I confess that my ignorance of the long-run history of race in America continued until around the time Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri. The turmoil there, and later the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police, led me to dig into work by black and brown American sources to understand what was going on in the time of our first black president.
That led me to Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. It takes no great effort – much information is literally at our fingertips – yet I’d never taken the time. So as Ferguson was occupied by the Missouri State Police, I read, and I was outraged. The timeliness of Dr. King’s writing, more than fifty years after the fact of his incarceration, was nearly as offensive as contemporary events. It angered me that the ethnic violence, injustice, and indignity of 1963 was still with us in 2014.
For the next few days I combed through the document, posting the more relevant passages as further news came from Ferguson. It helped me to understand what people of color struggle against every day, all of their lives here in our flawed culture, led by flawed politics, founded by flawed men who declared all are created equal even as they, themselves, owned men and women and children as property, enslaved. It taught me that by thinking through what I wanted to say about that struggle I could come to understand it better, and that my understanding then took up a more permanent home in my mind.
All of which is preamble to today, the anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday. It’s when, not unlike donning the green of St. Patrick’s day, many put on the clothes of civil rights, of fighting justice delayed, and quote the good Reverend Doctor. After all, “it’s always the right time to do the right thing,” as the man said. And then they take off those clothes and go on with their lives. That’s damned well not good enough. When the struggle to be heard and understood, let alone arrive at justice is put back into the closet until next year, the promise that begins with “we hold these truths” is shattered.
What I’m saying is that that glorified promise has been broken since America’s founding. We collectively need to do better. We are collectively failing at basic humanity. Today’s a great day to wake up to that undeniable fact.
This, then, is what inspires me, what has inspired me since I took the time to educate myself, to open my eyes to life as lived by others. It holds close my outrage at the indecency and injustice of American culture – if we can’t enslave them, can’t segregate them, can’t keep them out of our neighborhoods, our schools, and our workforce, we’ll throw as many of them into prison as we can – and keeps the clothes of civil rights on my body, awareness of whiteness and otherness in my mind, where they should always be. It is repentance for an appalling silence:
Dr. King, Letter From Birmingham Jail:
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
As Dr. King also wrote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’d add, if I may be so bold, that it requires, demands the hands of many to bend it that way. It can and has been bent the other way, too. Look up Emmett Till. Mary Turner. Dr. Ossian Sweet.
I know many white people, a few in whom even I can devine whiteness. Maybe today is the day one of them, reading Dr. King, opens his or her eyes. May the scales fall from those eyes.
Please do take part of an hour to read the “Letter …” Please let your anger flow at its continued relevance. Become a better person, make a better American from it.