This has been the most reflective Black History Month I’ve ever experienced, which makes me think of a very personal story from my dad’s childhood and its relationship to racial (in)equity.
It occurred on May 3, 1964; he was 11 years old, a 6th grader. The town in which he grew up had three swimming pools, one at the country club, one at a “public park” and one at the nicest hotel in town. Black people unfortunately weren’t allowed at any of them. So, as Black folks have always done, they found a way. They’d swim in creeks or lakes or sometimes even the Mississippi River.
May 3, 1964 was a Sunday. “Can’t Buy Me Love” by the Beatles was the #1 song on the radio, the average income for a White American household was $6,000, gas cost 30 cents per gallon, and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton married for the first time less than two months prior. But on this day in a small town in Northeast Arkansas, six Black boys just wanted to swim.
None of them were actual swimmers because of lack of access to adequate swimming facilities; but it was warm, and they were bored. They ventured to a water pit a few miles from the edge of town to cool off. Two of the boys decided not to leave the bank. The other four got in. Shortly after entering the water, one boy went too far into the middle of the pit and began to panic. The other three tried to help, but their attempts were in vain. Lawrence Pete Jr., 12 years old; Michael Tate, 12; Scotty Robinson; 12 and Charles Robinson, 13 all drowned that warm Sunday morning in May. The only way anyone knew about what occurred was because the two boys who decided not to enter the water rushed back to town to get help.
My dad was good friends with this crew, and the only reason he wasn’t with them was because it was a Sunday morning and, in his household, attending church was the only option. If they’d decided to swim the day before, his life very well may have ended as well.
My dad and Scotty Robinson were very close friends. Scotty sat directly in front of him in class. Dad says that Monday, May 4 was a very somber day. There was an empty seat in front of him, but it seemed that the world just went on like nothing happened — no moment of silence, no counseling, barely any acknowledgment at all. He even says that it was difficult for him to eat or sleep for about two weeks following their deaths. It’s interesting that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law on July 2, 1964, almost exactly two months after the boys drowned; but it wasn’t until two years later, in 1966, that the town finally decided to build a swimming pool for Black citizens to patronize. My dad became a lifeguard, and this tragic experience is one of the reasons he decided to make sure that I knew how to swim.
Every time we visit his hometown my dad stops by that pit to honor his friends, friends taken too soon by institutional racism. I equate their deaths to the four little girls who were murdered during the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963. Obviously, the bombing was much more methodical and intentionally evil, but the same system murdered all eight of these Black children. My dad sometimes talks about how deeply the tragedy affected him. He also talks about what Lawrence, Michael, Charles and Scotty could have been if they had been given what they needed to live full and healthy lives.
The legacy of exclusion created during Jim Crow continues to permeate through the fabric of communities of color today. According to a national study conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis in 2017:
- 64% of Black children cannot swim
- 45% of Hispanic children cannot swim
- While only 40% of White children cannot swim.
The study found that cultural and historical factors such as institutional racism, myths and stereotypes, and inherited fear of drowning all explain why kids of color are at a higher risk of drowning.
Racial equity isn’t an act of kindness done on behalf of people of color. It is instead a mindset and method for solving problems, problems that most acutely burden and oppress people of color. These problems ultimately harm people of all identities. Although there have been numerous strides since that Sunday in May of 1964, there is still so much work to do to create a truly equitable society. Many children of color are still not allowed to realize their full potential, and the color of their skin serves as an indicator of how well they will fare in life.
So, as we close Black History Month 2020, we must continue to recognize and publicly acknowledge that legacies of white supremacist policies and practices have led to many of the issues facing communities of color, and they must be addressed through strategic and intentional efforts to create equitable paths forward for children and families of color.