Some thoughts from the King holiday this week:
MLK became a Christian teacher for me through his writings when I was a young lawyer and a newly adoptive Mississippian in the 1990’s. I also learned a lot of the history of Civil Rights and the South through Taylor Branch’s voluminous King biographies among my other more Mississippi-specific reading. I used material from Rev. King to guest teach a couple of my Sunday School classes in Mississippi.
This was not that long ago by the timeframes of my life but before smartphones and “social media.” Also before any of us knew of Barak Obama, before my year in Kenya, and while I was still a “lifelong” Republican if drifting away in part because of some of the demands of my own faith.
King’s ministry and leadership had a long arc with a slow rise. We have learned that the FBI tried to stop him at an intermediate point but failed. His influence in some important respects peaked over years after his murder. He did not convince the majority of Southern whites in his lifetime that he was substantially right about the biggest things, but eventually he did.
Now he is a statute off the mall in Washington and a great source of quotes for all occasions and whatever purpose but we can hardly stop and think and/or pray and talk through the differences in how we see our country around us.
I am afraid that today someone like King would be delegitimized and marginalized long before he or she could lead us to change.
Likewise, the less currently “popular” parts of his message might further overwhelm those that were eventually heard. And we could not hear a Christian minister today as we eventually came to hear him.
Today, it would not seem feasible to pass morally challenging legislation like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act with bipartisan support and against bipartisan opposition because we do not allow ourselves to accept leadership of that type from outside politics and the people that we elect are not leaders at that level.
And now we find ourselves beset with contentions and backlash after years in which many of us assumed that continued steady if slow progress was assured. We have what seems to me an extraordinary partisan divide in which the vast majority of Republicans see racial discrimination against African-Americans as mostly a solved issue and “reverse discrimination” as more salient while the vast majority of Democrats see it in a more “traditional” frame.
As a moderately conservative white adoptive Southerner, “my people” are now very much oriented to the Republican side of politics but I cannot understand my day-to-day world in a way that inverts the racial discrimination burden and it is a struggle for me to know how to address myself to this gap of perception. We made tremendous progress during my lifetime and it is vital to recognize that–and to recognize the toil, sacrifice and courage of those like King that were necessary for the country to accomplish that. But you cannot just declare “peace with honor” and pretend that things cannot come apart because you do not want to deal with the challenge any more.