- Posted June 28, 2014 by
Los Angeles, California
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Impact Your World
Carlos Manuel Aguilar Interviews Civil Rights Photographer Henry Walton About Racism in America
Henry - Pictures didn’t change me. Pictures, events, and times formed me. Before these things took place there was basically no “me” to change. I am a product of the times, the events, and the things I saw and experienced. Some of that I “bookmarked” , in my history through photography. We are all a product of experiences. Character and personality join forces to see how we choose to react to the input of those experiences.
What was that like to meet Dr. Martin Luther King? How did he impact you?
Henry - It was a pivotal moment in my life. After hearing this great man speak. After hearing him express all the pent up emotions that I had, but could not find the words to express, after hearing him speak of the unspeakable horrors that minorities were subjected to and still he spoke of defeating evil with good, defeating violence with peace, “doing good to those who do spitefully use you.” It was clear that this was no ordinary man. At that moment I knew that this was the right man for the right moment in history. At the end of that day, I would have followed this man into midst of the vicious, subhuman mobs, the snarling dogs, the cattle prods because at that moment I knew that the dignity of mankind, the hopes and dreams of future generations, of my children and grandchildren yet to come all their aspirations were far more important then my temporal well being. I knew, at that moment, a life without dignity and respect was no life at all. From that day forward I have walked a different path, with a different understanding, and a fierce determination to do my part to make this world the best that it can be. His speech was more than words, it was a call to action. The aggressive action of pacifism.
Speaking of hose that were 20-25 in the late '50s and early '60s and led the dogs and pressure water hoses against black students and other minorities, how do you think they evolved and changed into today's diverse and unprejudiced society?
Henry - The segregationist and other racist were a reflection of the nation at that time. The ages ranged from very young to very old. The leadership was made up of the political leaders of the states and in some cases the nation. Governor Orville Faubus was 51 years old in 1961, George Wallace was 42, and Bull Connors was 64 years old. While the police and firemen were often young men in their twenties and thirties the higher ranking officers were older. Bull Connors was accused of recruiting young thugs to attack marchers and organizers while the police stood by and did nothing. As for an image of an unprejudiced society; there is no such entity in this nation. First we must recognize that prejudiced means pre-judge. When a Black youth can be killed for walking home, in his own neighborhood, after buying Skittles because he was wearing a Hoodie and the gunman is exonerated because he felt threatened by a Black being in the area, this is not a post-prejudiced society. However, our society is diverse and we are better for it. How have the previously intolerant people evolved into todays more tolerant? Some have seen the handwriting on wall and recognize that the past is past and times do change. Many have not evolved at all. They came out of the woodwork when Obama became President. Some have even devolved. The tactics may be different. We no longer have a former Governor of Alabama, and United States Senator going on the radio in racist rant the day before an election to tell white men in Mississippi to stop Black Mississippians from voting.
Today we have a Supreme Court that has struck down the voter protection laws. Now we have states such as Texas and Ohio where people in certain areas don’t have a polling place. Where single mothers must find a sitter after work so she can travel to a distant place if she is to vote. In some areas the number of polling places has been reduced so sharply that people must stand in line for many hours if they want to vote.
In some cases a person must go to another town to vote. Poor, handicapped, elderly are all seriously burdened by these assaults upon voting rights. Restricting the vote not with clubs and guns, but with restrictive laws and policies implemented by those who want to retain power, even if they don’t have an honest plurality of the vote.
I used the phrase “unprejudiced society” but, we all know that racism, homophobia and discrimination against women and the mentally ill remains a force. How are we all affected by racism?
Henry - In the previous question you asked about prejudice. Here you are asking about racism. It is important that we differentiate. Prejudice is an act. It is the act of judging without substantiated facts. Racism is a condition. It is an illness that permeates our society. Racism is a Social Disease that results from the assumption of a privileged position based on a right by birth. White males do not sit down and say, “I am going to prejudge all non-whites.” It is simply an ingrained mindset that “I am superior.” With that mind set all other groups women, LBGT, foreign nationals, Blacks, Latinos, etc. all will suffer discrimination from the racist who probably is oblivious of the fact. The racist suffers from not fully understanding the value of all the other groups in the world. The depth of value, joy, and shared experience is lost to an assumption that others are not worthy of my naturally superior status.
How did your experiences as a victim of racism affect you personally?
Henry - It took me a number of years to realize that I am not a “victim” of racism. One can only be a victim if you surrender to the victimization. I have never done that. Even when I did not know the terms, I didn’t know the psychology or sociology of the phenomenon I new it was backward thinking. I knew there were good and bad, brilliant and slow, talented and not, industrious and lazy in every community that I encountered on this planet. Knowing that I continued to seek my goals, take my wins, and learn from my loses and I always did it with the assumption that I had what it takes. My father told me,”We have to work twice as hard to go half as far, but that’s an advantage. We don’t quit when it gets rough.” My father acknowledged the existence of racism, but treated it as just another challenge to overcome.
Can a racist change?
Henry - Absolutely! It is a change that comes with knowledge. First knowing that he has the disease. Next, a willingness to get well. Then working one day at a time making a constant effort to recognize the human worth in all human beings and finally by doing so recognize the increased human worth in himself. There is a peace that comes when the former racist learns that he is not the benevolent ruler of all men, but the coequal brother of all humanity.
There is much work left to be done. What other solutions do you see when racism rears its ugly head?
Henry - Racism is always close by. It is too often the unacknowledged elephant in the room. The ugly head is always there, we just don’t look at it until it is unavoidable. The only way to defeat racism is to acknowledge it, strip away the mask, and challenge it. Racism is not a bruise, it’s a cancer. If you don’t excise it immediately it will get worst. If you don’t clear it all away it will come back. Many people are racist, but few want to be seen as a racist. Some don’t know they are racist. We should never let racism come off as subtle. If you are in a position to perhaps privately and rationally point this out to a person, it is your duty as a human being. This is not easy, it is not fun, but you wouldn’t let a friend or love one be oblivious of a life threatening tumor would you? If it is possible we must address this illness too.