(subject: racial justice) Unitarian Church of Lincoln
18 January 2015
All across America today, preachers will be delivering sermons on the very same text. Some sermons will sound like eulogies, with lamentations of what might have been. Some will be hagiographies – the stories of the life of a saint – with proclamations of the wonders that were seen. Some sermons will sound like jeremiads – harsh prophetic judgments – with condemnations for our failure to make real the dream. But the text will be the same for all of them, and that text is the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., because last Thursday would have been his 86th birthday.
His was a remarkable life: public figure at age 26, national leader at age 34, international figure and Nobel Laureate at age 35, and martyr for peace, love, and justice at age 39. I believe that history will reveal him to have been the single greatest American of the 20th century.
Dr. King did not change America single-handedly, but through his sermons and speeches he challenged America to confront a sickness in the soul of our society. His “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28th, 1963, is one of the best known speeches in our nation’s history.
Dr. King observed in his speech that, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in this country, “the Negro is not free . . . is still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination [and],” he said, “. . . lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity . . . is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”
Delivered in an era when the voting rights of black Americans were severely restricted, when “Whites Only” signs adorned segregated restrooms, restaurants, and water fountains in the southern states, and when protests again such discrimination were brutally and ruthlessly suppressed, the America of “I Have a Dream” can seem like some distant, foreign land known to us only through history books and quaint black and white photos.
This church was an active force for racial justice in the 1960s, nationally and locally. Its minister, my senior colleague, Charles Stephen made multiple trips to Alabama and Mississippi support the Civil Rights movement and here in Lincoln the congregation was a driving force in the campaign to end race-based housing discrimination. Those triumphs in the march of justice in our nation came because ordinary people did extraordinary things in a time of great national need. One of the congregational tasks during the interim year is to recover and reclaim its own history as a foundation on which to build future success, and this church should remember and be proud of that important chapter in its history.
Today, the President of the United States – the leader of the free world – is a black man living in our nation’s executive mansion, a house built in part by slave labor. From the halls of our nation’s capitol to the halls of academia, from the board room of any corporation to the locker room of nearly any professional sports team, America looks a lot different than it did when Dr. King scaled the Lincoln Memorial to offer his memorable vision for our nation 51 years ago.
For a straight, white, man like me – ensconced safely in suburban life – it can seem as though the battle for civil rights has been fought and justice – with full equality for everyone – triumphed.
Yet, sometimes the news from our nation offers jarring images that challenge the comforting myth that we live in a “post-racial” era in America. The national response to the killing of 18-year old Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri last August ripped the veneer off our illusion of equality. Videotape of the strangulation killing of Eric Garner by a white police officer in Staten Island, New York has further shocked our nation. Two separate grand juries looked at all the evidence in this two deaths and found no grounds for criminal prosecution of the killers. We knew that 50 years ago, in the segregated South, white policemen killed black men with impunity; but we thought that in the 21st century real justice prevailed. It turns out that we still have much work to do.
You see, there are different Americas. There is one for rich people and another for poor people. There is one for white people and another for black people. If I get pulled over by a police officer, then I know that I broke the law. I was speeding or I ran a stop sign or I was towing a boat behind my car without a trailer. I did something wrong, and I’m going to learn what that was pretty quickly. The same is not true for my black male friends and especially their teenaged sons. And if I DO have a serious problem with the police, that requires me to accompany them back to the station, at no time will I be worried that I’ll be killed while being arrested. The same is not true for my black male friends and most especially their teenaged sons.
Approximately 5% of Nebraskans are black, yet 27% of the inmates in our state’s prisons are black. Some Americans look at those statistics and imagine a natural propensity for criminality among a particular race of people; other Americans look at those statistics and see racism and injustice.
As a white man in America, I can assume “the normalcy of whiteness.” My music, my dress, my speech are all “normal” and everything else is exotic or wrong or deviant. And because of my privileged place in this society, I can assume that all my experiences – driving, shopping, voting, buying a house, interacting with the police – are “normal.” I can assume that everyone else gets treated just the way that I do, which is the privileged assumption behind “the normalcy of whiteness.”
It’s easy for me to think this way and take my privileged, fortunate life for granted. Lincoln is approximately 86% white, 6% Hispanic, and about 4% each black and Asian. I have to actively force myself to think what it would be like to be a black man living in my neighborhood, shopping at the grocery store, coming to church, because it’s easy for me NOT to think about it.
But then, every once in awhile, by the grace of God, someone like Charles walks into my life and reminds me that some things are not to be taken for granted.
It was the Monday of a Columbus Day weekend some years ago, and I was raking acorns in my front yard in Pennsylvania. The suburbs where I lived there are 90% white. I heard a polite voice hail me from the sidewalk and ask if I knew the location of an address on West Valley Road in Tredyffrin. It was a young black man in his late 20s, dressed in jeans, a loose button down shirt, and work boots with his hair drawn back tight and fixed in a short pig-tail. He was looking at a piece of paper in his hand and cautiously standing at the end of my driveway. I beckoned him forward.
He said he had a job interview. I thought that I knew approximately where he was going, but went into house to get my glasses, so that I could consult the map from my car. I still wasn’t exactly sure where the address was, but knew that it was more than a mile away and there were few sidewalks on the road he’d have to take. I had just preached a sermon on “kindness” the day before, so I said, “Come on, I’ll drive you.”
He was hesitant. I got my keys. He followed me, trying to show me his driver’s license to prove who he was. I just casually brushed aside his efforts and told him, “That’s alright, Charles, I believe you.”
We drove along and he told me about working with his father and how they’d had a falling out. He told me that he was applying for a warehouse job. I never had to ask him a question, because he made sure to tell me everything that I might wonder. We found the office park where he was going and he tried to give me some money for gas. I refused.
I thought about Charles all the way back to the house and then while I was raking leaves. Why did he feel the need to show me his driver’s license? Why was he so verbose, telling me all these things about his personal life? Why did he feel the need to tell me about his work history and the details of his falling out with his father?
Then it hit me . . . he wanted to reassure me that he was safe. To reassure me that he was a “working man” who came from a stable family. He knew his father, worked with his father, he wasn’t one of “those” young black men.
What white suburbanites like me need to remember is that Charles knew he was in a foreign land and subject to a police stop at any moment. He was on foot, walking from the train station to some unknown destination, traversing the 90% white suburbs. When he walked up my driveway, he probably calculated that, if he wasn’t careful, I’d call the cops on him. And he knew something that every young black man learns; if you don’t have a valid photo ID when the cops show up, then your problems just increased exponentially.
This sudden understanding of Charles’ actions broke upon me, like thunder, like a wave crashing onto a beach. I was shocked into awareness. Awash in liberal white guilt, my mind raced into rescue mode. Should I drive back to pick him up, give him a ride to the station? Would he appreciate that or think, “Gee, this white dude really wants me out of his neighborhood in a hurry.” I decided not to go looking for him. Then I went into hospitable mode . . . when he walks by on his way to the station, do I offer him something to drink? Or do I invite him into my house to use the restroom?
I felt uncomfortable with that idea – all the stereotypes started scrolling through my head – and I thought, “Well, I don’t really know him.” But then I asked myself, “Would I second guess my urge to be kind and hospitable if he were a 20-something young white woman who told me she was an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College or the University of Nebraska Lincoln?”
That was a good conversation for me to have in my head. I had to have my “post-racial, color-blind” reality check with myself. There is not a one of us in this room – of any skin color – that doesn’t need to periodically conduct a personal self-examination to see what damage living in a racist society has done to us. I know that it’s done some damage to me, and I have to be vigilant, persistent, and honest with myself if I’m really going to effect healing within myself. Even in some segments of black America, there is a “hierarchy of complexion” . . . the lighter your skin, the higher you rank.
As a white man, I am in a tremendously privileged position in our society. I take for granted all sorts of rights and privileges that other people do not enjoy, or at least don’t take for granted. I need to force myself to remember that everyday. I need to be grateful for what I have and – if I’m serious about my faith – I need to work to see that those rights are shared equally in our society.
I would love to live in a “post-racial” world. I’d love to live in the world of which Dr. King dreamed back in 1963, but this isn’t it . . . at least not yet. And that world will never come to pass unless and until people like me acknowledge the inequality and injustice that persists in our society today.
“The Negro,” said Dr. King back in 1963, “is still crippled by . . . the chains of discrimination . . . and finds himself in exile in his own land.” The chains of discrimination were shaken in our faces by the Grand Juries that did not hand down indictments for the killings in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York. It was a wake up call for the sleepy conscience of our nation.
Do not doubt that our nation can, indeed, realize Dr. King’s magnificent dream; but, do not think that the work is over or that there is no work for us to do. Your work, my work, entails an honest, on-going, soul-searching, self-assessment to ferret out the biases and prejudices that are buried within each of us. We must see privilege for what it is and we must not take our own privilege for granted. We must not blink before nor turn our eyes away from inequality or injustice simply because it makes us feel uncomfortable or guilty.
The greatest tribute that we can pay Dr. King on this anniversary of his birth is not to praise his life and celebrate the accomplishments of yesterday. The greatest tribute will be taking up the standard of justice that he bore so faithfully and carry it forward ourselves. We can and should celebrate the progress we have made toward realizing Dr. King’s dream, but we are not there yet. There is much work yet to be done, and we are just the people to do it. Let us be about this work, today and everyday.
So may it ever be.