- What is the state of race relations 52 years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech?
- Former commissioner of a MLK commission chapter speaks out.
- Offers crucial advice, despite recent setbacks, on how the races can move forward.
News2morrow speaks with James Nemley, who served as Commissioner of the Martin Luther King, Jr Commission, Long Island Chapter, from 1989-1991. He presently serves as president of the Xtra-Ordinary Business Builders (http://www.xobusinessbuilders.com/), which aids in business development.
HERE WE ARE 52 YEARS AFTER MARTIN LUTHER KING’S “I HAVE A DREAM” SPEECH. WHAT IS THE STATE OF RACE RELATIONS IN AMERICA TODAY?
I would say that most people would look back at our vast achievements, including the first African American president, and we’d look at that and say, Wow, look at our achievements. Yet, I don’t think that Martin Luther King would look at that and say, We have arrived!
If you look at the way Dr King went about doing his business, you’d see Dr King went about mentoring young African American students. He’d mentor them into his philosophy of non-violence. He would train them to become trainers.
It wasn’t just about calling a demonstration to march for our rights. Dr King recognized that in order for this country to change, he had to change the minds of the people who had the power to make the change.
What do I mean by that? Well, rather than burning things down and creating chaos, he would hold peaceful demonstrations. And he held peaceful demonstrations in areas where it was legal to pound black people.
Who was doing the pounding? Was it mobs of white hooligans? Or was it law enforcement themselves?
We look at what is going on today, in particular with blacks and law enforcement, and the black lives matter movement, and you see it’s all about not being able to change the minds of those in control.
But this is how Dr King went about doing it. He trained up a group of students, the leaders of his organization, with the philosophy of non-violence. He trained them to train others.
If they were going to be demonstrating, they would meet in churches – that’s when churches actually were relevant inside communities.
It lost its relevance once the church was about the congregation and not about the people who live in the community where the church is. Back then the church was relevant. Back then the church was the place where the community went with their problems. Anyway, they would bring the people into the churches and train them up on how to withstand all the violence and nastiness they would face during a protest.
Dr King knew that whenever you got a large black protest together that they would be met with a negative force against them. So he’d teach them how to be peaceful, how not to retaliate when things were being thrown at them, when they were being hosed, when they sent attack dogs at them, when bricks and rocks were thrown at them. You never saw them raise their hand, or raise their voice – they took the brutality.
So you’re going to say why on earth would King allow this to happen to his people? Well, these demonstrations were widely broadcast – not only here in America, but abroad as well. Then suddenly, the folks who had a voice, who had the power to make changes, saw what was going on. And in their consciousness they could not allow this to stand. And in time more and more white Americans and those in power came to the side of Dr King. That’s how the change was done, by great sacrifice. And those folks that were Dr King’s army were young folks.
IF DR KING GALVANIZED THE YOUTH, HOW HAS THAT VISION DETERIORATED OVER THE YEARS?
Who is galvanizing the youth today? Uhm, let’s see – no one! Everyone out there is to each his own. Everyone out there is just trying to do for themselves.
You’ll notice that Dr King didn’t call it demonstrating, He called it a movement.
There’s a big difference between demonstrating and conducting a movement. It’s not a ‘one shot’ deal. But it takes organization to make that type of thing happen. You don’t see anyone organizing these types of things today.
You would think that with the release of these highly-visible cop videos that you would see a move of this nature.
If King’s non-violent philosophy was really moving forward today, we wouldn’t have the angry protests. Instead, what you see, are individuals who are grandstanding, who are saying they are leaders of the black community. Well, they’re not my leader. They show up at various times but it’s very self-serving. Where are they on black-on-black crime? Where are they on drugs in the black community? Where are they on gang violence in the black community? You never hear them speak on that.
SINCE AMERICA HAS ELECTED A BLACK PRESIDENT TWICE, HOW HAS HIS PRESIDENCY AFFECTED RACE RELATIONS IN AMERICA?
Not at all. I’m going to give Obama this and I think it was a wise thing. The first thing that happened when he first got into office, he made it clear to the black community that he is not the black president. He is all of America’s president. The issues that black America are facing are really local issues and they should be taken care of in the local level. So, he managed expectations.
However, racism is still at every level of government but it starts locally. So it would have been a great thing if people would have said fine, we hear that message, let’s begin organizing and doing things that will be positive and move us forward as African Americans – but that didn’t happen!
HAS PRESIDENT OBAMA BEEN MORE ADEPT AT UNIFYING THE RACES OR DIVIDING THEM?
I don’t think either. On the one hand, African Americans are proud of him by and large, and if you say anything negative about him, you’re saying something negative about them. At the end of the day, if you use his thought process, what he told the folks when he got into office was I am the president of all America.
This has nothing to do with whether I’m proud of what he’s done in office as a black person or not. He’s the president – period. How did he do as president? He took color out of it.
THE PRESIDENT HAS INJECTED HIMSELF INTO VARIOUS LOCAL RACIAL INCIDENTS IN THE PAST FEW YEARS…
Actually more now than he has in the first few years of his presidency. It certainly wasn’t at election time. He couldn’t show himself as being a black man standing up for black cause and win that election.
BUT HAS HE HELPED RACE RELATIONS WHEN, QUITE OFTEN, THE RACIAL INCIDENTS THAT HE INJECTED HIMSELF INTO ENDED UP BEING FALSE NARRATIVES? FOR INSTANCE, SEVERAL TIMES HE PLACED BLAME ON POLICE ACTIONS THAT LATER SEEMED TO HAVE BEEN JUSTIFIED.
I don’t think his voice sided with or against anything that is going on today. I don’t think his voice has any relevance whatsoever. I can tell you firsthand as an African American man – things that are going on out there (on video) aren’t brand new. What’s brand new is the ability to bring video in real time as things are going on. That’s the only thing that is brand new.
What’s happening now has always happened. I was going through that with police in 1968. It’s just become more visible because everyone now has a cell phone camera. And with social media, these images are being streamed 24/7, 365 days a year on video and Facebook. There are at least eight or ten new incidents each day. Having gone through this as a young man and seeing this happening all around me is not new to me. Public sentiment will only be changed when education gets in and changes those doing wrong.
It doesn’t help when you may have two or three incidents where physical violence by police officers is absolutely warranted and then you see another one or two that is absolutely not warranted, where no one is being taken to task on this. And there are some incidents where they immediately go to force.
I saw a video the other day where this guy was told to get down on the ground. So he’s laying on the ground and he automatically put his hands behind his back for the police to cuff them. So the police come up to him and one police officer hauled off and kicked him in his face. It looked like he was going to kick a field goal.
Alright, you say to yourself, what was that about? The guy wasn’t resisting anything. He’s laying on his stomach and he voluntarily put his hands on his back.
Now here’s where you can tell there’s a problem. You’ll read comments in social media saying you don’t know what the guy had done before he put his hands to his back. Nothing that he did should justify being kicked in his face. Yet, this is the mindset across the board in all America. That mindset needs to be changed, but there’s no leadership – talking about Dr King – to change that mindset.
WHO ARE THE VOICES THAT NEED TO BE HEARD IN THIS DAY AND AGE; ARE THERE ANY?
Not that I’ve heard. Let me tell you why I say that. It’s not about rising to the occasion once an event happens. This is not a once-in-a-while situation.
I’m telling you. Back in 1968 when I was a young man, I was running into incidents. I lived in Massapequa, Long Island. At that time, it was predominantly white. I was harassed by the police, just because I was a black kid. It happened all the time. I was 19 years old and my mother asked me to take my brother to church because she wasn’t feeling well. And we used her car. I was 19, my brother Steven was 15 and my sister was 14.
So they were in the car with me. We turned a corner and the same police officer that harassed me almost daily immediately pulled out of the gas station and pulls me over. He makes me, my brother and sister get out of the car and sit on the curb. He called for backup and they came and they tore the interior of my mother’s car apart. They gutted the car. That’s what they used to call a traffic stop.
Now my mother happened to be quite influential and this cop ended up being in Suffolk County’s version of Siberia.
I remember when those two troopers were killed by the Black Panthers, I was driving down the main street by my house. The light turned yellow as my car was coming under it. Everyone knew if you were black and you passed by that infamous gas station, be careful.
Lo and behold, two cops pull out and flash their lights and I immediately pull over to the curb. As I take out my license out of my back pocket, the cop coming over by the drivers side pulls out his gun. His partner who was coming up the passenger side pulls his gun on me. Then cops across the street by the strip shops, they pulled their guns on me.
There are the type of things that happened on a daily basis. I’ve had a number of occasions where cops pulled a gun on me because I was a black young man and I had to be doing something wrong.
Now, fast forward, I was an adjunct professor at the Suffolk County Police Department Police Academy, and I used to teach sensitivity training to the cadets going through the academy. At that time there may have been 54 new cops and out of that 54 there would only be one black cop.
I had developed a curriculum. The training was working out very well but when they would leave the academy and get into their car with their training officers they were told to forget all they had learned. The training officers would say, I’m now your teacher. And what I will teach you is going to save your life.
So have black people made it? Of course they have, are you kidding me? There have been great strides in people breaking through in obtaining high positions including the presidency. Having said that, where is the majority of the problems coming from? Do those problems override the successes? And in my view the problems clearly override the successes.
BUT COULDN’T YOU CAST THE BLAME ON LIBERAL POLICIES THAT RUN EVERY SINGLE MAJOR CITY?
Absolutely. It makes me want to gag! You’re looking at third, fourth generations of social services, where more and more people are unable to do for themselves. And whenever we hear election campaigns, they are all built around entitlements! They are scaring people that they are going to be losing their entitlements.
We’re looking at Medicare, Medicaid, social services. They were put into play for very good reasons and should stay in play. When people have catastrophic events in their lives and need the support, it should absolutely be there. But it shouldn’t be there as a way of life.
And you have people making voting decisions based on whether they are going to lose their food stamps. Is that empowering a people or enslaving a people.
HOW HELPFUL HAS THE BLACK ALLEGIANCE TO THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY BEEN FOR THEM?
Well, it’s kept the people down. I’ve always taught people to split your vote. The first thing you have to look for — when voting for someone — is whether or not they are morally aligned with your thinking.
If I’m a Christian, and I am, how can I support a candidate who is all for everything I stand against? I can’t do that – no way, no how – ever! Look at what people stand for as it relates to your family. There’s your morals. Then how is their position helpful to your community?
Take a look at all those factors and forget about what you’re registered for as a voter. Vote your heart in that respect. Look at liberal idealism as it pertains to same sex marriage or abortion – I couldn’t possibly vote for that. How could I? How could I look myself in the mirror?
No, I’m going to go down on my knees before the Lord.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE ANSWER TO RESOLVING THE RACIAL DIVIDE IN AMERICA?
I often hear that we have to sit down and have a discussion. First off, who’s going to lead that discussion and who’s going to be on the other side of that table? When you look at the way Dr King conducted himself, and how he was able to cause such major change, it was because it wasn’t about one person sitting down and talking to another person across the table. It was about bringing the plight of the people to the entire nation and letting them see the situation.
So from a black perspective, I want the nation to see what’s going on. But I don’t want it to happen with a bunch of acrimony. In other words, I don’t need someone screaming and shouting and yelling and threatening, because all that does is to make people move away from you – not move toward you.
I’ve give you another ‘for instance.’ Do you in your heart of hearts believe that all of those violent video clips that we see with police engaging with suspects involves African-American men and women only? There are white men and women who are brutalized as well.
What we’re saying then is that police training has to change. If you’re making it a black issue only, then what you’re saying is that this could never happen to white America. Why should they engage and come to your side? Even though I was pleased to see that many of them did. If you really want to engage in change, that change has to be that it’s not just black lives matter — all lives matter. So we can’t point our finger at every cop in the world. There are bad seeds everywhere. It is about making sure those bad seeds are weeded out and that proper training is given so that it doesn’t go to that extreme.
So these are the types of things I’m talking about. The talks that need to take place as it relates to race relations have to be done, but from the vantage point where both sides see exactly what is the condition on the other side and come to a resolution there.
I honestly can’t see that happening – not with the rhetoric that is going on out there and these inflammatory videos that I see. When you see something happening and you see it with your own eyes, and you’re told you didn’t see that – that’s offensive to me. And it angers me.
That’s why we can’t have dialogue. You’re being told what you saw didn’t really happen.
WHICH INCIDENT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT IN PARTICULAR?
Do you remember the gentleman who got stopped by that police officer and he ran and the cop just shot him dead? He then walked up to him and dropped his stun gun next to him. He said the guy took it from him and he had to defend himself. Well, then you’re told that didn’t happen that way.
Then a couple of weeks ago, a Campus cop, was trying to open a motorist’s door and the guy was trying to hold the door shut. The cop shot him in his head. The car rolls down the street because it’s very difficult to control your car when you’re dead. The car’s rolling down the street. You see running after the car by the body camera. And then you’re told that the reason he opened fire was because he was dragging the cop down the street.
There’s no less than eight or 10 of these videos a day. You would be amazed at the volume. And it doesn’t only happen to black people, not at all.
SO MANY YEARS AFTER MARTIN LUTHER KING, DO YOU SEE ANY PROGRESS IN RACE RELATIONS?
If I’m looking at every level, I’m going to say no. That’s going to sound harsh because prior to King’s movement there was segregation, white-only here, white-only there. Granted that’s not there right now. But on both sides of the line, there is huge hostility. I don’t see any major changes being done outside of people finally coming to a place where, on one side, my being an African America, I don’t have to be defending myself with a baseball bat. And, on the other side, white America saying we understand your plight, how can we come together and make things work. If that’s not going to happen, the situation is only going to get worse.
WHAT DO YOU SUGGEST PEOPLE DO TO RESOLVE THE RACIAL DIVIDE?
I tell this to people all the time. In order for you to come to an understanding of what is going on, you have to drop your own biases. Everyone of us has a bias brought about by our own individual experiences. Our mind, our thoughts, our reactions are all a part of what we grew up with. All of those things are the components that went into us and made us who we are today.
That’s why the scriptures tell us be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Your mindset is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and only a renewal is going to help.
So, how does that affect us on a day-to-day basis? I see an event occur and I am now analyzing that by my own experiences and I come to conclusions based on my experiences. That’s called being a human being. But being an understanding human being is when I consciously try to look at a situation from another person’s point of view. Then I can become a more understanding human being.
If you line up three people, who see the exact same event occur, you’re going to get three different descriptions on what occurred. That’s because they all looked at it from the prism of their own experiences.
So if we’re looking at what’s going on today from the prism of our own experiences, we’re not going to come to a conclusion. That’s why I like the gospel of Jesus Christ. I can’t look at the gospel based on my own experiences. But there’s only one experience that needs to be dealt with and that’s the experience of sin – and what He did to deliver me from that. Once I get to that standpoint, I have to be like David and hide His word in my heart (Psalm 119:11). By hiding it there, I’m strengthening that new man and it starts weakening the old man. The only way I can grow and not look at things from the prism of my own life is if I continue dying to self. That way I can start seeing things through His eyes.