This essay was written as a submission to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Racial Justice Essay Contest, facilitated by the Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition. Students were asked to respond to the following prompt:
“A myth of Black inferiority and white supremacy was developed to justify slavery in the United States. Even though we ended chattel slavery, we did not end the myth of racial difference. EJI believes we need a new era of truth and justice that starts with confronting our history of racial injustice. Based on the theme or topic and historical event you selected, how does the history of racial injustice help to explain present-day injustice in our society? How can this history be overcome in order to change the challenges our nation is facing today?”
Contest winners were recognized in August. The Lawrence Times is publishing entries that some of the student writers chose to submit to us. This essay is by Ryan Brown, then a senior at Free State High School, who won first place in the contest.
“There is a depth of hatred in the bone marrow of this country that supports the killing of the Black body.” — CeLilliane Greene.
Between the Civil War and World War ll, thousands of Black Americans were lynched across the United States. Lynchings were used as a tool of racial control against Black people. Many Black Americans were never formally accused of an actual crime; they were simply lynched for petty social transgressions that white people did not deem appropriate.
This heinous act enforced a social hierarchy and instilled fear in Black citizens across America. It became an event open to the public for white families to come watch. Lynchings were not limited to only hanging people from trees, but torturing victims as well. Tactics such as cutting off body parts for souvenirs, skinning victims, and burning them alive were synonymous with games at a carnival. These lynchings were often front page news, the narrative being twisted to justify the countless murders in front of the public eye. These stories often spun tales of the dangers of Black men and how white women must be protected at all costs.
It’s no secret that this country was built on the foundation of white supremacy. The Constitution only recognized Black people as three-fifths of a person until the 13th Amendment. The dehumanization of Black Americans is what makes the killings of Black people more palatable to society. Our skin is weaponized against us and people go to great lengths to justify our murders. The media is filled with a plethora of videos of Black citizens’ violent, often fatal, racist encounters with law enforcement and white supremacists. We have indisputable proof of the constant brutality we face; but far too often it is not enough because of this nation’s refusal to acknowledge our history of racial injustice.
On July 16, 1970, Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, a 19-year-old Black KU student, was murdered in the alleyway between New Hampshire and Rhode Island Street. Dowdell and a friend had been driving to campus and had noticed they were being followed by the Lawrence police.
When the car got stuck near the alley, Dowdell entered on foot. Once he had entered the alley, Officer William Garrett fired a total of four shots from his gun. Unfortunately, a lack of witnesses makes the events leading up to the murder a mystery. His death was met with an uproar in the community. Only on July 23, 1970, Rick Dowdell was buried. Hundreds of people took to the streets of Lawrence, marching to St. Luke AME Church while proudly displaying their large afros and cultural clothing. Dowdell’s death marked the beginning of five days of violence and sparked several protests on campus throughout Lawrence. Officer Garrett was temporarily suspended with pay and was ultimately exonerated of any wrongdoing. Dowdell’s murder raises the question, “if there had been video evidence, would there have been a different outcome?”
During the summer of 2020, we experienced civil and political unrest when footage of the murder of George Floyd quickly spread. Floyd joined the ever-growing list of unarmed Black people murdered at the hands of law enforcement, a list that includes Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Daunte Wright to name a few. A majority of these murders have been recorded, often circulating social media and news outlets. It has become a modern-day lynching. It is traumatic watching the murders of innocent people who look like my family and me. I find myself slowly becoming desensitized. It’s terrifying to imagine a family member being the next cause for a riot. I’m scared when my father goes out for a run, or when I see my cousins wearing hoodies. I’m constantly wondering: will one of my family members become a hashtag?
The Black body is the most disposable body in America. America has proved this time and time again. In a perfect world, America would acknowledge our horrifying past and take steps to move toward equality. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead, our history is whitewashed in the classroom; completely censored to downplay the horrors of the racial brutality our ancestors faced.
One of the reasons these tragedies keep occurring is due to this willful ignorance. We need to reform our education system. My generation is learning the same minuscule amount of Black history as our parents. It’s imperative that we dig deep into our nation’s history. It is not pretty, but many people are unaware of America’s deep history of lynching and brutality against Black people because it has been swept under the rug and watered down when taught in school. Classes such as African American history, a course that focuses on the mistreatment of Black people, needs to be a requirement instead of an elective. So much can be learned with the truth, and that’s where we need to start to make a change.