Why the So-Called 'Road Rage' Shooting of Bianca Roberson in 2017 Is a Hate Crime as Despicable as the 1964 Slaying of Lemuel Penn at Broad River Bridge
Calling things by the wrong name is a form of lying. Or at best a smoke-screening of a truth no one wants to see. Maybe that's why it takes such a long time to get right with the past and with one's self. Not just in the Deep South but elsewhere in post-truth America too.
On July 11, 2017, twelve years after the installation of a signpost they championed, a Madison County group and one of its organizers were honored with a Congressional Award during a brief ceremony at the Clarke County Courthouse in Athens, Georgia.
The sign marks a tragic incident on the Broad River Bridge near Highway 172 in which a decorated World War II veteran, on his way home from reserve training at Fort Benning, Georgia, was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan shortly after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The incident is well known by now. But it bears repeating at this time for two reasons: 1) that award ceremony in Athens and 2) because a similarly hateful incident occurred in Pennsylvania almost 53 years to the day.
On July 11, 1964, Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn and two others took a shortcut on their way back to Washington, DC, where Penn was employed as Assistant Superintendent of Schools. They decided to drive all night because they knew the racial situation in Georgia was unstable and didn’t want to get caught up in it. Penn drove the Chevrolet Biscayne that was struck by bullets as the Klansmen drove alongside his vehicle. It didn’t matter that he had been decorated with a Bronze Star for heroism during World War II. It didn’t matter than he was a law-abiding family man with three small children. Or that he was still serving his country through its reserves. All that mattered on July 11, 1964, was that he had black skin. No doubt that skin had learned to become impervious to a great many things during Penn’s 48 years on the planet. But it could not withstand a bullet fired at his head.
For several years, a Georgia group called the Lemuel Penn Memorial Committee worked tirelessly to have a commemorative sign placed on the spot where that American hero and Civil Rights martyr was slain. They finally achieved their goal in 2005 but had to abandon a corresponding effort to rename the bridge after Lt. Colonel Penn because of local opposition.
After all, this is Georgia we’re talking about.
Consider the June 30, 2017, murder of 18-year-old Bianca Roberson in Pennsylvania, which has been euphemistically written off as “road rage.” Give me a break. I doubt if there’s a black person alive who believes that. Look at it this way: Would the white 28-year-old David Desper have opened fire on that college-bound African-American teenager if she’d been a white girl with blonde hair? He might have been angry at being cut off during a lane-merge. But he wouldn’t have murdered her with a gunshot to the head—the same way Lemuel Penn was killed by Klansmen in 1964. It was Roberson’s blackness Desper wanted to destroy. That’s what motivated the shooting. That’s why Roberson’s parents are urging that her death be investigated as a hate crime. It may not have been premeditated as in the Charleston church massacre. But in a way Desper’s shooting of Roberson is worse. Because it speaks to a knee-jerk response embedded in implicit biases shared by many other folks. It's worse also because the term road rage hides the deeper truth, and that makes part of today's post-truth narrative. To have a black body is to be in danger, Ta-Nehisi Coates warns in his award-winning Between the World and Me, which may be the most seductively depressing memoir ever written. However, when you consider the relatively brief timeline between 1964 and 2017, it’s difficult to argue with his thesis.
So it matters that a Southern white woman was a leader in the several-years battle that got a historical marker established on the Broad River Bridge. It matters that something moved inside her when she was a little girl and saw her white father—who served during World War II as a nurse attending both black and white soldiers—weep over what happened to Lt. Col. Penn. If you’re a nurse ferrying soldiers between the battlefield and the hospital, you don't need reminding that we all bleed the same color. And there's just no way you're going to let your children grow up with hate.
So yes. In this universe, this Georgia, it matters that Mrs. Chandler is white. It also matters that the Congressional Black Caucus appreciated her group’s efforts enough to recognize it officially with its Congressional Veterans Award. It matters that Morocco Coleman, Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Veteran's Brain Trust Committee, is African-American. That despite the history of segregation in the South, which his family personally experienced in the time before Civil Rights, he served his country honorably in Vietnam, lived to tell about it in a book, and went on to serve his country further with the CBC and as an admired member of the local Georgia community.
These things matter because the world is not as dark as some would have us believe. There are signs of light everywhere. When a candle is lit, we must acknowledge it. Add its light to the sum of light.
It takes a long time for change to happen in a place like Georgia. But even here, though the wheels grind slowly, they grind exceeding small.
Who knows? Maybe one day there will be enough light here that naming a bridge after the martyred war hero who died on it—because his skin had the wrong paint job—won’t seem like such a radical idea.
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