Tag Archives: racism

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.

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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.    

The Problem with Judgment

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Norman Rockwell’s historic 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live With, serves as an important-yet-disturbing reminder of the enduring legacy of Ruby Bridges.  At age six, Ruby integrated an elementary school in New Orleans, although calling it integration is a little misleading since white parents pulled their children from class and white teachers refused to teach little Ruby.  Thankfully, one brave teacher from Boston agreed to step up, and for a full year Ruby experienced the ultimate in student-teacher ratio.

She also experienced pure hatred.  Rockwell captures the hatred in his painting, but Ruby experienced it firsthand.  The screams, threats, and nastiness came hot and heavy, directed at a sweet little girl simply trying to go to school.

At her mother’s suggestion, Ruby did something special as federal marshals escorted her to and from school each day: little Ruby prayed for forgiveness for the people screaming at her.

Remind me, what is it that I have to be upset about today?

I can think of two things that I have in common with Ruby Bridges: first, both she and I lost our homes in Hurricane Katrina; and second, we were both at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures on Wednesday evening this week, although I was a bald head in a vast crowd while she shared her captivating story from center stage.

Ms. Bridges said that she loved the first grade because of her wonderful teacher.  She said that her teacher looked like the screaming crowd—but she was different—and that the lesson she learned that historic first-grade year is that you cannot simply look at a person and make a right judgment.

Embracing that lesson is the third thing I want to have in common with Ruby Bridges.

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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.