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‘We shall overcome someday’

People holding hands during a march

Have we made progress in realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream? Cheryl Bistayi reflects on this question by telling the painful story of her granddaughter’s husband and the racism he experienced as a Black man.

Allendale: Valley UMC

This is a true story for MLK Day . . . 2020.

“I’m so confused and shook. Why are people like this!” This is the text I received last night from my granddaughter.

She and her husband and sons are African American. I love them deeply.

She was referring to the latest shooting of a young black man while jogging. I have no satisfactory answer for her, but I feel her angst, especially in light of what has happened to her husband, who is a great dad to my great-grandsons.

He was dressed in khakis and a dress shirt, driving to his new job in Troy, near an upscale mall and less than a mile from where our daughter lives. Suddenly, he realized a police car was following him into the parking lot. D. got out of the car and turned around to see this policeman holding a gun aimed directly at him.

He immediately put his hands in the air. Fortunately, his new boss saw what was happening, came out, and told the policeman that this was her employee.

The policeman put the gun away and told D. he had followed him because he had not done a proper Michigan turn into the lot. The policeman did apologize when he saw the Western Michigan University sweatshirt in the car (said he doesn’t usually deal with “people like him”).

When D. told me this, I asked if it had happened before. He said it has happened several times. He said they generally ask whose car he’s driving. He said he always stays calm and respectful, names every move he is going to make, and hopes for the best.

He told me all this matter-of-factly, just what happens when you’re a young black man. You’re resigned to what is . . . but should not be.

I told him that he did everything right, but it was so wrong. I told him this old white woman is sorry for what too many white people are allowing to happen.

I lived through the 1950s and 1960s and saw racism up close. The same was true in the 90s when I was director of an inner-city ministry serving primarily African American children, teens, and families. I had hoped that by 2020, we would be better than this . . . but we are not.

I do not understand those who do not want to believe this is happening to brown and black Americans . . . but it is happening.

That’s why this grandma decided to share the experiences of those she loves deeply. Because it’s the truth. Right here in black and white.

Here’s another true story for MLK Day . . . 2023.

I have watched the voting for the Speaker of the House. The House Clerk is Cheryl Johnson, a black woman with two women clerks working alongside her, one white and one black. It is one of the very first things I noticed because there is no way that I would have seen that as a child.

I grew up a city girl from Chicago who spent summers in the South wondering why there were “White Only” bathrooms and fountains and questioning why I couldn’t walk one block over to “Colored Town.”

Cheryl Johnson grew up in Louisiana, a child of that South. Now, she is the steady, dignified, grace-full face of the House. So, in 2023, we are a titch better than that. It’s the truth. Right there in white and black.

There is a dance step called the tripudium. It is three steps forward and one step back. It matches the words, the rhythm, and the meaning of the song we sang as we touched the spot of spilled blood and marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

“We shall overcome, we shall overcome.
We shall overcome someday.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.”

Stand up and give that tripudium step a try. Take three steps forward. Take one step back. Take three steps forward. Take one step back. Sing those words. March around your living room. Sing. March. Move. Feel how that rhythm and those words put flesh on our history.

Because, as a 75-year-old white woman, I have danced that danced, I have marched that song, I have lived these words, and we have moved forward! Just as we have taken steps back. It’s the truth. In black and white.

But the good news about the tripudium step is that as long as you keep moving, even though you may step back, you will move forward. There are three steps forward for every step back, so if you don’t give up, you will get there!

We just have to keep singing and stepping and marching. We have to keep moving.

So, I say to D., “I’m sorry, but please keep going.” I say to Cheryl Johnson, “Thank you, and please keep going.” I say to you and me, “Just keep going.” Because deep in my heart, I do believe.

Last Updated on January 19, 2023

The Michigan Conference