Learning from the past and looking to the future

By Kathy Jefcoats

Because of the strides made in the civil rights movement, Brandon Banks may never experience the pride in hearing a black has achieved "the first" in most any field - most of those accomplishments were made long before the teenager was ever born.

Banks, president of the Class of 2006 at Riverdale High School, is only 16 but said he can appreciate the battle his great-grandparents and others fought for equal rights within American society.

"I am always telling my classmates that in order to know where we are going, we must know where we've been," said Banks. "I think the children of today are beginning to stray away from what our forefathers worked so hard for and we've got to have the tenacity to get back where we need to be."

Banks was one of dozens attending Friday night's first Keep Hope Alive banquet held by the Clayton, Henry, Fayette and Spalding counties Rainbow/PUSH Coalition chapter. The chapter is observing the 50th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark civil rights decision forcing public schools to integrate. Banks' generation will likely never know what segregation meant to previous generations.

But Eldrin Bell, 68, lived integration in Atlanta. Bell witnessed the first eight black police officers appointed in Atlanta in 1948, which sounds like quite the achievement, given the times.

"They were appointed police officers but still segregated," said Bell, running for chairman of Clayton County Board of Commission. "They were not able to arrest white citizens until around 1965."

Bell knows the history because he lived it. In 1961, he joined the department himself.

"Still segregated," he said. "Still separate and unequal. But those things that occurred in my life has not made me bitter but better."

In 1990, Bell became chief of police of that department – the largest law enforcement agency in Georgia, proof that he "stuck it out" through all the changes.

"Not only was it sticking it out but it was an educational process," said Bell, "and participation in systemic change. Even though I was born in a period of segregation and separation, those things were not born in me."

Bell went on to Harvard University as a Ford Fellow and to 50 different professional training schools including the FBI and Secret Service academies.

David Johnson, 44, although a product of the 1960s, was raised in Philadelphia and didn't experience the segregationist South. Johnson works for U.S. Congressman David Scott as a constituent services representative in Jonesboro. Like Banks, Johnson advocates remembering and learning from the past.

"We've come a long way but have a long way to go," said Johnson. "Racism has always existed but primarily because of education, the exposure to different people, we're allowed to break down misconceptions that all black people are a certain way or all white people are a certain way. We are more able to relate to each other as people rather than stereotypes passed down from generation to generation."

Johnson said it is critically important to know the past and the obstacles overcome.

"There are barriers still lying in front of us and in knowing your past, you realize the obstacles that seemed insurmountable," he said. "But you overcame them."