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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Dank Hawkins looks at the mural on the east end of the Wilcox Tunnel on April 3, 2018. Hawkins, a Howard graduate who played basketball at Edmonson Junior College, said he hopes current civil unrest and discussions about race relations help people see the need to "treat everyone like you would want to be treated" regardless of skin color.

"N----- lovers!"

Forty-three years later, Dank Hawkins still remembers the moment as if it were yesterday, no matter how much he'd like to forget it.

A proud member of the Howard High School graduating class of 1976, an African American who was born at Erlanger in 1958, Hawkins was leaving a local restaurant with several of his fellow Edmondson Junior College basketball teammates and a handful of the school's white cheerleaders that night in 1977 when he heard the N-word directed the cheerleaders' way.

"It was from a table full of white guys," Hawkins said. "A couple of my teammates wanted to retaliate, but cooler heads prevailed. The cheerleaders all said, 'Let's keep going,' and that's what we did. But I'll never forget it. And until George Floyd, I didn't think that much had changed over the years."

Until. George. Floyd.

When Time magazine picks its Person of the Year, is there any doubt it has to be the late North Carolina-born, Houston-raised Floyd, whose black life apparently mattered next to nothing to despicable white policeman Derek Chauvin.

It was the sadistic Chauvin who forcefully placed his knee on the back of Floyd's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds on May 25 in Minneapolis, leaving it there — despite Floyd's numerous pleas of "I can't breathe" — until he died.

"Rage," 66-year-old Herbert "Book" McCray, the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball great, said of his reaction to video of the incident, during which other officers stood by. "All-out rage. Just (Chauvin's) whole body language. It was him saying, 'I'm going to do what I'm going to do, and I feel I have the white supremacy to do it. I'm going to express my evilness.'

"And that smirk on his face. He didn't care about the crowd watching or the girl filming it on her phone. He was showing the world that he was going to invoke his power and there was nothing anyone could do about it."

Chauvin and three other officers present have been charged in connection with the killing of Floyd, with Chauvin's charges including second-degree murder.

But from Floyd's horrible death, something has come to life in this country that we've never previously witnessed on such a grand scale regarding the desperate need to end systemic racism.

For starters, significant numbers of whites are marching alongside their black brothers and sisters in large-scale demonstrations and protests over Floyd's killing. Yes, a few of those protests turned needlessly violent and an unseemly amount of looting in some corners briefly muddled the message.

Yet the nearly unanimous outrage is undeniably sparking the need for a far better understanding of the overwhelming challenges of being black in America.

And while you can agree or disagree with some of the changes taking place as a result of those protests, you can't ignore the swiftness or decisiveness of those changes, including from the sports world, where everything from NASCAR banning the Confederate flag to the NFL allowing, if not encouraging, players to kneel during the national anthem to several University of Texas football players telling the school they won't help recruit if it doesn't stop playing "The Eyes of Texas," which they consider racist, is taking place.

There's even this from an unnamed NBA player, who told ESPN an unintended negative of resuming the season cut short by the coronavirus pandemic could be this: "Once we start playing basketball again, the news will turn from systemic racism to who did what in the game last night. We are asking ourselves, 'Where and how can we make the biggest impact?'"

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Staff photo / Former UTC basketball star Herbert "Book" McCray talks about what boys learn in his mentoring program on June 14, 2017, at Booker T. State Park. McCray is optimistic about current protests resulting in policy changes in how law enforcement "communicates and interacts from a humane standpoint" with the public.

For McCray, who has spent most of his adult life helping this community's at-risk youth through various programs — including his current job as head of the mentoring ministry Boys to Men, which has just merged with the Bethlehem Center — the biggest positive impact he's seeing at the moment is a change in policy as it relates to law enforcement.

"There's always the potential to go right back where we've been," he said. "But I think we're really looking hard at how law enforcement communicates and interacts from a humane standpoint."

Hawkins experienced the need for such a change firsthand when his daughter had a serious wreck a few years ago and he tried to get to her.

"I just needed to get to my baby, and this white officer tells me to move along," said Hawkins, who worked for the city for 31 years and now works as a behavioral specialist at Central High School. "I tried to explain that I needed to be with her. He ended up cuffing me so tight I had to have a hand specialist fix the damage."

Hawkins said a judge later scolded the policeman, but Hawkins was also quick to add, "I thank God for my relationship with city officials."

McCray said relationships need understanding on both sides, something he learned from a Shawnee High School teacher in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

"He used to say, 'Every black person is not your friend and every white person is not your enemy,'" McCray recalled. "I'll never forget going shopping with my wife one day down on Battlefield Parkway. We were walking through a parking lot that was used by a lot of white guys in pickup trucks flying Confederate flags years later. My wife had gotten ahead of me when an older white man approached. He told me, 'My race has not done your race right. I just want to tell you I'm sorry.' That's why you can't put all people of any race in one basket."

And what does Hawkins most hope comes from this moment in time?

"Give everyone a fair chance," he said. "Treat everyone like you would want to be treated. After all, we've all got the same red blood."

If that's not as clear as black and white to every race everywhere, it should be.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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