NEAR THE END of her keynote speech at a recent Lawyers for Civil Rights event, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins praised the organization for representing the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy, whose students and teachers of color were subjected to alleged racist profiling and invective at the Museum of Fine Arts during a class trip.
“I will happily join you in this fight — not as an ally — and this is my favorite thing to say. Allies send a text or whisper to you when no one is around, ‘Keep it up. I believe in what you’re doing,’” Rollins said, dropping her voice to a barely audible level. “I am an accomplice, and hopefully, one day, a co-conspirator.”
Given the reception Rollins received from the audience, they understood exactly what she meant. With rights and justice on the line, it’s not enough to be an ally. We need accomplices.
Of course, that word is weighted with criminal connotations. As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s “a partner in wrongdoing.” Yet in matters of social justice, the emphasis is on “partner.”
This is the point that Rollins, who wants to transform criminal justice by addressing racial disparities — and has ruffled more than a few feathers in this state’s white male political establishment — wanted to make. Allyship can be passive, even dissonant. It’s the person who backed athletes kneeling to protest racial injustice, but wished they wouldn’t do it during the national anthem. It’s those who endorse LGBTQ rights, but believe their issues would garner more favor if they weren’t so “in your face.”
An ally wants credit for being on the right side, but doesn’t want to get their hands too dirty.
Even before I heard Rollins speak, the difference between allies and accomplices was heavy on my mind. In recent weeks, I’ve been enthralled by “White Lies,” a National Public Radio podcast about a racist murder and the uneasy ghosts of civil rights-era Selma, Alabama.
Days after peaceful civil rights marchers in Selma were attacked by cops on what would become known as “Bloody Sunday,” James Reeb, a white minister already active in the civil rights movement, left Boston for Alabama to fight for African-American voting rights.
On the day he arrived, and shortly after participating in a march led by Martin Luther King, Jr., Reeb and two other white ministers were beaten with clubs, punched, and kicked by a group of white men. Reeb was critically injured, but the whites-only hospital refused to take him. A black medical clinic did not have a neurosurgeon, so an African-American ambulance driver took him to Birmingham, two hours away.
Reeb died two days later. He was 38, a husband and a father of four. He was also an accomplice.
This is not to say that being an accomplice equals martyrdom, although from Viola Liuzzo near Selma in 1965 to Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017 — that has, at times, been the exacting price. But it’s well beyond simply clipping a “Black Lives Matter” button on a backpack.
Hate that oppresses and endangers is the result of entrenched white supremacy designed to elevate some and subjugate others, by any means necessary. An ally thinks the system is merely broken; an accomplice learns to recognize not a broken system, but one operating exactly as it was intended — and works to dismantle its scaffolding, piece by piece.
Without using the words ally or accomplice, Frederick Douglass seemed to address this difference in a speech in 1857.
“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters,” he said. “This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
From the trenches, accomplices make demands. They are not on the sidelines offering tacit support. This is not hashtag activism from behind the safety of a cellphone or computer screen. It’s doing the hard work over long days, and listening and learning from those who know. It’s using white privilege to destroy that very structure, and to agitate for the betterment of all instead of one select group.
Some may argue that such parsing doesn’t matter so long as a person’s values align with your own. Yes, allies are better than enemies. Yet this isn’t a time for spectators, or those clinging to archaic ideas about doing things the same old ways that haven’t worked, and never will.
Accomplices stand shoulder to shoulder with the marginalized and dispossessed. They make what Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon who was beaten on Bloody Sunday, refers to as “good trouble.” And this is a moment in our nation that cries out for more than the whispers — or civility — of allies.