‘Not just a black problem, but an American problem’

Sparta. Vernon Township Mayor Howard Burrell shared these comments that he delivered at the June 20 anti-racism protest In Sparta.

Vernon /
23 Jun 2020 | 10:57

Let me start my comments by reconfirming to you what I hope and believe that you already know -- and that is that your presence here, and the presence of the thousands of other Americans of various races and creeds; of various colors and genders; of various sexual orientations and religions.

This peaceful protest here in Sparta, and the thousands of others, are making a significant difference in moving our country forward towards achieving that “more perfect union” that’s articulated as an objective in the preamble to our nation’s constitution.

The protests of the past several weeks have been the broadest and most racially diverse in U.S. history. And of equal importance, they are occurring even in small American towns with primarily non-Black populations; like my hometown of Vernon, like Newton, and today, like the beautiful town of Sparta.

While this protest, and the hosts of others like this around our nation, were sparked by the unnecessary and unjustified death of George Floyd, you and I want the world to know that these protests are no longer simply about the unnecessary and unjustified death of one American.

I stand here today and tell everyone within the sound of my voice, that in my heart and mind, I believe that these protests are our collective way of saying to the world that you, like me, are tired of and frustrated about the race and color divisions in our country; and that you, like me, believe that it’s time that our nation live up to that pledge of being that great nation, that offers liberty and justice for all of its citizens no matter what their race or creed; no matter what their color or gender; no matter what their sexual orientation or religion; no matter what! Because we are all Americans.

It is said that there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. And I believe that your demonstrated determination, I believe that your persistence, and I believe that your presence here today, is you way of telling the world that the fair, just, equal, and humane treatment of all of our nation’s citizens is an idea whose time has come.

As a former officer in the U.S. Air Force, and as a former international sales manager for a specialty chemical company, I have had the privilege of being able to visit, and in some cases live in, several different countries around the world. For example, my wife, Reb,a and I lived in the country of Turkey for almost four years.

So I can tell you first hand and without a doubt, that we do live in a great country.

But as an American of African descent, as an individual who was born and raised in the deep south state of Mississippi, as an individual who has lived in many parts of this nation, including the states of Tennessee, Texas, California, New York, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, and now the great State of New Jersey -- I can also tell you from firsthand experience that it’s not easy, and sometimes it’s very difficult to impossible, for a person of color to gain access to the high quality of life, to gain access to the benefits of the freeing liberty, and to gain the equal and fair opportunity to pursue the degree of happiness that’s readily available in our great country to our white brothers and sisters. And that’s not right, and it has to end.

The issues of race and color have been divisive issues in our nation from the very beginning. Our nation’s positions and actions on race and color have always been in conflict with our nation’s constitution and with what we have said that we believe as a people.

These race and color issues have always been a great burden on our country’s potential. The issues of race and color caused a great and deadly civil war in which nearly 500,000 military personnel died. That’s a death toll that equals almost half of all of the Americans who have ever died during wartime; and, it’s a death toll that’s more than a hundred times greater than the number of soldiers who died during the revolution to form our country. We must bring this racial division in our country to an end because it continues poses a serious threat to the very stability of our nation.

Many historians, religious leaders, political leaders, and others have labeled the race and color related issue of slavery as America’s original sin. And it is from that original sin that our nation’s many ingrained institutional, and often not obvious, negative race and color factors have derived from.

But as I scan the crowds of peaceful protesters around our nation for what we in America have for years called a black problem, I now see strong evidence that these negative, painful, and divisive issues of race and color have now been taken on and accepted by a large and growing number of white Americans like you as not just a black problem, but an American problem.

This gives me hope, because it says to me that an increasing number of Americans in the majority group are beginning to realize that while we may be the decedents of various and different races, colors, ethnic groups, religions, and creeds of individuals who came to this great country either freely, or as indentured servants, or as slaves.

While we all may be the decedents of different groups who came to this great country on different types of ships, we are all in the same boat now.

And the name of this boat is the United States of America. We all should work together to ensure that this boat does not sink because of the racial bias that’s built into the thoughts and actions of the many institutions that have a significant influence over the quality of our lives.

Because if this boat, called the United States of America, does sink, it will spell disaster not just for some of us, but for all of us.

Let me end my comments with what I believe is a very important message.

While it’s very self-fulfilling for us to highlight and criticize the negative comments and actions of others through our posts on our Facebook pages, and through our texts and tweets; while it’s very self-fulfilling for us to participate in marches and demonstrations, if we really want a government that’s responsive to the needs and desires of the majority of citizens, we must also vote.

So I call on you to not let this protest end here today; let’s carry it to the ballot box.

Thank you!

“I can also tell you from firsthand experience that it’s not easy, and sometimes it’s very difficult to impossible, for a person of color to gain access to the high quality of life, to gain access to the benefits of the freeing liberty, and to gain the equal and fair opportunity to pursue the degree of happiness that’s readily available in our great country to our white brothers and sisters. And that’s not right, and it has to end.” --Vernon Mayor Howard Burrell