Johnson City community advocates compare Civil Rights Movement of the 60s to now

Regional News

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – We are entering day eight of protests in Johnson City, following the death of George Floyd.

Pheben Kassahun speaks to Johnson City community advocates from the Civil Rights Movement as well as the Black Lives Matter Movement about what has changed since the 1960s, and what they hope happens next.

Retired Johnson City Pastor Bobby G. Black recalls attending marches in Washington, D.C. he said the visual now is different than it was in 1963.

“Here, we were very much more passive because we were less than three percent of the total population. We really didn’t feel as if we didn’t have any power or literals but we were able to see things happen on television – 1963, the watch riots, those types of things. We knew that this was a period of change and possibly of some hope for us,” retired pastor Bobby Black told Pheben Kassahun.

Pastor Black said he was a participant and observer during the riots that ensued following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

He also marched in the Million Man March that was also held in Washington, D.C. in 1995.

“Back in the 60s, it was a Black thing with some Jewish and some white religions that were there but primarily, they could target us and they could paint us as being a Black uprising,” Pastor Black said.

Sixty years later, he said not only are the crowds more diverse, but protesters are risking their lives demanding justice during a pandemic, which he said speaks volumes.

“There is something about this society, the words on the statue of liberty, the words on the constitution, the bill of rights,” Pastor Black said. “Our young people, they believe that. They expect that, and guess what, there’s a generation of white young people who believe it and they expect it. They are seeing themselves in a way that we have never seen them because they are coming together.”

He said the younger generation is charting its own path for equality, and many are creating movements of their own like “Black Lives Matter”.

“You have a lot more white people that are willing to speak up in the South on behalf of African-Americans for progression against police brutality, racial discrimination. I feel like in the Civil Rights Movement it was a much slower walk to see a lot of white Americans to move over to the defense,” Johnson City community advocate, Seth Sillmon said. “It’s been really good to see the outreach and the outpouring in two areas especially: the South and worldwide. There are a lot of people speaking on behalf of African-Americans and major cities globally, but also in the South, it would have been different 40, 50 years ago.”

Social media is also a factor in creating a stronger message, Sillmon said.

“Now with Black Lives Matter, we have social media, we have people recording on their phones to where we have proof to where we can see in front of you, the racial discrimination police brutality against African-Americans, and in the statistics, you can see that African-American men are usually victims of police brutality,” Sillmon said. “From what I’ve seen in the media, it’s a lot of young people who are energized. I think one of the things that has kind of happened in the past few decades is a lot of white people, a lot of middle class or suburban America as identified with and appreciated Black culture.”

Moving forward, Sillman said the best thing to do is to listen.

“I wouldn’t be on the rebuttal against someone talking about sexism. I would just want to listen, absorb what I’m being told and see where I can go from there. See what change I can make within my own life from there,” Sillmon said. “So many people want to be on the defense but if you actually just listen and hear what the other side is trying to say, you might actually be able to form your own opinion and empathize with minorities on this issue.”

Sillmon said change is also done at the polls and for those who would like to see change should register to vote.

“We so often hear how the real change happens at the polls. A lot of young Americans are tired of the status quo. We want to see change, we want to see progress. So many people have been oppressed for so many years. Minorities and women get gas-lighted into believing that everything is okay and that we’re overreacting but it’s not. We see the proof right in front of us. A lot of young Americans want change and they’re willing to fight and risk their lives for it.”

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