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Billy Reed: Racism has to stop now. What’s wrong with us? What can we cure this insidious disease?

“…I have a dream that the day will come when my four little children will live in a nation where they are judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character…”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
August 28, 1963

It sounded as simple and right then as it still does now. One of those self-evident truths, right? How can anybody who understands the American Dream not believe in the obvious righteousness of Dr. King’s unforgettable speech at the protest march on a troubled nation’s capital city?

Yet here we are, almost 57 years later, and racism in America is as virulent as ever.

Lately it’s been an ugly spate of white policemen killing unarmed African-Americans. In Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, and other cities, the dark nights of our soul have been lit by the violence of burnings and gunfire.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

What is wrong with us? Why can’t we find a cure for this deadly disease? Where are the men and women of goodwill expressing outrage over what amounts to legally sanctioned murder?

My friend Derrick Ramsey called the other day.

We met back in the 1970s, when Derrick was becoming the University of Kentucky’s first black quarterback. After ringing up an 8-4 record and a Peach Bowl victory in 1976, big things were expected of the Wildcats in Ramsey’s senior season of 1977, even despite the fact they were ineligible for post-season play due to NCAA recruiting violations.

After beating out Mike Deaton for the staring QB job, Ramsey led the Wildcats to a lackluster 10-7 win over North Carolina at home. Then they went to Waco, Tx., and lost to Baylor, 21-6, which was followed a week later by a so-so 28-13 win over West Virginia.

During the game, there was a lot of grumbling in the stands and even some boos. So afterward, a visibly upset Ramsey accused some fans of racism. He implied this element wanted the white Deaton, not him, as quarterback.

Although Derrick made his remarks before several reporters, most were Big Blue fans who didn’t want to upset Coach Fran Curci. They also were skittish about race because that was for the front page, not the sports page. So all except one ignored Derrick’s comments. Me. I was sports editor of The Courier-Journal, then one of the best papers in the nation, and I didn’t think it was right to be condescending to a black athlete.

Well, when the C-J hit the streets the next morning, all hell broke loose. Curci was livid. He unleashed UK’s sports information people to say the comments were either taken out of context or that I had misquoted Derrick. They tried to get Derrick to say the same thing. But guess what? He said I quoted him correctly and stood by his words.

Can you imagine the courage and character that took?

At that point, his teammates rallied around him because he had proven to be a stand-up leader. It became his team – and it didn’t lose again the rest of the season. The final 10-1 record included some victories that might seem impossible today: 24-20 at Penn State, 33-13 at LSU, 33-0 at Georgia, 32-0 over Virginia Tech at home, 14-7 at Florida, and 21-17 over Tennessee at home when Ramsey still was suffering from the beating he took in Gainesville.

Now fast-forward to 2003, when our mutual friend Jim Host asked us to work for him in the state Commerce Cabinet, Derrick as Deputy Secretary and me as Executive Director of Communications. It was then than Derrick and I built on the relationship we had forged during his playing days.

I well remember the day we had lunch at some restaurant in Frankfort, and I began talking about how far the sports world and nation had come in the area of race relations since Derrick’s playing days. As I prattled on, Derrick didn’t say anything. But when I was done, he smiled at me and said, “Some of what you said is true, but there’s as much racism in America as there ever was. They’ve just gone underground, that’s all.”

Derrick Ramsey

At the time, looking at it through a white man’s eyes, I wasn’t sure I could buy it. But since the election of 2016, I’ve painfully realized that he was right on the money. Racists of all kinds, including crooked cops, act as if they’ve been given permission to come out in the open and do their evil without much fear of reprisal.

I figured that’s what Derrick wanted to talk about when he called, but I was wrong again. He only wanted to check on me, one friend to another, to see how I was coping with the Coronavirus pandemic.

Something so simple as Dr. King’s beliefs shouldn’t be so hard to kill. But it is. I can’t figure out why, unless there is something embedded deep within us that is harder to cure than the Coronavirus. Regardless, I’m sick of it. Whenever I talk to Derrick or some of my other African-American friends, I feel the urge to apologize.

No human being should ever be killed in cold blood like George Floyd was in Minneapolis or Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Black lives matter. All lives matter. America is not a police state – or is it? Is that why so many whites refuse to let go of their assault weapons under the flimsy pretext that they’re protecting their Second Amendment rights? What hogwash.

African-Americans have enriched my life in many ways. They have taught me much about dignity, fairness, equality. They have made me want to be judged not by the color of my skin, but the quality of my character.

I worry about Derrick, his wife Lee, and the other African-Americans who have shared their lives and feelings with me. As they watch the tape of Minneapolis cops literally murdering George Floyd over an almost nine-minute span, they couldn’t be blamed for thinking, “There, but for the grace of God…”

It has to stop. Now. It’s obscene that Dr. King’s words in 1963 are as valid today as they were then. What is wrong with us? Dr. King promised us that someday we would be free at last. I hope he is right. But when, oh when, will we see that blessed day finally arrive?

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