In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others, countless white people across the county have experienced a social awakening.
Judy Hand-Truitt isn’t among them.
The 72-year-old Center Point resident has been socially awake from her youth and four years ago established White Birminghamians For Black Lives to protest racial injustice.
The racially mixed group marched regularly at Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park until the pandemic made their marches less frequent. Its most recent march was Friday, May 29; its next march will be Friday, June 26.
The group, which also has walked at Railroad Park, Avondale Park and the downtown business district, grew out of the September 2016 shooting deaths of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte.
“That came so close together in 2016,” Hand-Truitt said. “They were just coming really thick and fast. Those two came so close together that I just felt like I had to participate in some sort of response. That’s when we started walking weekly.”
Hand-Truitt admits that her group’s name doesn’t roll off the tongue. Initially, she called it White People For Black Lives. Within a week, she decided the group needed to identify with Birmingham, even though some wanted a name that was more palatable.
“It was a painful choice, really,” she said, adding that it was needed to make their mission clear. “What we are doing is just trying to invite and cajole and appeal to white people who are standing at the threshold of involvement, who know what they see is wrong. They know it’s wrong but they’ve not had a way to express that, or they haven’t had the nerve to express that, or they haven’t had anyone model for them how white people can take a stand for racial justice.”
The organizer makes it clear that her group is not exclusively comprised of Caucasians.
“It’s for everybody. We badly need everybody,” she said. “We need black people. We need white people. We invite everybody who thinks it’s time for white people to find their conscience in regard to racial justice and do something.”
Hand-Truitt said WBFBL marches are nearly always comprised of an interracial group. That composition legitimizes their effort, she said.
“If we never had anybody show up who was a black person or a person of color, I would feel like we were not doing anything right at all, that we were just out in left field,” she said. “But white people have a special responsibility in this matter. We have to acknowledge our history. We have to address it, and we have to take ownership of it.”
Hand-Truitt was 16 when the eyes of the nation fell on Birmingham when the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church took the lives of four black girls. She was in her late 20s in 1976 when she went to work for the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice.
Decades later, Hand-Truitt said, there is “a lot of work at our doorstep to be done.”
“We’re just trying to take some of the responsibility that is particularly ours, and particularly invite white people,” she said. “We won’t make a huge change in this country unless we have a higher percentage of white people on the side of transformative change.
“We don’t have to have all of them. We don’t even have to have an overwhelming majority,” she said. “But we have to have a significant percentage of white people in order to make up the coalition that’s needed to make fundamental change in how this country is run. We’re just trying to increase that slice of white people who have the nerve and the principle, and the commitment to come out publicly against all the manifestations of racism that have been part of our country’s history.”
Toward that end, Hand-Truitt calls her marchers witnesses, in the sense of a courtroom. “We just speak what we know to be true, or we witness to what we know,” she said. “We bear witness to what we know.”
Hand-Truitt’s stand left relations with some family members rocky from the time she was a young woman.
“I don’t want to dwell on that, but there were long periods of time as I was developing my activism as a young woman when I was estranged from my family,” she recalled. “That was painful, and even now those relationships are strained because my family of origin is … conservative white Southerners, by and large.
“But there are a few cousins who have also made that transition,” Hand-Truitt said. “It’s very, very precious to have family members that you can talk about the world with, that you can critique, that you can share your critique of cultural and historical things with. I do have a few of those family members, and that’s wonderful.”
The organizer said her group’s effort doesn’t benefit only African Americans. It gives everyone a more diverse, enriching society, she said.
“Can you imagine a stew with only salt?” she asked. “No cumin, no parsley, no basil. Oh, my goodness, how deprived we would be with one color in a tapestry, one seasoning for a dish?”