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Looking back, looking forward

As I reflect on the Black Lives Matter march that took place in Barnesville on Saturday, June 6, I think about how far we’ve come. After I was born in 1958, my parents raised me in Barnesville, which was my mother’s hometown. I left for college in 1975 and didn’t come back except for visits until my wife Debra and I built a house in 2015 on the farm in Yatesville where my father grew up. But the experiences I had growing up in Barnesville helped shape the way I look at things, although subsequent experiences in other places have modified my perspectives. One of the most formative experiences I had’”as was no doubt the case with most if not all of my peers’”was living in and through the changes that came with the desegregation and consolidation of Lamar County’s public schools in 1970. I thought back on those days during the June 6 march as we turned left off Mill Street at the E. P. Roberts Community Center. I had attended Gordon Grammar School, the student population of which was 99% white and the faculty and administration of which was 100% white, for grades one through six. At the beginning of 1970, which was my seventh grade year, I joined all the other middle and high school-aged boys in Lamar County, except for those who went to private schools, at what had been the Booker T. Washington School, and was now unfortunately renamed Forsyth Road School. Our principal was Dr. E. P. Roberts, who had been the principal at Booker. So he was the first African-American school administrator I ever had. After we turned left at the Community Center, we turned right and entered Myles-Wimberly Park. Mr. Robert Myles was my homeroom and math teacher in that seventh grade year, and so was the first African-American teacher I ever had. I learned a lot from that good man and good teacher. Coach Oscar Wimberly was our P.E. teacher. I was second-string on the eighth grade basketball team he coached. He became the high school boys’ coach, and to this day I wish I’d kept playing for him, rather than giving up on basketball to take an after-school job, because even though I would have probably dropped to third-string on the high school team, I would have learned so much about life from Coach Wimberly. We stood in the park for ninety minutes, steadily warming up in the late spring Georgia heat and humidity, listening to several excellent speakers offer inspiring and challenging words. To me, the most moving part of the ceremony occurred at the beginning when event organizer Krystal Banks (to whom much gratitude is due) asked us to be silent for eight minutes, forty-six seconds, the amount of time that police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee onto George Floyd’s neck in Minneapolis on May 25. It felt like a long time to stand there, being quiet, listening to the birds’ continual singing and the neighborhood dogs’ occasional barking, our breathing stifled just a little bit by the masks we wore because of the ongoing COVID-19 threat. Breathing was very, very slightly difficult in those conditions, but it was nothing like trying to breathe with someone’s knee on your neck, making breathing more and more difficult until it finally becomes impossible. I thought about how the experience of time passing is relative, depending on the extent to which you are able to exercise your inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I thought about how much things have changed since 1970, and yet here we are, fifty years later, marching to insist that Black Lives Matter. I thought about how the Barnesville march occurred on the anniversary of D-Day, when American troops, along with British and Canadian forces, landed at Normandy to drive racist totalitarianism from Europe, and yet here we are, seventy-six years later, trying to defeat racism and thwart totalitarianism in the United States of America. I thought about how we’ve been singing Mr. Dylan’s song ‘The Times They Are a-Changin” since 1962, and yet here we are, fifty-eight years later, hoping, praying, marching, voting, and working, so that this time, they really will change.

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