By Ken Ripley
Saturday events were a frustrating study of contrasts, showing the best and worst of America on the same day in ways that very much reminded me of more than 50 years ago.
Back in the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement, racial tensions were as high or higher than they are now. Blacks were struggling for the right to vote and against segregation and discrimination throughout daily American life.
Near the end of the decade, besides tension between whites and blacks, the civil rights movement itself was splintering between the peaceful protests advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many religious allies and younger black protest groups who were starting to turn to violence out of frustration at the slow pace of nonviolent change.
Then in 1968, my senior year in high school, Dr. King was shot down in April outside a Memphis motel — and riots immediately broke out in major cities around the country, just like they did Saturday night. Businesses, many of them black-owned, were burned or trashed. Looters ran wild. The police had to use force to suppress them.
I will never forget standing on a high hill near my home in northern Virginia on that April night, looking north toward Washington where the sky was yellow and hazy with smoke as fires from the riots burned through neighborhoods.
I was upset with King’s murder, but I remember how puzzled and frustrated I was at the knowledge that black rioters were destroying their own homes and businesses in their otherwise righteous anger. It made, then and now, no sense to me.
The rest of that summer continued to have outbreaks of violence, including Los Angeles, punctuated by conflicts between police and rioting residents. Political protests over Vietnam were also growing, reaching a violent peak at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley turned the cops loose to attack the protesting crowds, including some delegates and journalists caught in the middle. The vicious scenes on television scared Americans and paved the way for Richard Nixon’s narrow victory in the fall.
I thought about 1968 as I watched the television news Saturday night, with its intensive coverage of evening rioting and looting in Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville, along with updates on other violent protests in American cities around the country, including Minneapolis where four cops on Memorial Day caused the murder of an unarmed black man when an officer held him down by kneeling on his neck until he died.
From the videos that captured George Floyd’s death, public anger was more than justified. The four cops were immediately fired and one of them was charged with murder and manslaughter, with prosecutors saying the other cops might also be charged. After a steady stream of young black men being killed by white cops over the past few years, with little consequences, Americans of conscience and color finally had enough.
The vehemence of the protests, I think, was amplified by the pent-up frustration within minority communities, kept at home for two months like everyone else because of the pandemic, because minorities have suffered disproportionately more than others from the deadly effects of the virus as well as its economic impact. More blacks have become ill, died and lost their jobs. Watching another black man get killed by the cops was, for many, the “last straw,” just as the killing of King in 1968 sent black Americans into the streets.
There are differences, though. One is that in all three of the North Carolina cities, large, peaceful protests were held earlier in the afternoon, successfully and without violence before ending. Secondly, the outbreaks of violence later in the night came from new groups of people coming into the cities apparently looking for trouble. They were intending to riot and loot; their behavior was not legitimate protest gone wild, it was criminal and malicious, deserving of force by the police to subdue. I also noticed, finally, the rioters included whites as well as blacks, gleefully looking to stir up trouble.
Saturday night’s fights were sad and discouraging. I feel sorry for the business owners whose property was damaged or stolen. I have no sympathy for those who were arrested; I’m just grateful nobody was killed.
But also sad is that the violence distracted from a real American accomplishment, the successful sending Saturday of two American astronauts to the International Space Station on an American-made commercial rocket. It was the first time since the shuttle program ended in 2010 that Americans had been able to send their own into space and signals the revival of America’s long-stagnant space program.
Watching clips of the afternoon launch, the long white rocket hurtling into the deep blue sky, also reminded me that during the same 1960s of racial tension, NASA was sending Americans into space for the first time, culminating with moon landings that no other nation has accomplished since.
America watched those early launches then, too, with pride and fascination despite the troubles on earth.
It was good Saturday to see America return to space. It was not so good to see Americans here on earth continue to tear ourselves apart over race and shameful bigotry we should have outgrown long ago.
Ken Ripley, a Spring Hope resident, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.