On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was arrested by police officers outside a convenience store in Minneapolis, MN. A bystander filmed the occurrence, which involved police officer Derek Chauvin bearing down on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd repeatedly stated “I can’t breathe” and called out for his mother. The arrest was made when a store clerk called police over a counterfeit $20 bill that Floyd allegedly passed in exchange for a pack of cigarettes at the store. Floyd was outside the store when police arrived. In the scuffle to arrest Floyd, he was handcuffed and laid face down on the pavement where Chauvin put his knee into Floyd’s neck while bystanders filmed the event and yelled for the Chauvin to take his knee off of Floyd’s neck. Floyd became unresponsive at the scene and was pronounced dead at a hospital approximately an hour later.
An outcry from the community ensued and escalated as the four officers at that scene were fired but not charged with a crime for the death of Floyd. There were several days passed before Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with Floyd’s murder. It was several days more before the other three officers were also arrested and charged.
Violent protests broke out in cities throughout the United States as a nation grappled with the horror of watching a murder occur via police in real time. Communities throughout the United States held protests that threatened more lives and destroyed property and businesses.
A Small Town’s Call for Unity
While larger cities burned, looted and destroyed businesses, Leavenworth, KS citizens stood together June 6, 2020, for a Unity Walk organized by the Leavenworth NAACP #4036. The walk started at the Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum, a fitting place to anchor people who want to stand together against injustice and violence committed against its minority community and unlawful police violence in general.
Confronting A Tragic Past
Leavenworth does not have a clean past. It has a past that is riddled with as much prejudice, fear and hate as any other place in the United States. What – maybe – makes Leavenworth different is the actions and efforts of its people in the present.
To understand the journey from the past to the present, an examination of history is needed. In Leavenworth, that history is available at the Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum, started back in 1991 by resident Phyllis Bass. The center contains a collection of black history in Leavenworth.
The Richard Allen Cultural Center held a special meaning in Leavenworth’s Unity Walk. The center does not shy away from the real history of blacks in Leavenworth The center represents a place from which to start the walk. The “walk” means facing the truth of the past before healing any divide. The center includes photographs and information about African American pioneers as well as information about black soldiers who served at Fort Leavenworth, one of whom was Colin Powell. But along with these notable achievements and honored citizens is also a Ku Klux Klan costume and photographs that depict historical records of Klan activity in Leavenworth.
These activities seemed far away and long ago until the recent death of George Floyd.
The association of the police officer using his knee on the neck of a black man has a horrible context. The choking and neck assault is highly representative of lynching – a common practice used historically on black Americans.
If the past must be confronted to heal the present, then Leavenworth, KS has a past that must never be forgotten.
The Death of Fred Alexander – 1901
In 1901, Fred Alexander was famously threatened and brutally killed by a mob in Leavenworth, KS that had grown to 5000 before a trial could be held to determine the man’s guilt. The public outcry over Alexander’s massacre was printed in newspapers throughout the country. Ministers in Leavenworth rose their protest to the pulpits and those sermons were printed in the newspapers. Voters were challenged to hold officials accountable for what was considered a barbaric atrocity.
The death of Fred Alexander was the subject of a 2010 research story by 35th Division National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Christopher C. Lovett. Lovett was a history professor at Emporia State University. His research about the Fred Alexander mob killing: A Public Burning: Race, Sex and the Lynching of Fred Alexander. [Graphic warning: this story is likely not suitable for young children]
Normally lynch mobs sought a confession from the victim in order to justify what they were about to do. According to the [Leavenworth] Times, the mob demanded of Alexander: “Confess before we harm you.” Alexander repeated what he had told the authorities in Lansing: “I have nothing to confess.” Although the Leavenworth papers later reported that the increasingly angry mob extracted postmortem “relics,” the condition of physical evidence from Alexander’s body taken to the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka for preservation after the lynching suggests that the man had yet to be burned when he was mutilated. There were hints of this barbarism—including castration—in the Times: “‘My God men,’ [Alexander] cried in his agony. ‘I have told you that I am innocent. I can’t tell you more. I didn’t do it.’” (1)
Rev. F. N. Atkin, rector of the First Episcopal church said “I agree perfectly with the resolution adopted by the Ministerial association. I consider the lynching a horrible, brutal outrage on justice and humanity.” [The Leavenworth Times, Jan. 22, 1901.]
Understanding the roots of racism going forward from early last century requires an understanding of the ability of black minority populations to survive despite continued high levels of oppression and discrimination – while also attempting to peaceably navigate such a society.
In the 20th century, cries of discrimination ushered in a new era of attempted empowerment. But the peaceful means were met with resistance even as the United States elected a president (Kennedy 1960) that would favor the plight of the country’s black minority. Just to name one example, and perhaps one who is often not given credit for his groundbreaking efforts in combating racism, was Grammy winning Nat King Cole. He was beloved as a performer yet he suffered physical assaults including an attack on his home by the Klu Klux Klan with a burning cross in his front yard when he moved into a the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood in Los Angeles back in the 1950s. He refused to be intimidated out. When the property owners complained to him that they did not want any undesirables moving into the neighborhood, Cole responded, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
The minister Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to prominence as a civil rights leader during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 – ushering in a civil rights movement and conflicts that involved the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who justified investigations of King over allegations the minister had ties to communist infiltration. The charge was a common popular one that Hoover used to justify spying on U.S. citizens he considered trouble makers and threats in the American population – particular among blacks.
King’s peaceful means of creating a campaign against racial segregation and economic injustice was a confrontational one nonetheless. King’s words from his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
By way of example of peaceful means that blacks used to try and gain some equal footing in American society, just takes a cursory glance in newspaper archives of that era. For instance, The Iola (KS) Register printed a story on June 27, 1963 with the headline Qualification — Not Discrimination — Involved in Race Question, Some Say
By Stanley Meisler
Negros have less chance than with to get a high-paying job in the North, but most employers and unions deny this stems from racial discrimination.
Negro leaders generally contend it does. In Chicago, for example, they say that hardly anyone downton hires Negroes as office workers, store clerks or skilled craftsmen.
‘The Loop of Chicago looks like a snowstorm at 5 o’clock,’ says Hamp McKinney of the Urban League of Chicago, ‘with only here and there a little brown speck in it.’
But employers and unions say that situations like this are not caused by racial discrimination. They say there aren’t enough qualified Negores to fill the jobs available.
Pickets and police clashed in Philadelphia and New York a few weeks ago in the Negro struggle to more and better jobs. Herbert Hill, labor secretary of the National Associate for the Advancement of Colored People, has threatened more demonstrations if the doors of personnel offices and union halls stay closed.
President Kennedy has banned racial discrimination on construction projects paid for, in whole or part, by federal funds. The President has also asked Congress to pass a massive vocational education program to train Negroes for higher paying jobs.
Will these steps soften Northern Negro anger? Some experts fear the problem may not be solved for many years, for it takes time to train filled workers and it takes time to create incentive among young Negroes.
The calls for changes for the “negro” were vast, long and sought over long years. These cries for equality and opportunity were met with resistance and clashes with the white majority. Working within “the system” to make changes was a battle not won, even with allies as powerful as the president and his brother the attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy.
Malcolm X was another civil rights leader pushing for change. The American Muslim minister’s advocacy of black supremacy, black empowerment and separation of black and white Americans earned him J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI surveillance status for, like King, supposed links to communism. Malcolm X cut ties with the Nation of Islam in the 1960s, which created a conflict that culminated in his assassination in 1965. Three Nation members were charged with his murder and given life sentences.
A perhaps pivotal incident in the progression of and formation of the attitudes of Malcolm X involved incidences in 1961 of violent clashes between LAPD officers and Nation of Islam members in South Central Los Angeles. On April 27, 1962, two officers, unprovoked, shoved and beat several Muslims outside Temple Number 27. More than 70 backup officers arrived at the scene of the clash where Muslims were beaten and shot. Police were not convicted for any of the violence, including the killing of a surrendering Korean War veteran, Ronald Stokes.
Malcolm X was furious and wanted violent revenge – but was denied approval of such action by Nation leader Elijah Muhammed. His views set him further apart from the Nation of Islam leadership, which was attempting more and more to work with civil rights groups, black politicians and religious groups.
The influence of Malcolm X on the advancement of civil rights cannot be understated. The Black Power movement and the Black Arts Movement and the widespread adoption of the slogan “Black is Beautiful” can all trace their roots to Malcolm X. (2)
Ultimately, big changes came from tragedy and death – including the trilogy of assassinations of John Kennedy, (1963) his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, Jr. (both 1968) and the ensuing violent protests in the streets. In Kansas City, violence finally erupted, met with a deadly counter police force.
The aftermath of the 1960s did result in changes – hard-fought and bloody-battled changes. These changes were achieved by coalitions with the majority in governments at local and state levels primarily but federal levels as well. The resistant conservative majority was overrun by a revolution of young people angry over an entrenched war in Vietnam, racism, homophobia and conservative viewpoints towards sex and relationships. These new values were successfully branded through the avenues of popular music, writing and art.
Out of this era came a bold vision of pride in diverse American cultures and race as greater world views broadened people’s experiences and education of the world around them.
As this revolution gained traction, old ideas were left to simmer on a back burner – in a place where the fires of hatred were never actually extinguished.
Even as the country elected its first black president in 2008, that simmering hatred became flames again. The rise of racism had a new target, a new voice and a new platform – from *some* extremist operatives who found new popular footing by fanning racism. White Nationalism resurged. Enter racism as a tool for political manipulation.
When is Enough – Enough?
Unity in the Community
With all of this – with every reason to be at odds – why didn’t Leavenworth burn down its town in protests? Why weren’t there angry clashes?
In recent years, influences of leaders like Jermaine Wilson may have had an impact on the interactions of police with communities members. With the program Unity in the Community, Wilson said in a recent interview with HeartKC “You have to be able to sit down with elected officials.” He said that the strategy to make a positive impact in positive racial relations was “being intentional and strategic. It has to be consistent to promote peace.”
Wilson, whose story includes his rough start as a juvenile offender who served time in prison, said that change came from his personal change in his heart when he became a Christian in prison. “Once I changed my heart, I wanted to become a community activist – a mentor to the young people.”
Jermaine Wilson founded Unity in the Community with the belief that “we need to become one as we become stronger.”
“I believe no man should be judged based on the color of their skin or their occupation because God created us all equally. I saw the division these movements were making around the world and in my own community and I wanted to make a difference. I don’t want my children to be raised in a community that was divided. I want my children to see that we are all equal no matter the race, occupation, or gender.” (2)
Wilson ran for Leavenworth City Council in 2017 and served as mayor in 2019. His efforts have been to focus on unification, promoting unity.
“There has to be peace and unity in everything we do throughout our lives,” Wilson said. “Love our neighbors and ourselves. God is love – we are called to be like Christ. I live my life like that every day.”
As Wilson addressed the intention of the Unity Walk in his remarks June 3, 2020, he explained the design was to bring people together to heal. “How can we truly be united as a nation when our country has been divided for hundreds of years?” His words were direct and unblanched. “People saying ‘black lives matter’ – they aren’t saying other lives doesn’t matter. The statement simply means stop killing us because of the color of our skin.”
Chief Kitchens: “Hold Me Accountable”
Images of Leavenworth, KS
June 6, 2020 Unity Walk
©2020 Peggy Bair/HeartKC
United for Change
*A bystander filmed the occurrence, which involved police officer Derek Chauvin bearing down on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd repeatedly stated “I can’t breathe” and called out for his mother. The arrest was made when a store clerk called police over a counterfeit $20 bill that Floyd allegedly passed in exchange for a pack of cigarettes at the store. Floyd was outside the store when police arrived. In the scuffle to arrest Floyd, he was handcuffed and laid face down on the pavement where Chauvin put his knee into Floyd’s neck while bystanders filmed the event and yelled for the Chauvin to take his knee off of Floyd’s neck. Floyd became unresponsive at the scene and was pronounced dead at a hospital approximately an hour later.