This coming Monday, January 15, is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day. My church, the First United Methodist Church in Charlotte, is having a special service Saturday on the front steps of the church and members who wish to will join a parade honoring the Civil Rights movement. I’ll be there.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took a knee during a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. This act of non-violence has been immortalized in a photograph taken at the time. He wasn’t disrespecting his country, its veterans or its symbols. He was praying for equal justice at a time when racism was not hidden beneath the surface like it is today only to resurface under the nationalistic guise of defending “patriotism.” I can’t quote his “I have a dream” speech, because it’s copyrighted, but the dream was that all people of every race, religion and nation could live together in peace as one people.
This isn’t a political blog, and I don’t want to write about politics. But racism, even in its most subtle form, is a spiritual issue. You see, we are all connected as human beings regardless of race, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation or how we choose to identify ourselves. When one person or community suffers, we all suffer. Jesus told a marvelous story about a Good Samaritan, when Samaritans were despised by his tribe, as an example of sameness in the eyes of God among all races and ethnic origins.
When NFL players take a knee during the anthem, those who take offense don’t stop to understand why or learn the history of this symbolic act. I recommend watching the movie Selma. While the great majority of law enforcement are good people, and I tremendously appreciate their service, police violence against people of color is real. Racism is real. Taking a knee is about calling attention to the social inequality that still exists in a society either in denial at best or at worst harboring racist views. This is a spiritual sickness as much as it is a social issue. Why not choose to love others and respect their right to free expression this flag is supposed to represent? Why the defensive recoil and the ridiculous, obviously staged walk-out at an NFL game by the Vice President? Some soul searching is in order.
I grew up in a time in the Southern USA when blacks and whites were segregated. I grew up in a small town where businesses along Main Street had signs in their windows warning “white patrons only.” I asked “why.” “We don’t associate with “[racial slur],” was the answer.
Here is my confession about how our tribe shapes us. In the small, rural, brick, six-classroom elementary school I attended, we had one black kid. How he got into a white school during segregation I don’t know. Maybe it was because we were so small and off the beaten path. Other kids wouldn’t play with him, but I did. I was a smaller kid for my age and so was he. We had that in common.
I remember his name. It was Ricky Saddler. He always seemed happy. He was always smiling, so I affectionately called him “Smiley.” I can still see his wide smile and the gap between his two front teeth. As if being the only black kid in school wasn’t hard enough, he was made fun of for his “goofy” teeth.
I’ll never forget this as long as I live. We’ve all had moments in our lives, seemingly insignificant at the time, that come back to grieve us and give us a feeling of remorse later in life or revealing a transition into higher consciousness of Divine will. One day during recess, Ricky and I were chasing each other around the playground and wrestling like a lot of boys do. He was on top of me and holding me down. I became angry when he wouldn’t let me get up. In retaliation I said these hurtful words, “Let me up, “[racial slur]”, I’m not even supposed to be playing with you.” He looked stunned. He let me up. He walked away with his head down.
We no longer played together after that happened. He stopped smiling. I never saw his happy gap-toothed smile again after that. I would watch him from a distance as he would sit alone under the shade of big oak trees during recess poking sticks at ants or squatting down drawing something in the sand. I wish I knew what he was thinking and drawing. He looked sad.
Not long after that he never came back to school. It was as if he just disappeared. I asked teachers and others about my lost friend, but no one seemed to know what happened to him, or where he went. He was just gone. Anyway, I was his only friend. I hurt him. I never saw him again. Now, I hurt for what I did, I cry even as I’m writing this, and I hurt for what I did to Ricky.
As much as we as an “enlightened” society would like to kid ourselves that we’ve grown past the cruelty of discrimination, we still live in a much divided world where irrational hate still exists. Just look at the racial comments yesterday by the man in the White House. Non-white nations are “shit holes,” he is confirmed as saying by those present. It’s somehow lodged in our primordial human DNA, nurtured by dark sub-cultures and sadly all too often expressed in despicable human behavior. Why is there a disproportionate number of black people in prisons and so many black persons killed by white police officers? Why is there a KKK or self-described Nazis in our country? Why did a black President offering so much hope receive so much hate?
When I was around the age of seven, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a strong and peaceful civil rights movement. Yet, on television news I watched white police officers clubbing black marchers and fire department hoses being turned on them. I saw vicious police dogs dragging black men by their trouser legs. I saw a governor stand in the doorway of a major Southern university and prevent a black person from entering. A confederate battle flag was raised over my home state’s capitol building in protest of the enactment of federal desegregation laws. It wasn’t about “heritage.” That’s a lie.
In my white world of privilege, Dr. King was a trouble-maker. Black folks needed to know and stay in their place. When he was murdered, I saw no remorse. “He got what he deserved,” many white men said. For me, Dr. King is one of the greatest human beings and brightest lights to have walked this planet in my lifetime. He was Time magazine’s man of the the year in 1963. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated in 1968. I feel his spirit. I love him for his courage and what he did.
I never heard my mother, grandmothers or any woman in my family use the racial slur. They used the “acceptable” word at the time, ‘negro.’ They told me never to use the “N” word. As for the men, they said ignore the women. It was [racial slur]. If you were a “real man” and not a “[racial slur]-lover,” you would say the word ‘[racial-slur]’. If a boy wanted to receive the approval of older white men, he used the word ‘[slur]’. It was the “manly” way. I knew I wasn’t one of them. The concept transgender didn’t exist, but I knew I wasn’t a boy, and I didn’t want to grow up like them.
Harper Lee’s famous novel published in 1960 and made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, exposed on a big stage this culture of hate among white men in the South. It was a fictional expose only a woman could and would write at the time. The main character Atticus Finch who defended the black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman was taunted as less than a man and ostracized by his white male community. Movie theaters in the South wouldn’t show it. Libraries wouldn’t dare put her novel on their bookshelves.
For her bravery and honesty to write such a controversial novel, Lee was marginalized by the male-dominated, homophobic society as a lesbian. She was a “tomboy” as a child and never married. The tomboyish character in her novel, ‘Scout’, was said to be a self-portrayal. When asked in an interview shortly before her death, Lee denied being gay, even though her lifestyle by “conventional” standards may have suggested otherwise. As long as she was at peace with herself, that’s all that matters.
That regrettable time on the playground, I experienced what mindless prejudice could do up close on a personal level. It was my first real experience of empathy toward another marginalized soul stuck with me on this damn planet. I grew up a racist, even if I didn’t act on it in word and deed. I’d like to think I don’t have a single cell of that left in me. I can’t undo my history, but I can continue on a journey to become a new creation in God’s image. I can speak out. We all must speak out. Remaining silent is just racism in its passive but real form. I want to be like Jesus and speak out.
Examine your heart. Don’t be passive. Be an activist for all that is great and good about our angelic nature. The world we now live in needs us more than ever. May love prevail. Share the dream.