The indispensable historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote this week in her “Letters From an American” about the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909. “The spark for the organization,” she wrote, “was a race riot in Springfield, Illinois,” Lincoln’s hometown, in August 1908. “The violence broke out after the sheriff transferred two Black prisoners, one accused of murder and another of rape, to a different town out of concern for their safety.”
A white mob looted and burned Springfield’s Black neighborhood and lynched two Black men. Journalist William E. Walling, a founder of the NAACP, visited Springfield soon after and reported that white citizens were outraged that Blacks had come to think “they were as good as we are!”
Walling and his allies, who included journalist Ida B. Wells and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, wrote articles exposing the discrimination, segregation, and atrocities visited on Blacks in cities and towns across the country. They published a history of lynching, calling it “the Shame of America,” and issued a call to action for “all the believers in democracy,” saying “Silence under these conditions means tacit approval.”
Another 100 years have passed, and the distance still to be traveled to find equality and freedom from brutality is all too clear. The deaths of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tyre Nichols, and so many others have given the words “Black Lives Matter” a depth of meaning that touches the soul and sears the conscience of every decent American.
That’s why it was shocking to hear from two different students at Nauset Regional High School this week that Black History Month included a sign with the message “All Lives Matter,” described by one Black student as “a kick in the face.”
What, you may be asking, is so wrong with saying “all lives matter”?
“It is true that all lives matter,” wrote Judith Butler in the New York Times, “but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter, which is precisely why it is most important to name the lives that have not mattered. … If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation ‘all lives matter,’ then we miss the fact that Black people have not yet been included in the idea of ‘all lives.’ … Achieving that universal ‘all lives matter’ is a struggle, and that is part of what we are seeing on the streets.”
Some have argued that “Black Lives Matter” suggests Black supremacy. As Jeffrey Kluger wrote in Time, “Pretending that the choice is binary — and then acting as if it’s the other side that framed it that way — is a handy dodge but a dishonest one. If I say ‘Save the whales,’ it does not mean ‘Screw the eagles.’ ”
Maybe Nauset’s “All Lives Matter” sign is an innocent, if ignorant, mistake. It would still matter for school leaders to reject silence and the tacit approval of racism and turn it into a teachable moment.