Why We Fight (Part One): The Uphill Battle

Why We Fight (Part One): The Uphill Battle

Despite months of protests and centuries of struggle for equal rights, many White Americans maintain an obstinate resistance to accepting the Black Lives Matter movement as anything more than a self-aggrandizing nuisance.

By David Todd McCarty | Monday, July 22, 2020

This is Part One in a series of articles inspired by the recent protests in Wildwood and around the country in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. The goal is to look more deeply into the root causes of inequality in America, particularly how it has affected the Black community here in Cape May County, in order to gain some understanding of the reality of the Black experience in America, and what we can do to work towards a more equitable society.

It was hot—hotter than it’d been all summer. Despite the fog that hung briefly over the boardwalk, the humidity thick and still in the air, the sun began to burn off the morning dew and it turned downright sweltering. 

Roughly fifty protestors had shown up wearing masks and carrying signs. They met on the Boardwalk in Wildwood on a steamy Sunday afternoon to march in protest of police brutality and in support of vulnerable communities in Cape May County. It was a diverse group of protestors: Black and White, men and women, gay and straight, seniors and young children. They wore shirts and face masks adorned with protest slogans. They carried signs. They called out in unity. They marched.

They were met at the start, not with support, compassion or understanding, but with shouts and jeers from a mostly older, white crowd who had clearly gathered in response to the planned march.  Many of the spectators claimed to be seasonal residents or visitors from out of state. They wore Trump shirts and hats, but no masks. They claimed that all lives mattered, but categorized the March as a nuisance. They were not there to welcome the protestors, or hear what they had to say.

It wasn’t a large protest by any standard, as this is a small seaside community to begin with, and an overwhelmingly White, conservative one at that. If there were fifty marchers gathered, there were also at least fifty counter-protestors who had come out to make their presence known. There were also as nearly as many police officers on the scene, some on foot, most on bicycles, and others riding in golf carts. Basically 150 people separated into three camps: Marchers, Trump supporters, and the police.

One man standing nearby, gestured to his shirt that read “The United States of America. Love it or leave it.” Another motioned to a journalist taking pictures and remarked loudly to his friends, “This one right here. He’s part of the problem.”

Cape May County is 85.5% white, 7.5% Hispanic and just 4.6% Black (compared to 13% nationwide). In 2016, Trump carried the county by almost 20 points, so it’s not uncommon to see Trump flags flown with pride throughout the region. But in the summertime, those numbers shift up dramatically with wealthy, seasonal homeowners flooding the more affluent islands such as Cape May, Avalon and Stone Harbor where large recreational boats are often adorned with Trump flags. Working-class vacationers from Philadelphia stream into more affordable towns such as the Wildwoods, and decorate their own balconies and porches with Trump paraphernalia. The county swells from approximately 96,000 permanent residents in the off-season, to about 750,000 during the peak summer months. It’s a substantial influx of people, and it does not become more diverse as it grows, so it can feel like an uphill battle to try to change people’s minds in this environment, especially when racial issues have become so polarizing and politicized. 

“Find the possibility and the power in your protest.”

Melisha Anderson

This was a march whose sole purpose was to shine a light on the irrefutable record of police brutality and institutional racism against people of color in America, so why did it attract so many White people proudly displaying the hats, shirts and flags of a political candidate for President? There was nothing inherently political about the nature of the protest, except that everything is political now, even the wearing of masks in the middle of a global health emergency. The only rational explanation is that Trump has long been the flag-bearer of white supremacy, and seeing the Black community challenge that supremacy by having the audacity to ask for equal rights, at the beach no less, one of the last bastions of historically segregated America, brings up strong feelings of resentment, defensiveness and fear.

“I’m here to yell at them,” said one White man who claimed to be from Philadelphia but would not give his name. He looked to be in his sixties, wore a black “Trump 2020” shirt and carried a large blue flag emblazoned with the Trump logo and the trademark slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

“They’re idiots,” he explained with a smile, “and they need to be told so.”

Later, I asked Melisha Anderson, one of the speakers at the March, how she could expect to change people’s minds in the face of such virulent opposition.

Anderson thought about it for a moment and then asked, “Have you ever heard of Mum Bett?” 

Anderson, who has a degree in Criminal Justice and a Masters in Education from Stockton University, is an elementary school teacher here in Middle Township, so it’s not out of character for her to turn a question into a lesson.

Mum Bett, or Mumbet as she was sometimes affectionally referred to, was born a slave in 1742 and became the property of John Ashley, a wealthy property owner in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Ashley was a strong supporter of the American Revolution and Bett gathered from the political conversations in and around the house, that when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts wrote its new state constitution, the first state in the Union to do so, they codified in it the guarantee that “all men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights.”

A statue representing Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman.

“Here is this woman,” explains Anderson, “who is a slave. She can’t read or write, but she overhears conversations about the state constitution, and how all people have the right to be free. She had no economic or social footing, but she begins to ponder what this means, this freedom that they keep talking about.”

Bett eventually concludes that she is indeed included in the statement “all men are born free and equal,” so after an incident wherein Ashley’s wife Hanna strikes her with a hot iron, Bett takes her case to Theodore Sedgwick, an abolitionist, attorney, and future U.S. Senator. With Sedgwick’s help, Bett sues Ashley and argues that she is in fact free under the new constitution, and on August 21, 1781, a jury finds in her favor. She is immediately freed and awarded 30 shillings in damages. Ashley initially appeals the decision, but quickly drops the case, pleading instead with Bett to return to his home as a paid servant, but she refuses, choosing instead to work for the Sedgwick family. After a few years, Bett is able to save enough to buy a home where she raised a family. She changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and died many years later at the age of 85.

“Elizabeth Freeman, as an illiterate slave, successfully sued the man who owned her, in the state of Massachusetts, in the 1700’s, for her freedom,” explains Anderson. “She had more of an uphill battle than I’ll ever have. For her to be able to take, just what she heard, and use it to defend her position—her right to be a free person, and to change the minds of those people back then, that to me is encouraging.”

Elizabeth Freeman was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Massachusetts, the only non-family member to be buried there. Her gravestone reads: 

ELIZABETH FREEMAN, also known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28th 1829. Her supposed age was 85 Years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years; She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell.

Grave Marker for Elizabeth Freeman

“I have a duty to fight for our freedom, and a duty to win that freedom,” says Anderson. “Elizabeth Freeman proved that back in the 18th century. So, while yes, we are in the minority down here in Cape May County, and we do have an uphill battle, as long as we’re still moving uphill, I think we’re making progress.”

Elizabeth Freeman’s gravestone in Massachusetts.

The March in Wildwood began at 26th Street and made its way through the heart of the Boardwalk, ending at the Wildwood Sign where a rally with speakers was scheduled. There were the occasional hecklers along the route, shouting “blue lives matter” or “all lives matter” and a few people tagged along either on foot or on bikes, shouting at the marchers, but at no point during the march itself did the marchers clash with anyone on the Boardwalk. The police, for their part, accompanied the March on bicycles, clearing the way in front, riding alongside and bringing up the rear, maintaining order largely by keeping the counter-protestors at bay.

Throughout the March itself, there was very little reaction from the people on the boardwalk. Most people simply took out their phones to record the event unfolding before them. Occasionally pedestrians on the Boardwalk, both Black and White, raised their fists in solidarity and watched silently as the crowd marched past.

At the rally point, where scheduled speakers addressed the crowd, there were a handful of verbal exchanges between those trying to disrupt the rally, and the protestors. Some of them got heated, but they tended to be short-lived and were effectively managed by both the police and the organizers of the March. There were no incidents of violence or arrests, but there were some angry words.

At one point an older white man told one of the protestors, a young black woman, that “Wildwood is my town. If you don’t like it, you should leave.” This set off one of the more heated exchanges, given that the woman was also from Wildwood, and let him know in no uncertain terms. Police and organizers stepping into the make sure nothing got out of hand. A young, white man on a bicycle tried to interrupt one of the speakers, yelling that all lives mattered and taunting the crowd, attracting a handful of protestors who confronted him. “I love Black people,” he told them, “but this organization, this Black Lives Matter, is an organization of hate.” In the end, the hecklers each drifted away and the protestors went back to their rally.

Speaking in front of the Wildwood sign that day, Anderson told the crowd gathered there, “We’ve come together, a melting pot of Black people, White people, and LGBTQ people. We are out here protesting, and in the protest, we find possibility. The possibility to change things. We have power in our protest.”

“But don’t think that our protest is limited to walking on the public streets. We have the ability the protest all day, every day. Protest with your money. Protest with your politics. Protest on November third with your vote. Find the possibility and the power in your protest.”

Later, Anderson explains the purpose of the March by saying, “If we are expecting only our people to show up to a march, we’d just be preaching to the choir. We have to go into the places where we are outnumbered—where the thinking is different. Those are the minds we’re trying to change. So it’s important to go places where we’re uncomfortable, and have those uncomfortable conversations, and tell people that the ideas we hold, and the experiences we’ve had, are valid. We may not need your validation, but you do need to understand who we are and what we are and what we need, because in the long run it’s like that saying, ‘If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.’ 

“You can’t have a great society if you continue to marginalize the very people who contribute to that society.”

Elizabeth Freeman, one might imagine, would concur, but you also have to wonder if she’d be just a bit disappointed that it’s taken us so long, to move so little, up that hill. At the same time, that should be all the evidence you need to convince a society that strives to be great, that there is still work to be done, and that sometimes, it demands that people march.

America is not there yet, that much should be clear, but as Anderson says, we keep moving.

Melisha Anderson is an activist and elementary school teacher in Middle Township and lives in Whitesboro, NJ. Photo: David Todd McCarty
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