Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Arc Of Moral History



(I've posted a version of this post for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the past several years. I believe that I identify so strongly with this holiday, with this man, because most of his story, and by that I mean the dream of which we've all been a part these past five decades, is the story of my life. Of course there are still racists, but when I look back over where we've been and where we are going, I can see that the long arc of moral history is bending toward justice, just as MLK dreamed it would.)

Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.” –MLK
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." –MLK

When I was in 2nd grade at the Meadowfield Elementary School in Columbia, SC, there was one black boy in my class. He and I called one another “best friends”. We played together at recess. We were the two fastest runners in our grade. He never saw my house and I never saw his. That was 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Two years later the courts ordered Columbia to desegregate its public schools. Most of our neighbors chose to send their kids to private schools, but my parents put me on the bus to Atlas Road Elementary, a run-down facility in the heart of an all-black neighborhood. One of my friends’ moms prepared me for my first day by telling me that she’d seen people “defecating in the roadside ditches” along Atlas Road. My parents, however, had taught me that we were all the same inside and I was thankfully young enough that I took them at their word.

I’m pretty sure my “three R’s” education was sub-par that year: to this day South Carolina’s public education system ranks near the bottom. But that wasn’t the point of desegregation. The point was to have black and white kids grow up together so that they could learn through experience what my parents had taught me: we’re all the same.

In fact it was economics more than race that marked the year for me. I was disappointed almost to tears when we exchanged Christmas gifts (each child brought one gift to be randomly distributed) and I wound up with a pair of socks that appeared used. And race certainly didn’t stop Shirley Jeffcoat from having a very embarrassing public crush on me. We were just kids together. We were all the same, except some of us were a lot poorer than others.

When I spoke to my Pre-K kids about Martin Luther King, I told them about segregated restaurants, schools, and water fountains and they agreed it was unfair. Katherine, in particular nodded along with me. She looked like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. When I said, “And today we try to be fair to everyone,” she looked relieved. When I said, “Martin Luther King’s dream has come true,” she blurted out, “It did!”

I believe that we have solid of evidence that his dream has come true. Racism has not been eradicated in our country, but it’s in full retreat. Racists are decisively in the minority and polls indicate that it’s an ever-shrinking one. And it’s only going to get better because our children are growing up in this world we’ve created, not the one in which we grew up.

The experiment of desegregation and civil rights worked and I’m proud that my parents had the courage to make me a part of it. It’s no accident that just as the “desegregation generation” comes of age, we elect our first black president. I am aware of no other nation in the history of the world that has elected a member of an ethnic minority as its supreme leader.

This was the final battle of the Civil War. Non-violence and love win.


Love is not “emotional bash.” I’m more confident today than ever that love is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. As MLK said, “I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.”

As we celebrate today, we should feel good about ourselves. We have cut off one chain of hate and evil. But racial justice is only the first part of the mission MLK set before us. The poverty I glimpsed in that 4th grade classroom is still with us, and there are still too many who think war is the solution.

Poverty and peace are next on our nation’s agenda: problems just as impossible to solve as overcoming racism in America. When the bus pulls up in front of our home, we must have the courage to put our children on it. We must fight evil with love. And we must not despair that we will not win in our lifetime, but maybe, just maybe, our children will see the promised land.


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4 comments:

Denise said...

:)

Denise said...

:)

Anonymous said...

Colonel West, a professor at Union Theological, had some stirring words along some of these lines. While I agree with you, Teacher Tom, that poverty and peace are issues of utmost importance, this "post-desegregation" millenial maintains that racism is alive and snarling.

This commentary from Colonel West is his thoughts on Obama swearing in at today's inauguration on MLK Jr.'s personal bible.

Colonel West Commentary on the Inauguration and the History and Tradition of Activism that Produced MLK Jr.

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

Thank you for writing this Tom. Your experiences in South Carolina have made your life (and all those who connect with you) rich, your mother was wise to have known this. No, racism and poverty are still alive, however, the growth of our nation is tremendous. Each year I feel proud to live in a country that has a federal holiday that honors a brown skinned man that was a pacifist and proclaimed the power of love against evil. Each year I am renewed and reminded to practice and teach and model practice and teach and model his words and actions. A 4 year old said to me last week, "Maybe Martin Luther King didn't believe in killing bad guys cause maybe some of the bad guys are good." I am heartened and hopeful.

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