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John Fountain: Black lives must matter to us all

A "Black Lives Matter" banner hangs at the main entrance of City Hall Thursday in Somerville, Mass. Somerville’s mayor denied a request from police officers that the banner, which has hung for nearly a year, be removed and replaced with one that says "All Lives Matter." (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

All lives matter!

But here in America, “black” life historically has meant less than “white” life — from slavery, to once being deemed by the U.S. Constitution as three-fifths of a person, to Jim Crow. And now, amid the illusion of a post-racial America, comes the declaration: “Black lives matter!”

For the record, Blue lives also matter. White lives matter. All lives matter…


But for a people once considered human chattel and showcased naked on auction blocks — poked and prodded and sold to the highest bidder — it is clear that black life hasn’t mattered as much.

As slave masters raped our mothers, wives and daughters; as slave patrols maimed our sons, brothers, fathers to the silence or the celebration of lynch mobs, the wind whispered: “Black lives don’t matter.”

That much was clear, even in 1776, as Thomas Jefferson inked the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”

As clear that African slaves were the black gold upon which the American colonies’ economic foundation rested and that the man who wrote those eloquent sacred words was himself a slave owner. As clear as the ancestry of his black slave mistress Sally Hemmings with whom historians say Jefferson may have fathered as many as six slave-born children.

Still, black lives matter. Despite the brutality of slave patrols used to crush slave revolts, and meetings. Despite the black men who went off to fight world wars as American soldiers and returned to the indignity of having to move to the back of homebound trains as they entered the Deep South; returned to their status of being less-than.

Black lives matter?

They couldn’t have mattered so much during Jim Crow when we were routinely involuntarily indentured, shot or strung up — sometimes on southern Sunday afternoons as good Christian folk posed smilingly after church in front of lynched black men with dead bulging eyes. The revelers later sent those pictures as postcards to relatives.

Black lives didn’t matter during the lynching of Will James in Cairo, Illinois — shot “nearly 500 times” by a mob of 10,000 allegedly for murdering a white woman, according to a 1909 New York Times account. The mob “applauded” and “cheered,” burned his body, cut off his head and hoisted it on a pole at Candee Park. No trial.

Black lives matter?

A white reader a few years ago wrote to me of his experience during the 1960s: “As a child, I attended a Baptist church where I listened to the congregants debate on the steps of the church whether Negroes had souls (‘Probably’) and if so, was heaven segregated (‘Of course’). … Thus were the first seeds of atheism planted in my fertile mind.”

If black lives mattered, why did we face the terrorism of lynching for nearly a century? Why was no one ever convicted in the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, despite two white men acquitted of the 1955 slaying later detailing in a magazine how they shot Till and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. Or in just about every case of the thousands of blacks lynched in the South?

If black lives matter, why do some people get more upset about the shooting deaths of Harambe the Gorilla or Cecil the Lion than black men? Why does a brother lying on his back with both hands up still get shot by a cop?

And if black lives matter, why do we as blacks now slay each other at a far greater rate than the police or the Ku Klux Klan?

Black lives matter, too. And they must matter to us all.