Before you stand with me, or any of my sisters and brothers, you have to sit with us first.
This is a revised version by Anthony Bates of remarks that he gave at the March Against Racism held on Saturday, June 13, 2020, at the Historic County Courthouse in Provo, Utah. He would like to give a special acknowledgment to Evelyn Harper and Kofi Aidoo for their courage and their foresight to help him give voice to his.
I’ve never envisioned myself in a setting like this, doing something like this. I want to improvise just a little bit. I imagine that there's someone on the fringes of this gathering, or the gentleman that I've seen drive by multiple times with the Confederate flag, that doesn't understand what is going on here. And I want to express my love to them, and the sadness I feel for the relationships that they’ve sacrificed because of an unwillingness to sit down and talk with someone.
I was reluctant to do this . . . . My initial inclination was to say no, because this is a scary prospect. Because I've made mistakes in my strivings to be better. I've made mistakes in my attempts to try to do good by other people. So, if there's anyone here that I've unintentionally hurt in any way, shape, or form, I apologize. And just like the people that I'm challenging, who are on the fringes, who are driving by, I'm not the same person I was ten years ago. I'm not the same person I was five years ago. I'm not even the same person I was two weeks ago. (I encourage you to listen and challenge you to be willing to change as a result.)
So as I stand here, I owe this to the memory of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and too, too many other Black lives—named and unnamed—that have been lost over the centuries and will likely be lost, if we do not purge racism.
I owe this to the 105 students that I've worked with, and the sixteen colleagues with whom I've walked the streets of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Anniston, Alabama. I owe this to them, and the incredible things they've taught me over the years.
But most importantly, I owe this to my seven children. They’ve listened to me talk about John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X, Bryan Stevenson, and Michelle and Barack Obama for nearly ten years. Now it's time for them to see tangible evidence of me joining the chorus of courage, commitment, and sacrifice.
One thing is very important. I have unearned privilege in my life. I was born into economic circumstances in which I had opportunities for education. I don't struggle with food insecurity. I’ve got a roof over my head; therefore, it's incumbent upon me to speak for those who do not have the same privileges. Those voices that do not get the chance to get out, because they just haven't had the same hand that I've been dealt in my life.
So, in the past couple weeks, I've had people express to me and others that I care about that they stand with me. And I understand the sentiment, but what do they mean?
Even as we speak, many are losing Instagram followers. And so they need to hurry, get the gist of the remarks that were made here, snap a couple sweet pics, and then get them up so that they can be social justice warriors. (This does not mean you stand with me.)
It's not enough to simply not support racism. You have to be an anti-racist. But to be an anti-racist, you have to take a stand.
But there's a subtle, yet important, step between taking that stand and becoming anti-racist.
Before you stand with me, or any of my sisters and brothers, you have to sit with us first.
Some might say there's too much to do. There's no time to sit. But, unfortunately, there are far too many people who do not stop, who do not take a breath, and who do not sit with those they purport to help.
They do not take the time to amplify voices of color which is much different than representing voices of color. They frantically search for solutions without ever fully comprehending the problems of the people of color. They plan and they organize without taking the guidance and direction from people of color—the same people of color who could give them the best strategies.
So before you stand with me, or any of my sisters and brothers, you will have to take some time to sit with me. Let me give you some examples of what that might look like:
If you sat with me, you would learn that when you see me wear a mask, it is not a protest. You would learn that I have children who are immunocompromised. You would learn that I have seen firsthand that the healthcare system treats people of color differently, and so my best chance for survival is to avoid contracting anything, because I would be putting my health into the hands of someone else with the hopes that no bias or prejudice would enter into my health care equation. You would learn that people of color are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and so I am doing everything I can to protect—including, but not limited to—Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Polynesian and Asian communities. After sitting with me to learn why I wear a mask, you can stand with people of color by wearing a mask.
If you sat with me, you would learn my thoughts about the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote you used on your social media feed to vilify people of color who were present during violent protests and looting. You would learn about what it means to acquire and use your voice. You would learn that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” After sitting with me, you would learn that the solution is not to point your finger at unlawful behavior. You would stand by me by (1) seeing the lives of disadvantaged communities as a symptom of a larger problem, (2) identify a concrete, actionable problem that results from a systemic issue, (3) get proximate to the lives of those being affected by systemic issues, and (4) commit to one thing you could do to relieve the effects of a systemic issue.
If you sat with me, you would learn about my thoughts on Malcom X. You would hear my commentary on a man whose mission and life story has been misconstrued and misused to perpetuate the perceived necessity to have an alternative to the “I Have a Dream,” peaceful narrative of Dr. King. If you stand by me, you will read the autobiography of Malcolm X to empower yourself with knowledge about his formative experiences, what he accomplished, and what he actually stood for.
If you sat with me, you would learn that I have significant concerns about voting rights in this country. You would learn that Senator Lindsey Graham said in 2012, “The demographics race we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” You would learn that shortly after that, the Supreme Court ruling of Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and provided significant ammunition to voter disenfranchisement efforts. You would learn the deep despair associated with seeing it take nearly 400 years in the country to see tangible evidence of this country making good on the promises of its Constitution by electing a Black man to office, and then within five years, seeing an aggressive resurgence and entrenchment of racism. After sitting with me to learn about my concerns with voting, you can stand with me by not being content with getting your candidate elected or your party in power, but by participating in voter education efforts and working for everyone’s right to vote.
If you sat with me, you would learn that politics for me has very little to do with party affiliation and partisanship. What others have the luxury of referring to as politics represents a cogent and harsh reality for disadvantaged members of our society. For example, you would learn of the trauma I experienced in the summer of 2020 when I saw a line of police officers on horseback and tear gas being used on peaceful protestors, reminiscent of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. After sitting with me to learn about my real concerns with the political and social climate in this country, you can stand with me by not voting along party lines but voting to ensure that this country is less dangerous—not more dangerous—for me, my children and people of color in this country.
If you sat with me, you would hear about my deep admiration for Congressman John Lewis, the lifelong activism of Rosa Parks, and the agitative, aggressive, non-violent tactics of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. You would hear about Reverend Robert Graetz and his wife, Jean. You would hear about my dear friend Nelson Malden. You would hear about the regal Ms. Myrna Jackson and the tenacity of Catherine Burke-Brooks, a former Freedom Rider. If you stand with me, you will incorporate the history of all people of color and weave them inextricably into the current discourse to create a history of this nation that is as much Revolutionary War as it is Black Freedom Struggle. That is as much the legacy of the founding fathers as it is the legacy of Kamehameha. That is as much pioneer trek as it is Trail of Tears. That is as much Pearl Harbor as it is Topaz and other internment camps. That is as much Ellis Island as it is the southern border.
In conclusion, you should sit so much with people of color that your backside is in pain. You should listen so much that your ears begin to burn. You should be processing and thinking so intently that it feels like your head will explode. You should be feeling so much that your soul feels exhausted. You should be caring so much that your body feels like it can hardly contain your heart.
And then, when you have sat too long, listened even more, and felt deeper than you have ever felt before, the walking, marching, running, and kneeling required to stand with me will feel like a welcome relief.