Click here for COVID-19 updates affecting the campus community

GUEST COLUMN: History student believes BLM message is lost amongst the noise


Woman holds African flags at Rosa Park's Circle in Grand Rapids before silent march

Guest Column by Courtney Johnson  

As a person who grew up right outside of Grand Rapids, the city was always one of my favorite places to be. I miss it all of the time while I am at school and will travel down any chance that I get. 

One thing that has always drawn me to Grand Rapids is that it has always been an accepting city. It feels safe. It is a place that gives opportunities to thousands of people to start over by opening a business or getting a great education from all of the campus’s around the great city. There is fantastic architecture and an amazing history that grew from the humble beginnings of a furniture factory. 

As a history student, I have always been proud of where I came from because of how far it has come and how it continues to grow. But, with the reemergence of racism on a large scale, I am not so sure that I want to go back home, especially with the violence that has begun to consume such a great city. 

After the events that happened in Minneapolis, the killing of George Floyd and others by police officers, I understand the need for protest. Enough is enough. Black lives matter and anyone who says otherwise is belittling the struggle that African Americans have been facing since the creation of this once great nation. 

But the violence has to stop. 

As a historian I am able to empathize with what they have been going through and it frustrates me to no end that others are not able to understand why, we as a people, should support those who have been at a disadvantage just because they were born a different color. It shouldn’t even be an issue, and yet it is. 

It is 2020 and many Americans still do not understand that everyone is human and we all deserve the decency to be treated the same, no matter what we look like or where we come from. 

Since the beginning of this country, there has been nothing but an uphill battle for the African Americans. It is something that I have always known, but never truly understood until recently. 

When studying different events and eras I try and stay as unbiased as possible and understand the struggles that everyone on either side of the argument has gone through because history is more than just battles and numbers. History is about real people experiencing, more often than not, real injustices. The era that I primarily study is the mid-19th Century – the Antebellum era – and the experiences that civilians at the time had to go through and try to survive. That includes the stories of slaves and what they had to do in order to survive, both emotionally and physically, even if they were lucky enough to escape.

I never looked in-depth past the ending of the Civil War and the struggles that African Americans have gone through other than the surface that was taught in schools about the Civil Rights Movement. It was not until this past semester when I took a class that focused on the African American experience after Reconstruction. That class really put things into perspective for me. In that class I learned just how deep the wound that racism in America has cut into the very fabric of what America is supposed to stand for – equality and justice. Those are two things that have been kept from African Americans. 

The book that we used for the class is Major Problems in African-American History; Volume II: From Freedom to “Freedom Now,” 1865-1990s compiled and edited by Thomas C. Holt and Elsa Barkley Brown. It is a book that I recommend everyone read. It is a compilation of various different first-hand accounts and documents that bring the reality of the African American struggle to the forefront and makes their history even more real and their continued fight into perspective. 

The systematic injustices that have consistently occurred throughout America’s history are unfathomable. There is almost too much to get into for this but one thing is consistent, African Americans, and other people who are not “purely white,” have been taken advantage of and left to defend themselves against the giant that is the American “justice” system. Just because you didn’t experience it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It is important that everyone tries to learn from one another instead of demeaning others experiences.  

The violence that has spread throughout this nation is happening and only getting worse. While it is justified to an extent, it needs to be more controlled. Everything has devolved into violence and confusion. Change is needed in this nation, but there are better ways to do that than to burn down buildings and threaten others with the same violence that is supposed to be protested. 

One thing that is consistent throughout history is that once violence it met with more violence, no one really gets justice. I urge people to keep protesting because change is needed. Enough is enough. 

I also urge people who are protesting to remember what you are protesting against – violence and injustice. There is no reason to have protests devolve into the same level of violence. 

Martin Luther King Jr. urged was the use of nonviolence because that spoke volumes. While they were being peaceful, they were met with violence and it only brought more attention to the issues that the people of the Civil Rights Movement were addressing. 

If violent protest clashes with violent authority the message is lost and more lives are taken for a cause that will only ever stay stagnant because the only focus will be on the violence, not the message; Black Lives Matter. 

Courtney Johnson, of Dorr, Michigan, is a senior double majoring in History and Social Studies - Political Science concentration. She is finishing her bachelor's degree in education and starting her second semester as a graduate student studying history