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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)

Be the Best of Whatever You Are

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Fifty years ago, and just one year before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon at the New Covenant Baptist Church in Chicago titled, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.”  Dr. King’s 3D sermon emphasized the height dimension of life (God) along with the length (self) and breadth dimensions (others).  Some of his thoughts about breadth made the entire sermon known as “the street sweeper speech.”  Today, on the holiday that remembers Dr. King, I ask you to remember this:

When I was in Montgomery, I went to a shoe shop quite often, known as the Gordon Shoe Shop. And there was a fellow in there that used to shine my shoes, and it was just an experience to witness this fellow shining my shoes. He would get that rag, you know, and he could bring music out of it. And I said to myself, “This fellow has a Ph.D. in shoe shining.” What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

If you can’t be a pine on the top of a hill
be a scrub in the valley,
but be the best little scrub on the side of the hill,
be a bush if you can’t be a tree. 
If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail;
if you can’t be the sun be a star.
It isn’t by size that you win or fail— 
Be the best of whatever you are.

Brothers and Sisters

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“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.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)

Three years ago, I wrote an essay for the Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal titled, “From Integration to Multiculturalism: Dr. King’s Dream Fifty Years Later.” The essay questioned whether the changes in race relations in the United States in half a century signified actual progress toward Dr. King’s dream. The skepticism I expressed in the essay has not improved while watching the news over the ensuing three years.

And what exactly was the Dream? Although the terms equality and freedom and justice, words with a legal flavor, were prominently featured in Dr. King’s speeches, it is the family metaphor of brotherhood (with apologies for the non-gender inclusive language of the time) that stands out in the speeches as a better characterization of the Dream. As King famously stated, “I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.”

Check out the epigraph to this essay that closed out the Letter from a Birmingham Jail to see what I mean. Check it out again and tell me that we are in shouting distance of such a dream. I think not.

So has this all been a waste of time? Are we simply left with a new holiday? Of course not, but although there has been much good, it is naïve to think that we are anywhere near a world where we see one another as brothers and sisters across the various social lines that divide us. Watch the news. Heck, join me in taking a good look at our own hearts.

So what now? Well, I say that we keep dreaming. And keep hoping. And keep working. For equality and freedom and justice, sure, but climb up on the mountaintop and see beyond those lofty words to an even loftier ideal where we all live together as brothers and sisters.

That is some dream, and it is worth remembering today.

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Examine the End

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French sociologist, Jacques Ellul, published “The Technological Society” in 1954, a book that predicted that although technology will be presented as a servant of humanity, it will overrun the world and become its master. My iPhone constantly reminds me that he was on to something (in the 1950s!). In the foreword to Ellul’s book, famed American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, wrote: “Ours is . . . a civilization committed to the quest for continually improved means to carelessly examined ends.”

I read that phrase years ago and cannot get it out of my mind. We are obsessed with bigger and faster and more—but for what purpose?

NBC News presidential historian, Michael Beschloss, spoke in March at the national meeting of the American Council on Education about the increased pressure on the president to respond quickly to national issues due to the social media phenomenon. As a stark example, he referred to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and said that if President Kennedy had been forced to respond in the same timeframe that current presidents are expected to respond, he would have chosen to unleash heavy military action. It is estimated that forty million lives would have been lost. Forty million. Thankfully, there was time to reflect, and a different decision.

Charleston has dominated the news of late and rightfully so. It is an unspeakable tragedy—although there has been a lot of speaking anyway. I get it. Today, you have to speak quickly on important issues or you will miss the chance when the next story arrives.

I, too, have very strong feelings about the recognition of persistent racism in America and access to guns and gun control and the Confederate battle flag and am “committed to the quest for continually improved means” such as these (and more), but I would like some time and space for a deep and difficult examination of the true “ends” so that we might have shockingly productive conversations on how to get there.

My premise today is simple. For things to look up—and things can always look up—we need deep, measured, thoughtful conversations until we agree on where we are going, but it has grown more difficult to have such conversations because of our obsession with immediate actions.

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* Click HERE if you are interested in an essay published in Pepperdine’s Dispute Resolution Law Journal a couple of years ago where I reflected on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It concludes with an attempt to identify Dr. King’s “end” given his language.