He was 8 years old when he saw a black man stripped nearly naked in public, stretched across a large wooden barrel, and then watched as a gang of white men, laughing, took turns holding him down and beating him bloody with a horse whip.
Toledo resident Jimmie Delph, 68, grew up in the segregated South during a time when having dark skin made you a constant target for hate, violence, and scorn.
“It made me feel sad to a certain extent, but it was a part of life back then,” Mr. Delph said. “We just accepted it because we didn’t know any better. Things hadn’t changed yet. There wasn’t any hope yet. There wasn’t any hope until Dr. King came along. Now things have changed.”
The shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., has brought back memories for Mr. Delph and many others.
“If something like that had happened back in the day, you would just go about your business,” Mr. Delph said. “But now, black people know better. They don’t put up with that. They expect justice and when it doesn’t happen, it really makes you upset.”
It’s not just Mr. Delph who’s feeling upset these days, race relations experts and civil rights leaders in Ohio and throughout the country say.
The highly publicized shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black youth, by George Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, and the recent acquittal that set Mr. Zimmerman free, have many people of color feeling as if hostilities directed at them are increasing and frustrated that justice never seems to be on their side.
Those feelings of frustration, anger, and alienation are magnified by the day-to-day challenges many people of color encounter, leaving them feeling overwhelmed, said Morris Jenkins, dean of Southeast Missouri State University.
Mr. Jenkins, 60, a longtime criminal justice professor at the University of Toledo, took over the reins at Southeast Missouri in early July.
Many people are trying to figure out how to deal with feeling overwhelmed, Mr. Jenkins said. “It’s an epidemic. I see it more and more. People can only take so much.”
Discrimination and racism can be more difficult to address because it’s not always as obvious or straightforward as it appeared in the 1950s or ’60s, he said. Today’s struggles also can include sexual orientation, religious prosecution, immigration, race, and ethnicity and women’s issues.
“It’s become part of a more sophisticated system that includes social, economic, and political struggles, which can be overwhelming,” Mr. Jenkins said. “What keeps it going is our complacency during the past 40 years — thinking ‘we’ve made it.’ ”
Somewhere along the way, many people forgot that the struggle for civil rights is a lifetime struggle, he said. The civil rights movement didn’t end with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mr. Delph was raised by his grandparents in Schlater, Miss., just outside of Greenville. Those early, violent childhood images of segregation haunt him more than he initially realized.
After his grandfather died in 1959, Mr. Delph relocated to Toledo at age 15 with his grandmother to live with his mother, stepfather, and their five children.
“My grandmother and parents were very deep, good Christians,” Mr. Delph said. “They taught us right from wrong. They taught us about God, our savior Jesus Christ every day.”
But the atrocities he’d witnessed in the South were still eating away at him, Mr. Delph said. The civil rights movement was picking up steam in the 1960s, but instead of instilling him with hope, it only amplified his sense of anger and helplessness.
By the time he was 19, “I started running up and down the streets. I thought I was a cool cat. Alcohol made me feel sophisticated. It made me feel like I could own the world.”
Despite the drinking and carousing, he did all right, finding a good job with the city of Ann Arbor’s sanitation department. He moved back to Toledo after he retired in 1996. His first wife died in 2002.
By 2005, Mr. Delph wasn’t feeling like a cool cat anymore. He felt sad, frustrated, and depressed; he realized that he had been using alcohol to try to cope with his feelings.
“I was just getting sick and tired of being sick and tired and tired of not getting anywhere,” Mr. Delph said.
He found inspiration by recalling how as a child he would watch his grandmothers in the South risk their lives to read the Bible.
“My grandmothers would go under the house to read and have the other kin watching to give a signal to blow out the lamps if white people came out,” Mr. Delph said.
If his grandmothers were willing to risk their lives to read the Bible, there must be something pretty important in there, he reckoned.
Rediscovering his faith meant letting go and turning all of that pent-up anger and bitterness over to God. Although incidents like the death of young Martin still upset him, Mr. Delph believes that God will ultimately make the final judgment.
“When you’ve got Jesus you don’t have to worry about that anymore. You still have problems, but you have someone who can take care of them for you.”
For some, however, the long days seem to run together now: A blur of house fires, gang violence, the temptation of drugs, frustrated police officers, no job opportunities, no hope of ever escaping the hopeless predicament.
“There’s never peace of mind in the streets,” said Atilano Guerrero, 19, a Mexican-American who grew up in the south end of Toledo and lives in the midst of two rival gangs. “You always have to look over your shoulder to see who’s there.
“There’s always that stress of whether you’re going to be harassed and shot by someone in a gang, or be harassed by a bad cop who tries to plant some drugs on you.”
Sgt. Joe Heffernan, spokesman for the Toledo Police Department, says the belief that cops plant drugs on people is “an urban legend.”
“It’s important to build relationships with the community,” Sergeant Heffernan said. “It’s how we solve problems. The officer is intelligence gathering. They’re trying to figure out, ‘Is this a good kid or a bad kid?’ It can be a double-edged sword because it can be perceived as ‘you harassing us.’ ”
Mr. Guerrero said conditions in his neighborhood are getting worse. During the last year and a half, he’s noticed that there’s been an increase in structure fires and burglaries in the south end. He blames many of the fires as rites of passage for new gang members.
There’s also growing racial tensions between blacks and Latinos, who seem to resent each more with each passing day, he said.
He’s found a part-time job this summer, but in some ways, that has made things worse. People notice, which makes him a target for thieves and drug dealers, he said. He said police are always quick to stop him when he’s returning home. He said they’re often physically and verbally threatening, assuming a person is guilty until proven innocent.
“I see police targeting Hispanics more, not just me,” Mr. Guerrero said. “They do a lot of racial profiling; they just stop us at random figuring they’ll find something.”
The oldest of five children, Mr. Guerrero said he dropped out of high school several years ago because his teachers seemed to discourage rather than encourage students to attend. He’s always avoided getting involved with gangs or in trouble by “keeping with the right people,” he said.
Stories like Mr. Guerrero’s don’t surprise Baldemar Velasquez, founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. He understands many of the challenges and obstacles Latino youth face.
As a child, Mr. Velasquez traveled with his parents throughout the country picking crops to make a living. Like many other migrant workers, they faced constant discrimination and prejudice.
“In our community, people don’t often find a path to process that anger in a constructive way,” he said. “When I was growing up, I had experiences where I was taken advantage of. At first I wanted to get even.
“But then I went through a conversion that helped me process that anger. It was the believing in a redemptive God; that he’ll redeem everything that has ever happened to you.”
He also channeled that energy into FLOC, which he created in 1967. The organization allows him to fight for the rights of other farm workers — for better pay, working and housing conditions, and more educational opportunities for youth.
“In God’s eyes there is such a thing as righteous anger,” Mr. Velasquez said. “But we’re cautioned not to sin in our anger. So you look for the option of justice and what is right and just, and you struggle and campaign until justice prevails.”
He looks to leaders like Gandhi and Mr. King for inspiration on how to accomplish this task.
“You have to be creative how you go about eliminating the root causes of that anger,” Mr. Velasquez said. “Getting even only treats the symptoms; it doesn’t treat the root cause. What does it gain you if you vanquish the opposition? Wouldn’t it be better if you reconciled with the other side?”
These are challenging times, agrees the Rev. Otis Gordon, Jr., of Warren AME Church in Toledo. He sees and hears the frustration and anger in faces and voices of the community every day.
“It’s a question of faith and how you relate to other people,” Pastor Gordon said. “Everyone is a creation in God’s image. I’m admonished to treat people the way I expect them to treat me.”
Mr. Gordon credits his grandparents with instilling in him the confidence to be different “and live above what was happening in the world; not to become a product of his environment.” He was fortunate growing up; he had two parents, a large extended family, a church family, and a neighborhood “that cared and reassured me that I was worth something.”
Although it’s difficult, people of color must stop thinking of themselves as victims, he said. They must continue to campaign for justice and equality. They must not let others’ actions or words destroy or discourage them. At the end of the day, you’re only responsible for yourself, not for how other people treat you, he said.
It’s a lesson that church founder Richard Allen, a former slave, focuses on in his biography, Apostle of Freedom, as he shares the moment he decided to accept Christ as his personal savior, Mr. Gordon said.
“My dungeon shook, my chains fell off, and I became a free man,” Mr. Gordon said, quoting from the book. “Even though he was physically still living in slavery, he didn’t consider himself a slave any longer.
“The real slavery was his spiritual slavery, and now he was free — emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.”
Morris Jenkins recently visited Memphis, where he went to the Lorraine Hotel and stood in the same spot where Mr. King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968.
His trip occurred a few days after a jury ruled that George Zimmerman was not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of young Martin. The verdict troubled Mr. Jenkins, who was searching for answers.
“It’s still a moving experience to be at that hotel, standing in that same spot,” he says, his voice almost a whisper. “I grew up in Detroit in the ’60s, which had its own issues. We saw things on TV in the South, lots of images of Dr. King.”
Two thoughts occurred to him on that trip: “We as black parents need to teach our children the rules of life early. My dad would teach me how to deal with the police or when someone is armed how to stay alive.”
The second thought was that “this country has only been around 250 years. We’re only a 6-week-old baby in terms of a country. We’ve still got a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do,” he said.
“We’re at a crossroads right now,” Mr. Jenkins said. “We just need to pick the road we want to go on.”
Contact Federico Martinez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.