Per Caritatem

Martin Luther King Jr.In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s essay, “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” he observes that true peace requires “the presence of some positive force—justice, good will and brotherhood.” In today’s world, this sense of solidarity and concern for the good of others—the poor, the incarcerated, the immigrant, the unemployed, those with little or no access to healthcare and so forth—seems to have diminished significantly.

In contrast, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was animated by a strong sense of human solidarity, believing that as those created in God’s image we belong to one another. In addition, Dr. King’s belief in human solidarity, the inherent dignity of all human beings, and the need to work toward creating a world where all humans can flourish compelled him to action. As we know, he chose the path of non-violent direct action and protest, convinced that this was the path most consonant with his Christian faith. Of course this was not an easy path. He received criticism from black activists as well as white society. His protests even landed him in jail and ultimately cost him his life.

In Dr. King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he writes, “‘I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.’ Then a few lines later he continues, “[m]oreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

In what  follows I address what critical race theorists and sociologists refer to as white advantage, white privilege, white habitus, or the “invisibility” and normativity of whiteness.  My hope is that by interrogating whiteness we might become aware of and uproot racial prejudices in our own thinking and awaken in ourselves a sense of solidarity and genuine concern for human flourishing for all.

Unlike people of color, whites (focusing primarily here on America’s history) are rarely if ever confronted with their phenotypic differences (especially skin color) in ways that severely and negatively impact the course of their lives. Moreover, very few white people have given extensive thought to the advantages they have simply because they are white. For example, being white has not resulted in their being denied entrance into public spaces such as restaurants, swimming pools, social clubs, housing districts, and public schools. Nor have they had to endure constant racial profiling by police officers, routine “tracking” and surveillance by security guards when shopping, or regularly having others clutch at their purses when they enter a crowded elevator together. In contrast, people of color daily deal with these and multiple other confrontations.

Black intellectuals have described the disparities in lived experience between whites and blacks in various ways. W. E. B. Du Bois employs the metaphors of the “veil” and “double-consciousness” to describe the complex, intertwined relationship of blacks and whites in America. The African American must navigate two worlds, the “black” world and the “white” world: “two worlds separate yet bound together like those double stars that, bound for all time, whirl around each other separate yet one.”[1] If we combine the multivalent figures of the veil and double-consciousness, we see that Du Bois was acutely aware of the paradox of the African American’s world. That is, the black person was both socially and politically invisible (existing behind a veil) and yet hyper-visible given the negative meanings imputed to his or her skin color—meanings which carried significant social, legal, political, and personal implications and prevented African Americans from flourishing as human beings and fully participatory citizens.

In keeping with King’s vision and legacy, I offer the following reflections on whiteness and our ongoing need to interrogate our socialized ways of being so that we, like King, might become “cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities” and commit ourselves to struggling against us/them, insider/outsider, deserving/undeserving (citizen) and myriad other false dichotomies.   Given that as humans we are complex social, psychological, intellectual, emotional, embodied beings,[2] I draw special attention to how spatial and social (re)segregation and accompanying socially conditioned practices contributes to and furthers white advantage, thus creating significant barriers for the development of interracial empathy and genuine solidarity.

In his recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James H. Cone critiques Reinhold Niebuhr for his failure to address America’s appalling racist history. Cone cites a passage from novelist, playwright, poet, and social critic, James Baldwin (1924–1987) that is worth repeating. (Baldwin and Niebuhr had been engaged in an ongoing dialogue about these issues.) Regarding white people, Baldwin states: “‘I don’t mean to say that white people are villains or devils or anything like that,’ but what ‘I do mean to say is this: that the bulk of the white […] Christian majority in this country has exhibited a really staggering level of irresponsibility and immoral washing of the hands, you know. […] I don’t suppose that […] all the white people in Birmingham are monstrous people. But they’re mainly silent people, you know. And that is a crime in itself’.”[3] As many contend (including myself), this white silence and lack of willingness to confront America’s violence against and exploitation of African Americans and the enduring legacy and consequences of its racist practices and policies prevents America from a true reconciliation with its past—a reconciliation required in order to achieve solidary among its citizens and to avoid repeating past patterns of oppression and violence.

Although Jim Crow laws and policies such as racially restrictive covenants are no longer enforceable, our schools and housing divisions continue the legacy of segregation. The fact that such segregation still divides our schools, neighborhoods, and parishes is a strong indicator that systemic and structural inequality and white advantage remains a serious social problem in our society. As Alex Mikulich observes, drawing upon work by sociologists John Powell, Douglas Massey, and Nancy Denton, “housing location is critical to predicting access to quality public education, development of personal wealth, employment, health and safety, democratic participation, transportation, and child care. The national extent of white hyper-segregation cannot happen without the participation of the majority of white people and institutions, including whites who claim good intentions toward people of color.”[4]

One’s “spatial” location with respect to housing is closely connected to one’s potential for upward mobility in the socio-economic sphere. How so? One’s residence significantly determines the educational opportunities for one’s children. With housing and schooling (re)segregation we again see a continuation and reproduction of structural racism carried on by white practices (e.g. real estate practices and unofficial “red-lining”) that have become normalized and which remain largely un-interrogated by whites themselves. Although it has been over fifty years since the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregated schools were unconstitutional, our schools today are as segregated as ever.  As Gary Orfield explains in his study, “Schools More Separate” (2001), “white students remain the most segregated from all other races in their schools. Whites on average attend schools where less than 20 percent of the students are from all other racial and ethnic groups combined. On average, blacks and Latinos attend schools with 53% to 55% students of their own group.”[5]

As Mikulich highlights, there are significant overlaps between Dr. King’s vision and the Catholic social teaching. For example, both emphasize the preferential option for the poor, the interconnectedness of human beings as God’s image bearers, and the importance of and call to human solidarity. Whether official encyclicals or pastoral letters of note, Catholic social teaching presents moral, spiritual, and socio-economic principles that appeal not only to Catholics but to all people of goodwill concerned to promote social justice and the common good of all. Archbishop Francis Cardinal George, for example, penned a beautiful and timely pastoral letter entitled, Dwell in my Love, delivered on the 33rd anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 2001). The title of the letter is taken from Scripture, viz., from the Gospel of St. John 15:7–10.[6] In his letter, Archbishop George recalls his own first experiences of the reality of racism, or rather his experience of seeing his African American friends experience racism under Jim Crow laws. He had been on a summer trip in Memphis and was not allowed to sit with his African American friends on a bus. This very different experience of “space” made him aware of his advantaged social position as a white man. The every day way that he occupied space freely and non-confrontationally had been part of his world for as long as he could remember; it was taken for granted and was never intellectually scrutinized. However, his African American friends experience the world quite differently. They experienced a lack of spatial occupation on a regular basis and were daily reminded of why such spatial exclusions existed.

As his letter unfolds, Archbishop George highlights what he calls “spatial racism.” As he explains,

“Spatial racism refers to patterns of metropolitan development in which some affluent whites create racially and economically segregated suburbs or gentrified areas of cities, leaving the poor — mainly African Americans, Hispanics and some newly arrived immigrants — isolated in deteriorating areas of the cities and older suburbs. […] Spatial racism creates a visible chasm between the rich and the poor, and between white people and people of color. It marks a society that contradicts both the teachings of the Church and our declared national value of equality of opportunity.”

Whites tend to be unaware of this chasm or see it as “natural,” “normal,” or just the “way it is with different groups congregating together;” in contrast, people of color are acutely aware of this divide.

In addition, whether speaking of literal physical space or more figuratively as moral, intellectual, and social space, this separation between whites and people of color—a separation that all too often has resulted in economic, social, and other benefits for whites—makes it difficult for many whites to empathize with the experiences and frustrations of people of color.[7] Moreover, it makes practicing solidarity nearly impossible.

To be clear, class in also a significant factor in this discussion, as poor whites experience the world quite differently than whites who occupy the upper middle and higher rungs of the socio-economic sphere (the latter of which are my primary addressees under the generic heading “whites”). As is the case with other groups, whites are socially conditioned. For example, they are socialized through the spaces of privilege they occupy—their more or less all white schools, neighborhoods, parishes, etc.—to see their experience—their “white habitus” as normal, natural, and even the standard for all things intellectual, moral, cultural, and so forth.

The term “white habitus” comes from sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.[8] According to Bonilla-Silva, “white habitus” is “a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ tastes, perceptions, feelings and emotions and their views on racial matters.”[9] As Mikulich explains, white habitus is cultivated “within a separate residential and cultural life that fosters a white culture of solidarity and negative views about nonwhites.”[10] White habitus involves both position and practice. Here position refers to social geography, spatial location, and possessing socio-economic dominance and power broadly speaking. Practice speaks to “the ways that whites are socialized [via families, institutions, social narratives, etc.]to perceive and act within the world.”[11] White culture not only actively shapes and forms the largely segregated social landscape or geography of residential and educational but is it also conditioned by such segregation (morally, intellectually, etc.).

Here are few examples from ethnographic studies as presented by Mikulich.[12] White descriptions of their own lives and experiences “within white gated communities” indicates that “white self-perceptions of  ‘niceness’ and fear of others” are often employed as ways to “justify living in a residential development that excludes racial others.”[13]   In addition, by describing themselves as “nice” and perpetuating a fear of others attached to certain geographical spaces, neighborhoods etc., whites “inscribe racist assumptions into the landscape.”[14]Operating within the “white habitus,” the white neighborhood is perceived as “normal” and evaluated as “safe,” whereas the black neighborhood is “racially segregated” and less “safe” or even “dangerous.”

In short, “white habitus and white hyper-segregation” not only prevent the kinds of meaningful interracial interaction and relationships required for genuine solidarity and empathy but they also—if not confronted and altered—reproduce and perpetuate racialized ways of thinking, being, and acting (as well as unjust social structures). Confronting white myths, white advantage, and the ways in which we are complicit in seeing the world and others through our own racialized “white habitus” is extremely challenging personally and communally and is (in my experience at least) often not well received. However, if we fail to engage these issues that have been part of the social fabric of our country from its very beginning and “continue past patterns of silence,” then we open ourselves to the possibility of once again confirming James Baldwin’s analysis that whites remain “trapped in a history they don’t understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, New York: Vintage, 1993, p. 8).[15]

 

 

Notes


[1] W. E. B. Du Bois. “Beyond the Veil in a Virginia Town,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses, 1887­1961,  edited by Herbert Aptheker. Originally published 1897 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), 49.

[2] This list is not meant to be exhaustive.

[3] As cited in James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 55.

[4] Mikulich, “Where Y’at Race, Whiteness, and Economic Justice?” in The Almighty and the Dollar: Reflections on Economic Justice for All, edited by Mark J. Allman (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2012), 207. Significant aspects of and ideas for this post are modeled after and taken from Mikulich’s chapter.

[5] Gary Orfield, “Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation,” http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/schools-more-separate-consequences-of-a-decade-of-resegregation/orfield-schools-more-separate-2001.pdf.

[6] “If you dwell in me, and my words dwell in you, ask whatever you want and you
shall have it. This is how my Father is glorified; you are to bear fruit in plenty and so be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Dwell in my love. If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love.”

[7] Social scientists call this lack of empathy “social alexithymia.” As Joe Feagin explains, social alexithymia is the “significant lack of cross-racial empathy” (Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010), 89.

[8] See, for example, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, 2nd ed. (Landham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2006), 103.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mikulich, “Where Y’at Race, Whiteness, and Economic Justice?”, p 210.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] As cited in Mikulich, ibid., 211.

 

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr., I have decided to comment briefly on excerpts from his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.” King had recently joined voices with others in the community both religious and secular opposing the Vietnam War. The excerpts below are from his speech delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, New York.  King begins by acknowledging that he can no longer remain silent about the Vietnam War but must criticize it openly, joining with like-minded voices in a common cause.

“Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”-

King calls for humility in recognition of our human condition; yet, he also calls for action, for a “firm dissent” grounded in convictions that will “move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism”—the latter of which we hear ad nauseam today.

King then turns to those questioning him for speaking against the war, those wondering why he has partnered with these dissenting voices and who worried that King’s critique of the war would hinder his efforts in the civil rights struggle for blacks in America.  Such people, King laments, have not understood him or his calling. Consequently, he mounts a case for his anti-war position, showing how it is perfectly consonant with his civil rights activism.  Although he enumerates seven reasons why he must oppose ethically the Vietnam War, I shall comment upon only the first three.  (I do recommend reading the entire speech, as it is packed with metaphors, images, moral interrogations, socio-political confrontations, and oratory delights that have come to bear a distinctively Martin Luther King Jr. mark).

First of all, King explains that the war functions to distract the nation and its leaders from concerns at home, especially concerns for the poor.

“There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

There’s nothing new under the sun here, right? While our current unemployment rates skyrocket and our healthcare system self-destructs, we continue to spend millions upon millions on our present war and anti-terrorism efforts.  It is worth contemplating whether we’ve become a violent nation or whether, our wars both domestic and foreign have actually been the norm and times of peace the exception.

Next, King highlights the cruel irony and manipulation of the poor, particularly black males of the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum shipped thousands of miles away to risk their lives in a fight for “freedom” when their own freedom at home is denied.

“Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

Third, King describes how his longtime commitment to non-violent protests as a means for social change and his growing anti-war convictions were brought together through interacting with oppressed youth in the Northern ghettos.

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

As King made clear on several occasions, his concerns were not only for black Americans but also included all people no matter what “race”, ethnicity, nationality, or political allegiance; his ultimate loyalty pressed him to move beyond nationalism by interrogating and deconstructing narratives co-opted for nationalistic aims in conflict with his faith.  As a Christian who also happened to be an American, King felt that he must address his own country’s soul, which he believed had become infused with bellicosity, warning that if her “soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’” I wonder how our nation’s medical report, if perchance we could get an accurate diagnosis, might read today.

As a follower of Christ, King was compelled to follow the way of peace and love, and to promote publicly the just treatment of all human beings.  He saw his Christian missive as transcending (yet not abandoning) “the calling of race or nation or creed” and sought every opportunity possible to speak for “suffering and helpless and outcast children.” For King this was both the “privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers [and sisters].”

In light of the current trend to script enemy “others” (Muslims, immigrants, etc.), King’s words have much to say to us today.  As we celebrate Dr. King’s life and deeds, may we have ears to hear and hearts to receive his words of peaceful dissent so that we might translate them into action in our own spheres of influence.

 

In the final three sections of his speech, Dr. King reaffirms his commitment to non-violent activism, reiterates the structural changes that must occur in American society, and concludes with a clarion call to hope in the midst of the on-going struggles for justice.

Dr. King’s Christian faith and vision fortified his conviction that genuine, enduring change could only come through a non-violent strategy.  In King’s assessment, the 1965 Watts riot and other similar acts of violence failed to produce results reflective of a genuine transformation of hearts and minds with regard to the dignity, worth and just treatment of African Americans.  As King explains,

At best, the riots have produced a little additional antipoverty money allotted by frightened government officials, and a few water-sprinklers to cool the children of the ghettos. It is something like improving the food in the prison while the people remain securely incarcerated behind bars. Nowhere have the riots won any concrete improvement such as have the organized protest demonstrations. When one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective, the answers are blatantly illogical. Sometimes they talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments and they talk about guerrilla warfare. They fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the National Guard and, finally, the Army to call on-all of which are predominantly white.

King is aware not only of the inability of violence and hate to create authentic change, but he is likewise cognizant of the way in which the power structures in society were (and in many ways still are) stacked against blacks (e.g. the police and military were “predominantly white”).  King adds,

It is perfectly clear that a violent revolution on the part of American blacks would find no sympathy and support from the white population and very little from the majority of the Negroes themselves. This is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom. This is a time for action. What is needed is a strategy for change, a tactical program that will bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. So far, this has only been offered by the nonviolent movement. Without recognizing this we will end up with solutions that don’t solve, answers that don’t answer and explanations that don’t explain.

King’s admonitions are wise, demonstrating his knowledge of the complexities involved in attempting to dis-lodge unjust power differentials (what Foucault might call large-scale “asymmetrical power relations”) caused by deeply embedded ways of thinking about blacks and whites.  For King, a man so evidently gripped by Christ’s transforming love and concerned with true reconciliation between blacks and whites, non-violence is

the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for justice in this country. […] And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love.   I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.

King was in no way blind to the violent crimes and injustices carried out on a regular basis by whites against blacks.  However, he chose to love, not hate.  His volitional decision to refuse to retaliate in kind, to refuse to be consumed by bitterness, to refuse to hate all or most white people (when he had every reason to do so), is in my view one of the most potent evidences to the reality of Christ at work in this world.  Of course this does not “prove” in some airtight mathematical way that Christ is God; however, it communicates and incarnates the gospel message in a concrete way that causes both Christians and non-Christians to take note.

In the next section, King raises questions about the economic structure of American society.  While explicitly stating that he is not advocating communism, he challenges us to re-evaluate our economic system and the disparity of wealth and poverty it allows.

[O]ne day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Employing Hegelian dialectical structures of discourse, King stresses that his vision is that of a higher synthesis, a “Kingdom of Brotherhood” [which I’m sure includes “Sisterhood” too].

What I’m saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

Here I believe King’s Christian faith allows him to speak to the heart of the matter regarding these “triple evils,” namely, sin and the need that all human beings have-whatever the color of our skin happens to be-the need to be liberated from our hatred, greed, bitterness, and self-absorption, and liberated to love, generosity, forgiveness and a sense of solidarity and communion with all human beings. For King, Christ alone, who endured hatred and suffered on behalf of all human beings, can bring about this transformation-or as King puts it, paraphrasing Jesus’s words to Nicodemus, “you must be born again,” “[y]our whole structure must be changed.”  No people group should be seen as objects or property to be used, manipulated and consumed for the furthering of those in power.  For, as King expresses in prophetic and kerygmatic tones,

[a] nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, ‘America, you must be born again!’

The concluding section of King’s speech simply cannot be summarized without losing something of its passion and rhetorical impact.  So read it for yourself, read it out loud, allow the words to live in you, and pray that God will restructure your own (and my own) thinking about race and how we might participate in and live out of the love for which King fought and died.

So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a ‘divine’ dissatisfaction.” Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.  Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout ‘White Power!’ – when nobody will shout ‘Black Power!’ – but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.

I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil-rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. And as we continue our charted course, we may gain consolation in the words so nobly left by that great black bard who was also a great freedom fighter of yesterday, James Weldon Johnson:

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod

Felt in the days

When hope unborn had died.

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place

For which our fathers sighed?

We have come over the way

That with tears hath been watered.

We have come treading our paths

Through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the bright gleam

Of our bright star is cast.

Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow with a cosmic past tense, ‘We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.’

 

In honor of the upcoming national holiday celebrating the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I offer a brief (and sorely inadequate) summary and commentary of sorts on Dr. King’s 1967 speech, “Where do we go from here?”  I must state upfront that I am in no way an expert on Dr. King’s works and have only a basic acquaintance with his writings; however, I share Dr. King’s Christian faith, his vision for racial equality, and I greatly admire the way in which he integrated his beliefs and his actions.

In the first section of his speech, Dr. King gives a number of examples-from job opportunities, to housing, to education-highlighting the ways in which African Americans, when compared to whites, are treated unjustly. After his piercing and brutally honest assessment of the failures of what the civil rights movement had hoped to attain, King then shares a vision, a trajectory for the future in light of the inequalities that still remain.

Where do we go from here? First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values. We must no longer be ashamed of being black. The job of arousing manhood within a people that have been taught for so many centuries that they are nobody is not easy.

As a white person, I believe that King’s vision is not only for blacks but is also a vision that ought to be embraced by whites, Asians, Hispanics and every other race and people group on our planet.  Until we see all people as having inherent dignity and worth (qualities, which the Christian believes result from the human person’s creation in God’s image), we will not be able to authentically adopt and begin to live out King’s vision.  Continuing his thoughts above, King encourages African Americans to recognize their inherent dignity, beauty and personhood-in spite of the unjust, demoralizing ways in which white culture has tried to reduce them to white sameness and de-value (if not, eradicate) their history, worth and contributions-.  As King exhorts,

No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation or Johnsonian Civil Rights Bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The Negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own Emancipation Proclamation. And, with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history. How painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents and I am not ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave.’

In the third section of his speech, King emphasizes the very legitimate need for blacks to have political power and an organized, unified societal voice.  The lack in these areas was part of the problem of the past, as it allowed the whites in power to keep African Americans voice-less and power-less, thus perpetuating injustices which of course benefited whites.    King defines power as “the ability to achieve purpose.  It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change.”  As King explains, power in itself is not bad or evil so long as it is used properly.   However, King is well-aware that both philosophers and political leaders have misconstrued and abused power.  In particular, they have set love and power against one another, as “polar opposites so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.”  Here King mentioned by name the German philosopher, Nietzsche, who so vehemently attacked what he (wrongly) understood as the Christian notion of love.  Rather than a dichotomous or adversarial view of the relation between power and love, King calls us to harmonious view of the two wherein we understand

that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on. What has happened is that we have had it wrong and confused in our own country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience.

King goes on to criticize those who advocate pursuing equal rights by any means necessary, which in essence is to re-introduce and utilize a distorted, perverse notion of power.  Such a view is fueled by the same hate that motivated the white agenda, and as King notes, it “led a few extremists today to advocate for Negroes the same destructive and conscienceless power that they have justly abhorred in whites. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.”

In the fourth section of his speech, King proposes what I imagine was and still is a controversial program, “a guaranteed annual income.”  Here I offer very little commentary, as I do not feel qualified to engage the issues sufficiently.  I will say that I agree with King’s rejection of simplistic characterizations of “the poor” as lazy, lacking in moral fiber and initiative-such a generalization is blind to the oppressive structures built into the framework of our society, structures that are not easily re-configured.  Likewise, I concur with King that an individual’s worth should never be based solely on his or her economic status. Nonetheless, when a person’s ability to work and earn a living for him/herself and/or provide for his/her loved ones is taken away, or the opportunities to do so are few and unjustly distributed, that person’s self-esteem and self-worth suffer and tensions in familial relations tend to increase significantly.  King doesn’t attempt to spell out how this annual income might be implemented (which of course would be out of place given the genre); however, he is confident that something more than what was being done at the time to improve job and other opportunities for blacks could in fact be done.  Whether one agrees with King or not on this point, the way he ends this section, has a powerful rhetorical punch:

John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.