Monday, January 16, 2017

Maybe, Just Maybe

(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. In preparing the post for this morning, I wondered if I could post it again in light of our recent Presidential election campaign, but I think it remains fundamentally true, even if it seems that the pendulum has recently swung in the wrong direction. 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 still 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 a poor, 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 the kids at Woodland Park about Martin Luther King, I told them about segregated restaurants, schools, and water fountains and they agreed it was unfair. Owen, in particular nodded along with me, saying angrily, "That makes me so mad!" When I said, “Today we try to be fair to everyone,” he looked relieved. When I said, “It's still our job to help make Martin Luther's dream come true,” he blurted out, “Yeah!”

I believe that we have solid evidence that his dream is coming true. Of course, racism has not been eradicated in our country. Indeed, it has shown it's ugly face of late, but the kind of overt, day-to-day racism that confronted those kids with whom I went to school at Atlas Road Elementary has been in retreat my whole life. Racists are decisively in the minority and polls indicate that it’s an ever-shrinking one, even as we still have a lot of work to do on the kinds of institutional racism that continues to make life unfair for our black sisters and brothers. And it might not feel like it on this Martin Luther King Day, but 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. Remember, as the great man said, "The arc of the moral universe is long."

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” came of age, we elected our first black president. I am aware of no other nation in the history of the world that has elected a member of a racial minority as its supreme leader.

This was a major battle in our ongoing Civil War: non-violence and love continue to win, because while the are of the moral universe is long, "it bends toward justice."

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 are cutting 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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