[From last time: It’s September 1963…]
Three weeks later, Klan cowards counterpunched by immolating four defenseless girls at worship. Six weeks later, Camelot died in Dallas and white America finally felt it; we sophomores heard the principal’s announcement in English class just before lunch. It was so unbelievable we made jokes over our cafeteria trays before it was confirmed. Black Jack’s empty saddle, the muffled drums, and the sooty gauze over the widow’s face completed its leaden reality. Out of the ashes rose a jowly giant from the Texas hill country who, under Dr. King’s firm and patient gaze, used his political capital among Southern politicians to put the first pillow over Jim Crow’s face. More sick counterpoint a month later; Edgar Ray Killen and his confederates tortured and bulldozed Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, an atrocity he managed to outrun for 41 more years. The danse macabre of milestone and mayhem continued as I finished high school. 1965 came and went — Malcom X murdered because he found brotherhood across the world. A bridge too far in Selma; the Voting Rights Act. Watts in flames; affirmative action by Executive Order.
“…Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…”
College — another Catholic enclave at the edge of the Plains but with few real obstructions to intellectual curiosity. (It’s the noblest of the Jesuits’ prodigious appetites.) The Panthers rose in Oakland and I did a paper for freshman American History comparing the revolutionary rhetoric of Thomas Paine and Minister Huey Newton. Revelatory, almost embarrassing — which, I suspect, was entirely the point. The next Spring, Stokely Carmichael invented “black power” in Seattle and the racial debate veered toward internal dispute; many in his flock began to see Dr. King’s design as appeasement. It was a seductive notion — especially to those of us longer on testosterone and ignorance and shorter on patience and perspective than he. For others, especially in the wholly segregated North, it was sufficient spark to ignite the dry fuel left from generations of indignity and failed promise. Newark exploded on my birthday and Detroit, 11 days later. I was elsewhere — off on a rural summer job , absorbed by my father’s death from cancer. Those tectonic plates ground together more sharply sophomore year, as Martin was marginalized further. He was considered a “Tom” by those too impatient for negotiation and the law, and that cross-dressing, Red-baiting old voyeur posing as our Detective-in-Chief applied the blackmail of adultery in public.
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to…talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind…”
The apotheosis occurred around April 5, 1968, at 19 years of age. Hearing the news, some of us resolved to mourn visibly by wearing black armbands. In a hallway, a red-haired, derivated St. Louis Irisher I played soccer with — a friend, I thought — pushed me to the wall, his contorted face in mine. His veins bulging, his freckles ruddy violet, I recognized the expression, its clarity and menace infinitely greater than in those films transmitted a half-decade before. The words came in a voice fearfully devoid of inflection:
“How can you even relate to that Commie nigger bastard?”
Shock, confusion, and anger made me crimson, and mute. I walked away, cast in that condition, where I stayed for hours. Days later, we were studying Joseph Campbell’s lectures in Theology class and the way was made straight: this man was Jesus, incarnate. He repeated His parables in English, not Aramaic, but he taught; ministered; healed; stood before Annas and Caiphas; and delivered himself into the hands of his tormentors day in and day out for 13 years. He was alternately hailed and venerated, spat upon and scourged. Through temptation and doubt, his belief and his message never wavered. That sweltering labor hall in Memphis, full of his trash collector apostles, was his Gethsemane; that balcony at the Lorraine Motel was his Calvary. He died for our sins. From that day to this, my scholarship, sense of justice, and life have been informed by a desire to internalize that message and externalize it by word and example.
Here’s how it breaks down to me: racism in America is a white sickness, the legacy of a terrible moral transgression against an entire people. If we, the heirs of slavery, are to be forgiven, we must first repent. In every faith I’ve ever read up on, atonement is a prerequisite to purification, fasting to nourishment; pick your own sacred text. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu understood this truth. It wasn’t enough to compel by moral authority and suffering the breaking their chains; there had to be a voluntary and palpable reconciliation, however painful, for healing to occur. So, they gave their former oppressors a choice; requite or stand trial. Justice and repair follow the pruning hook, not the terrible, swift sword. It’s the missing piece in our own national puzzle—except we the privileged have the option (and the luxury) to volunteer before we’re drafted.
“It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here!”
I can’t decide whether it’s a sign of spiritual poverty, cockeyed priorities, or social attention deficit disorder that the self-proclaimed Man of God in our midst who routinely gets the most attention advocates murder about as often as your average al-Qaeda lieutenant.
“Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence! That is where we are today…”
As long as a child of color doesn’t stand the same chance as a white kid, we have work to do. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.: Ecce homo. Listen to the man.