Gail Noble at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
I was invited to a showing of “13th” - From Slave to Criminal with One Amendment – a documentary highlighting the United States’ move from plantation based slavery to a slavery behind bars through the mass incarceration of black males.
While watching the movie I started to feel like I wanted to leave because it brought back so many memories from my own experiences and those involving my children.
I was born in South Philly, and left to Englewood, New Jersey when I was about 9 years old in 1962. I was in the fourth grade in a mostly Black school. The school district decided they were going to integrate. It was all over the news. I can remember going to school one morning and news reporters were lined up on the left side of the steps, and a lot of people were on the sidewalk. I was driven to school that morning by a neighbor and walked inside. I understood that the people outside were protesting about us being transferred to their white schools; They did not want us there. And frankly, we didn't want to go. Thank God we moved to California the following month.
At a young age I knew some white people didn't like Black people. My parents were strong though, and knew they were as good as anybody else no matter their skin color. My father was a welder by profession and made a decent living, his very presence demanded respect – that is just how he carried himself, and my mother as well.
While watching “The 13th”, there was a picture in the movie that had a couple of my people hanging from tree branches with a big crowd of people, including children, watching the hanging. About two years ago, I went back to New Jersey to visit my family and was invited to go to a play titled “Strange Fruit.” I had no idea the title and play was about my people hanging from a tree – we were the strange fruit. The hanging made me reflect on research I did about 10 years ago on what happened to my people. In some of the pictures of hangings there were families who had brought food and blankets and were sitting on the ground eating and looking up at the hanging. One article went on to say that “picnic” came from Pick a Ni**** to hang. I have never used that term again.
A racist and prejudiced history in Memphis
About a year ago, as part of my work with Debug/ACJP – helping families whose loved ones are incarcerated or facing charges navigate the criminal justice system and bring them home – we were invited to do a presentation about Participatory Defense in Memphis, Tennessee. I've heard stories from relatives that said you can't look white people in their eyes, you have to keep your head down in Memphis. I knew that this was one place I didn't want to visit when they told me that. How could people live like that?
The night we flew in I remembered that this is the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated. The pain of the day Martin Luther King was assassinated came rushing back to me. We just had to go to the Lorraine Hotel before we left Memphis. I wanted to experience, feel and see the place where he took his last breath. When we visited, it was closed to the public but we could see the famous balcony where Jesse Jackson and others were pointing to something across the way the day MLK was murdered. I was seeing that place with my own eyes. It was very emotional to see the place where he fell to his death after that fatal shot. The car he rode in was still parked in its parking space. Across the street, the window where the shooter was, is draped in black and the Lorraine Hotel has been closed for over 20 years. No one will ever rent a room there again; it is now a monument of that fatal day frozen in time.
Participants in the ACJP training walking to the Courthouse in Memphis, Tennessee
The ACJP presentation that day was at the courthouse, directly across the street from a public park, one of our hosts pointed out a statue of a man on a horse in the park. He told us the man on the horse was the founder of the KKK, and his body was dug up and buried under the statue. It caused a lot of ill feelings in the community and they were working on trying to get it out of the park.
The 13th film showed Emmett Till’s body with the letters KKK carved into his stomach area. He was just 14 years old when he was tortured and lynched by white men in Mississippi after allegedly making lewd remarks to a white woman, who recently declared she lied about those accusations. His mother wanted the world to see what white people had done to her son, so she had an open casket. They beat her son so bad you could feel the hate they had for him because he was Black. This was a sin against God what they did to her son. I remember it; I was young but I remember.
Later, after the presentation we went out to eat on Beale St., an area where Black people went to party but now I saw more white folks and tourists than Black folks. BB King’s Blues Club was located on the corner. We were told by our host that a man was hung and decapitated, and someone took his head and threw it down Beale Street, probably as a warning to Blacks.
Our trip to Memphis was historical, I learned and felt a lot. It was strange to see whites and blacks in the same places at the same time eating together, working together, after knowing the racist and prejudiced history of the state. Three white people and two people of color eating at a diner would have been death if we lived back in that day in time. We have come along way, but still TODAY people of color fear for their life.
Our host shared with us that a historian had come to Memphis interested in putting a plaque where ever a Black person was hung. I thought that was incredible, he wants people to see how many Black people were hung, and to give them recognition. She also found a newspaper article that was written years ago that said over 100 children were taken out of school so they could attend one particular hanging. Who would take their children out of school for a hanging, and expose them to something so cruel?
How do you explain what ni**** means to a six year old?
When the movie ended there was an opportunity to ask questions, and I got up to the mic and shared my experiences related to the hatred of my people that I felt in the movie. The movie also brought up a memory of my daughter who was six years old and in kindergarten in 1980 at an all white school. We were having dinner and I asked her to tell me about her day, she said "I was running to my class and fell over the water hose and these big boys started to laugh at me and one said look at that ni••••." She could see that I got really upset and she added, “but mommy they didn't know my name."
That broke my heart. She sounded so sincere and sweet when she was telling me, she made up an excuse for them and didn’t even know what that word meant. I drove her to school the next day so I could speak to the principle about what was said to her. How do you explain what ni**** means to a six year old?
In 1988 my son was six years old and in kindergarten and also attending an all white school in Portola Valley California; we were living in an all white neighborhood. The first couple of weeks everything was going great. One day I was at the bus stop waiting for his school bus to arrive, when my son got off the bus I noticed he was sad. I asked him what was wrong and he told me he had no friends and no one would play with him. How do you tell a six year old that they won't play with you because you’re Black. I was so hurt to know my little boy was being treated like this because of the color of his skin.
I came to the conclusion that this is the teaching of white parents - adults teaching prejudice and racism. I called all the parents of the children in his class that night and told them how their children were treating my son at school because he was black; I did not teach my son to dislike someone because of the color of their skin. And of course their reply was, oh no we don't teach that either. Well, the next day when my son got off the school he bus he was happy, he had friends.
We have to come together
After I shared my memories, I looked around the room full of different ethnic groups and said we need to have a conversation about race and prejudice when we sit down at the table for dinner and at happy hour with our relatives and friends; a conversation about realizing we are all the same whether we are Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, no one should have to live in fear for their life because of the color of their skin.
These prejudices happen in the workplace, in schools, in the criminal justice system, on the streets. We have to change, all hell is getting ready to break loose in America, we have to come together; we are all first human beings.
Why are we hated so much?
Gail Noble is an organizer with the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project – the creators of “participatory defense” – a community model for the people facing charges, their families, and communities to impact the outcome of cases and transform the landscape of power in the court system.