I’m from Greensboro, North Carolina, originally. This past February 1 marked the 60th anniversary of when four young NC A&T students – David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), and Joseph McNeil – sat down at the lunch counter of the Woolworth’s on Elm Street to challenge segregation. They endured all manner of abuse during their time of protest.
For the first few decades of my life, I knew them as The Greensboro Four.
And then, sometime around 2008, I heard McCain, Khazan, and McNeil speak. One noted that the moniker – The Greensboro Four – had only come to be years after their courageous actions, only after the broader opinion of the city had come to the side of integration, of justice, of equality. Until that point, they were The A&T Four, products of and leaders in the activist part of the Black community, and it was as The A&T Four that they continued to see themselves.
The way our current perspective shapes our understanding of the past feels particularly prominent to me right now as protests have taken on a fresh energy around the country, as the body of the iconic model of stubborn persistence and “good trouble,” John Lewis, makes its way up and down the East Coast so that his legacy might be honored.
In the decades since John Lewis submitted his 25-year-old body to a near-fatal beating on the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the sake of moving this country toward what it could be, what it promises to be, the complexity of that moment has washed away into what feels obvious to us now: His actions and the actions of all those courageous people marching alongside him were good, just, effective. The distance of history and the zeitgeist of the now give us that certainty.
The distance of history and the zeitgeist of the now led Greensboro to enshrine The Four who were derided and abused at the time.
Like most Americans, I’m far from the most active points of protest happening right now and so, like most, I have only the information journalists and those on social media choose to share, in the way they choose to share it. And no matter the sincere people’s attempts to be impartial reporters of what is, as humans, we have no way to opt out of our own perspective, biases and framing.
And so we might do well to remember that history is hard to spot in the midst of its making; that what now seems simple and straightforward was likely impossibly complex in the moment; and that there is no perfection, not in victims, not in perpetrators, not in solutions.
Yet again, I’m asking you to allow for your own discomfort. We gravitate toward the clarity of imagined simplicity, willfully choosing that comfort over the itchy reality of nuance, changeability, and uncertainty.
We can make a different choice. We have within us – each and every one of us – the emotional complexity and courage to do just that.
If your inner activist is stuck at the gate of discomfort, reach out. I’m opening 10 hours in my schedule for gifts of coaching to those who are ready to stand tall in the complexity of this moment and need some support to find their way.