My wife Cathy and I could easily be classified as upper middle-class, middle-aged, White Americans. I serve as president of Fontbonne University in St. Louis, and Cathy is pastoral associate at Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Parish.
We have seven biological children, ranging in age from 20 to 32. We have an adopted daughter from Ecuador who joined our family as she was entering young adulthood. We have four African-American children who were adopted in 2011 and now range in age from 6 to 10. We also have an African-American son-in-law.
Cathy, the youngest four children, and I moved to St. Louis in July 2014, just before the Michael Brown Jr. death in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.
Not too long ago, our 9-year-old son David asked why we did not have a “Black Lives Matter” sign in our yard. A valid question, to be sure.
Several weeks later, with the help of a colleague at Fontbonne, we had secured a sign, which we put on display in our front yard. We happen to live in the university president’s home on Wydown Boulevard in the affluent Clayton suburb of St. Louis.
On June 30, one of my young adult and White daughters was sitting on the front porch when a middle-aged White gentleman came walking by. He gestured to the sign and said to my daughter, “They never have and they never will.”
She sat flummoxed and unable to respond as the stranger proceeded on his way.
Later that evening, my wife, two of our young adult White daughters, and I were sitting on the porch when another middle-aged White gentleman came running by. He stopped, looked up at us on the porch, and asked, “Don’t all lives matter?”
We responded surely, all lives matter, but at this time in our history, given what is happening in our country, and given the racial make-up of our family, that special attention needed to be paid to the plight of Black Americans, especially Black young men who seem to be targeted by law enforcement.
He responded that he recently attended his son’s graduation from Washington University in St. Louis, and he seemed to be put off by the fact that Ken Burns, the commencement speaker, drew a standing ovation when he invoked “Black Lives Matter.”
We went back and forth with him a little, and he ended with something like, “I hope middle-aged White male lives matter as well.”
I have to admit that my emotions ranged from outraged to really ticked off to contemplative as I sought to understand what had happened. The exchange has led me to pen this reflection. Black lives matter now more than ever!
Consider the recent violence allegedly carried out by Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina against a group of people gathered to pray and study sacred scriptures. Roof appears to be a young man radicalized via the internet by a culture of hate focused on those whose only difference is the color of their skin.
Unlike other immigrants to the United States, our Black brothers and sisters were enslaved for several hundred years. Lest we forget, they were granted basic civil rights less than 50 years ago. There are descendants of families remaining who fought to uphold the institution of slavery which was abolished during the Lincoln administration still alive today.
Black lives matter.
As the president of a University, I feel compelled to educate our students, our faculty and our community to leave this history of hatred and intolerance behind. As a president of a Catholic University, I feel compelled to challenge each of us to see all of humanity as created in the image and likeness of a loving God.
So, to my middle-aged White neighbor who asked, “Don’t all lives matter?” the answer is this. Yes, all lives matter, but until we put behind us a violent, oppressive history which demeans Black men and women in this country, we must pay special attention to the lives of our Black brothers and sisters now and in the generations to come.
J. Michael Pressimone is president of Fontbonne University.