This coming Monday we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. The dream was that all people of every race, religion and nation could live together in peace as one people. The dream was that poverty would one day be erased and no one would go hungry, without shelter or lack health care. The dream was that ‘civil’ in the word ‘civilized’ would mean something. Reflecting upon this moment in time, I ask, are we living that dream today, or are we sitting idly by and acquiescing to a nightmare?
Dr. King 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, resurfacing under the nationalistic guise of a twisted brand of “patriotism” promoted by a twisted president and his ilk of followers.
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 shameful confession and how our tribe shapes us, especially children. 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 and girls 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 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 a child, 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 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.
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 racism 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 courage 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.
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 fragile planet. I grew up in a racist culture I never embraced, though it attached itself to me without enough protest on my part. I’d like to think I don’t have a single cell of that in me now.
I can’t undo history, but I can continue 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. Examine your heart. Don’t be passive. Be an activist for all that is great and good about our better nature. The world we live in needs us more than ever.
May love prevail. Share the dream.