There’s been a lot of talk the past year about making America great again, Vera. It was the campaign slogan for Donald Trump, who, later this week, will be sworn in as our next president. Mr. Trump isn’t a great man by any stretch of the imagination (at least not mine). But let me tell you about an American who was.
His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a leader in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He had such an impact on this country that he got his own holiday. This year, today is the day we honor this great American.
When I was young, America was quite a different place than it is today. The South was segregated. African American kids weren’t allowed to attend the same schools as white kids, and the black schools didn’t receive anywhere near the same amount of money as the white schools.
Everything else was segregated, too: movie theaters, housing, buses, hotels, restaurants — you name it. Blacks weren’t even allowed to enter certain establishments, such as restaurants. Or they had to take their food out of the back door.
The college where I served as president — an institution located in what was known as the Deep South (in this case, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley) — didn’t enroll its first black student until 1954. When I worked there, I got to know the man who, as a boy, was admitted to the college that year. He lived not far from the college. The scars were still there. I enjoyed his company and friendship, and hearing his stories. But I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed growing up in his shoes. It was a hard life, when, everyday, he was reminded by the good white people of the Shenandoah Valley that he and his family were lesser and inferior.
A few years later, not long before I started first grade, we moved to McConnellsburg, a small town in south-central Pennsylvania. Actually, the town was only about 150 miles from that southern college town where I’d end up working some 50 years later. But it was north of the Mason-Dixon line, which divided North from South in both political and cultural terms. Segregation wasn’t legal in the North. That’s not to say racism didn’t (and doesn’t) exist. Or that society wasn’t segregated.
Some African-American kids attended my school. There weren’t many. They were dirt poor. None of them lived in town. All of them lived in shacks in a standalone community about a mile outside of town, where U.S. Route 30 (the Lincoln Highway) took a hard turn to the south (which is ironic on a couple of levels, although I never thought of it at the time). The white town folk called it “nigger turn.”
This was the face of America when I was growing up. But then something changed. On May 14, 1954, roughly six months before I was born, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court lit a moral fire that would forever change America. In a case known as Brown vs. Board of Education, the Court ruled that the doctrine of separate but equal, which the South used to justify its racist, segregated public schools, was not legal under the U.S. Constitution. Finally, justice was rearing its beautiful head.
It was a right decision, both on moral and constitutional grounds, yet one that should have been rendered many years earlier. But at least it eventually came. And it changed our country.
But not overnight. Rather than comply with the court’s ruling, some public schools in the South closed. And many others resisted, even to the point that it took federal troops to force some universities to admit African American students.
And the South continued to segregate in other ways — in restaurants, buses, public buildings and voting. One of my friends in law school was reared in Virginia. He recalled seeing separate water fountains in their county court house: one for whites and another for blacks.
There was racism and segregation in the North, too — most especially in housing and the workforce.
Years after the court’s decision, Jim Crow laws and segregation still had much of America by the throat. Then the Civil Rights Movement, in which Dr. King was a leader, began to gather steam. In the end, African Americans and the few white allies they had were forced to fight for equality and justice. Many whites weren’t about to give up their segregated institutions, or their power and privilege, willingly.
Dr. King didn’t believe in using violence or immoral means in the fight for justice. But he was willing to go to jail or be beaten, both of which happened many times. He was willing to sacrifice everything.
Indeed, only 14 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, at the young age of 39, Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down by a white assassin.
Five years prior to his assassination, Dr. King was sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, a state in which white supremacists were fervently resisting equal rights. He had been arrested during a nonviolent march. Some clergymen, preachers in Christian churches, criticized Dr. King and his fellow civil rights workers. While professing to be sympathetic with his cause, they called his activities “unwise and untimely.”
Dr. King penned a letter in response to those clergymen. The letter is known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Please read it. It’s one of the most important documents in American history. But more importantly, consider Dr. King’s words. Most of them speak to us today.
Here are just a few of the passages from that letter, with some of my own commentary following the passages:
[W]e have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know from painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Dr. King reminds us that justice doesn’t come of its own accord; rather, it comes as a product of the sacrificial work of people. He also reminds us that groups (sometimes referred to by others, including some of our nation’s founders, as the “mob”), can be less moral than the individuals who comprise it. It’s as if the anonymity of the crowd permits the worst in us to surface. We’ve seen that dynamic at work this past year in rallies held by our next president.
[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust. … [O]ne has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all. … Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
Some may tell you that you should never violate a law. Dr. King reminds us that laws are enacted by those with power and are frequently a tool of oppression. Such laws are unjust. You are not bound by them. Morality should always trump immorality.
Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [and women] willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
I love the term “coworkers with God.” I fear the term “Christian” has been irreversibly soiled in America. It now stands for many abhorrent things. I’m more fond of the terms “disciples of Christ” or “followers of Jesus,” but I note Dr. King provides a more inclusive term: “coworker with God.” I suppose each of us must decide if we desire to be such a person. Even the atheist must decide, for even he or she must decide what is just and moral and what isn’t.
I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. … [S]ome have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows. …
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Dr. King was indeed a prescient man. Church attendance has fallen and continues to fall, especially among young people. The church is regarded by many as irrelevant or, worse yet, a protector of the status quo that benefits the privileged at the expense of those without money and power.
On the southwest corner of the campus of the segregated college to which I earlier referred (Bridgewater College), stood a church. It was part of my faith tradition, the Christian denomination called the Church of the Brethren (whose membership peaked at about the same time Dr. King wrote his letter). I wonder why the Bridgewater Church of the Brethren countenanced the racist policies of the college. I wonder why it took a secular court sitting in Washington to bring an end to segregation in our country’s schools. I wonder why nine men in judicial robes were more offended by racism than countless preachers in religious garb. I also wonder why the white churches in McConnellsburg didn’t care more about the people living at that turn in the road.
I wonder why, in our hearts (including my own), hatred, selfishness, complacency and tolerance for injustice often trump love.
You might think it’s all behind us, Vera — that segregation has been defeated and equality reigns in America. Indeed, America has taken great strides toward justice in the past 50 years. An African American, Barack Obama, was even elected president, although, some, led by Mr. Trump, President Obama’s successor, maliciously and falsely claimed Mr. Obama was not entitled to serve. Mr. Trump lied about Mr. Obama, in particular, his birthplace, apparently for no other reason than to advance his own selfish interests and presidential aspirations. In what is truly a sad commentary on the state of our society, a racist America was all too eager to accept the lie. Nonetheless, the pendulum had swung far in justice’s direction. America twice elected Mr. Obama, a black man, to the highest office in the land. When Dr. King was gunned down, I never thought America would see that day in my lifetime.
But our work is not done. As we have seen in stark terms during this past presidential campaign, racism is alive and well in America. But we already knew that. And beyond racism, we know that kids growing up in our country don’t have equal opportunity — that inheritance, money and education are some of the most insidious instruments of injustice today. Our work is not done.
Where is the church in all of this, you might ask? Small pockets are fighting for justice. But the mass isn’t. As in Dr. King’s time, the church is often the defender of the status quo, whether it’s just or not. Indeed, the church is often not much more than “an irrelevant social club.”
But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. … We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.
If you listen to Mr. Trump and contemporary culture, you might believe the goal of America is unconstrained capitalism. Or making money. Or acquiring as much wealth and power as we can and being willing to dominate other countries.
But that’s not what makes America great. Dr. King understood what makes America great. “The goal of America is freedom.” And by that measure, America is greater today than it was in 1954 when I was born and the Supreme Court mustered the courage to do the right thing. It is greater today than it was in 1776, when the Founders signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.
Dr. King closed his letter with these words:
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.
Let us hope. Indeed. Yet hope is not enough.
Each of us must decide what justice means, or if it’s even something we think warrants our efforts and sacrifice. Perhaps today’s injustice, buried in policies and laws and misguided religious doctrine and ideologies, is camouflaged more than the segregation laws of the 1950s. Perhaps the insidious, unjust nature of many of those policies, laws and ideologies are not apparent to all Americans. Perhaps privilege and power are less (albeit still) rooted in ethnicity today. But the similarities between the times abound. Inheritance and education remain potent tools preserving the status quo, moats constructed to protect the privileges of the few.
“Injustice is here,” as Dr. King rightly observed. It’s a shame that, by and large, the church remains unwilling to call it out and “recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church.” But it’s not surprising. Nor is it determinative.
America has made great progress. But much work remains to be done. There is no better time to recommit ourselves to the cause of justice and equality than this day that has been set aside to honor a great American, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the cause he championed.
Vera, despite what some politicians and others may say, we don’t need to make America great again. We simply need to stand on the shoulders of our brave and sacrificial ancestors, like Dr. King, who made it great, and continue the work that was begun long ago.