This week marks the 50th anniversary of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I have a dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
Retired Vancouver social worker George Jolly was a young civil rights activist living in Detroit in 1963 and fresh out of the U.S. Navy when he was moved by the call for hope and non-violence in King’s speech.
“It is still a very forceful and strong speech for all people today,” said Jolly ,who imagines if King were alive he would be “very disappointed by the continuing nightmare” of racial inequality — even in Vancouver.
Jolly moved here in the late 1960s because he was disheartened by racial attacks in the U.S., including the September 1963 killing of four African-American girls in the bombing of a church in Alabama. His one concession: “One thing I like about the States is you know how you stand.”
Today, in Vancouver, Jolly said, racism remains but it is subtler.
“It is like the wind, you can see it rustling the leaves and you can feel it, but when you reach out and try to grab it there’s nothing to grab on to.”
When he goes to a restaurant or shopping he said he is sometimes treated disrespectfully compared to other customers. He said he also has been stopped and questioned by police for no apparent reason.
(Const. Brian Montague, spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, emailed the Courier saying: “If an individual is getting stopped by police in their car, it would be because they have violated a traffic law.”)
According to Jolly, part of the problem is this city has “lost its blackness.” He sites changes to local place names such as the George Massey Tunnel — originally named the Deas Island Tunnel after a successful black business owner. In the 1970s the near complete destruction of the black community of “Hogan’s Alley” to make way for the Georgia Viaduct, deprived the city of its African-Canadian history and culture. Vancouverites, said Jolly, don’t know the history of the black community and so don’t value its people.
Roger B. Jones who is president and CEO of World Accessibility and one of the founders of the Afro News, agrees racism is alive in Vancouver.
People “prefer to condemn the racism in the United States and other places, while pretending that everything here is rosy,” said Jones, who added he has experienced racism in a profound way.
“My family have been in this country since the 1700s, and yet not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me ‘where are you from?’ … It is incomprehensible to many that we have a rich, long history of African people in this country,” Jones told the Courier by email.
As evidence of racist attitudes, Jones points to the Dutch Sinterklaas Black Pete celebration, which traditionally includes white actors in black makeup acting as happy slaves to Santa, “that continues to rear its ugly head every winter.” Jones was part of a group that had the event shut down in New Westminster a few years ago, but the organizers continued it at other venues.
“For the most part, Canadians are more apathetic when it involves putting a public face on the realities of racism,” said Jones, who added that while local media honoured the King speech this week, there isn’t a similar Canadian call to action to celebrate.
For Jolly, now in his 70s, all is not lost in the quest for equality. “I am always going to be hopeful,” he said.
The solution is to educate children from a young age to value African contributions to society and to teach them how it feels to experience prejudice, he said. Ultimately though, it takes each individual challenging their own bigotry.
“It all begins with I, with the self,” he said.