Monday, January 19, 2015

Commitment To The Way Of Love

I've posted a version of this post for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the past several years. 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, and what they do and say is depressing and infuriating, 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. For those who find this post too optimistic, I simply say that today I prefer to celebrate our victories. There will be plenty of time tomorrow to bemoan the challenges.


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 second 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 a segregated 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 are all created equal.

In fact it was economics more than race that marked that year of desegregation 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 equal, 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 to bend the arc of moral history 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 one part of the mission MLK set before us. The poverty I glimpsed in that fourth 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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1 comment:

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