History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
It could be only my perception, but there seems a difference in the way most Black Americans refer to MLK, and a way most White Americans refer to him. White Americans usually say, “Martin Luther King” or “Martin Luther King, Jr.” Most Black Americans I hear call him “Dr. King.” White folks tend to think of King as one who helped change America. Black folks seem to think of King as one who helped change America for them.
The difference is between history and the present. For many Black folks, “He being dead still lives.” Far too many White folks revere King as a historical figure, but not quite an ongoing presence. It’s one reason most White pastors quote MLK to no end in January, but never quote him in a sermon–or anywhere else–from February to December.
In some ways this is to be expected. King spoke against an oppression most White people in the U.S. have never experienced and never will. Jim Crow’s codified segregation, building on the foundation of slavery and the Convict Lease System’s first floor, was an edifice White Americans neither inhabited, nor peered through its windows.
White Americans look at the civil rights struggle not just as history, but nearly ancient history. Slavery happened on the calendars of the caesars, or near abouts. Many think wrecking balls of 1964 and 1965 destroyed that structure, but no. Rather than destruction, more floors have been erected: Ding. “Third floor, the ‘War’ on Drugs, and Mass Incarceration.” Ding. “Fourth floor, discriminatory lending, and judicial corruption.” The moniker “Dr. King” may reveal the as-of-yet unresolved oppression systemic in many areas.
Alliances that form among oppressors are born of power; the capricious enforcement of unjust laws, or the ungodly neglect of just laws are tools of the trade. But, it is a marriage of convenience not love. The hymnody of slavery, however, reveals something unique. The oppressed find a kinship the oppressor never knows. They know the hope that transcends the oppression; an airway to the soul staving off spiritual suffocation even as bodies fail.
Perhaps this is part of the reason White people rarely march in the street as Black people do. Those in the cultural majority are so rarely the oppressed we don’t automatically empathize with others in the majority. Those whose family trees include slaves raped by masters, wrongfully arrested great uncles disappeared in Birmingham mines or on Georgia turpentine farms, or grandmas crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge amid fogs of teargas, though, feel oppression generation to generation. Many empathize with hurting Black families they do not know, and do so deeply.
Those of us in the majority culture may not have such empathy, but we should not question the hurt. The American Experience is not singular.
This middle-aged White guy has never been stopped for driving to work early in a newer truck, but my middle-aged Black friend has.
When, in my 20s, I did get pulled over early one morning for brake lights that didn’t work, I wasn’t asked to exit my vehicle, keep my hands where the officer could see them, or asked whether he could “take a look behind the seat?”
I have never been late to anywhere due to drug-sweep roadblocks in my subdivision, but my 40-something old Black friend has.
I have never had a law enforcement officer tell me to raise my shirt so he can check for a gun in my waistband, but my 20-something Black friend has.
As a teen, though I once set a small patch of woods on fire with a Molotov cocktail gone wrong, and although drugs were used–and probably dealt–in our neighborhood, my friends and I never faced “stop and frisk” tactics while playing football on Eunice Drive or Lu Lane.
That large numbers have been disenfranchised from the system makes little sense to those who have been franchisees since inception. Unless and until we attune our ears to the hymns of the oppressed, those in the majority to miss the cries. That we don’t hear them does not mean no songs are being sung.
It is no coincidence many of us observed Sanctity of Life Sunday the day before Dr. King’s birthday. This verse was rehearsed in many churches yesterday, and will be again on the anniversary of Roe v Wade:
Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed [another word for “disenfranchised”]. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy. (Proverbs 31:8, 9)
Those of us in the majority culture in America cannot restrict the verses to abortion, no matter how passionately we oppose the practice. “Those who have no voice” and “all who are disposed” and “the oppressed” and “needy” my not be in our first circle of friends, but they are all around us. And, faithfulness to the gospel requires we speak, judge, defend, and act justly. The verses do not give us an out.
We do not remember Dr. King if the 3rd Monday of January is merely a quote-fest of a man long dead. For it to mean something today, for his legacy to be full, we in the dominant culture should work toward the biblical justice he died seeking.
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