To live in an America free of prejudice requires constant work–work that may never be finished.
There are people far better equipped to write poignantly and eloquently about this day’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., but I am mindful of the fact that offering up words of encouragement and support and empathy is important.
Today ought to be a day in which we look for unity, to applaud our forward momentum, to carefully reconsider our missteps. That’s what I felt growing up–this was a celebratory day, not a reminder of how far we have to go–and even now I’m troubled by how wide that chasm seems.
The nation’s intensified gaze upon our growing racial divide, sharpened among police brutality, riots, and elections, has emboldened a lot of people harboring racist words and deeds. I always wanted to believe they were the human equivalent of carnival sideshows–Look! A racist! What a creature!–but in truth so many of them live and breathe openly among us.
Occasionally I’ll stop at a traffic light in Statesville and see a pair of skinny white boys in their yard welding underneath a massive pick-up truck. The truck seems to sit a good three or four feet off the ground, a muddy Confederate flag flying from its tailgate. A Confederate flag does not a racist make, I remind myself. And yet, the image projected here leaves so little doubt in my mind.
Earlier this week, President-elect Trump exchanged words on Twitter with Rep. John Lewis, who is a pillar of the Civil Rights movement and who marched with Dr. King.
As the remarkable Clint Smith noted afterward, some of the policemen who beat Rep. Lewis some fifty years ago are still alive–and further, they’re still able to vote.
The thing that's striking about America's historical amnesia and racism, is that many of the policeman who beat John Lewis are still alive.
— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) January 14, 2017
Which is to say that I have to remind myself frequently that we are barely a generation removed from the Civil Rights era, not quite a half century away from King’s assassination. I was in college when I realized (then) how precious little time had passed between the cafeteria I ate in every day and the department store lunch counters of the 1960s. This is thanks in part to the privilege of my upbringing, but also due largely to my parents rearing me in a home free of prejudice.
When President Obama was elected, I naively thought we had reached a new plateau in our country. I was wrong. I took for granted that to live in an America free of prejudice requires constant work, and that work may never be finished. Racism cannot be stamped out through legislation or law. It cannot be vanquished with righteousness.
Or as Dr. King put it so much better, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”