Ryan and I had the honor and privilege of visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
This place, where Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, now traces the history of the Civil Rights Movement starting with slavery in America and ending with modern day slavery, racism, and discrimination. It is a profound experience to walk through time here; you see the very worst of humanity intermingled with unbelievable courage, resiliency, brotherhood, and grit. I doubt you can walk through this museum and leave unchanged.
But as we walked through the exhibits, my heart was restless. It is hard not to see echoes of the same themes throughout society today.
Schools aren’t legally segregated anymore, but statistics show us that segregation has not truly ended.
At the museum, we see police officers unjustifiably arresting black men on a screen while protest singers beseech the listener to hear. At the same time, according to the NAACP, black men today are 5 times more likely than white men to end up in jail. “If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.” (NAACP)
The response by those seeking justice has often been peaceful protest. It is what MLK preached, and we can see the power in nonviolence. But nonviolence is not always met with nonviolence.
Many were illegally apprehended, arrested and assaulted due to the Montgomery bus boycott.
And this makes me think of another very visible protest that we have been watching unfold since 2016. A protest born because of police brutality toward people of color and racism in America.
It is undeniable that police have used excessive force again people of color. A black unarmed man is shot in the back 5 times (Walter Scott, 2015) while a white man pointing a gun at an officer is tased twice and apprehended (Shawn Canfield, 2016). This is America. And our government not only allows this to continue without holding police officers accountable, but tries to delegitimize a movement while perpetuating an irrational definition of patriotism. That a piece of fabric matters more than the ideas it symbolizes. Echoes of the same themes throughout history.
White men telling men of color what they should be doing regarding racial reform (or anything at all) is shameful, and so common that we barely notice it.
But there is hope in white voices.
When we would talk about Rosa Parks or the Freedom Riders or Harriet Tubman in school during Black History Month as a child, I knew with the complete resolve of an eight year old, that I would have been an ally. How could you have not hidden runaway enslaved people on their way to freedom? How could you have not used your white privilege to tell the racist bus driver or rider to shut up when harassing a person of color? And a part of me still thinks this way; that it’s so simple. Do you love your brother? Sit-in at the soda counter too. Educate your racist uncle. Listen to black voices. Kneel for the disenfranchised. Write the articles, even if it kills you.
Many who protested segregated spaces would be beaten for sitting, in other words, they were beaten for being.
I was reminded of this gruesome scene of DeAndre Harris being brutally beaten by white men in Charlottesville in 2017, during the “Unite the Right” rally. Beaten for being. Echoes of the same themes throughout history.
Would you ride a bus knowing that people wanted to set you on fire? Would you have gone to Selma? James Reeb did.
An American Unitarian Universalist minister, James Reeb died from head injuries he sustained after being severely beaten for his activity in the civil rights movement. His death, because he was white, sparked outrage and gave the movement new attention.
Would your face be on a wall of people brave enough to say, I do not want to live in a world like this?
What does your religion tell you? Can you love God and hate your brother?
Would you raise the banner for what is noble, right, holy, and true?
Or would you turn your face away, favoring order over justice?
In MLK’s letter from Birmingham jail, he cited the white moderate as the most dangerous person to the cause of racial equality. It is still true today. We (white people) allow each other to look away and accept “I didn’t know” as a valid response. We wrap ourselves in the “love and forgiveness” of our churches, so that we can willfully avoid speaking up in our privileged spaces.
This is my call to the white moderate: choose to see. Seek out voices of people of color. Listen without speaking. Open the doors of your home. Do not hide behind your religion, but let your religion empower you to raise your protest sign. Speak up to the bus drivers and riders. Shame the racist jokes of your friends and family. Accept your privilege and use it for what is right.