In the Shade of Poplar Trees

In the Shade of Poplar Trees

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swaying in the Southern breeze . . . strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” – Abel Meeropol

During the nation’s current double crisis of COVID-19 and civil unrest in the wake of the George Floyd murder at the hands of police, I was buoyed by efforts of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement who has called for San Bernardino County supervisors to consider declaring racism, a public health crisis. According to Supervisor Janice Rutherford, the board will consider the issue this week.

Certainly, it is just a first step; but it is a step, and one certainly long overdue for San Bernardino County with its long history of police brutality and mistreatment of Black and Brown people both within, and outside of the county’s jail system.

The community should not only watch to see what changes are considered for the region’s two Sheriffs’ Departments and local police agencies in response to the compelling need for change—members of the community should also demand a seat at the table while those decisions are being made.

In the meantime, though this proposal was encouraging, it was hard to watch what occurred in the U.S. Senate on Thursday as two of the nation’s three Black Senators, including Senator Kamala Harris, (D-California) and Senator Cory Booker, (D-New Jersey) made impassioned pleas to their fellow senators to move forward with what could be the nation’s first anti-lynching law.

In past years, efforts to pass such legislation have repeatedly failed. There was much hope this one would make it across the finish line.

Lynching claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 individuals between 1891 and 1968—most of them Black, in some instances Black men had their gentiles hacked off for the amusement of gathering crowds; mothers and sons were hung together; in other instances pregnant Black women had their babies murdered and carved from their wombs as they hung. And yet, the nation still has not made it a federal crime.

Sadly, what has the potential to be an historic victory for the nation’s Black community during a time when Blacks and their supporters need symbols of hope and promise, almost more than any other time in the nation’s history, one racist Senator, Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) sullied and sought to weaken the legislation with an amendment that borders on ridiculous when considered in the historic context of the lynching legislation.

The bill would designate lynching as a federal hate crime and make it punishable by up to life in prison. The bill, sponsored by the nation’s three Black senators, had passed the senate last year by unanimous vote and also overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives with one change—the House sought to name the bill in honor of 14-year-old Emmett Till who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

Till was taken from his uncle’s home at night, tortured and lynched for allegedly making a pass at a White woman in her family’s grocery store. Years later, the woman recanted her story. Till’s murder laid the foundation for the Civil Rights movement borne in its wake.

In a ridiculous amendment aimed at diluting the legislation, Paul claimed it was too broad and could define minor assaults as lynching.

He further argued the legislation was unnecessary. He stressed further murdering someone because of their race is already a hate crime—the nation has borne witness again and again to how well that is working.

In the meantime, Harris and Booker in frustration were forced to block the legislation.

Harris spoke for many of us when she stated, “Black lives have not been taken seriously as being fully human and deserving of dignity, and it should not require a maiming or torture in order for us to recognize a lynching when we see it.”

While Booker lamented, “We owe this to our ancestors.”

Today’s poplar trees have morphed into concrete streets and personal bedrooms and jogging trails and teenagers buying skittles at neighborhood stores and children playing alone in parks—and the “strange fruit” continues to be Black bodies.

The lyrics to the song Strange Fruit written by Abel Meeropol who was a teacher and sung into history by the legendary Billie Holiday, tells the powerful and chilling truth about peoples’ capacity for hatred and violence. This is the history of America. However, judging from the demonstrations by citizens of all colors in recent weeks, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, most Americans are seeking to leave America’s racism and brutality in the past in hopes of building a better tomorrow.

There is something disturbingly sinister and intentional about how the Rand Pauls’ of the world willingly disregard Black lives and their trauma at a whim, merely to elevate their political status among those who share their ideology.

However, this issue runs far deeper than the fortunes of a few self-aggrandizing politicians who continue to live lives rooted in a mindset of White supremacy. It is this very mindset that must die, for this nation to live.

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

About The Author

S.E. Williams

Stephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.

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