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OPINION

If patience is a virtue, Black people must be saints

In America, Black people are always expected to wait — for recognition, for opportunity, and for justice.

Opal Lee, 94, reacts to one of the many signs held by those participating in her annual Juneteenth walk on June 19 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Opal Lee, 94, reacts to one of the many signs held by those participating in her annual Juneteenth walk on June 19 in Fort Worth, Texas.Amanda McCoy/Associated Press

Dr. Marion Gerald Hood received a formal apology from the Emory University School of Medicine last week. In 1959, his medical school application was rejected because, as a school official wrote to him, “we are not authorized to consider for admission a member of the Negro race.”

More than 75 years after D-Day, Osceola “Ozzie” Fletcher, a World War II army veteran, received a Purple Heart last Friday for wounds suffered when his vehicle was hit by a German missile. Like other Black soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy, Fletcher bled for his country but was denied the medal he deserved because he is Black.

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How appropriate — and sadly telling — that the racial injustices rendered against these men were finally addressed the same week that the nation marked its first federally recognized Juneteenth, a holiday more than 150 years in the making.

If patience is a virtue, Black people must be saints.

At President Biden’s signing ceremony for Juneteenth National Independence Day, he marveled at the unfailing will of Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” This included Lee’s decision to walk, at age 89, to Washington, D.C., from Fort Worth, where she lives, to make her case for a holiday to then-President Obama. For decades she worked to see June 19, 1865, celebrated nationally to commemorate what is considered the end of nearly 250 years of slavery in America.

“We’ve got all of these disparities that we’ve got to address, and I mean all of them,” Lee, now 94, said during an interview. “While we’ve got some momentum I hope we can get some of it done. We can have one America if we try.”

Tulsa Race Massacre survivors Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis (center) listen to President Biden speak on June 1, the 100th anniversary of the masscare, at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Ok.
Tulsa Race Massacre survivors Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis (center) listen to President Biden speak on June 1, the 100th anniversary of the masscare, at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Ok.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

When people like Lee, Hood, and Fletcher finally receive attention, the media usually present it as a feel-good story. In reality, it’s another example of Black perseverance arching its back against America’s racial recalcitrance. At 99, Fletcher finally had his Purple Heart pinned to his uniform. Hood, who specializes in gynecology and obstetrics, is 83.

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Believed to be the last known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Viola Ford Fletcher, 107; her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, 100; and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, waited a century before they could tell members of Congress and the nation what happened to them, their families, and their community. An organized mob of white supremacists burned and bombed the city’s thriving Greenwood district, known as “Black Wall Street,” to the ground. At least 300 Black people were murdered, many of their bodies buried in mass graves still being uncovered.

“People in positions of power, many just like you, have told us to wait. Others have told us it’s too late,” Randle told a House Judiciary subcommittee last month. “It seems that justice in America is always so slow, or not possible for Black people. And we are made to feel crazy just for asking for things to be made right.”

In the face of its inflicted horrors, America embraces silence and ignores our pain. For all the current attention on Republican efforts to suppress the teaching of critical race theory, this nation has long excluded American history that centers the Black experience from classrooms and textbooks.

After the worldwide protests last summer following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, lawmakers finally acknowledged the white terrorism in Tulsa and gave Juneteenth the historical distinction it deserves. These are incremental moves. Our voting rights remain under threat from Republicans on federal and state levels, and excessive police violence continues to endanger our lives. We still wait for laws to secure our safety and constitutional rights.

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In his seminal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ”

That was in 1963, and every word still peals with truth. Always in America, Black people hunger for recognition, for opportunity, and for justice. What we get is that four-letter word — wait. Worn as thin as this fragile democracy, our patience deserves to be rewarded with repair and recompense instead of decades of wanting.

Only then we will see a time when wrongs are righted, hard stories are heard at last, and that day when Black people will wait for this nation’s elusive equality no more.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.