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My Grandmother’s Search for Security

How a Black woman in the 1960s might have thought about national security.

Words: Annika London
Pictures: Tachina Lee

In 1961, as the Freedom Riders traversed the South in a fight for their civil rights, my Granny Annie packed her 5 younger children and as many belongings as they could fit into their car and left Mississippi for Illinois. They left behind many of their extended family, along with their little farm and the crucial self-sufficiency it provided them given their impoverished circumstances. While Illinois offered many hopes of a better life, she had no guarantees of obtaining decent housing and enough jobs to sustain her family as a single mother.

As daunting as this journey was, it was just one of so many that millions of African Americans made during a time that some historians consider to be a second wave of the Great Migration. There were no doubt countless different dreams visible on the horizon for Annie and all the others who made this journey, but all of them perhaps intersected at one core wish for security in its many forms: political, economic, community, personal, and more.

The United States seems obsessed with the idea of security, and as a result, no level of devastation and pain wrought by our militaristic foreign policy abroad goes too far. Our endless drone wars across the Middle East and West Africa are “crucial.” The warmongers in our government thirsty for conflict with Iran and China are “justified.” The US’s heinous blanket sanctions crushing already vulnerable populations in Iran, Venezuela and North Korea are “essential” for our broader strategy. All of these actions — they say — are necessary for our national security.

Given this almost cultish dedication to national security by whatever means necessary, it’s worth asking: What exactly do we mean by security?

Given this almost cultish dedication to national security by whatever means necessary, it’s worth asking: What exactly do we mean by security?

Is it only about safety from perceived “foreign enemies”? Is it about securing our democratic values and different Constitutional rights, or the preservation of our basic human rights to dignity, justice and peace? Is it meant to include accessible education opportunities, career prospects and economic security? Is it about a guarantee to secure housing and healthcare?

I’m sure Annie had her own distinct ideas about what security felt like, stemming from the experience of having it ripped out of her hands — and all Black people’s hands — everywhere across the country, and especially in the South.

The entire purpose of Jim Crow was to eradicate every pathway to every form of security that Black people needed. Voting rights and the right to equal protection under the law were meticulously broken down. The economic opportunities Black communities needed in order to survive post-Civil War were picked apart. Those who dared to build their own new pathways risked brutal retaliation from the country’s racist legal systems, police and prison institutions, and white civilians who knew they would be celebrated, not held to account, for their racism. Hence, the Great Migration era witnessed millions of African Americans fleeing the South in search of a chance for security elsewhere.

I can only imagine the magnitude of the fear hanging over Annie as she made her choice to leave the insecurity she faced in Mississippi. In a haunting coincidence, my father shares Emmett Till’s July 25 birthday and was born the year Emmett was slaughtered in 1955, in the same state. When Annie looked at her baby boy, did she see Emmett’s face shining with happy eyes and a bright smile in his family photos, or did she see Emmett’s broken face as he lay in that open casket? As violence escalated in response to growing racial justice movements over the following years, did she fear that the chances of her children having secure futures would be extinguished altogether?

As Granny Annie was making her choice and preparing to move, her oldest child was in Vietnam. As her son was ordered to destroy Vietnamese families in the name of US security, she was attempting to find security for her family at home — in a country that has never wanted Black people to have it.

Vietnam: one of so many moments in which the United States has attempted to argue that the abhorrent bloodshed and agony forced upon a people half a world away would be worthwhile for the sake of achieving security at home. Black people know that’s a lie though — we can feel the lie in the intergenerational trauma passed to us from our ancestors and as we continue to endure the racist brutality of this country.

Today, our voting rights are under widespread attack. We are targeted and punished when we attempt to practice our right to protest. We are met with an endless gambit of anti-Black barriers in our education, careers, housing searches, and healthcare needs. Black athletes, singers, and other celebrities who use their platforms to call for change are vitriolically labeled as threats to the American way of life. Our lives are being shot and choked out of us, and our broken bodies left behind are spectacles on social media and news outlets. Our cruel deaths always come with a remarkable show of mental gymnastics from white America as they grasp for any reason to explain why we deserve to die.

The US will never achieve true national security so long as it believes that the lives of people of color, here and abroad, must be destroyed in order to accomplish this goal. To the complete contrary, Black voices — along with those from other racial minority groups —  are key to defining what true security feels like and what must happen within the US in order to cultivate and protect it here and everywhere.

Annie knew what security meant for her family. She wanted her children to be able to play outside in their neighborhood safely. She wanted them to go to a school that would welcome them into safe spaces. She wanted her sons to not end up like Emmett Till, and her daughters to not end up like the girls at Birmingham 16th St. Baptist Church. She wanted them to make it to adulthood, and to build thriving lives for themselves that wouldn’t end up derailed by white supremacy.

Black people may each define security differently based on their personal circumstances, needs, and dreams. But what Annie wanted is no doubt at least similar to what many others have always wanted, and continue to fight for. We want them not just as Black people, but as human beings who deserve to have our human rights met. And security, at its truest core, is a human right.

Annika London is the Senior Digital Associate at Win Without War, a DC-based organization focused on building a progressive US foreign policy that favors peace, not militarism. Originally from northwest Illinois, she has previously worked on racial and gender justice issues in Indianapolis and Washington, DC. 

Annika London

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