Juneteenth: The Son of a Slave Reflects on the America He Sees Today

Martin Dobrow
20 min readJun 19, 2020

By Martin Dobrow

From the driver’s seat of his red 2014 Volvo, Dan Smith looked in on the huge protest thronging Sixteenth Street in the Northwest quadrant of Washington D.C. on Friday evening, June 5. Through the windows, he basked in all of the energy, all of the caring, all of the great messages — like the “Black and White Lives Together” sign held by his wife, Loretta Neumann.

The protest, of course, had grown out of the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. The gruesome eight minutes and forty-six seconds under Derek Chauvin’s knee were on everyone’s mind. The pleading about not being able to breathe. The desperate cry for help to his deceased mother. The big dark body, lifeless.

This grim moment had unleashed activism America had not seen in at least 50 years. All the pent-up rage came spilling out. About Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Philandro Castile and Michael Brown and on and on and on.

In Washington, the protests had gone right down to the White House, the one built in large part by Black slaves. There was a fire in a nearby church. A fence growing taller. A Bible held for the cameras.

On Friday, June 5, Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed a two-block stretch of 16th Street “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” The huge yellow letters were visible from satellites orbiting the planet.

Dan Smith kept the windows rolled up that night, a cautiousness that has long been one part of his character. Back in August, 1963, concerned that the March on Washington could devolve into a blood bath, he had hesitated before driving down from Connecticut with his white friend, Barry Fritz. On March 21, 1965, he had been at first reluctant to join the Selma to Montgomery march, two weeks to the day since Bloody Sunday, when club-swinging and tear-gas spraying police on horses stormed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to attack peaceful protesters. Even though he believed deeply in the cause, Smith wasn’t sure he could trust himself, because “I’m not a non-violent person.”

This time, 55 years later, the cautiousness came from a different place. There were tons of people on the street, bunched up closely. He was fearful of contracting the coronavirus. Plus, his knee replacement from October hadn’t completely healed; he was still limping around. Also, the cardiologist and rheumatologist and urologist “all have…

Martin Dobrow

Martin Dobrow is an author, journalist, and professor of communications. You can reach him at mdobrow@springfieldcollege.edu, or on Twitter @martydobrow.