The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Irv Williams is a native of Baltimore, with family roots in the Northern Neck of Virginia. He became a Maine transplant in 1973 and currently resides on Peaks Island.
William Page was just 25 years old when he was lynched on Aug. 15, 1917, in Lilian, Virginia.
That night, my mother would have been a toddler sleeping in her crib at her home, just a mile away from the schoolyard where he was hanged. Newspaper reports state that a mob of about 500 men assembled there to commit the murder. Page would be the last Black man to be lynched in my mother’s home county of Northumberland, but the murders would continue on for another seven years, claiming the lives of nine additional Black men across Virginia.
Four months after Page was lynched, my father was born at home in a farmhouse just about five miles from the site of the murder. In all, researchers at James Madison University have documented 121 lynchings in the state in their project Racial Terror: Lynchings in Virginia.
On April 4, 1968, the day that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, I was in Richmond, attending a planning meeting for mobilizing white teens from suburban churches to serve in inner city projects in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. That Sunday, I drove home, arriving at the Baltimore city line, to find National Guard troops and tanks blocking access to the city. Today I know the only reason I was allowed to pass by those armed soldiers was because my face was white, not Black. For a week afterward, my city was under martial law and we watched as block after block was burned to the ground. Six people died. It took 5,000 troops to quell the violence.
Now, 55 years later, also in Memphis, another Black man, Tyre Nichols has been murdered. It wasn’t a rope like they used on Page or a bullet like the one that felled King, but the stun guns, pepper spray, fists and boots of police in an act that equals the terror of the August night when 500 men watched Page die by strangulation. Millions around the globe have now watched the murder of Nichols on video screens and are witness to this continued violence.
These murders continue month after month and year after year. Rodney King, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner and George Floyd. The difference between Page’s murder in 1915 and now is that we have institutionalized this killing and placed it in the hands of police officers, men and women who have been assigned the task of keeping the peace in our communities. Page was 25 when he was hung by 500 men. Nichols was 29 when he was beaten by five police officers.
In his 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait,” King writes: “Armies of officials are clothed in uniform, invested with authority, armed with the instruments of violence and death and conditioned to believe that they can intimidate, maim or kill Negroes with the same recklessness that once motivated the slaveowner.”
My family has witnessed, but by fortune of race, place and privilege, has not suffered the injustice and violence directed at Black citizens going back to that terrible August night in the schoolyard at Lilian, Virginia.
I vote. I contribute to social justice groups. I attend protest marches. At age 73, I feel like I do what I can. I know it’s not enough. And more than 100 years is too long to wait.