Tag Archives: martin luther king jr.

Telling the Truth in America

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“I think we do need truth and reconciliation in America. But truth and reconciliation are sequential. You can’t get to reconciliation until you first tell the truth.” – Bryan Stevenson

My dad was born and raised in Kennett, Missouri, the largest town in the Missouri Bootheel located just across the Arkansas border and not far from the Mississippi River. He was born in 1920, over four decades before singer-songwriter, Sheryl Crow, Kennett’s most famous native.

I don’t know much about my dad’s childhood years but have never forgotten a haunting story he told of witnessing the lynching of a black man on the courthouse lawn for allegedly raping a white woman. Children were not supposed to be there, but my dad wiggled his way to the front while the crowd was shamefully mesmerized by the spectacle of a human being with a noose around his neck being asked if he had any final words. The man answered, “Well, I didn’t do it, but I know that doesn’t make any difference to you all.” And then he was killed.

I don’t remember my dad telling the story with any particular emotion so I’m not sure why he shared it with his young son over fifty years after the fact, but it was obvious that it had made an impression. And here I am almost another fifty years later telling it again. If you wonder how far we have to go back to find race-motivated lynchings on a courthouse lawn, for me it is one generation.

I think Bryan Stevenson is a remarkable human being and encourage you to read/watch/listen to him in any way that you can. Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (“EJI”) in Montgomery, Alabama, and among many wonderful projects had the idea of telling the truth about lynchings in the United States.  EJI published a report titled, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documented over 4,000 lynchings between 1877-1950—a period of time after, of course, the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the other Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. I looked at the map and noted zero lynchings identified in Dunklin County, Missouri, where Kennett is the county seat. I know a man who witnessed one, so I can only imagine how many race-motivated lynchings actually occurred.

Stevenson’s message is that we must tell the truth before we get anywhere on racial reconciliation, so on a day set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I will use my small platform to say that my personal heritage includes a history and ongoing legacy of things we can be proud of alongside things for which we should be deeply ashamed. We cannot honestly claim one without the other. And among those things that require deep shame is nothing less than domestic terrorism that targeted a particular race of people motivated by white supremacy.

May we tell the truth. May we lay markers so that we never forget. And may we recommit to the pursuit of Dr. King’s not-yet-realized dream.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963)

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Unarmed Truth & Unconditional Love

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Ralph Abernathy and Will Campbell grieve the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Lorraine Motel (April 1968)

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was deep in the heart of rural Texas when the chaos in Charlottesville unfolded last weekend and found myself in a conversation with a couple of local police officers about other matters. I mentioned that they should visit us in California sometime and one offered a kind smile and said, “Nah, Californians don’t like Southern Republicans.” We laughed, but there is some measure of truth to his statement. And vice-versa, of course. There is plenty of not liking to go around these days.

I am a Christian, which unfortunately means many things to many people, but for me it means that I must love everyone. No exceptions. So I stand in opposition to hate in any form, which most assuredly includes all versions of white supremacy. And because I must love everyone then I am necessarily opposed to acts of violence. It is a package deal. Violence toward a loved one is unfathomable, so when you choose to love everyone it kind of takes the wind out of Violence’s sails.

“‘Don’t the Bible say we must love everybody?’ / ‘O, the Bible! To be sure, it says a great many such things; but, then, nobody ever thinks of doing them . . .'” – In Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Will D. Campbell is a personal hero of mine who was an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement and a fierce advocate for the victims of deep racism. However, Campbell started to notice that many of his fellow activists used the same dehumanizing language  and tone toward the “segregationists” that segregationists used toward African-Americans. Since Campbell was a Christian, he took a stand against that, too.

“With the same love that is commanded to shower upon the innocent victim of his frustration and hostility, the church must love the racist. Moreover, the church is called to love those who use and exploit both the racists and their victims for personal wealth and political gain. The church must stand in love and judgment upon the victim, the victimized, and those, both black and white, who exploit both, for they are all the children of God.” – Will D. Campbell, in Race and Renewal of the Church (1962)

Some things in this country have improved in the half century since the milestone moments of the Civil Rights Movement while many others have quite obviously not. And the version of Christianity touted by “Brother Will” and Dr. King often appears unopened in the shrink-wrapped box.

But I remain hopeful. For I, too, believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will someday have the final word.

Warm (-ing up to) Embrace

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“Loving your enemies . . . Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this demand is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes it is love that will save our world and civilization; love even for our enemies.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I war privileged to hear Yale professor and prominent theologian, Miroslav Volf, speak in March, and although late to the party I just finished his most famous book, Exclusion & Embrace.  It was in a sense required reading since I teach a course in the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law titled, Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation—topics that are at the heart of his book.

Full disclosure: I am not an idiot—unless you are simply comparing me and Mirsolav Volf that is.  I understood a good number of the words he used in the book but most of the time was intellectually flailing and gasping for air.  He is brilliant.  Which is why I was particularly intrigued to read such a brilliant mind analyze the components of a hug.

Exclusion & Embrace addresses our fractured “us vs. them” world where exclusion is coin of the realm and presents the image of embrace as a theological counter—almost literally.  Volf properly discloses that an embrace is too intimate for some cultures and not intimate enough for others but that he is interested in the metaphor more than the actual practice.  And then he breaks a hug down into four distinct parts that led me to imagine a Sesame Street song: First, you open your arms; then, you wait; then, you close your arms; then, you open your arms again.

You may not have analyzed the components of a hug before, but stick with me here…

To open the arms indicates a desire for the other and an invitation to come into personal space that I have created for you.  To wait is an act of vulnerability that refuses the path of force and respects the autonomy of the other.  To close the arms—the actual embrace—is a tender and reciprocal act of shared space.  And to open the arms again is a sign of release and respect that provides both the freedom and independence to leave—and to return again.

Okay, this is great for your spouse or kids or friends.  For them, I’m a hugger.  But what about the people you despise (unfairly assuming that the latter isn’t your spouse or kids or friends)?

To put down the weapon and open-armed invite those you despise into your intimate space is almost unthinkable.

To go one further and silently, vulnerably, allow your enemy the choice to either accept or attack—both choices are hard to stomach.

To then actually and tenderly embrace the despicable is a simply nauseating thought.

And then to release the enemy as friend?

I’m glad that Volf is super smart because he would be up a creek if he needed to raise a following or lead a team or run for office.  Nobody is going to want to do this.  Being right and feeling proud and getting even are going to be way more popular than seeking reconciliation.

But being right and feeling proud and getting even sure produce an enormous supply of ugly.  I, for one, am interested in any alternative that leads to a true and lasting peace—even if it does sound like awfully hard work and more than a little loony tunes.

Love Down in Early Trading

11I’m not sure that I met the height requirement for this American roller coaster, but I am apparently strapped in and here we go.

Let me just say that I believe love wins in the end.  But right now love is getting clobbered.  It’s like love is the Cleveland Browns.

The unique American experiment used the language of equality at its inception, which was absurdly false.  With time, various social justice movements emerged that brought differing measures of hope and progress to those beaten down or discredited due to their skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.  Such progress occurred through acts of love by courageous advocates who put their lives on the line for their brothers and sisters.  However, one category was rarely on the list of people to love, and that was a love for the people doing the beating or discrediting (i.e., “the enemy”).

But who in their right mind would propose loving an enemy when it is undeserved, especially when hate, resentment, and rage all feel so darn good?  Well, there was Dr. King, but he was a rare bird.  My Christian faith calls for a love of enemies, but it seems that Harriet Beecher Stowe summed it up in this little exchange in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“Don’t the Bible say we must love everybody?”

“Oh, the Bible!  To be sure, it says a great many such things; but then, nobody ever thinks of doing them…”

Regardless, we have spiraled into an awful mess.  “I don’t love you because you are a certain category.”  “Then I don’t love you because you are a terrible person because you don’t love people because they are in a certain category.”  “Well, now I don’t love you either because you say I am a terrible person.”  “Well then…”

It is a spiral leading nowhere good.  Specifically, it led to this presidential election, and from what I see, there is no sign of this train slowing down on either side.

It is telling that this presidential campaign produced two “anyone but” movements (i.e., “anyone but Trump” and “anyone but Hillary”).  Both meant exactly what they said.  Both emerged because our (un)civil war led the two sides to offer candidates representing the ultimate middle finger to their sworn enemy: “We propose the worst person you can imagine to be the most powerful person on the planet.”

One side won.  The other is apoplectic.  It was inevitable either way.

Let me be specific.  First, I am from Arkansas.  Second, I voted for Secretary Clinton.  It stings to hear what some friends say about “anyone who would vote for Hillary.”  It is hard to imagine that someone can say such things and love me at the same time.  Simultaneously, it stings to hear what some friends say about “anyone who would vote for Trump”—e.g., when entire swaths of my friends and family are referred to as uneducated, ignorant, redneck, and so on.  It is hard to imagine that someone can say such things and love those I love at the same time.

Love is just getting trounced.  Who knows, maybe it is game over, and if so, hopefully someone will learn a lesson from us someday after we are finished annihilating ourselves.  But I choose love anyway.  Even when it seems impossible, I continue to believe that love wins in the end.

To my friends on both sides who are understandably afraid, I humbly suggest that your fear may be misplaced.  Instead of being afraid of those you believe look down on you or those you love—and maybe they really do look down on you or those you love—I suggest (to quote a president) that the true enemy is fear itself.  And the antidote is love.  Learning to love an enemy is incredibly difficult, but I believe it is the hope of the world.

So how might one attempt to do such a radical thing as love someone you have good reasons to hate?  Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers this: “To love our enemy is impossible.  The moment we understand our enemy we feel compassion towards him or her, and he or she is no longer our enemy.”

I say it is worth a shot.  Categorically dismissing others is getting uglier all the time.

Forging Pathways

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“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Waze calculates thirty-four miles from Pepperdine University to East Los Angeles College; the Pacific Coast Highway to East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue; the celebrity-populated western side of Los Angeles to Cheech Marin’s East L.A.; Malibu to Monterey Park.  It sure seems longer, even in rush hour traffic.  They are two different worlds.

I serve on the advisory council for the East Los Angeles College (“ELAC”) Pathway to Law School Transfer Program, a coalition of educators and practitioners brought together to destroy obstacles that stand in the way of a young person advancing from high school to community college, from community college to a four-year college, and from a four-year college to law school.  It is an inspiring group, and I am honored to be a part.

It is also personally disconcerting.  I’m not exactly sure how I, a first-generation college student from rural Arkansas, the son of a butcher who dropped out of high school to provide for his family during the Great Depression, am suddenly the picture of white privilege in a room full of impressive human beings, but as a lawyer who drove over from his condo in Malibu, even my expertise in denial simply tossed in the towel and admitted the truth.  I may be the most reluctant privileged person around.

It was dark when the meeting ended, and on the stroll across the ELAC campus to drive back to idyllic Malibu, I noticed several classes in session.  Maybe I was wanting it to be so, but it sure looked like all of the students in those classes were engaged in the instruction and not bored on Facebook.  I’m just sure of it.  I then wandered by the math tutoring center, and it was undeniably a hub of academic activity late on a weekday evening.  All this made me feel particularly hopeful in this perplexing world of ours.

If I must come to terms with privilege, and I just might have to, I must use it to help those inspiring students hungry for knowledge in those hushed classrooms gleaming in the darkness.

A Dream On My Mind

“Blues was my first love.  It was the first thing where I said, ‘Oh man, this is the stuff.’  It just sounded so raw and honest, gut-bucket honest.” – Carlos Santana

As American society is forced to observe its ongoing failure to achieve racial equality, and as the nation chugs Pepto Bismol straight from the bottle in anticipation of tonight’s first presidential debate, I find myself listening to the blues.  Part depression, but admittedly, part I like listening to the blues.  

The names of the blues artists are the best: Muddy Waters; Howlin’ Wolf; T-Bone Walker; Blind Lemon Jefferson; and Big Mama Thornton.  (I read a great suggestion for how to create your own blues name using Blind Lemon Jefferson as exemplar.  Start with a physical infirmity, add a fruit, and finish with the last name of a president.  I’m going with One-Eyed Apple Carter.)

And the titles/lyrics of the songs themselves are fantastic: My Starter Won’t Start This Morning.  Call Me Anything, But Call Me.  Cornbread Peas and Black Molasses.  My favorite line from B.B. King: “Nobody loves me but my mother.  And she could be jivin’ too.”  Or, this great section from Lonnie Mack’s Oreo Cookie Blues:

I hide ’em in a cabinet, I keep ’em in a jar
For emergencies you know I keep ’em in the
Glove compartment of my car.
And I can’t live without ’em
They git’ me higher than I can get on booze
I got them Oreo creme sandwich
Chocolate-covered crème-filled cookie blues.

But seriously, despite this troubled world of ours, what business does a pasty-white bozo living in Malibu with a blog about optimistic attitudes like me have listening to the blues?  Well, it could be that someone who feels the need to create a blog about optimistic attitudes may have an underlying issue or two.  And it could be that Santana was on to something and that I’m drawn to something raw and honest, which may be better stated by Wynton Marsalis who said, “Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle.  Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.”

That works for me.  The blues confronts the brutal facts of life elegantly.  On some level, personal, or societal, or whatever, we all have some brutal facts that need confronting, and I would like to do so with elegance, rhythm, and style.

Back in 1939, Big Bill Broonzy sang about dreams he had on his mind that just weren’t true when he woke up in the morning.  Dr. King spoke of such unrealized dreams a few decades later, too.  Today, as we continue to sing the blues, may we not stop dreaming.

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.    

Be Patient

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When my family watched reruns of Adventures of Superman in my childhood years, I never dreamed that I would one day be walking the halls of The Daily Planet (Los Angeles City Hall) looking all Lex Luthory, but thanks to the gracious invitation of a Pepperdine alum on the staff of the Los Angeles City Attorney, I had the opportunity to serve on a panel discussing “servant leadership” at City Hall last Thursday.

Given the topic, representing Pepperdine on the panel made sense, but when the two other panelists were introduced it was apparent that on a personal level I was in line for the bronze medal. I went first and did not say or do anything particularly embarrassing. Then, Faye Washington, L.A. legend and President and CEO of YWCA Greater Los Angeles was spectacular. Finally, and last by request, Managing Assistant City Attorney, Anne Haley, spoke and took my breath away.

Anne spoke only of her father, George Haley, who passed away only a month ago at the age of 89. It was the first time since his passing that Anne spoke publicly of her father’s remarkable life.

George Haley was born in Tennessee but raised in my home state of Arkansas. He served in World War II and then attended Morehouse College alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Although he could have attended Harvard Law School after college, he chose to be one of the first African-American students to attend the University of Arkansas when he enrolled at the law school in 1949. His experience was terrible.

Haley was required to study alone in a basement office that became popularly known as the “noose room” after classmates left a noose hanging for Haley one memorable afternoon. In spite of the cruel treatment, Haley went on to excel academically and in so doing changed the attitudes of many in the law school.

Haley moved to Kansas following law school where he worked on the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case with Thurgood Marshall. He worked in politics at the state and national level, including roles under five U.S. presidents that culminated in his service as the U.S. Ambassador to The Gambia in West Africa.

You must understand the significance, for you see George’s older brother was Alex Haley, who famously won a Pulitzer Prize for Roots, the story of a slave brought to Colonial America from the very nation to which George Haley traveled to serve as the official representative of the United States.

After the panel, Ms. Haley gave me her card, and I pledged to move heaven and earth to provide an opportunity to tell her father’s story to our law students. She also gave me a copy of an article that her Uncle Alex published in Reader’s Digest in March 1963 titled, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit,” about her father’s experience as a law student in Arkansas, published just months before Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C. (I am thankful to say that the article is available online HERE.) When I arrived home that evening, I read the article in full to my wife and youngest daughter and her best friend, Katie. I was moved beyond words.

This experience and story struck close to home both literally and figuratively and stirred many thoughts and emotions inside me. I still see so many hateful divisions in the world and yet am inspired by a young man’s decision sixty-six years ago to willingly put his life and future on the line to heal such deep hatred—and who didn’t let the hatred win.

At a key point in the story, Haley’s father advised him, “Be patient with them.” That is what motivated George Haley to be The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit. That is a lesson I need to hear over and over again.