Honoring John Lewis with Reparations to the SF Black Community
By Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown
With the passing of Rep. John Lewis a few days ago, we lost one of the last members of the generation that launched the modern Civil Rights movement. He was among those who bravely stood up for justice and equality for Black Americans by putting his life on the line in the Jim Crow-era South, leading directly to the Black Lives Matter movement of today.
I was privileged to be a Freedom Rider alongside him, as a handful of us rode buses in an effort to eliminate segregation in the South in the 1950s. You could feel even then that he would leave an indelible mark upon the nation. In a long and distinguished career in Congress, he worked until his last days to deliver justice to oppressed people and break down the systemic racism that has plagued America since its founding.
The life and deeds of John Lewis will be celebrated in the coming days with ceremonies, speeches, and marches in communities around the country. Yet he deserves much more. His memory deserves to be linked with the kind of real, permanent change for which he fought his entire life. For those of us who knew him, his passing reminds us of his charge to us: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
We can and must do that here in San Francisco, and honor his legacy by recognizing and atoning for the city’s role in maintaining systemic racism.
As early as the 1850s, SF was a hostile environment for Blacks, who could not vote or own property, leading to a mass exodus to British Columbia in 1858. That environment remained essentially unchanged through the 20th Century: Rampant redlining prevented Blacks from owning property and building wealth, and the racist policy of “urban renewal” led to the destruction of the Black community in the Fillmore and the steady decline of the Black population here ever since.
Today, Black residents are targeted disproportionately by the police, while lives and families are destroyed by disproportionate imprisonment. Even as millions declare that “Black Lives Matter,” San Francisco has been declared the most gentrified city in the nation, forcing even more Black residents from their own communities.
Marches and protests cannot by themselves alter the living conditions of Blacks in San Francisco that are the result of decades of systemic racism. What is required to repair this historic injustice is the kind of urgent, significant action that John Lewis fought for during his career. It can and should mark the start of making long-overdue reparations to the Black community, by both the private and public sectors in San Francisco.
There are three things the city’s political and corporate leaders can do today that will mark a good-faith beginning:
- Deploy Universal WiFi for K-12 students: Public schools in San Francisco will conduct their fall semesters online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet in Black neighborhoods and public housing developments, few students have access to WiFi that is essential to learning. The city is home to some of the largest and most successful technology companies in the world. This is an opportunity for companies like Salesforce, Twitter, Uber, and others to show they can deliver for those most in need in the city they call home by underwriting the cost of providing wireless access.
- Revitalize the Cultural Heart of Black San Francisco: The Fillmore District was once rightly known as the Harlem of the West until undone by the bulldozers and racism of urban renewal. The Heritage Center in the Fillmore represents the pillar around which we can rebuild that culture. It must be supported by a major financial infusion from the city’s corporate and philanthropic community, to ensure the renaissance of the rich Black culture and history that enriches us all.
- Create Support Systems for Black and Brown Youth: So many Black youngsters in the city grow up in hellish conditions in housing developments and nearby neighborhoods that have been economically and socially marginalized by racism. Children are exposed to constant violence and poverty that has resulted from this marginalization. What they need is a place they can experience personal development and learn self-reliance. San Francisco owns Hidden Valley Ranch, land in La Honda, that was home to a former minimum-security prison. With private and public funding, this could be repurposed into a facility, providing an opportunity for kids to experience life away from the stress of living in places like Sunnydale, Harbor Road, Plaza East.
In his memoirs, Lewis wrote that “freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.” We have a unique opportunity to begin here, a process that is decades overdue. In his name and memory, I call upon the city’s leaders to do their part and begin, with these steps, to create the fair and just society our Black brothers and sisters deserve.