Clarence Henderson: George Floyd protests — what I learned during lunch counter sit-ins in 1960

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“Clarence, what can we do to make things better?”

I’ve heard that question countless times in the last few weeks, as the senseless murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd flooded the headlines, filling us all with horror and grief. Many decent Americans want to do something to demonstrate solidarity with the black community and work to end racial injustice. But what?

I have been in the civil rights fight for a very long time. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I was riding my bicycle down a sidewalk, when I saw a white man walking toward me. I moved all the way over to get out of his way, and he turned, walked right to where I was, and knocked me off my bicycle.

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Growing up, I knew that the world was full of white people who thought they could treat me any way they wanted and get away with it.

For me, the civil rights movement was always rooted in morality. Since my involvement in the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-it in 1960, my goal was to ensure that blacks were treated with the respect and dignity that all Americans deserve under the law.

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That dignity doesn’t come from the law; it comes from God. Good law recognizes what God has already said: that we all bear His image and deserve to be respected.

Every black person I grew up with knew we had to be better — nearly perfect, in fact — to hope to get the treatment and benefit of the doubt that seemed to be automatically afforded to whites. This is, and has always been, fundamentally wrong and unfair.

We should never deceive ourselves to think we can ever sufficiently “earn” the respect of the worst racists: that man who knocked me off my bike wouldn’t have cared if I was a straight A student or an usher in my church. But at the same time, we cannot let that unfairness lure us into self-destructive behavior, just to prove a point.

There have always been different models for black Americans to work for progress and equality. Without delving into all the details, these models have fallen into two major categories: those who believe that America was founded on good principles that it has often failed to put into practice, and those who believe that America is evil at its root and must be destroyed and replaced.

Demonstrations by approximately 400 African-American college students continued in Greensboro as they continued their sit-down strike against local dime stores. This picture shows some of the African-American coeds lining the counter at the F.W. Woolworth Co. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

Demonstrations by approximately 400 African-American college students continued in Greensboro as they continued their sit-down strike against local dime stores. This picture shows some of the African-American coeds lining the counter at the F.W. Woolworth Co. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Those in the first category — like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frederick Douglass — believe that America is in a continual process of reformation, striving to live up to our best ideals. Those in the second want to fundamentally remake America as an entirely different kind of country.

I am a reformer who affirms America and wants to make it better, and I work with and support organizations like the Frederick Douglass Foundation that believe the same. While I believe — like all decent people — that black lives absolutely do matter, I am concerned that the policy goals of the official BLM organization fall more into the second category.  

FDF and I believe that the traditional family — supported, not disrupted, by extended kin — is the ideal environment to raise children and the foundation for all success, including upward mobility. We work to strengthen families by supporting marriage and parental rights and offering training and resources for community leaders.

I am a reformer who affirms America and wants to make it better, and I work with and support organizations like the Frederick Douglass Foundation that believe the same.

We also believe in reforming the existing system of criminal justice through reducing overcriminalization at every level, working to prevent criminality and recidivism, advocating for de-escalation training for all police departments and working toward improving community-police relations wherever needed.

But perhaps our most substantive difference with BLM is that we believe that the free exchange of goods and services creates the greatest economic opportunity for all people regardless of race or background.

We believe in the right to own property, the right to own one’s own labor, and the right to make a living legally and ethically.

We believe in a free market of education, where all parents can choose what is best for their children from a variety of options.

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We do not support policies that infringe on these rights.

And most of all, we believe that the best way to lift people out of poverty is to create a society where all can prosper together.  

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