Pause to think for a moment: you’re boarding a public bus to head downtown for some errands, maybe to the department store before a Saturday lunch at a barstool diner. In front of you, an older gentlemen steps onto the bus, pays, and turns walks past the only empty seat in the front, all the way to the back where he will stand for the ride, because where he sits depends not on his age or order of boarding, but on the color of his skin. You follow him onto the bus and then, because your skin is white, rest yourself in that front seat.
White people in the front, Black people in the back.
And when you get off that bus, heading toward Woolworths, you stop for a drink at a water fountain. There’s a water fountain clearly designated for you, which you enjoy before a quick stop at the “Whites only” bathroom.
All of this happens out in the open, right there in the 1950s, in front of God and everybody. It’s the way the world worked, and everybody knew it. The practice was widely accepted.
Would that still be our world, if not for the courage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and those around him?
After one such courageous episode, King wrote to his fellow clergymen from the Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This white writer would ask the white reader to consider what that world would have been like. By now you know it wasn’t good for African-Americans, but aren’t you also wearing the single garment of destiny King writes about from Birmingham?
On the one hand, privilege abounded as you interacted with Black people: if there was a seat at the front, it was yours. If there was a dispute, the presumption of innocence would have fallen to you. When walking past someone on the street, you could keep your gaze while theirs would fall in deference. You might empathetically imagine what that felt like for them, but what does that do to you? How does it feel to receive unfair favor, over and over, at the expense of someone else?
Yes, Dr. King laid down his life for the rights of African-Americans. His official 1964 Nobel Peace prize bio states he worked “for Civil Rights for members of his race.” And I spent many years phrasing it that way: What a great man: look what he did for them.
And yet he did it for me, too. Can I accept living in a world that is weighted unequally, even if that rigged scale tips in my favor? Do I leave it to those on the high side of the scale to muster their weight, jumping up and down to find equality in the balance?
Much could be written about what life was like for African-Americans in those days and years prior. I’ve been enjoying/squirming through a podcast called Catlick by BT Harmon, about a serial murderer in 1912 Atlanta. The story reveals what life was like for both White and Black people in the Jim Crow south — with its “freed” slaves-cum-sharecroppers, segregated cities, and White-run police forces. The podcast reports that a serial killer’s attacks on Black women only made the papers when it started preventing “domestic workers” from reaching White homes. Dozens of Black men were arrested and accused after the slightest suspicion, even though the killer may have been white. The newspaper headlines played into existing fears and prejudice, printing slanderous presumptions of guilt. After the murder of a White woman, one episode details a violent White mob breaking a Black suspect out of jail — long before a trial — to mete out their own blood-thirsty “justice.”
Can I accept living in a world that is weighted unequally, even if that rigged scale tips in my favor?
These were the years of a Ku Klux Klan revival, reaching its peak of 4 million members in the 1920s. Fueled by a surge of immigration, “the Klan was not only anti-black but also took a stand against Roman Catholics, Jews, foreigners and organized labor.” (history.com) While the KKK dwindled into the 30s and 40s, its next resurgence came during the years of Dr. King’s work — as a response to the 50s bus boycott and ensuing Civil Rights movement of the 60s.
King did not need to give as he did. He had not only a Sociology degree from Morehouse, but Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Seminary and Doctorate from Boston University; a pastoring job, a wife, and four children. With all this in place, his long history of working for civil rights still drove him forward. He led the “First great Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times, the bus boycott” (Nobel Prize bio, original 1964 wording). Lasting more than a year [(a year!)], African-Americans maintained the crippling boycott until the Supreme Court declared segregation on buses unconstitutional on December 21, 1956.
Of course, there’s more to his story: marches, arrests, protests, threats, traveling, preaching, meeting with mayors, governors, and presidents to state and restate the case for equality.
But let me help the White reader verbalize the disgraceful question: Where am I in that story? I’ll just come right out and say that it was this self-centered question that first moved me to re-center my idea of King’s role in American history. Fifteen years ago at a Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, my blurry eyes saw for the first time how King’s vision for America was not just better for African-Americans, but for all Americans. How had I not seen it before?
His life and death gave a gift to a country I would be born into, grow up in, and eventually become aware of.
His work paved the way friendships that I took for granted in my youth. Long before I was aware of the historical unlikelihood of friendships between Black and White people, I enjoyed them, laughing together about music and football and parents.
He gave the gift of justice — when you want things to be made right but just don’t know how — and then someone steps in to lead you there. Our country was outwardly successful but inwardly broken. Two centuries of slavery had officially ended one century earlier. King’s America was still unsettled, unfair, and unbalanced. History is showing us that the same backs that carried early America’s White people to freedom in her first century, would spend her second century bearing the weight of true freedom for America’s Black people. In other words, White people weren’t figuring it out. This was King’s genius and sacrifice: to remain non-violent in the face of great danger. And though King was the recipient of threats, fists, cuffs, water hoses, and eventually bullets, he drew on the teachings of Christ and the practices of Ghandi to move things forward without retaliating — and that was a gift to us all.
“For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop…We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
From King, I also receive the gift of an example for living out my faith. If my goal is, “To love mercy, and to walk justly, and to walk humbly with God,” then how could I reach that goal sitting comfortably in the front of that bus? Were any other front-seaters going to show me how to walk justly? Instead, someone who had been forced to ride in the back of that bus came forward to show me the way.
I think of the biblical David’s abuse of power in taking Bathsheba. The front-seaters around David were not helpful in keeping his integrity on track. The prophet Nathan came forward to tell David a story of ‘injustice anywhere,’ and David’s outrage crystalized as he listened. In love, Nathan then revealed that David himself was the perpetrator in the story. Nathan gave David the gift of an honest mirror, even when the view was painful. Unfortunately I am a lot like David: I want the world to be equal and fair, but am rarely strong enough to see, let alone let go of, my areas of privilege.
“One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters [for sit-in protests], they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage”
Yes, our country is different because of the work of Dr. King. Americans are a woven tapestry, and our patriotic garment is better for his knitting needles. It is best to spend this day (and this life) empathizing and understanding what inequalities still exist. And if you are part of a majority group, you will need help understanding what those are. Who will be your Nathan? How will you find out what work remains to be done? If not through a direct conversation, try reading, listening, and watching relevant content. Read about Dr. King’s life, yes, but don’t allow yourself to think of it only in historical terms. Celebrate the work that is done and then apply yourself to understanding and acting on the work that remains.
And if are like me, thinking mostly of yourself, then at least take a moment today to be thankful for what Dr. King — and the legacy he represents — did for you. And that thankfulness will free you to share that freedom until all are treated equally.
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
♦ weekendswell ♦
Monday January 20, 2020: 10am at DLG Plaza or 11am at Arlington Theatre: Celebration of MLK’s life and legacy: https://www.mlksb.org/
Notes and Further Reading:
- All Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes taken from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Just read that letter. Read it now!
- Born in Danger, by Kay Bolden
- The 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness, by Nancy Myers Rust
- And only after that, The Already and the Not Yet of MLK