Seeing The Dream 50 years later

When I finally got a chance to look at the world for a moment tonight after work (it’s been a busy week), the world’s feed is awash with commentary on the 50th anniversary of MLK’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington.

Actually, the day entered my consciousness because a Facebook friend posted that the Republican absence at the big commemoration on the Mall seemed to offer a conspicuous commentary on Republican attitudes toward racial justice.

So I guess I didn’t even get 30 seconds of uncontroversial peace in which to contemplate Dr King’s rhetorical brilliance, biblical themes, or beautiful words.

MLK justice quote

*****

Let me back up.

I grew up in the North, a land full of its own social injustice, brokenness, and racism and economic inequality.  My dad was a steelworker forced into retirement when he woke up one morning half-blind.  My mom worked at a finance company and her salary kept us fed and a roof over our heads, but even at the best of times I grew up “working poor.”

In an odd soup of conservative social politics, my dad’s union membership, crushing economic realities (Fayette county’s economy died on the table in the mid 80s and hadn’t resurrected before I left for good in the late 90s), fundamentalist Christian upbringing — I went to school.  A small private Christian school.

Everybody descended from a European immigrant who landed in Southwestern PA to work in the glass factories, coal mines, or steel mills.  It was a very white place, but white culture was a lot more interesting where I grew up.  If your last name didn’t include 14 letters with the wrong balance of consonants to vowels, you probably weren’t a native Western Pennsylvanian.

My view of black/white racism was formed primarily through the lens of my dad’s experiences at the mill.  He despised people who wouldn’t work or proved lazy on the job. That derision crossed the color barrier, but he still categorized people by color.  I certainly grew up with a poor immigrant‘s view of racism: “Yeah, slavery would have been terrible.  So was growing up during the Great Depression with no food and an abusive Italian father.”

My school didn’t do Black History Month.  (Did they have that in the 80s?)  It was a good school. Really it was.  But the Civil Rights movement wasn’t part of the curriculum.  Except to hear about the race riots, the Malcolm X violence, and the assassination of Dr. King.

I saw Coretta Scott King on the television sometimes, especially on the anniversaries of the killing or the speeches.  My dad usually changed the channel.

****

All of my education has been white and Christian. I must acknowledge this bias, this direction in my thinking.  I’m happy to live in a much more diverse neighborhood now (we’re unified by our socioeconomic class), but I still drive to my very Caucasian workplace or church in my car, listening to stereotypical white-people music.

I have three college degrees, all of them Christian, all of them surrounded mainly by working class and middle class people of general American descent.   I don’t know where I first heard that Dr King plagiarized his doctoral dissertation – I think that came during my high school years.  But the ad hominem was powerful.  The message of King’s speech was suspect.  He was suspect.  He didn’t see the Bible the right way.  He didn’t really believe the Gospel. He may have even been Communist.

But I wasn’t racist.  No.  Racists did things like the South did – enslaved people, imprisoned them without trial or stripped them of voting rights. We weren’t like that.

My college wasn’t like that either, right? Granted, interracial dating was banned because it was ungodly. And I hardly knew any people of color unless they were international students.  But that’s because “black people didn’t want to come to Bob Jones.  We’d love to have more of them here!”

/ irony

*****

Thankfully, my education finally took a turn for balance. My M Ed coursework at Covenant College introduced me to a view of the Kingdom that values justice, that elevates the humanity of all people because we all bear God’s image.

An understanding of the Gospel that’s bigger than the mess humanity’s in because of our sin and brokenness.

A view of redemption that demands justice in this world and the next.

God calls Himself the defender of the orphan, the widow, the oppressed, the slave, the immigrant, the downtrodden.  A Righteous King is a ruler who tends to the needs of the poor and those who cannot defend themselves.

This is wound into the biblical narrative, now that I realize it’s there.

My first class at Covenant slammed me between the eyes with the idea that capitalism might not actually equal “biblical,” that American democracy was not equivalent to Christian living.

It took me days to recover.

*****

As I taught classes of fresh-eyed middle and high schoolers at NCS, I began reading all the literature that wasn’t even in my school library growing up and certainly not in the (BJUP and Beka Book) textbooks:  Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.  A Thousand Never Evers.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  Invisible Man.  Black Boy.  The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.  Their Eyes Were Watching God.

I read Dr King’s speech for the first time in 2003, I think.  It was printed in my 8th grade literature book at the end of a unit on the American experience.  I thought, “Hey! It’s a speech! Maybe I can find it on YouTube.”  Being a first year teacher and always behind, I probably didn’t even read it before showing the speech to the class.

Stunned.

*****

There are days when I feel like I’m just now discovering the Gospel for the first time.  And that I live in a sea of hate.

Republicans had a separate luncheon today rather than join the commemoration at the Mall.  Why is that cool with people?

My fellow Christian Facebookers slam the very idea that we even need to discuss race in America anymore. It’s a liberal agenda thing, a ploy to divert our attention from the real travesties of the world, like Obamacare. On Twitter, some tea party person was giving it to Al Sharpton because he talked about Peace today but urged people to riot over Trayvon Martin a month ago.

Friends, the racial question in America isn’t answered.  The fights breaking out over voting laws aren’t happening in a neat and tidy middle-class vacuum.  The erosion of Miranda rights and checks on the power of the police have a real effect on people in poverty.   Our criminal justice system imprisons people of color at a much higher rate than whites or Asians when they’re arrested for the exact same crime.

*****

When Erskine held a MLK Day event in January, I attended.  It was the first moment in my life — education or work — where I was part of a corporate commemoration of that January holiday (instead of staying home to watch TV).

A coworker at Erskine patiently explains the Black experience to me over our lunch breaks.  …. I had no idea…..

Every lunch break is a new lesson, a new revelation.

*****

Fifty years after Dr King made his speech, I can only acknowledge my own journey out of complicit and stated racism into a biblical understanding of humanity — one that restores dignity to those who were often abused in the name of Christ.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”  ~MLK Jr, Nobel Prize Acceptance speech

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Read more:   King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech

A friend’s thoughtful perspective on the Trayvon Martin case

11 thoughts on “Seeing The Dream 50 years later”

  1. As you can imagine, my experiences growing up were much the same as yours, just without the vowel at the end of the last name and my father was a minister instead of a steel worker (though his little church was made up mostly of steel workers and other working class folk). When I was a kid, my dad never mentioned Martin Luther King without calling him either a communist or a tom cat (alluding to his extra marital sexual adventures). Civil Rights activists were just a bunch of trouble making radicals according to the view I learned in my house. This view was illustrated by one of the many racist jokes that my dad and his preacher buddies would tell each other, the punch line of which was the salesman telling the angry black man who was upset because all the washing machines were white that they all had a black agitator inside; oh how the preachers laughed! During the 1972 presidential campaign, after dad had discovered that Nixon just wasn’t conservative enough, I can remember him saying that the only candidate that he really liked was George Wallace. Yet my folks didn’t think of themselves as racists.
    My parents were on the wrong side of the Civil Rights Movement. Actually, that played a part in the complex web of issues that led me away from their faith. Faith is a funny thing – by its very nature it exists without evidence to back it up (else it wouldn’t be called faith) and for most folks, when they really examine it, the main reason they hold the faith that they do is because their parents taught it to them. My parents came down on the wrong side of every major social issue of their lifetimes; whether it was race, labor, or women, they came down on the side of oppression against those fighting for fairness and human rights. Once I began to reason for myself and came to this realization, it gravely undermined my confidence in my parent’s judgement.
    I remember a dinner conversation with my father when I was in my mid twenties. It started as a conversation about activist judges (back then, unlike now, the activist judges were liberal rather than conservative, so he was against them); I pointed out that without them, we would never have been able to do away with segregation and Jim Crow laws, my point being that the courts could be the last bastion for justice. His response was, “the Apostle Paul said that a slave should be a good slave.” At that point I lost it and called him a racist. He was so angry he got up from the table and stormed out. My mother then chastised me that I was being horribly unfair to my father; “your father has always been ‘nice’ to black people.” And with that comment something just clicked in my head – they so profoundly didn’t get it, didn’t even understand what racism was, that I was never going to make headway in trying to explain it to them. I determined from that point not to bring the subject up again, and shortly thereafter my father and I entered an undeclared truce where we silently agreed not to discuss religion or politics (the two favorite subjects for my family). We talked much less, but got along much better when we did.
    And I thought that was the end of it. My father and I never discussed race again, until the very last conversation that we had before he died. It had been nearly a dozen years since I had called him a racist, and we had never even remotely revisited the subject, but as we talked on a quiet Sunday afternoon, seemingly out of nowhere he began to talk to me about his upbringing, about how venomously racist his grandmother was, about how racist his whole world as a kid was. He was trying to explain to me how he came by his world view. It was like a confessional. He told me that he had realized the sin of his racism, and felt that it had hurt his ministry. He volunteered all of this – I hadn’t said a word about it in 12 years. But he didn’t forget, and I think that he knew that his time was short, and felt that this was something he needed to try to make right. I just listened to his confession, absolutely amazed. He died that week.
    It would seem that this realization came too late to do much good. But it convinced me that even in the seemingly hardest cases their is hope – there is a reason to speak up for what is right. I had given up on my father as someone who could never change, never begin to understand even that he was racist, much less change it. He, however, apparently never forgot the accusation, had thought a lot about it, and felt that it was something he needed to make right before he died. In its own strange way, this last conversation was a gift of hope.
    Speak truth into the darkness, and someday we may see the light.

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  2. Hmm, my own view on this are changing, yes. Can we acknowledge true facts on both sides of the Martin Luther King issue? He said very good things and brought our nation to a place where it needed to be. His personal life and views of Christ were not what I believe the Bible teaches. Good and bad. Sadly, at his death, race baiters found they could divide us more for their own profit.

    BTW, I introduced some of those books to my history classes and did a Black History month play in that school you attended. After your time.

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  3. I am leery of the suggestion to “acknowledge true facts on both sides of the Martin Luther King issue.” Why? Well, what is “the Martin Luther King issue?” Martin Luther King is in our consciousness because he was the primary leader of the Civil Rights movement, or, as recently revealed FBI files stated it, “the most powerful negro in America.” We know of him because of his work on behalf of civil rights, his speeches, his demonstrations, and his ultimate martyrdom to the cause. That is the issue; everything else is distraction and misdirection.
    When we discuss the achievements of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower as commander of the Allied Invasion Forces in Europe, do we look at both sides – how he led the successful invasion that crushed Hitler, and his moral failings because of his affair with his secretary? When we stand amazed at the genius of Albert Einstein and how he fundamentally changed our view of universe, do we consider both sides, that as an atheist Jew he didn’t share a particular view of Christ? These things are as ridiculous as they sound.
    The reason King is important to our society and our history is because of his accomplishments and sacrifice working for civil rights. His private life would not even be common knowledge had the FBI not been spying on him 24/7 and trying to discredit him. (And which of us would have nothing to be ashamed of if we were under the same kind of scrutiny?) As for his specific theology, it is no more relevant to the work for which we honor him than is Einstein’s to his.
    The issue, as I see it is clear – the distractions and misdirection belong in the dustbin of a racist past.

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  4. I understand that I failed to communicate my concerns properly. I was not trying to discount Dr. King’s achievements.

    Although I was only ten when the speech was made, by the time I went to junior high, the impact of all types of social change was being debated daily in my New York state public high school and over our dinner table.

    My father was in your fathers’ generation. He too was racist but didn’t realize it. He was not unkind or hateful, just ignorant that on this issue he had a beam in his eye.
    My generation found ourselves in the position of having to either totally reject our parents or totally defend them. OR do what I am calling for: understand what made them the way they were and understand that some of their concerns may have been valid and YET reject their provincial understanding. Recognize that the church has been shaped by culture rather than shaping it. The American church that claimed that people are created in the image of God often failed to practice that belief

    Recognize that all people seem to want to feel superior to others. We all do that!!!
    I see the motes in other’s eyes. You can see my beams. What blind sides will the next generation see in you. They will, you know. Hope they do so with understanding.

    I have taught history in Christian school. I have attempted to teach truth about America….the good and the bad. I am just asking that you don’t buy into everything every side of power brokers tells you.

    Do you know who introduced Jim Crow into the federal government, for example.
    Do you know who stood in the school house doors?
    Do you know Margaret Sanger’s eugencis goals?

    Therese are important things to know. Just like it is important to know that America has suffered for hundreds of years because we took part in the man stealing forbidden by the scriptures. Or that we treated Native Americans badly or that we interred the Japanese.

    Sorry, if I still fail to communicate properly.

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  5. Understood, and I appreciate your clarification. The both sides comment rang too close to many other discussions I have had with people who were simply trying to distract from King’s legacy because it was no longer socially acceptable to simply deride him. Thank you for your thoughtful expansion.
    Teaching actual history, instead of mythic history is a true challenge, as so many people are so attached to the mythic stories that they learned and are threatened when the actual facts of history challenge those tidy myths. Anyone who takes on that challenge is to be commended.
    As I recall, it was Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner elected since the Civil War, who introduced Jim Crow into the federal government.

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  6. Thanks, Theo. Mr. Phil suggested the description of my father (and his parents) ought to be prejudiced and not racist. There used to be a difference in what those terms meant.

    Woodrow Wilson, progressive democrat president, and Margaret Sanger, progressive eugenist had much in common. Progressive republican Teddy Roosevelt tried to come down on the right side of racial problems….when it helped him politictally. Was TR sincere, who knows? Been reading a book about his dinner with Booker T Washington that I came across at the Booker T Washington National Historic Site in VA.

    Don’t get me started anymore on history!!

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  7. Not so sure about that predudiced/ racist split, at least for my folks. Both my folks were actively opposed to the Civil Rights movement and all its leaders, particularly King, they booth actively defended BJU’s race policy, my Dad told many racist jokes (complete with N word) and my Mother was not embarrassed to tell you that she believed that the Bible taught that whites were superior to blacks (this up until she died). Unless you reserve racist only for people who run around in white sheets and burn crosses, I’m pretty sure that the word racist fit them. They were never actively hateful, so long as black people knew their place, but that could be said of some KKK members as well (my maternal grandfather, I have discovered, was a member of KKK in Ohio in the 1920s and 30s.)
    I think that too many people believe that unless you are a caricature of evil, rubbing your hands together while you twirl your mustache and let at a maniacal laugh, that you are not evil, or in this case, that if you don’t wear a white sheet, burn crosses, and lynch the uppity, that you are not a racist. I don’t set the bar that low.

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  8. I see your point Theo. My parents did fit the prejucided definition

    My mother explained to me once that she just never met people of other backgrounds in rural New Jersey where she grew up. When she went to college in the south in 1948, she took a bus to go shopping and naturally sat in the back because that was where the empty seats were. She wondered why people were staring at her.

    In doing some historical research about my locality in western PA, I was surprised to discover how prominent the clan was and how it was used to intimidate opponents no matter what race.

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  9. Hey folks.
    I am the worst blog owner ever because life is just ridiculously busy right now …. so apologies that I am only now sitting down to read this outstanding interchange.

    I struggle with the complexity of broken people being redeemed, of balancing mercy with justice.

    I spent a lot of my teens and 20s excusing beliefs that lead to terrible ends because the people who believe them are cool / good / gracious / respected / important to me. While my personal reactions to people are much more measured these days, my intolerance of abusive beliefs has grown.

    The Gospel is big enough to redeem our biggest mistakes and to change people that are otherwise unchangeable. (Otherwise, what’s the point?)

    I think the path of belief demands that we tirelessly work to correct what sinful humanity has wrecked. In fact, I’d argue that’s absolutely foundational to a biblical understanding of redemption.

    And that’s why I have a hard time looking at my upbringing and understanding why nobody was saying this, why Dr King was the bad guy, why racism was somehow so hard to spot? Really? People in the 60s didn’t realize they were being racist? Weren’t the jokes funny BECAUSE people knew the punchlines were racist?

    And why I have such a hard time with much “Christian” political discourse with all its conspiracy theory, capitalism-as-godliness defense of economic abuses, and continued racism (now it’s cool to hate Hispanic immigrants in the name of homeland and economic security, but the narrative that blames black-white disparity on African-American laziness is absolutely alive and well).

    I’ll stop. I’m afraid that might be gasoline on a fire I don’t really want to light. 🙂

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