Honoring MLK: Panel discusses Civil Rights
Student Life Editor
Civil rights activist and author Bob Zellner joined Lawton police chief James Smith and Miss Black Cameron University Marissa Williams, a senior elementary education major, during a panel discussion which focused on police brutality, civil rights, Donald Trump and education 2:30 p.m. Jan. 18 in the McMahon Centennial Complex
“I guess with dad being in the Klan and his dad being in the Klan and them being Christian fundamentalist, I come from a long line of fundamentalist terrorists,” Zellner said, “so I am uniquely qualified to comment on some of the events that are occurring today worldwide and here in our United States.”
One of the events happening today is police brutality primarily against black men. Chief Smith said when shootings do happen, they step back and let the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations take over. However, he doesn’t believe black men are a target.
“Really shooting or taking the life of any person is very traumatic,” he said. “If you look at the numbers, it may look like there is a disproportion of police shootings of black males but overall those numbers do not pan out that police are only shooting black males.”
Zellner said when police officers shoot citizens the case is handled by a local prosecutor. He said cases involving the police should have a prosecutor who isn’t local.
“Prosecutors should not ever have to prosecute their own police people,” he said. “They can’t do that. It’s the most direct conflict of interest there can be.
“That prosecutor depends on those policemen to make his cases every day, so we have a lot of cases where the prosecutor in front of the grand jury becomes a defense lawyer for the cop who may have been involved in an incident and shot somebody.”
Zellner said police officers protect each other much like criminals protect each other, even when the evidence is transparent.
“What I don’t understand and what a lot of other people don’t understand is that code of silence – that blue line,” he said. “Just like in the criminal world, you don’t rat out people. Those people need to be ratted out they really do; they don’t belong in the police force.
“We see it on video, the person walking away and then gets shot 17 times and the officer says they either didn’t see it or he was in danger of his life. No, that’s not true, so these are things we need to confront.”
Williams said she wasn’t aware of all the procedures officers had to follow, and following orders would keep the police from using excessive force.
“I don’t know that its necessarily a solution,” she said, “but I do believe that although it’s sad to say that on our behalf, we do need to be aware of the situation and try not to escalate the situation. If we do come into contact with a police officer just follow instructions and listen.”
Regarding the civil rights movement today, all panelists agreed income equality is an issue. James said the way to battle the economic divide is to enforce education so that people will be able to get higher paying jobs.
“Economic power stems from a lot of things,” James said. “Number one you have to get people in the work force, you have to get people who are educated to be able to get good jobs and you have to number one keep our young people out of the system.
“And that may seem kind of strange coming from a police chief talking about keeping people out of jail and out of prison, but one of the things that if you look in our justice system, there is a disproportional amount of minorities that’s in the system.”
Zellner told the story of his colleague Herbert Lee who was killed in Mississippi by his next door neighbor, a state legislator, after registering to vote.
“Now that didn’t frighten us,” he said. “We had our SNCC meeting there in Macomb, Miss. The following month we said, ‘You’re no longer going to scare us into giving up our rights,’ and we went back there.”
Lee was one of 6 of Zellner’s colleagues killed.
“I joined SNCC in 1961,” said Zellner. “The first 36 months of my work, 6 of my colleagues were lynched – they were murdered. They were killed because they were trying to get black people registered to vote in the most democratic country in the world.”
The panelists also shared a dislike for Donald Trump and believed he would only set back progress made as a result of the civil rights movement.
“Lynching stopped at least for a time in this country,” Zellner said, “but its starting back now in other guises. And if you listen to Trump and others, they’ll take you back to a period when they’ll have an all-white ballot box and women will be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.”
The panelists believed education is a key in progressing as a society. Williams believed education should not only be looked at on a state and federal level but also a local level.
“I honestly believe since education varies between states, some things should be left to the states,” Williams said. “Although some of the major issues that are national should be handled by the government at a national level, I think … education differs between towns and rural and urban areas, so some things should just be taken care of even locally.”
Zellner recalled his unique situation after receiving his bachelor’s degree in which his debt was paid off because of the work he had done for SNCC. He believes in a better option than high interest rates.
“There is still a Department of Education,” he said. “There is a federal role for education. Of course one would be to work on these tremendous student debts that people come out of school now owing … and the incredible amount of money in those interest [rates].
“I think those should be interest free loans and there should be a certain kind of national service you could do to alleviate that student debt.”
In regards to how the white southern Christian communities justified discrimination, Zellner recalled a letter Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from inside a Birmingham, Ala. jail.
“He wrote that letter to church leaders all over the south, especially in Alabama, that talked about brotherhood and love and never did anything about it. He said … if we cause trouble we can make some progress but the churches are holding us back. You people should be in these churches, [you] should be leading the struggle if you believe in Jesus. You believe Jesus goes out and gets in trouble. He dealt with everyone out in the street and he believed in causing trouble to make things better.”
Zellner said, though there has been progress, work needs to be done to combat racism, especially when it comes to white privilege.
“White people have a special privilege,” said Zellner. “If you’re in a dangerous situation at night in a city and feel threatened, you have no fear whatsoever of going to a policeman on the corner under the light and saying, ‘I need help.’ A young black person … may be in more danger going and involving the police than they were with whatever danger they were faced with.
“White people have no sense of that. White people say all the time there’s no such thing as white privilege, we have all kinds of white privilege and we have to confront it.”