In 1957, 15-year-old Dorothy Counts became the first black student to attend Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Escorted by Dr. Edwin Thompkins, a family friend, she endured jeers by boys who spat, threw trash and yelled epithets at her. A courageous Dorothy nonetheless stood tall and moved on through the mob. After a week, school administrators and the police claimed they could not guarantee her safety, so Dorothy was forced to leave the school.
Charlotte Observer photographer Don Sturkey captured the sad episode on film for all the world to see. Sturkey pulled back the curtain to reveal the deep dark secret of America, the lie. We are all created equal with certain unalienable rights, which among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It would seem the word equal comes with an asterisk, a rather big, glaring asterisk: some more equal than others.
There are Americans who find comfort clinging to the belief that times have changed, and the lie has long since been addressed and reconciled. The families of Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor would most surely beg to disagree. Thirty years ago, living in Philadelphia, I had a conversation with a black friend. He recalled the fear he had of the Philadelphia police. When officers came into his neighborhood, his mother would gather the children inside until they departed. The police, not criminals, represented the greatest threat to his family. I was comprehensively incapable of logically processing what he said then. But I understand it now.
The lie persists, manifesting itself on multiple levels of society. It is incestuous and pervasive. It comforts some and encourages others. Many are blind to the lie because they have made a conscious effort not to see it. Others overtly perpetuate the lie to mask their racism.
In 2006, Dorothy Counts received an email from a man named Woody Cooper. He had admitted to being one of the boys in the Sturkey photo and wanted to apologize. Dorothy and Woody agreed to meet for lunch. As the two conversed, Woody asked Dorothy to forgive him for his behavior in 1957. Dorothy smiled and advised, “I forgave you a long time ago.”
Until we as Americans collectively acknowledge the dark underbelly of our society and honestly deal with it, we shall remain mired in the quicksand of turmoil. And the question we should all ask is, who will forgive us?
Rick Tapp is a Partner with Tapp Consulting in Longmont.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.