Commentary Race

Why I Visit Sites of Slavery

Cynthia Greenlee

Erasing plantations from the landscape or simply lambasting them doesn’t get rid of slavery; it just rids us of its most uncomfortable and most visible symbols.

When I was house shopping in my native North Carolina, I discovered a cute bungalow in a neighborhood with a most unfortunate name. Let’s call it Emerson Plantations. No doubt some marketing executive had visions of Tara replete with (imaginary) fields of fluffy cotton harvested by gangs of happily enslaved people who toiled from dawn to dusk. I declined to support that fantasy with a 30-year mortgage.

Yet, as a historian and a descendant of enslaved people, I make a point of visiting slavery sites around the world. I’ve been to Ghana’s Elmina Castle and Stagville Plantation, miles from my house, among others.

When I enter such properties, I first brace myself for profound sadness. I think about my paternal great-great grandmother, Myra, enslaved on a small mountain farm. Myra Stepp bore her slaveowner more than a dozen children. Only one of those children, my great-grandfather John Myra, was born into freedom. After emancipation, Myra’s former owner left her with only a few pots to fend for herself. And I think of my maternal great-great grandfather, Mose, probably a skilled carpenter who was valued at more than $1,000 in the will of his South Carolina slaveowner. In freedom, Mose became a substantial landowner by 1869, and my family still owns much of that property.

I then steel myself for deep anger when such historical sites ignore the lives of the enslaved. I prepare myself for what I call acts of “constructively disruptive tourism.” I question guides about slavery’s invisibility in their scripts or, even worse, when they use thinly veiled Lost Cause rhetoric that slavery wasn’t all that bad.

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So I understand the furor over beloved feminist indie songwriter Ani DiFranco and the creative retreat she was planning at the former Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana. Nottoway is the largest surviving antebellum plantation in the South. With 53,000 square feet, its own bowling alley, and semi-modern bathrooms, the house’s floor space is roughly equal to that of the White House. You can experience the grandeur during an overnight stay or book your wedding reception there. (Start at the Gold level: $85 per person, minimum 50 guests.)

Running that massive estate required a small army of enslaved people—more than 150 of them in 1860. Original owner John Hampden Randolph used human flesh as his capital. Enslaved Nottoway residents catered to the house’s residents, and they provided the muscle and technical know-how behind the Randolph family’s sugar production.

Critics railed at DiFranco’s choice of venue, saying that a retreat on a site of slavery, one that some say has insufficiently acknowledged its past as a site of slavery (full disclosure: I have not visited Nottoway), revealed a deep insensitivity to history and racism. These plantations, after all, are not just pleasant architectural remnants. Often literally built by the enslaved, they were the ultimate in exploitative workplaces, sites of subjection and resistance, and generations-long crime scenes.

Bloggers and pundits then seized on DiFranco’s lackluster apology as yet another example of a clueless white feminist who is tone-deaf to her own privilege. DiFranco contributed to one of 2013’s oft-repeated refrains by white feminists: “Why are these angry/bullying/aggressive women of color feminists picking on me?” She expressed genuine surprise that so many people could get so mad. (She later issued a second apology on her Facebook page.)

I find it hard to believe DiFranco’s wide-eyed act. Yes, Americans gloss over what historian Edmund Morgan called the American paradox—that slavery and inequality were integral to creating a republic ostensibly founded on freedom. We know that slavery rarely makes for comfortable dinnertime talk or history classes. But we talk around it constantly with the seemingly annual fights over how to remember or teach slavery; a persistent education urban legend says that the State of Texas decided to describe slaves as “unpaid interns” in its textbooks. Our language of partisan outrage relies on comparing the most controversial of American policies and challenges—Obamacare, abortion, massive national debt—to slavery. Slavery was so bad that it provides the grist for our most extreme metaphors, though we can’t wrap our minds around its historical realities.

I can’t agree with DiFranco’s critics who have tarred all historical sites with the same racist brush. Scholars of slavery, archaeology, cultural preservation, and public history have moved many plantation museums from an Old South, top-down history. In 1994, colonial Williamsburg in Virginia staged a mock slave auction, a move that prompted heated criticism from Black residents who feared that this soul-wrenching history would be trivialized as entertainment. Years later, Williamsburg launched revamped enactments that put audience members in the roles of the enslaved, events so powerful that “enslaved” audience members sometimes tried to wrest faux guns away from their oppressors. Historic Stagville in Durham, North Carolina, treats its reconstructed slave cabins as integral, not peripheral, to the plantation, and its staff have engaged in years of research to identify, document, and collaborate with the descendants of those who toiled there. Longtime historic preservation officer Joseph McGill continues his Slave Dwellings Project, in which he locates and sleeps overnight in extant slave lodgings. The project aims to illuminate enslaved lives and rescue these structures—which often look like ramshackle eyesores—from disrepair, demolition, or historical amnesia. (You can see McGill and me on a slavery-related episode of PBS’ “History Detectives.”)

That’s not to say that all plantations are making an effort, or that all the efforts hit the mark. Historical interpretation matters. On a recent trip to Tryon Palace, a colonial governor’s residence in New Bern, North Carolina, I asked my tour leader to clarify the term “servants.” Other tour participants didn’t know the term included captured indigenous people, enslaved men and women of African descent, and indentured servants who signed away years of their lives in labor.

But the message was underscored when the tour continued to a detached kitchen where an African-American interpreter in period dress baked bread over an 18th-century-style hearth. Tryon Palace also stages reenactments of Jonkunnu celebrations, and its website has no qualms about including content about white resident John Stanley’s son with an enslaved woman in its information.

No doubt some of these landmarks paint a picture that privileges the slave owners, see benevolence rather than brutality, and attract mainly white audiences. Still, it’s far too easy to point a finger at historic plantations for their seeming devotion to hoop skirts and a whitewashed Southern history. Get rid of these plantations, and you wipe away a part of American material culture and part of slavery’s history.

Rather, let’s push existing sites to have a more accurate, inclusive view of history. Take time to visit a site of slavery, and if you don’t like what you see, post a Facebook update with details about your questions and complaints on your wall and the site’s Facebook page, if it has one. But, more importantly, contact that site’s manager and make your voice heard.

Ani DiFranco did get one thing right when she wrote, “Let us not forget that the history of slavery and exploitation is at the foundation of much of our infrastructure in this country, not just at old plantation sites.” Indeed, visitors to antebellum Washington, D.C., could step outside the capitol and reach a Maryland Avenue slave pen within minutes. Erasing plantations from the landscape or simply lambasting them doesn’t get rid of slavery; it just rids us of its most uncomfortable and most visible symbols.

Slavery is not that far away from my branch on the family tree, and I feel these historical sites belong to me. Though I have joked half-seriously that African Americans should get lifetime free admission, I enter these sites with a serious purpose. As a historian, I visit these museums to check the stories they tell. I don’t mind being “that” visitor who hijacks the tours with corrective interpretation. I am that brown face that may give guides pause when they launch into a selective version of history. I don’t mind walking into the office of curatorial and programming staff to complain about representations of slavery.

But, more than anything, I go to honor those who never got off the plantation.

Commentary Violence

Patrick Kane and the Culture of Disbelief About Rape

Katie Klabusich

Right now I have to consider that this season I may be a rape survivor cheering for a team led by an accused rapist.

Practically everyone in Chicago has a Patrick Kane story.

As a former bartender who was slinging drinks in the Windy City when hockey reappeared like magic on our televisions in 2007 turning a lost generation of Chicagoans into fans of the young, exciting team featuring first-year phenom Kane and his captain, Jonathan Toews, I certainly have mine. And though I’ve always been more of a Patrick Sharp girl (I’m almost done crying about the trade), I’ve appreciated Kane’s work on the ice—delivering three championships in six seasons. I’ve also sort of appreciated him in a bizzaro feminist way for having managed his party rep without his name being automatically associated amongst service staff with misconduct allegations à la Steelers champion quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Until now.

Blackhawks fans who had planned to spend the summer celebrating the return of Lord Stanley’s Cup must instead come to terms with the news that their star 26-year-old forward is an accused rapist. As criminal defense attorney turned sports reporter and rape survivor Julie DiCaro has covered so adeptly for the Chicago Tribune, some are handling it better than others.

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“When it comes to the Kane investigation, Internet stupidity abounds,” writes DiCaro, below a list of representative examples. “And while it’s tempting to laugh off some of the comments as written by misguided juveniles with a serious case of hero worship, the problem is actually much bigger. Tweets, comments, rumors and news reports like those above are reflective of the way our society treats those who report rape.”

While local radio hosts and writers are largely handling the situation with grace and consideration for all involved, DiCaro’s words aren’t hitting home for a significant portion of the Blackhawks fan base. You couldn’t pay me enough to be a call screener for a local sports station right now.

***

Kane spent Saturday, August 2 at SkyBar, a popular nightclub in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, reportedly leaving around 3 a.m. with two women to continue partying at his house in nearby suburban Hamburg. Around 4 a.m., one of the women—whose name is being withheld (police say they are abiding by a gag order)—went into another room by herself; Kane reportedly followed and raped her.

The alleged victim then did what rape culture deniers demand of all sexual assault survivors: she found her friend, left, and called a family member on her way to the hospital, where she submitted to an exam and reported the attack to law enforcement. To their credit, Hamburg police appear to be taking her accusations seriously; they have searched Kane’s home and the case has been assigned to Roseanne John, head of the Special Victims Unit in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. Research outlined in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence estimates that almost half of rape survivors who report experience “secondary victimization” by law enforcement. Being believed by enough personnel (most rape victims must tell their stories repeatedly) to prompt the search of a local celebrity’s home and the hiring of an expert SVU prosecutor before potential charges are filed shows a level of engagement and willingness to believe the victim we can’t, unfortunately, take for granted.

According to details obtained by the Buffalo News, the alleged victim even bears the marks rape apologists and perpetrators of the “stranger rape myth” expect of anyone truly not consenting to the encounter: bite marks on her shoulders and a scratch on her leg. She has behaved as a supposedly model victim, fighting back physically and then legally, risking the public ridicule that descends upon anyone who dare sully the name of a beloved athlete.

Obviously, I don’t know exactly what happened that night; I’m not privy to the ongoing police investigation or hospital reports and I haven’t had interview time with Kane’s accuser. What I do know is that statistically, I can’t expect relief for the knot in my stomach that formed when I first saw headlines of the incident. Research tells us that more than 92 percent of rape reports are credible. Considering we hardly have a contingent of rape survivors who were granted fame and fortune as a reward for accusing a well-known man of assault, I’m inclined to eschew society’s unfortunate convention and simply believe her until I see evidence she put herself through this ordeal without cause.

I’m not on a jury, so save the “innocent until proven guilty” nonsense. That’s a legal term, not a cultural requirement.

And, listen. I’ll be uncomfortably honest: like any fan of any sport (or anything, really), my heart sank when I heard that an integral member of a team I have rooted for—whose jersey hangs in my closet—was being investigated for something heinous. Also like any fan, my first impulse was to close my eyes and utter the sentence, “Please don’t let it be true.”

For anyone who’s more than just a casual sports consumer, it’s understandable to hope your team isn’t tarnished or is about to lose a player so good, a mere seven years in he’s already past the 100-point mark in his playoff career. With a contract extension through 2022-2023, Kane is poised to become the most celebrated player in team history. Permanently breaking up the Kane-Toews line would likely usher in another championship drought.

So, of course I had the thought. As hard as it is to admit, that was my first impulse. I’m human, which means my brain automatically considers how unexpected news will affect me before processing what it means for other people. Because I am a justice-oriented survivor who’s educated on the effects of rape culture and understand what it takes for someone to report, I processed all of that in pretty rapid succession—but I have to admit to myself that even I started from a self-serving mental moment of disbelief.

What I haven’t done and won’t do is participate in the toxic pastime of victim-bashing as a show of support for my bro, Kaner. Almost as though he knew it was on the way, Chicago sportswriter Tim Baffoe published an outstanding critique of “He’s my guy!” style fandom the day before a rape apology-laden hashtag caught fire. Ostensibly designed to prop up #88, the #iSupport88 thread is a predictable haven for crass name-calling, rape “jokes,” and non sequitur love for Bill Cosby and other celebrities accused of sexual assault.

In his piece, Baffoe holds nothing back, saying, “Patrick Kane is not your friend. You are not his dawg, and he is not your bro … And you need to stop with the garbage default setting of rushing to defend him. Even under the guise of “innocent until proven guilty.’”

In a tight-knit sports town like Chicago that thrives on the perception of personal connection, those are fighting words. Baffoe was just getting started:

The reflex of “Leave Kaner alone—you’re ruining his reputation!” or anything remotely putting the onus on the woman involved shows you’ve let sports fandom strip you of your humanity. Your ethics have grown so out of whack while drunk on being a fangirl or fanboy that you’ve drowned your soul. You value sports over violation of the human body, and you then become no different than, say, a defender of [child-abuse enabler] Joe Paterno.

Well done, sir.

Right now I have to consider that this season I may be a rape survivor cheering for a team led by an accused rapist. And so, for the remainder of the off-season, I’m rooting for law enforcement, the Blackhawks organization, and the National Hockey League to break from rape culture and handle the case in a way that recognizes the needs of the alleged victim as more important than the reputation of the accused.

I’m not entirely sure what the appropriate action for the Blackhawks and the NHL to take would look like. How do they balance the uncertainty of an ongoing investigation with the rapidly approaching start of training camp? As SI.com writer Allan Muir succinctly paraphrased Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh yesterday, “Kane’s uncertain legal status puts the Hawks in an impossible position. With training camp less than six weeks away and the justice system moving at its own deliberate pace, the team may be forced to suspend the star winger.”

Do the Blackhawks wait? Do they hope the league steps in to suspend him, letting them off the hook? Would the team or the league be on solid ground legally to suspend a player before there are charges and/or a conviction, as Haugh calls for?

“In the post-Ray Rice era of professional sports, a first-class franchise such as the Hawks cannot allow a player facing serious allegations to represent it until more clarity about the case exists,” Haugh wrote. “The thing about setting a standard of excellence as high as the Hawks have is living up to it; no single player, not even a living legend, can compromise that commitment to integrity.”

I’m inclined to agree that the risk of sending Kane out on the ice despite the statistical probability that the accusations are true is more risky than suspending him and being forced to apologize later, should his accuser recant or turn out to be in the false reporting minority. And I certainly applaud the decision by EA Sports yesterday to pull Kane from their NHL 16 cover and promotional roll-out:

For people who couldn’t care less about sports, why does the handling of a rape accusation by a professional sports team or league matter? I get this question on the regular every time another high-profile athlete is accused of assault or National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell does something detestable. The answer is simple: We are a nation of sports fans and human beings do not compartmentalize our experiences. It’s not just that athletes are disproportionately revered in our society; for better or worse, they’re recognizable public figures even outside their fan bases. According to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll last year, over 100 million people had watched the Super Bowl despite 25 percent of respondents saying football “has the most jerks” out of any professional league.

People are disinclined to believe someone they know is capable of a crime like rape. Seeing someone’s face and hearing their name as often as is typical of stars and champions leads people to feel, as Baffoe pushed back on, like we know them. Even if we don’t like a player very much, it’s quite a step to go from dislike to believing someone is the evil outlier our culture tells us commits rape.

Because of this culture of disbelief, the language that’s used as the investigation continues is extremely important—as evidenced by the somewhat predictable vitriol of the #ISupport88 crowd. Those close to Kane and the team have been tight-lipped, but the statements that have been made manage to walk the line of avoiding the kind of enthusiastic support that erases or gaslights victims while not openly condemning someone who hasn’t yet been charged with a crime.

Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz briefly weighed in with firmer language than sports fans are used to hearing at an allegation stage of a potential public relations nightmare, saying, “We’re disappointed but hopeful,” Wirtz said. “Beyond that, it would not be appropriate to expound upon.”

If the team makes the move to suspend Kane preemptively, it’ll be sending a strong signal not just to players, but to fans—specifically female fans. The Blackhawks boast a 45 percent female fan base that’s well above the league average of 37 percent and is partly responsible for their ability to re-sign Kane and Toews for a combined $168 million. You can’t afford that price tag without both routinely selling every ticket in your stadium and bringing in massive merchandise sales numbers. The Blackhawks wouldn’t have as much of their team intact without us.

Simply continuing to refrain from hinting at motives on the behalf of the alleged victim or from promising to stand by the accused no matter what would be a bright spot in the very dark intersection of sports and rape culture. But Wirtz and the league owe more to both their female fans and to a city that welcomed them back with open arms after years of inaccessibility. If league rules allow for a suspension, the Blackhawks should take that action. If they don’t, it’s time for the league to revisit how it handles the misconduct of its players.

I’m rooting for the NHL and the Blackhawks to do the right thing so I can buy a new jersey this fall and cheer without hesitation for a team I love.

Commentary Race

The Quality of Black Lives Matters Too

Regina Mahone

#BlackSpring is here: the uprisings happening in cities nationwide as part of a collective fight for racial justice in all areas of Black lives.

#BlackSpring is here: the uprisings happening in cities nationwide as part of a collective fight for racial justice in all areas of Black lives. As Alicia Garza, special projects director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-creator of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, explained to NewsOne, “There is a Black Spring that is emerging where communities that have been under the boot of police terrorism, communities that have been attacked by poverty and unemployment are rising up, coming together and advancing new solutions and new visions and new demands to create a new world where Black peoples’ lives matter.”

As a Black woman who was raised by a single mother, I understand how racial justice is connected to the labor movement—along with other movements, such as reproductive justice, that fall under the human rights “umbrella.” But for some people, mostly conservatives, the multiplicity of efforts becomes a bridge too far. (Remember the criticism advocates in Ferguson received from Republican leaders for setting up voter registration tables near Michael Brown’s memorial?) Part of the reason for this pushback is because critics don’t see people of color, Black women in particular, as whole persons. They still see us as props whose lives and stories are not acknowledged at best, and exploited at worst. We’ve watched this happen not only in the mainstream labor movements, but also in conversations around the uprisings, as if it weren’t our DNA staining the concrete in our communities.

And such public criticism can, in turn, foster doubt among leaders unfamiliar with this tactic. This was apparent at a recent Black workers’ event in New York City, where a labor union advocate asked: Are we changing the subject too quickly when we try to engage folks on economic concerns without first tackling police brutality and racial profiling?

The panelists at the event, which was organized to celebrate the launch of a new report on Black labor, were quick to explain the historical and political contexts in which these movements live, and how activists do more harm than good by “pitting our crumbs against others’ crumbs,” as Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), put it.

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Rather than the movements acting in opposition, Black leaders—particularly Black women—have been at the forefront of both for decades. That’s one of the reasons why the report in question, And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power, Promise, by Kimberly Freeman Brown, is so powerful: It’s the first of its kind to document Black women labor leaders’ experiences. It’s awe-inspiring to see women who look like me and to read their stories about their labor, which crosses many fronts, on the printed pages of the report.

In an Rewire interview with both Brown and the director of the project, Marc Bayard, Brown noted that it’s no accident “that you have women who are connected to the labor movement” like Garza, who appears in And Still I Rise, “playing such important, critical roles in the emerging, new civil rights movement.”

“Their experience is as Black women who … sit at the nexus of all these different levels of injustice that gave rise to these movements,” said Brown.

“One of the things we talked about throughout the project is the fact that Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, are both union members. So there’s always been in our consciousness this recognition that Black working moms contend with realities that we’re all bearing witness to,” Brown added.

History also shows us how intricately woven these two movements are, specifically the history of policing in this country. As Jennifer Epps-Addison of Wisconsin Jobs Now noted at the Black workers’ event, the police state is inextricably tied to institutionalized economic injustice and the continued marginalization of racially segregated communities.

Slave patrols were put in place in the 18th and 19th centuries, which, as Eastern Kentucky University’s Victor E. Kappeler, PhD, has noted, “helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.” Those “patrollers” would chastise slaves but not face any punishment by courts at the time for killing a slave, though historians have noted that slave owners would sometimes retaliate against a patroller if the officer harmed their slave to the point where she couldn’t work. After all, slavery was a billion-dollar industry in this country. In a recent talk at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates explained:

In 1860, at the time of Civil War, the enslaved black population in this country—one-third of which constituted the amount of people living in the South—was worth something on the order of $3 billion, more than all the combined capacity of the nation. All the assets, all the banks, all the railroads, all the nascent factories and businesses in this country put together, were worth less than enslaved black people in this country.

Today, Black bodies are valuable to the police state via the prison-industrial complex—and these modern day “slave patrols” are still killing us without facing penalty. The fact that police are part of the labor movement only adds to the economic injustice furthered by racialized police abuse. As Flint Taylor wrote for In These Times:

Whether unions which represent police officers, correctional guards and other law enforcement officers are the same kind of workers’ organizations as other unions, which can potentially be used to further the interests of the working class as a whole, has been vigorously contested by many progressives and leftists over the years. But the disturbing history of these powerful organizations makes it very clear that they mirror and reinforce the most racist, brutal and reactionary elements within the departments they claim to represent and actively encourage the code of silence within those departments. They are far from democratic, with officers of color and women having little or no influence.

At the Black workers’ event, Lola Smallwood Cuevas of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center suggested participants close our eyes and picture victims of police violence—such as Chicago’s Rekia Boyd, Cleveland’s Tanisha Anderson, Ferguson’s Michael Brown, or Madison’s Tony Robinson—wearing construction hard hats. She invited us to imagine if Black people were seen by officers in this light, the way that their people see them: as allies and friends.

One could also look at the history of the civil rights movement in this country, specifically the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to see how the labor and racial justice movements are connected. “The civil rights movement was every part an education justice movement, every part an economic justice movement, and every part a women’s rights movement as it was about the civil rights of Black folks,” Epps-Addison told Rewire in a phone interview. “They were talking about all of these things, and people forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing with striking sanitation workers.” It may not always be easy to talk simultaneously about both the struggles of labor and the fight for racial justice with our communities today, but history shows us Black communities have connected them all along.

“Asserting that Black lives matter also means that the quality of those lives matters,” explained #BlackWorkersMatter, a report from the Discount Foundation on the state of Black labor. “Economic opportunity is inextricably linked to the quality of the lives lived by blacks in America.”

More Black working people than whites are unemployed in the United States. Cuevas, in a piece for the Huffington Post, wrote that the crisis is more than just the economy: “It’s the lack of power. No matter how ‘strong’ the economy, we are disproportionately unemployed and in low-wage jobs.”

And Still I Rise called it a “leadership opportunity problem,” in which too few Black women, who are often heads of households, are put into leadership positions in unions. “Because of their unique position at the nexus of a number of progressive movements, Black labor women have the potential to play an even broader role in uniting the labor, civil rights and women’s movements,” the report read. Its author also suggests creating a leadership pipeline to prepare Black women for key staff positions and boards of directors of progressive organizations, which could effectively change the tide from the top to the bottom. We saw that happen in Baltimore when the city’s prosecutor Marilyn Mosby, a Black woman, brought charges against six officers who were involved with the deadly arrest of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

In the meantime, Black leaders of the labor movement have been organizing in their communities to fight police violence while demanding economic justice, which they view as integral to disrupting the systemic abuses of power and privilege in our society. Marc Bayard told Rewire that “the connection is very clear amongst the activists, and they don’t see the separation of the movements.” And yet, as Melissa Harris-Perry reminded us at the event, even this work is still only part of the full picture, which also includes reproductive justice, voting rights, gun control, education, health care, LGBTQ rights, and so on. The youth-led actions taking place in cities nationwide are taking such an approach—but we are all accountable.

“If Black lives matter then Black wages have to matter, then reproductive justice for Black women has to matter, then all Black lives have to matter, not just some Black lives,” said Epps-Addison.

No matter how we engage people on these issues, #BlackSpring is here. And as Dr. King said in his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point …. We’ve got to see it through.”