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Remembering 'No Justice, No Peace' in 2021

Protesters chant "Say his name, Andrew Brown!" as they pause at the intersection of Ehringhaus St. and Halstead Blvd. in Elizabeth City on April 26, 2021.
Laura Pellicer
Protesters chant "Say his name, Andrew Brown!" as they pause at the intersection of Ehringhaus St. and Halstead Blvd. in Elizabeth City on April 26, 2021.

Last April, Pasquotank County Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. as they carried out search and arrest warrants in Elizabeth City. The death of Brown, a Black man, sparked weeks of protests, as people in the community called for justice.

It was one of the most visible stories on my Race and Southern Culture beat this year, but hardly the only one that grabbed headlines.

From the pandemic putting a spotlight on racial health disparities, to Nikole Hannah-Jones vs. UNC-Chapel Hill, to the passing of a beloved HBCU chancellor, stories of race impacted every part of our lives.

"We put our hands up, they kill us. We comply, they kill us. So when they pull us over, what we supposed to do?"
Lamont Mullen, Andrew Brown Jr.'s distant cousin

On April 21, 2021, sheriff's deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old Black American, as he attempted to drive away from them during an arrest.

“I’m just tired of this senseless killings. There comes a time when it has to end,” said Lamont Mullen, Brown’s distant cousin. “We put our hands up, they kill us. We comply, they kill us. So when they pull us over, what we supposed to do? Why can’t we get the same respect of our white counterparts? You ain’t killing them, why kill us!”

Months later, a full recording of the incident still has not been released to the public. And now, similar protests are happening in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Over the weekend, an off-duty sheriff's deputy shot and killed Jason Walker, a Black man, during a traffic incident.

Andrew Brown Jr.’s death in Eastern North Carolina echoed another tragedy a year earlier. For many, the 2020 murder of George Floyd — a Black man — at the hands of a white police officer, was the spark that lit the fire, bringing issues of race and long-time broken promises of fairness and inclusion to the forefront.

But in 2021, did the cries of “No Justice, No Peace” wane? There have been some big wins in court. George Floyd’s murderer is in prison, so are the white men who killed Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. That sounds like justice.

But calls for justice were not confined to the courtroom. Last summer, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the school's board of trustees initially denied a tenure appointment for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. This Black woman is the author of “The 1619 Project” which examines the legacy of slavery in America.

Hannah-Jones told Gayle King on CBS This Morning that she was saddened when her alma mater put her through such an ordeal, but known politics played a part.

“What has been reported is that there was a great deal of interference by conservatives who don’t like the work I have done, particularly 'The 1619 Project.' And also by the powerful donor who gave the largest donation in the 70-year history of the journalism school,” said Hannah-Jones. “So it’s pretty clear that my tenure was not taken up because of political opposition, because of discriminatory views against my viewpoints, and I believe my race and my gender.”

So, the New York Times journalist packed her laptop and took her talent to a historically Black school — Howard University. She found peace.

"Today is a victory for us. This is what we have been working for, for 15 years."
Phyllis Coley, publisher of Spectacular Magazine and North Carolina Juneteenth state director

Despite the list of things that Tested us during 2021, there was still some cause for celebration. Last year, Juneteenth finally became a federal holiday. The name commemorates June 19, the day in 1865 when the last Black slaves were told, they were free.

“Today is a victory for us. This is what we have been working for, for 15 years,” said Phyllis Coley, the publisher of Spectacular Magazine and the North Carolina Juneteenth state director. “What people don’t know is North Carolina passed a Juneteenth Bill in 2009, but that bill said, North Carolina would recognize it when it’s recognized nationally.”

Meanwhile, when you think about race and the South, you can’t help but think about all the Confederate monuments that came down last year — changing the landscape for generations. Since George Floyd’s murder, more than 200 Confederate monuments and symbols have come down, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The biggest and longest fight was likely in Richmond, Virginia on Monument Avenue. Robert E. Lee, and his horse, took their final bow in September, when the 12-ton statue of the Confederate general was removed.

And many confederate monuments in North Carolina have also come down, but we noticed some parts of the statues remain in public view. The pedestals supporting many of these statues are still there.

“That is the problem with race and racism in America, quite often we do the superficial. We don’t dig deep to the root!” said Attorney James Williams, the chair of NC-CRED, the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System. “We’ve got to dig down deep to the root to remove those pedestals that form the base of those monuments to racial hatred in this country.”

Still in the middle of a pandemic, with cases of omicron surging, many of us are again worrying about how to get tested and boosted. But remember in early 2021, when the first COVID vaccines were just becoming available?

The roll-out of who was supposed to be first in line for a shot included health care workers and folks over 65. But reports showed there was some “vaccine entitlement” going on — people cutting in line when it wasn’t their turn. This contributed to a gap in vaccine access, which disproportionately affected older people of Color and those who weren’t tech-savvy and just didn’t know how to cut the line.

In early 2021, the Tested podcast visited the historically Black, St. Matthew Baptist Church in Raleigh. Jeff Brown, the chairman of the Deacon Board, said they weren’t open for regular service yet, but they had to open the doors to the church to get parishioners vaccinated.

“The pastor and the first lady were the first ones in the chair,” said Brown. “I talked to some where they were up at 4 o’clock in the morning, trying to get in [register online]. So that just raised their anxiety level. From what we see, this sort of setup will work well.”

St. Matthew Baptist Church was able to get 500 people vaccinated in one day.

Blatant health disparities and racism in our health care system are just a slice of the injustice evident during this pandemic. People of Color have been infected with COVID and have died at a much higher rate than whites.

Through a partnership between North Carolina Central University and Duke University, an ethno-drama was born called — “A Crisis of Moments,” written by Dasan Ahanu. The opening skit starts with a gameshow contestant rattling off all the right answers when it comes to HIV and Aids, H1N1 and the coronavirus.

“You’re our winner at raising awareness!” cheered the host. The winner takes home cash, an at-home COVID care kit with sanitizer, gloves and household cleaning products.

Ahanu says he “dove into this project,” to get his creative juices flowing again. He had family members suffering with COVID and didn’t want his stories to be too heavy and hurtful. So, he used sketch comedy to educate his audience and raise awareness.

 Headshot of Irving Pressley McPhail, the late president of Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh.
Courtesy of Saint Augustine’s University
Headshot of Irving Pressley McPhail, the late president of Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, some 20,000 people have died in North Carolina of COVID-related illnesses. One victim of this disease was Dr. Irving McPhail, the late president of St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh.

McPhail had just been named president of the historically Black institution months earlier. In a surprise move, the university named McPhail’s widow, Dr. Christine Johnson McPhail, as its new president. She was determined to lift up her late husband’s legacy of educating students of Color.

“So we are not going to lead anybody down a pitty party about Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail, because if you know who he was you’d celebrate his message,” said Christine Johnson McPhail. “We know the meaning of that empty chair. We were a purpose drive family before we lost Dr. McPhail, even more so today.”

One more person Tested lifted up in 2021, to tell stories of race and resiliency, Anna Pauline Murray — known as “Pauli Murray.” The lawyer, author, Episcopal priest, and advocate for civil and gender rights was ahead of her time.

“I feel as fully American as anyone else, this is my country, nobody will rob me of my birthright. I have as much right to speak as an American as anyone else,” said Murray.

Even though Pauli Murray died nearly 40 years ago, her bravery and wisdom has stayed with many of us to this day. WUNC’s Pauli podcastintroduced the social justice warrior to a new generation. The film, “My Name is Pauli Murray,” was released last year.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.