ‘Why don’t you go back to Africa?’ There were people there who were throwing rocks. People would actually spit on us.”
Despite the anger directed their way, Ford and her fellow protesters held fast to the nonviolent principles of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and adhered to the nonviolent protest techniques they were taught at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lancaster.
They were causing what Congressman Lewis called “good trouble, necessary trouble” — and Ford is elated by the protesters now taking up the mantle of racial justice.
“I am feeling exceedingly optimistic. I am thrilled that millennials are taking the lead in terms of bringing about effective change,” she told Andrelczyk. “This whole Black Lives Matter movement is so vital and so critical. For this multicultural experiment to work, we’ve got to value each and every one of us.”
Alysa Poindexter, vice president of the Lancaster NAACP, said that the consensus among those she knows is that this movement feels different than past ones.
“I have family members who were either involved or alive during the civil rights movements and we’ve all commented how this just feels different,” Poindexter told Andrelczyk. “It feels like we’re moving forward. It feels like discussions are bigger. It feels like more change is happening.”
Except, we’d argue, in the offices of the Lancaster County commissioners.
To their credit, they’ve addressed some modest measures. Commissioner Craig Lehman has proposed anti-bias training for county employees; the use of body cameras for county employees who carry firearms; and reversing encryption of police communications.
But in a June 14 LNP | LancasterOnline op-ed, Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace noted the county effort to combat COVID-19 and asked, “Where is this same countywide effort to confront systemic racism in our community? Where is the coordinated commitment to action in every sector of our community — government, health, education, business, philanthropy, faith and nonprofit?”
We had hoped the county commissioners might rise to this call.
We know Josh Parsons, chair of the commissioners, pays close attention to COVID-19 data. So why hasn’t Parsons raised concerns publicly about racial disparities in COVID-19 cases here? (The creation of a county health department would be helpful in tracking such disparities.)
Have the commissioners initiated a review of county hiring practices and assessed whether minorities are being hired for better-paying management jobs?
What else are they exploring to help confront systemic racism in government and make Lancaster County more just for all?
We realize these are big asks at a time when government officials at all levels are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic disaster. But the hardest hit among us are people of color, and they are putting their lives on the line to bring about change that has been too long delayed.
And at long last, change seems to be occurring. Elected officials need to do their part.
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