Yesterday in worship, during our time for children, I talked about Dr. Martin Luther King. The children and youth at my congregation, from pre-K on up to high school seniors, are exceptional in so many respects. Yesterday was no exception. When I asked our elementary-aged students what they knew about Dr. King they told me stories about discrimination, choosing non-violence, working for justice, and about Dr. King’s life in general. The parents of our church have taught them well, and taught them that opposing injustice is a part of what it means to be a Christian. They give me hope.
As I was sitting there, though, I was aware of how easy it is for me, and for all of us who didn’t grow up in the Civil Rights Movement, to know just how wrong the Jim Crow era was, and just how right Dr. King was. Though I am from the South, I was born years after Dr. King’s assassination. Unlike my parents, I went to integrated schools and was taught by them that all people were equal for as long as I can remember. There was certainly racism all around me, but I knew it was wrong.
When I went to college in Atlanta I began to learn more about the specifics of Dr. King’s legacy. I learned the ways that even the street names in Atlanta were shaped by race and who lived where. I read Dr. King’s speeches. And sometimes, when the injustice of the world seemed unsurmountable, I visited Dr. King’s tomb.
But I also began to wonder: what would I have done as a white person if I had been alive during the Civil Rights movement?
I’d like to think I know the answer. I hope I would have done the right thing. I hope I would have marched, and been arrested, and stood in solidarity, no matter what the personal cost. I hope I would have been a true ally who stepped aside and gave the mic to people of color. And I hope I would have done all of these things because my faith compelled me to do so.
But the reality is that most white folks in Atlanta, even those who knew what was happening was wrong, did nothing. In Atlanta I learned that when Dr. King returned to the city with his Nobel Peace Prize no one wanted to acknowledge it. (It was finally the Jewish community, shaken by the recent bombing of The Temple on Peachtree Street, that stepped up and threw a dinner for him.) Moments of white solidarity were few and far between. And, decades later, I came to find out that sometimes they were misremembered a bit too favorably.
In Atlanta I went to a fabulous Presbyterian church downtown. It was committed to justice and inclusion for all people, and their social justice work was remarkable. I was proud to be a part of this congregation, and I often pointed to a particular story related to the Civil Rights movement to show exactly why. As the story went, when Dr. King was assassinated, this church, just blocks away from Dr. King’s neighborhood, had opened up its building to students and others who were coming to Atlanta for the funeral and who needed a place to stay. The fact a white church in Atlanta would do that so willingly in 1968 was held as truly remarkable. When I heard the story repeated it was with assurances that the church would have done nothing else except be hospitable
And then one day, a man who had been a part of the congregation for decades told me the real story. “Do you think they were happy about it?”, he asked me. “No one wanted to do it…the pastor had to finally force them to do it by telling them how bad they would look if they didn’t!” It turns out the church, while certainly one of the more progressive of the white mainline downtown establishment churches, had wanted little to nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until the movement literally came to their neighborhood, in a time of national mourning, that they were forced to take a side.
I don’t tell that story to shame that church. The church learned from that experience, grew, and became more prophetic. But the happier, sanitized version of that story is what usually gets told, with more than a little self-congratulation. The reality is a lot more humbling and, in my mind, a lot more powerful.
I think about that story because I wonder what I’m doing now that I’ll look back on years from now and want to remember with a sort of revisionist history. How am I well-intentioned, but not actually willing to act? What struggles for justice am I remaining neutral about, and how to I get myself engaged? What don’t I want to look back on forty years from now with regret and shame over my lack of courage? These are the questions I’m asking myself on this Martin Luther King day.
And on this day, I’m also thinking about the ones who have gotten it right, and who have kept moving forward from one struggle for justice to another. And I’m remembering something I saw in Atlanta when I was about twenty years old. I was marching in the Atlanta Pride Parade down Peachtree street and towards Piedmont Park. As we turned onto 10th Street I saw a man standing near the end of the route, waving at us and cheering us on.
As we got closer I could see it was Congressman John Lewis, Dr. King’s trusted advisor and a man who had braved the worst of the brutality that racism had to offer. Here was a man who had beaten at Selma. Here was a man who had watched his friend die for justice. Here was a man who had nothing to prove, and who didn’t have to be there. And yet he was.
When I think about wanting to be a good ally, I think about John Lewis. He showed me that day how, as Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. And he taught me that I can’t stay home just because the fight isn’t mine.
I hope I would have done the right thing fifty years ago. But I can choose to prayerfully do the right thing now.