Why Black Lives Matter To Me
By James Bentley
Growing up in Marlborough projects I had all kinds of friends. We had one thing in common, low income. The projects were built in an Italian neighborhood. Poor whites of all backgrounds, Hispanics, Jews, Irish, Italians and African Americans were my neighbors and friends. The first public school I attended was PS 212 in 1960. One of my classmates was Michael McNair. His bother Gregory was in my brother's class.
They were African Americans and they lived in the same building as my family. Our parents always greeted each other when they met in the lobby of our building and they were always nice to us. Gregory's mom suffered from crippling, rheumatoid arthritis and my dad was paralyzed by a stroke so we had something in common. Gregory and Michael were both tall and muscular as they got older and Gregory was the biggest boy in the projects. We played sports of all kinds with them but if I hit a home run playing stick ball, the ball would only hit the 3rd floor of the building behind the small park between buildings. When Gregory hit a home run there was a loud boom and the ball hit the 15th floor and broke a window.
One day my brother was playing football in a different park when the ball landed near some white guy's girlfriend. The guy was much bigger than he and came after my brother who ran from him and positioned himself with an automobile between him and the guy chasing him. Our friend Gregory showed up and told the guy to scram, so he left. My brother and Gregory returned to the small park next to our building.
Later an automobile pulled up and 5 white guys got out with baseball bats and were coming for my brother. Gregory and his brother Michael positioned themselves between the guys with the baseball bats and attempted to calm things down. Then the guy who chased my brother from the park swung his bat hitting Gregory squarely in the jaw knocking his teeth out and fracturing his jaw and also hit Michael across his eyebrow. Gregory then jumped over the fence to get them and they dropped their bats and ran away.
Gregory was hospitalized and his jaw was wired back together by surgeons. My brother, with my mothers' blessing, went to court to testify against the guy who did this despite being threatened with death. That guy was sentenced to 6 years in prison and warned that if he ever stepped foot in the projects again he will be arrested. Gregory and my brother remained friends for life.
Gregory was drafted into the US Army and sent to Vietnam, as I was a few years later. During the turbulence of the 1960's the leader of the Black gang on the other side of the projects tried to get Gregory to join his gang. I witnessed this and Gregory declined. I personally have witnessed gangs of white thugs from outside the projects pulling up in carloads inside and on top of the cars with baseball bats chains and clubs running through the projects screaming racial obscenities and fighting with blacks. All the police were Italian so by the time the cops came, the project people came out with their weapons and some were arrested by the police.
One Fourth of July, I was in the park on the other side of the projects lighting fireworks. There were a group of young African American kids there also lighting fireworks. I was careful not to throw my fireworks near any of the kids. There was a building adjacent to the park where a white guy was standing on the porch. I saw him light a cherry bomb and throw it into the park among the kids. Immediately they thought I did it because I was standing near them lighting fireworks. I was then surrounded by the leader of the gang and others who were holding baseball and stick ball bats. They gave the kids branches from a tree and told them to whip me.
All I could do is stand there and take it while the white guy who did this watched from the safety of the porch of his building. Later that same evening I was surrounded by a group of angry African American women and the same gang holding bats while the women took turns slapping me in the face and accusing me of calling them niggers. In my entire life I have never used that word to describe anyone but because of what happened it was useless to tell them that. Again all I could do is stand there and take the beating while the white guy who caused this stood outside on the porch watching them beat me.
Then someone pushed his way through the crowd and pulled me out. It was Gregory. He told them all to leave me the fuck alone and brought me home. After that I was never bothered again by those people and later some became my friends. Gregory married a white woman and I was invited to take the pictures at his wedding. To me it was a great honor.
When Gregory passed away about one year ago, both I and my brother attended his funeral. I came back to Brooklyn New York from Florida where I live now to be there. I met Gregory's son, who is as big as his father. I told him that his father was the greatest man I ever met in my life. If it had not been for what he and his brother did, that not only would I have lost my brother to a bunch of cowardly thugs but I probably would never have become a doctor because my brother was sole supporter of our family since he was the first one of us to be old enough to work. I might have ended up in jail for taking revenge.
Nothing I have discussed here has ever been reported in the news. Every time I hear a certain presidential candidate insult people of color it disgusts me. I remember my father taking me to the Statue of Liberty and reading the poem at the base of the statue and each time I look at our coins the words E Pluribus Unum which is Latin for "from many, one." I remember my friends I grew up with and those I served with in Vietnam because when a person saves your life it really doesn't matter what color their skin is, what language they speak, what their race is, what their culture is or who they love, because in the end we are all brothers and sisters and that's what makes this country different from everywhere else.
Gregory McNair served in the US Army in Vietnam. He is buried in Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island New York. My parents and my wife are also buried there. My great great grandfather, James Charles Bentley served with the New York State Volunteer militia and carried the medicine into the battle of Fair Oaks during the Civil War. None of my ancestors were slave owners. All these unjustified police shootings of African Americans are disgusting me and my family. Police are approaching them with guns drawn for no apparent reason and they always shoot to kill.
James Bentley is a Vietnam veteran.