Martin 50 Years Later

Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago.   Murdered as he confronted systemic injustice fueled by racism.  His civil rights advocacy led to the end of legal segregation and enforced voter suppression. What hasn’t changed is the persistence of racism.

On March 18th Stephon Clark was shot by police in his grandparents backyard in Sacramento.  Police were called to the neighborhood because of reports of a man breaking car windows. Two officers saw Stephon and fired 22 shots, eight hitting and killing him.  They thought he had a gun.  What he actually had in his hand was a cell phone.  Initial autopsy reports that the first six shots struck Stephon in the back. https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/3/21/17149092/stephon-clark-police-shooting-sacramento

The shooting is currently under review.  If this is like most police shootings, no charges will be filed against the officers.  What this highlights is a racial bias in the so-called judicial system, against people of color, particularly against young men.  People of color make up a disproportionate percent of the prison population. People of color serve longer prison terms for the same offense as compared to a white person.

This was true in Dr. King’s day.  It’s true now.

Racism is also at work in our current political climate.  Scratch below the surface of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of President Trump and Jeff Sessions and you’ll find racism.  In Mr. Trump’s world view, Mexicans are ‘murderers, rapists and drug dealers’.  In this world view we need to militarize our border.  We need to fear ‘the other’.  In almost every case ‘the other’ is a person of color.

Dr. King was martyred because he stood over against the fear and hatred of his time.  He was demonized by his opponents.  The Black Lives Matter movement seeks to continue Dr. King’s principles.  They too are demonized by their opponents.

So why do we talk about Dr. King’s dream  5o years later after his death?  Why didn’t the dream die with him?

Simply put, because he offers truth.  The truth that ‘hate is to great a price to pay’.  The truth that ‘only selfless love can make an enemy into a friend’.

Racism is a shape shifter.  It takes many forms.

Yet it has no place in a healthy society.  No place in a healthy person.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man guided by a source of wisdom that is eternal.  That comes from the very presence of God.

On one occasion King received word that his home in Montgomery had been bombed.  After reassuring himself about the safety of his wife and baby he had to confront the rage of a crowd bent on retaliation.  Dr. King said:

We cannot solve this problem of racism through  retaliatory violence.  We must meet violence with nonviolence.  Remember the words of Jesus, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”…We must love our white brothers, our enemies,  no matter what they do to us.  We must  make them know that we loved them…We must meet hate with love.’

Martin King’s love was not passive.  It organized.  It confronted.  It persevered in the face of injustice.  His message offered a new way of being.

Dr. King didn’t believe in ‘us’ and them’.  For Martin there was only ‘us’.  May it be so.

 

 

 

Muhammad Ali, Conscience of America

Muhammad Ali died this week.  He is remembered as a boxing legend.  More than that he is remembered around the world as a man of conscience.

Born Cassius Clay in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, he refused to abide by the rules of segregation and Jim Crow.  He refused to be quiet and go along to get along.

As a boxer he showed himself to be an athlete who fought with his own brand of theater and skill.  He stretched the comfort zone of a society that liked to keep ‘black folk in their place’.  Rather, he stated  recklessly, ‘I am the greatest’!  He inspired a generation of young blacks and in equal measure unsettled many whites.

Later, he changed his name of Muhammad Ali and embraced the Nation of Islam.

The backdrop for Ali’s emergence as a public figure was the fight for Civil Rights,  the Black Power movement and the Vietnam War.  In this volatile setting Ali emerged as a voice of conscience demanding to be treated with dignity.   He refused to be quiet and complicit in the face of injustice.

Ali rose to international prominence when he refused to be drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam.

He said:  “Who is the descendant of the slave masters to order a descendant of the slaves to fight other people in their own country?”

He paid a price.  He was stripped of his standing as Heavyweight Champion.  For three years at the height of his career  he was barred from boxing.  Yet his defiance in the face of racism and injustice inspired millions of oppressed people in the United States and around the world.

photo of Muhammad Ali

Even when Parkinson disease slurred his words and bowed his body, he remained a symbol for dignity and justice.

Over time society tried to domesticate Muhammad Ali, to make him yet another celebrity in popular culture.  But Ali refused to be domesticated.  For the rest of his life he spoke truth to power.

Ali’s witness reminds me of the recent book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’.  We hear the words of a black father to his twelve your old son.   Telling him about how to survive in racist America.

For me the book was a slap upside the head.  Coates confronts me with the racism in America and within me.  As a white man I discover I have much work to do.

Such has been the work of Muhammad Ali all these years.  He’s refused to go along with the majority white culture.  He’s refused to be complicit with those in power.  He’s challenged the health of our minds and hearts.

Ali is lionized as a great boxer.  More than that, he was a great man.

 

 

 

Channeling Martin

Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_editWhat would Martin say if he were alive today? Maybe: ‘It’s deja vu all over again?’ On this the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are mindful that as a nation we are in the midst of a curious political season. The leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination is Donald Trump a demagogue who plays upon the ignorance and fears of many. His almost exclusively white followers seem enamored by his ‘us against them’ mentality.

In addition, the great sin of racism continues to be at work. We see it in the prison system where 60 plus % of inmates are black, while comprising only 12% of the population. Thanks to camera phones, we have citizens capturing rogue cops using excessive force and even murder against young black males. While I have no doubt that most police officers conduct themselves admirably, it is hard to deny that the judicial system doesn’t have a bias against people of color, particularly young black men.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in his powerful book, ‘Between the World and Me’, writes to his fifteen year old son. As an African-American father he wants his son to understand that built into the psyche of the American story, is a bias against people of color. Coates believes that most white folk don’t understand it or see it. He wants his son to understand this dynamic and learn to navigate within in it. Those that don’t, points out Coates, ‘too often die young or find themselves in jail’.

What would Martin say if he were alive today? I think he’d call people of all races, religions and backgrounds to come together for the common good. I think he’d call us to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, which will not let us forget that systemic inequality persists (in the judiciary, economically and politically).

He’d persist in his commitment to non-violent resistance against injustice. He’d challenge our government spending more on the military than the next eight nations collectively, while social services go under-funded. He’d say the answer to terrorism is understanding and addressing the root causes of terrorism, most often rooted in poverty and despair.

And, I think he’d call us to continue to believe in the restorative power of love. “We cannot solve our problems through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus, “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” We must love those we fear no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. WE must meet hate with love.”

45 plus years since his assassination Dr. King’s words may seem hopelessly idealistic. But has violence, retaliation and demagoguery made things any better? No, the wisdom of Martin King remains. His Dream still inspires. It is a dream based in the wisdom of ancient sages, with names like Jesus, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Ruth. Are we listening?