Bob Schwartz

Tag: race

The Long Hot Summer

The movie Detroit will be released on August 4. Directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, it is about the Detroit riots in the American summer of 1967.

Fifty years ago, the summer of 1967—known as “the long hot summer”—was an unforgettable moment in American race relations. The Detroit riots were just part of it. That summer, 163 riots took place in American cities and towns, including in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Tampa, Birmingham, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Rochester, Plainfield, and Newark.

And in Detroit. During five days there, 43 people died, 1,189 people were injured, 7,231 people were arrested, 2,509 stores were looted or burned, 388 families were displaced, and 412 buildings burned or damaged enough to be demolished.

As a result, President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate and report. Months later the government published The Kerner Report: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.


From the Introduction to the 2016 reprint edition of The Kerner Report by Julian E. Zelizer of Princeton University:

The report remains one of the most insightful government examinations of the state of race relations in twentieth-century America, with lessons that reverberate today and others that were ignored….

The Kerner Commission’s findings would be unlike almost any other report that the federal government had produced about race relations in America. Although the report stuck to conventional liberal ideas about how to improve racial equality, its analysis of the problems in the cities pointed to some radical critiques about the problem of institutional racism in America. The widely discussed report offered hard-hitting arguments about the ways in which white racism was built into the institutions and organization of urban America, so much that racial inequality was constantly reproduced over generations. The report tackled controversial issues like police violence against African Americans that had often been kept on the sidelines of mainstream political discourse….

In July, two major riots devastated the cities of Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan. These were the worst of 163 riots that broke out that summer, in places large and small, ranging from Plainfield, New Jersey, to Wadesboro, North Carolina. On July 12, rioting started in Newark after rumors that the police had mistreated an African American cab driver whom they were arresting. To the eyes of some close to the Johnson administration, Newark’s unrest was the culmination of many years of frustration with excessive police violence. In fact, President Johnson refrained from sending in any troops to achieve calm, fearing that doing so would only stoke the racial flames engulfing the city. After five days of devastating violence, the riots ended with twenty-six people dead, hundreds injured, and massive property damage to the community.

The violence in Detroit started on July 23, not long after the smoke from the Newark riots had cleared….

The rioters, they found, were usually educated and had been employed in previous years. Most of them were angry about the kind of racial discrimination they faced when seeking employment and places to live. They were frustrated with the state of their neighborhoods and wanted access to the political system from which they had been disenfranchised. They also were described as wanting to participate in the consumer culture that American leaders had boasted about. The rioters were not driven by radical agitators, nor were they recent transplants to the city. The report depicted them instead as ordinary, longtime residents of neighborhoods who could no longer withstand the deplorable conditions under which they and their families lived….

No institution received more scrutiny than the police. The rioting had shown without any doubt that law enforcement had become a problem in race relations. Rather than constructive domestic policies, more aggressive policing had become the de facto response from city officials. “In several cities,” the report stated, “the principal official response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons.” The police played a big role in almost all of the riots, according to the commissioners. Indeed, in contrast to the findings of the McCone Commission, the Kerner report noted that systematic police violence against African Americans was at the heart of the riots of this period, more so than almost any other issue….

In provocative fashion, the report blamed “white racism” for producing the conditions that were at the heart of the riots. With a powerful account of the history of race relations, the commission had traced the problems in the cities all the way back to slavery. The point was not that white Americans were intentionally committing racial injustice against African Americans, but that racism was imbedded in institutions….

There have been some notable improvements since the time the report was published, however. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s did legitimate racial integration, while social programs from that period—such as Medicaid and food stamps—created an important base of support to alleviate the conditions that the poor faced. A growing African American middle class has also been one of the most important positive developments in race relations.

Yet the problems highlighted in the Kerner Commission’s report remain hauntingly relevant today. Many parts of inner-city America remain as unstable, if not more so, than when Kerner looked into the conditions that existed in the late 1960s. Lack of jobs, inadequate education, racial discrimination, and police brutality all remain prevalent in modern times. Poverty has also been spreading to the suburbs, bringing these issues into new areas, while economic inequality has generally become more severe and hardened. The war on crime and the war on drugs have replaced urban policy. For those who didn’t make it out, hope for change has only diminished….

The Kerner report still stands as a powerful statement about the struggles that African Americans face in a country where racism shapes many of our key institutions. The Kerner report, a shining argument that government can indeed respond to national problems, still has a great deal to offer policymakers and citizens as they wrestle with racial tension in the aftermath of the racial unrest in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cincinnati, and Baltimore in 2014 and 2015. In all of these cases police violence against urban residents again brought attention to the racial disparities that afflict many parts of the nation.

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Our Leaders Right or Wrong?: Letter from a Birmingham Jail

mlk-arrested

Up to and during the 1960s, a portion of the democratically-elected leaders in America promoted and enforced policies and philosophies that were then and now regarded by many as unacceptable and reprehensible. Once it had been slavery, and even after that was wrested from the hands of those leaders, other means were enacted to continue civil inhumanity.

None of that was a problem for those who supported those leaders. The challenge was for those who were told to accept, respect and obey the leaders and the offices, because that is what we do as loyal and lawful citizens who accept, respect and obey our system and our way of life—but they would not and could not.

Martin Luther King Jr. was one who did not believe in blind and passive acceptance, respect and obedience in the face of benighted and wrongheaded leadership. In this, he followed many who over centuries faced the same tragic dilemma.

On April 12, 1963, King was arrested for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations. He and Ralph Abernathy had marched from Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham into a waiting police wagon. Eight Birmingham clergymen criticized the confrontational strategy, calling it “unwise and untimely” and appealing “to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

A few days later, King answered this criticism, writing from his prison cell a public letter that has come to be known as Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It is one of the great public texts in American history, both in literary style and moral impact. It belongs up there with the Gettysburg Address, though given its measured and stirring justification for civil disobedience, is not as universally recited or honored.

In the letter, King wrote:

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

If you do nothing else on this day to celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., and just a few days before the inauguration of a new President and the start of a new era, please read the letter, in part or in whole. It is a very long letter (“Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”). It is printed below.


Letter from a Birmingham Jail

16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, 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.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we 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 through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some 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.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. 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.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. 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.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.

More About Jim Wallis: The Truth Will Set You Free

americas-original-sin

Yesterday I posted about Jim Wallis of Sojourners and his post-election essay Time For Healing. And Resistance. Hopefully you had a chance to look at the essay and learn about Jim Wallis and Sojourners.

I just started reading the most recent of his many books about the religious imperative of social justice. The following is from the Introduction to America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.


In the following pages we will take a positive, hopeful, and forward-looking approach. We will talk about what it means to “repent” of our original sin—and repentance means more than just saying you’re sorry. It means turning in a new and better direction, which I believe we can do. We look backward in order to look forward. And this book makes a spiritual statement: our racial diversity and social pluralism are a great strength and a gift for our future, because our primary identity is as the children of God—all of us are created in God’s image. Thinking about ourselves in that deeper way helps us to sort out a lot of things.

So what can the truth do for us?

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you defensive? I think we can do better than that.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you dishonest? I don’t think we want to keep doing that.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you deceptive? We’ve seen way too much of that from public officials, and many people are now calling for accountability.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you bitter? That just makes us miserable, and miserable to live with.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you angry? Anger can be a positive thing, but only if it is channeled toward constructive change and gives us energy instead of hatred. We can eventually move beyond that too.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. I truly believe that would be the best thing for all of us.

To become more free because of the truth.

To become more honest because of the truth.

To become more responsible because of the truth.

To become better neighbors because of the truth.

To become more productive and contributing citizens because of the truth.

To become better Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people of other faiths, or people of conscience with no religion—all better because of the truth.

To become a better and freer country for all of us because of the truth.

And a big issue for me, as the father of two teenage boys, is how we can all become better parents who are more supportive of other parents because of the truth.

Finally, to become better and freer human beings because of the truth. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at in the Gospel passage.

We can no longer be afraid of the truth about race in this country—past, present, and future—because our fears will keep us captive to all kinds of untruths.

This book is about how to find the truth together in these difficult, challenging, and complicated matters of race in America.

We will try to answer the question Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. named in the title of his last book, released just months before we lost him: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? A new generation will answer that question for a new time.

I crossed the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march that helped bring voting rights to all our fellow citizens. It was then I realized that the answers to these questions will be found in crossing another bridge—the bridge to a new America that will soon be a majority of minorities. This book seeks to describe that new bridge and how we and our children can cross it together.

We need to better understand the past so we can cross the bridge to a new, freer American future where our growing diversity is experienced as a great benefit and not as a great threat. I hope you will take this book as an invitation—to explore the truth of America’s racial past, present, and hopeful future so that, yes, together, we might all become more free, our congregations more faithful, and the state of our union “more perfect.”

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Summit for Change: Streaming Online

The Summit

Summit for Change in Washington, D.C. begins today at 6:00pm and runs through Friday. The event is streaming online. Please watch a little if you can.

The Summit is a gathering of 300 leaders committed to changing the world through faith and justice. This diverse convening creates opportunity for building relationships and cross-sector collaboration. Through meals shared together, inspirational talks, and opportunities for smaller group gatherings, The Summit event provides a space for leaders to connect to their peers and find hope for the future.

The roster of featured participants is mind-blowing and uplifting.

If you’ve maybe felt a little hopeless and frustrated about social progress lately, this could be a dose of something you need. It must be possible. James Baldwin, in his famous essay My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, quoted a spiritual:

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

Jim Wallis: Evangelical Voters Have Some Explaining To Do

Embarrasing to Be an Evangelical

Jim Wallis says that some Evangelical voters should be embarrassed.

Wallis is President and Founder of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners. It is impossible in short form to explain what treasures Jim Wallis and Sojourners are. So please visit the links to read the descriptions.

Wallis is a stubborn reminder of what he believes Jesus would expect from American Christians, in the face of some of their shortcomings, hypocrisy and grandstanding. No matter what your own faith preference, he is admirable as a brave and insistent conscience for America.

Please read today’s piece, “It’s Embarrassing to Be an Evangelical This Election:
The So-Called ‘Evangelical Vote’ Has Some Explaining to Do.

The Eulogy

Obama Charleston Eulogy

Almost always, the great speech is also the right speech.

President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the eight other victims in Charleston was great and right.

We are accustomed these days to speeches from leaders and wannabe leaders that are mediocre and content-free, and if there is content it is calculated, self-serving, and passion-free. Welcome to this or mostly any other presidential contest.

Of course, Barack Obama is the exception to the run of the political mill. In fact his sometimes supernatural rhetoric ended up being a burden, as some wondered whether he was all talk and no action. Without getting into the measure of his still unfinished presidency, which this week looks pretty good, remember that under the right circumstances talk is also action, when action means talking about the thing that needs doing.

One remarkable aspect of the eulogy was the President’s use of pronouns. We and our, he repeated, and he did not mean we Americans. He meant we black Americans. In a situation that called for the highest leader and a black man, it so happens that the highest leader is a black man.

I’ve written before about my beloved Barbara Jordan, maybe the greatest American orator of the late 20th century, with multiple entries on the list of all time speeches. Before the eulogy, it may not have been clear where and if Obama belonged in that pantheon. If it wasn’t before, that has now been settled.

The eulogy was everything it could and should have been. It was a painting of a significant scene by a skilled and inspired artist. Like a great painting, it is more than even the greatest photograph can show us. Look here, he said, think about this, remember this, all the while appealing to the heart and soul of his audience and of the nation. We have watched hours of news coverage of the events in Charleston, reviewed and analyzed and opined upon. But the magic of a speech or a painting is that by adding words and pictures, the obstacles to our really seeing are removed, the scales fall away, and we look as if for the first time. And with that vision, maybe move on to act wisely and appropriately.

The NFL and Ferguson

Roger Goodell NFL

NFL player Ray Rice beat his then-fiancée/now-wife unconscious inside an elevator in Atlantic City. Police officer Darren Wilson shot dead an unarmed teenager in the middle of a street in Ferguson, Missouri.

(To Rice’s credit, he had the courtesy to drag her body out of the elevator, while the Ferguson police left Michael Brown’s body on that street for hours.)

These two incidents are so much the same and so different. They tell us things we don’t want to hear, know, or think about. They also tell us one surprisingly good thing. The establishment interests can be just as committed to privileging a black American as killing him ruthlessly, under the right circumstances. Especially if there’s big money at stake. So we learn that ignominy is race neutral at last.

Until yesterday there was no publicly available video of the beating, though it was apparently available and seen by various authorities. The only public video until then was from the outside of the elevator, merely showing Rice dragging the body, not beating it. As one journalist now explains his defense of Rice’s mere two-game NFL suspension and not being charged with a felony:

The inside-the-elevator video shows Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, provoking, brutally assaulting and then casually and callously standing over his knocked-out fiancée (who is now his wife). His actions are sickening in their depravity and confirm a worst-case-scenario narrative I was reluctant to believe after seeing only the previously released, outside-the-elevator video.

I thought the full video would explain why: Why police originally charged Ray and Janay with simple assault. Why the prosecutor allowed Ray to enter a diversion program. Why Janay apologized for her role. Why Janay chose to marry Ray. Why the Ravens enthusiastically supported Rice and used their facilities in helping him rehabilitate his image. Why Goodell suspended Rice for only two games.

I wrongly and naively thought that she was the aggressor in the attack, that Rice reflexively shoved her to fend her off and she slipped, fell and hit her head [emphasis added]. I did not think a man could sucker-punch a woman on tape and have the police, a prosecutor, the victim and the image-conscious NFL all work to treat the assaulter in a sympathetic fashion.

Fell and hit her head. That reminds us of nothing so much as the stories reported by battered children (and wives and girlfriends) who “run into doors.” Except this is a journalist using his best investigative and inferential skills to draw an “obvious” circumstantial conclusion. He could be forgiven for drawing the same ridiculous conclusion as law enforcement, the NFL, and the Baltimore Ravens. Except that some or all of them had the inside the elevator video or at least more detail, and still came to the same conclusion, at least publicly.

There is no video of exactly what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, though there are witnesses to pieces of it, an audio recording, and more than one autopsy. There the instinct on the part of vested interests and the establishment was to wait and see, but really to stonewall, cover up, and put the best light on the situation. That turned out to be a disastrous approach, but at least it got people talking about former unmentionables. Small consolation.

How is this any different than what is going on with Ray Rice? The vested interests tried to put the best light on his situation, and despite outrage, almost got away with it. How are the people who up until yesterday circled the wagons around Ray Rice, giving him the benefit of the doubt and a slap on the wrist, any different than those who have been circling the wagons around Darren Wilson, giving him the benefit of the doubt?

One difference is that Ferguson is a small predominantly black town with a small almost entirely white police force that appears to have some race issues, while the NFL is a huge enterprise predominantly owned and run by white people with a pro game substantially played by black men that appears to have some race issues. It’s those issues, along with other social, legal and moral ones, that have us all talking. About policing. About the NFL. About race.

The victims were both black, one a kid possibly involved in petty crime (there’s a video of that), the other a woman engaged to a professional warrior who could have easily killed her, rather than just beating her senseless after she “provoked” him (there’s now video of that).

Maybe from the first, Ray Rice should have taken the approach that will certainly be at the center of Darren Wilson’s defense, assuming he is charged: I was in fear for my life. Up until yesterday, lots of people would apparently have been willing to accept a story like that, if it served their interests. Thankfully, they now all have to stop pretending, and we can start asking what it all means.

Newark and Detroit: The Long Hot Summer of 1967

Newark 1967

The last post about James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) skipped a beat about what happened next. What happened in America was the race riots between 1964 and 1966 (including Watts in Los Angeles), culminating with the so-called Long Hot Summer of 1967. During that summer, among the many cities affected, the two disturbances that stand out are Newark and Detroit.

Baldwin did not overstate any prophetic intention in his book. Instead, he simply opened with this epigraph, from which he took the book’s title:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!

Newark, July 12-17, began with the arrest of a black cabdriver for passing a police car. The riots left 26 dead and hundreds injured.

Detroit, July 23-27, began with a police raid of a black drinking club. The riots left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

There are at least three reasons we don’t hear much or talk much about that summer in the context of Ferguson.

We are abysmally ahistorical. If it isn’t in the latest Twitter feed, it may already be old news. Things that happened forty or fifty years ago might as well be from the Middle Ages.

We want to highlight and not overshadow the clear progress that has been made. Progress to be sure, as reflected in the photo of a black President talking to a black Attorney General about the events in Ferguson.

We are afraid. Afraid that the progress we have made may be as illusory as it is real. Afraid that we solved the easier problems, leaving us with stubborn, intractable ones that are beyond comfortable solutions. Afraid that we may not be as good as we think we are. Mostly afraid that history is TMI, telling us way more than we want to know, showing us images not from the distant past but from tomorrow.

Ferguson and The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin - The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time may be the best and most eloquent statement of relations between whites and blacks in America ever written. From the publisher:

The appearance of The Fire Next Time in 1963, just as the civil rights movement was exploding across the American South, galvanized the nation and continues to reverberate as perhaps the most prophetic and defining statement ever written of the continuing costs of Americans’ refusal to face their own history. It became a national bestseller, and Baldwin was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Critic Irving Howe said that The Fire Next Time achieved “heights of passionate exhortation unmatched in modern American writing.”

Baldwin was one of the great writers of his or any other American generation. He shouldered the burden of being a triple threat to America of the 1960s—a black man, a brilliant and outspoken intellectual, and gay. This he did with unequaled prose grace, and this work and others are required reading for anyone who wants or claims to be a writer.

The first of the two essays is My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation. Brief and unforgettable, it is a summary of how things are and why his teenage namesake cannot give up and in. It does no justice to this book to excerpt it; it stands as a whole that must be read—not the least of all because with the real progress we have made, we are foolish and destructive to over-measure how far we have come. But here is how the essay closes:

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”

You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.

Your uncle,
James

The Irony of Baptist Intolerance

Rev. Stan Weatherford, pastor at First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs, Mississippi, refused to marry a black couple, Charles and Te’Andrea Wilson, at the church, after a handful of congregants complained. The minister did marry them at a nearby church, but the damage was done, and this has become a global story. The meaning of the story is something that is still developing.

As for Mississippi, this has undoubtedly bolstered a painful stereotype that the state cannot shake. Personal experience in a dozen or so states, including Mississippi, says that there are racists in most states, probably totaling in the millions. Mississippi, a great state is so many ways, has the unfortunate burden of being on racial probation, maybe for the rest of American history. In fact, this hyper-consciousness has led many—though not all—Mississippians to pay special attention and take special care to move forward where others around the country just pretend that there isn’t a problem where they live.

More interesting than the Mississippi angle is the Baptist story. The Southern Baptist Convention was quick to point out that this was a sad and regrettable event, and that the refusal to marry a couple on the basis of their race is completely unacceptable. It is a congregational denomination, so decisions ultimately rest with the congregation and its pastor. In this case, SBC said, the pastor was in a difficult position—as in the likelihood, but not certainty, that he would have lost his job if he had proceeded with the marriage at the church.

This is where the irony comes in so loudly. Throughout American history, Baptists have been notable for their courage in the face of religious persecution and intolerance. American religious liberty, as ultimately codified in the Bill of Rights, is a direct response to that persecution. As the Library of Congress exhibit on Religion and the Founding of the American Republic points out:

In Virginia, religious persecution, directed at Baptists and, to a lesser degree, at Presbyterians, continued after the Declaration of Independence. The perpetrators were members of the Church of England, sometimes acting as vigilantes but often operating in tandem with local authorities. Physical violence was usually reserved for Baptists, against whom there was social as well as theological animosity. A notorious instance of abuse in 1771 of a well-known Baptist preacher, “Swearin Jack” Waller, was described by the victim: “The Parson of the Parish [accompanied by the local sheriff] would keep running the end of his horsewhip in [Waller’s] mouth, laying his whip across the hymn book, etc. When done singing [Waller] proceeded to prayer. In it he was violently jerked off the stage; they caught him by the back part of his neck, beat his head against the ground, sometimes up and sometimes down, they carried him through the gate . . . where a gentleman [the sheriff] gave him . . . twenty lashes with his horsewhip.”

The persecution of Baptists made a strong, negative impression on many patriot leaders, whose loyalty to principles of civil liberty exceeded their loyalty to the Church of England in which they were raised. James Madison was not the only patriot to despair, as he did in 1774, that the “diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages” in his native colony. Accordingly, civil libertarians like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson joined Baptists and Presbyterians to defeat the campaign for state financial involvement in religion in Virginia.

The picture above is The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River (1778):

David Barrow was pastor of the Mill Swamp Baptist Church in the Portsmouth, Virginia, area. He and a “ministering brother,” Edward Mintz, were conducting a service in 1778, when they were attacked. “As soon as the hymn was given out, a gang of well-dressed men came up to the stage . . . and sang one of their obscene songs. Then they took to plunge both of the preachers. They plunged Mr. Barrow twice, pressing him into the mud, holding him down, nearly succeeding in drowning him . . . His companion was plunged but once . . . Before these persecuted men could change their clothes they were dragged from the house, and driven off by these enraged churchmen.”

Maybe Rev. Weatherford had never heard of David Barrow and Edward Mintz. Maybe the congregants who didn’t want black people married in the church hadn’t either. More than two hundred and thirty years is a long time. Maybe Rev. Weatherford could have stood up to the minority in his church, depending on whether he thought that losing his job was better or worse than being dunked in a river. Maybe he could have done a better job of bringing a part of the Christian message to those congregants, but people are stubborn in their worst beliefs, and anyway that’s not really his job. In all religions, but especially in disintermediated ones such as the Baptist Church, it all comes down to you and God, one of you talking, one of you listening and learning. It’s always true that some listen and learn better than others.