By Dennis Edwards
New Journal and Guide
I met a rose the other day. Her name is Sharon and if Shakespeare is any authority her gentle spirit confirms his observation that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweat.” I bumped into her at McDonalds of all places. While having lunch and watching CNN, a story ran on the Black man in Dayton, Ohio who was stopped by an Ohio State Trooper for making sustained eye contact.
A mini discussion developed with several people at different tables. I mentioned how it reminded me of what used to happen during Jim Crow, that horrific period of American Apartheid when the law was used to prevent Blacks and whites from drinking from the same water fountains, public food counters and slavery based standards that, among other things, prevented Black men from looking white men in the eye.
Sharon, a sweet soul with a kind innocence leaned out of her booth to ask “Who is Jim Crow”? I was floored. There couldn’t be a human being my age in Southeastern Virginia who didn’t know what Jim Crow was. But she honestly didn’t.
The truth is there was something about this kind of innocence that just didn’t set well with me. At several levels this depth of not knowing is a little off putting, an insult to those who were murdered, abused and whose lives were destroyed during this disgraceful time in history. So, not wanting to be rude, I suggested she look it up on the Internet.
Sharon would have none of that. She forced me to talk about it. I stuck to my guns, so to speak, until she told me about her Amish Mennonite heritage. Suddenly I understood she comes from a different world laced up with hundreds of years of religious separatism.
Back in 2006 I peeked into her world from a strange vantage point. My crew was among a small army of news teams assigned to Bart Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We literally invaded the Township to cover the tragic mass shooting of 12 little Amish girls in a quaint one room house called the West Nickel Mines School. Five girls 6 to 13 years of age were violently swept into eternity that day by a deranged spirit whose name was Charles Carl Roberts IV.
It was a bloody massacre. Roberts used three weapons to take their innocent lives and then his own. Seems he was angry with God about the death of an infant daughter and his self proclaimed urges to molest little girls.
When the smoke cleared the West Nickel Mines Old Order Amish community quietly did what no one expected. They forgave Roberts, financially assisted his family, tore down the school, built another one in a different spot, called it The New Hope School and moved on.
At the time It was among the nation’s most amazing demonstrations of grace. Their mass tragedy was followed almost nine years later by those who chose to forgive another sinister soul. This time nine members of Charleston, S.C.’s Emmanuel AME church were murdered by Dylan Roof, again for all the wrong reasons.
As for the state police officer who admitted “sustained eye contact,” what was his reason for following this young man for two miles before stopping him? Sharon suggested I keep it in perspective. But the perspective of history is defined by experience and that old saying “He who is ignorant of his history is doomed to repeat it.”
Jim Crow thinking is something no American can ignore or tolerate. It takes a particularly dangerous mind set to apply those confused standards today.
Yet people who think that way too often patrol our streets daily. Sharon just couldn’t understand how there are times forgiveness, though necessary, must include corrective justice.
Dayton City officials apologized and sent the officer back for retraining. His police commander called the incident a miscommunication. But cultural norms are seldom miscommunicated.
In light of Jim Crow’s too recent history, his statement has the feel of a lingering presence in American culture. A cultural norm abolished by the law he’s sworn to enforce. His behavior can’t be glossed over as a “miscommunication,” to incubate among those positioned to kill to frequently and too often for all the wrong reasons.
As for the Rose and me, well we agree on the need for and the power of forgiveness. But only as long as it doesn’t happen again.
Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award winning Television Investigative Journalist. He is a graduate of Suffolk High School, Virginia Union University and it’s Samuel Proctor School of Theology. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.