The writer, a native Detroiter, graduated from Cass Tech and Wayne State University. He was as assistant special FBI agent in charge of the Detroit field office from 1999-2002 and retired in 2006 as head of the Charlotte Division in North Carolina. He recently moved from Michigan to North Carolina.
By Kevin Kendrick
What does freedom mean to you? One dictionary I recently referenced defined it as this: the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. Of course, inherent in the definition of freedom is the right to interpret the word yourself. Attendant with that however, is the understanding that your definition and my definition may be different. And that’s o.k.
When I look at incarceration rates for young black men in my country I am appalled. Sentencing data helps to inform me that disparate treatment is still occurring.
Segregation and separation were a part of my life.” (LinkedIn photo)
This is part of the reason why we see people challenging the status quo of criminal justice in our country now in the way that they do. Taking a knee or locking arms during the National Anthem is their way of saying freedom isn’t being afforded to everyone on an equal footing in America.
It may not be your way of expressing and it isn’t my way. I prefer to use the very valuable lessons history has shared with us to show how illusory freedom can be, how very different it can be for all of us. But the very word, freedom, affords them the opportunity to do that.
Isn’t that what ultimately, this is about?
Freedom Looks Different
Freedom does in fact, look different to different people. As an African-American, I am never too far removed from the reality that my freedom is something that’s very different from that of white Americans.
My freedom wasn’t actually realized until December 6, 1865 when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. It wouldn’t be until 1868 when the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing equal protection under the laws among other things, would be ratified. And in 1869, a new Amendment, the 15th, guaranteed all American citizens the right to vote. By all appearances, blacks in America would have equality . . . freedom.
Unfortunately, those appearances were exactly that. Reconstruction in the South came to an abrupt end through a seemingly never-ending succession of laws passed by various states aimed at restricting the rights of blacks, the “Jim Crow” laws as they were known, succeeded in making freedom elusive for most people of color.
Lynchings were carried out on a frequent basis and became almost carnival-like with large crowds gathering and hawkers present. Post cards of lynchings including photos of people who were literally gutted and burned alive were popular and often used to show friends and relatives in other places what might lie in store for blacks who dared to violate any of these Jim Crow norms.
Freedom for my ancestors at that point meant simply existing to the next day and trying mightily not to offend anyone. Voting was certainly something most blacks in the South couldn’t do because of contrived poll tests. Segregation became the law of the land, including the North, after Plessy v. Ferguson and black freedom meant knowing your place…and staying in it.
Segregation and separation were a part of my life from the very beginning. I was born in a hospital designated for blacks because in 1956; my mother wasn’t welcomed in hospitals for whites.
We lived in a largely segregated neighborhood but with all due credit to my parents, I was allowed to grow up in an environment where I didn’t realize I was “different”. It wasn’t until a visit to Columbus, Georgia when I was seven years old and my grandmother slapped me for winking at a white female bank teller that skin color began to take on meaning. Freedom for me at that time meant making sure I didn’t cross any lines drawn for young black kids then, like Emmett Till.
When I purchased my first home, a duplex in Detroit in 1976, I was surprised to see what I later learned was a restrictive covenant on the deed. It specifically forbade the home being occupied by “Negroes” or Jewish people or any part of it being subleted to either group. Although these were now deemed unconstitutional, it was a wake-up call and a realization that freedom for people like me didn’t include living where you wanted to live.
Tracing Family Roots
I began studying my genealogy in the early 1980s. It was so much fun to find relatives in old census records and other documents and envision what their lives must have been like. One of the most telling moments for me, however, was the stark reality that I couldn’t really get much beyond the 1860s in looking at my African-American ancestors because they weren’t even counted in census records as people, individuals with hearts and feelings and names until the 1870 census.
Prior to that time, most blacks appeared as numbers under their owner’s documentation of number of slaves owned. Freedom to know your history, know your family is a precious thing.
As a new agent of the FBI, I was asked by another agent when I might want to go and have my undercover driver’s license issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
I was rather surprised by that and asked if that was something all agents did. He looked at me rather quizzically and said that he assumed I wanted to do that since it would help in what he also assumed was my desire to establish an alias and buy drugs in various situations.
I assured him that doing work like that wasn’t necessarily on my “wish list”. Freedom for me at that time, meant being an agent on working on regular investigations, not necessarily being pigeon-holed into activity I wasn’t thrilled about doing.
Fast forward to today. I am an older, perhaps not much wiser man, but I still am viewed differently by others.
Even in one of the churches we attended for several years, the pew where Jenny and I sat would almost always be the very last to fill.
I wore suits as frequently as I did because it got old being viewed with suspicion most times I walked into a business. The suit gave me cover, helping to assuage fear and concern.
Freedom to me now means being treated like anyone else. Not being afforded special treatment because of my color, not being treated differently because of what I did in a previous life, but being treated the same as anyone else. No presumption of guilt, no presumption of doubt.
And the ability to speak out, however that may be.