By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) – Bettye and Robert Freeman were sitting in their Boston living room when they heard the clamor on the street outside.
After 51 years of marriage, they walked out to their stoop without saying a word. They just went.
As they pushed through the heavy wooden front door, they saw the chanting protesters. It was June 4, 2020, 10 days after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Still silent, the Freemans – self-described “children of the ‘60s” who are Black – simultaneously, solemnly raised their right fists. The crowd returned the salute.
Reuters photographer Brian Snyder’s image shows two faces flooded with pain, pride, sadness and strength all at once.
“It was a passing of the torch,” Bettye, a retired lawyer whose father was the first Black mayor of Montclair, New Jersey, said in an interview in the run-up to the anniversary of Floyd’s May 25, 2020 death. “We’ve marched, we’ve protested. And maybe some of the sadness in my face is that we’re still having to do this.”
The Freemans’ photo was among the most memorable Reuters images from the protests after Floyd’s death. A year later, Reuters asked subjects of three powerful photos about their reflections. They spoke of equality, justice and disillusionment.
“The meter hasn’t moved that much,” Bettye said, “and that’s very distressing.”
Bettye, 71, is a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general for civil rights and dean of students at Northeastern University law school.
Robert is an artist and retired art teacher who spent ages 9 through 17 in Ghana, where his father relocated the family from the United States in search of equality. Robert grew up seeing monuments raised to Black leaders and faces like his on Ghana’s currency. He got a taste, he said, of an empowerment he has not felt in America.
Robert, 75, was at the March on Washington in 1963 as a teenager, when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on the National Mall of his dream of equality. Robert has felt the high of a powerful moment, and the deflation as subsequent events made him wonder whether change would come.
In 1963 it was the death of four little Black girls in the Birmingham church bombing two weeks after the March on Washington. In 2021 it was the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, with some in the mob waving the Confederate flag.
“It was a disappointment that highlighted the lack of progress along racial lines,” Robert said.
Bettye noted that the protests following Floyd’s murder came during a pandemic, when more people had time to watch the video of his killing and then to take to the streets. She worries that in a post-pandemic normal, the fire fueling demand for racial justice will die out. She holds onto a cautious optimism.
“But in my lifetime, the changes are not going to be what I would have hoped they would be by now,” she said.
Two days after the Freemans raised their fists, 16-year-old Bethel Boateng was prone on a thoroughfare in Denver yelling, “I can’t breathe!” into a bullhorn.
The Black daughter of Ghanaian immigrants was part of a protest that halted traffic on the road leading to Denver’s airport, and an image of her was made by photographer Kevin Mohatt.
“In that moment, on that day, I felt like I was on top of the world,” Bethel said.
That sense has since given way to a realization that change can take a lifetime, which hit home when police killings of Black Americans continued after Floyd’s death.
On April 11, 20-year-old Black motorist Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a white police officer during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb. That killing, for which the officer was charged with manslaughter, came during the trial of Derek Chauvin, who was a Minneapolis police officer when he knelt on Floyd’s neck during an arrest over an alleged fake $20 bill. Chauvin’s trial ended April 20 with a jury finding him guilty of murder, a rare outcome in such a case.
Bethel wants to start an activist club at her high school to address racial equality – but also economic equality and police reform.
“There has to be more consequences for police who kill,” she said.
Aaron Xavier Wilson was just tired.
It was Aug. 28, 2020. The Black international relations expert, who works for a non-governmental organization focused on safeguarding democratic institutions, was in a meeting and felt the need to attend a protest on the Washington Mall. He closed his laptop and headed out on his bike that Friday afternoon.
Photographer Andrew Kelly captured Wilson with a sign, the Washington Monument in the background. Wilson’s sign, which he made using a cardboard box and a Sharpie, read: “I AM A MAN.”
In 1968, striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee carried signs with that message as they demanded better safety standards and wages. King addressed strikers the night before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, telling them: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.”
Wilson, 32, was thinking of history when he made his sign.
“I wanted to show that there is a continuity in this struggle and that the core friction points have not been resolved,” he said. “This core issue of our humanity and our worth was still a point of contention.”
Wilson worries that Americans have self-segregated to such a degree – liberals in cities, conservatives in the countryside, for example – that they are unable to make progress on contentious issues.
If Bettye Freeman is cautiously optimistic, Wilson is wearily pessimistic.
“We live in such a way now,” he said, “that prevents us from having the kind of conversations we need to build empathy and understanding.”
(Reporting and writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Donna Bryson and Cynthia Osterman)