A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. Eccl 1:4 RSV
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was born in February of 1957, when the union still had only forty-eight states, three years after the US Supreme Court handed down the historic Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483), and just a few months before the first nine black students enrolled in Little Rock Arkansas schools implementing the ruling. Local sit-in campaigns began at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC in February 1960 and spread throughout the South. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups organized interracial “Freedom Rides” from Washington, DC to southern cities protesting segregation in public transportation in May 1961. In 1963, the world witnessed the violent treatment suffered by protestors at the hands of Birmingham, Alabama’s police led by chief Eugene “Bull” O’Connor, the showdown between Alabama governor George Wallace and Attorney General Robert Kennedy over desegrating the University of Alabama, the murder of activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the assassination of President Kennedy. President Lyndon Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights of 1964 through Congress and signed it into law in June of that year. The next year brought brutality against marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which included the beating of John Lewis, now a member of Congress representing Georgia’s 5th House district, who suffered a fractured skull in the incident. It also brought passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By 1968, I was old enough to have begun to think about events transpiring in the South, mostly, it seemed to me, in my native Alabama. Despite legislative successes, events that year had reached a nadir: two assassinations (MLK and RFK), the so-called “Holy Week Uprising” in the aftermath of the King assassination, the anarchy of the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago, the Tet offensive (in addition to the struggles over civil rights, of course, the Vietnam War captivated the country’s attention throughout much of this period).
By the time I was in high school, I had quietly and privately adopted progressive positions on civil rights, the Vietnam War, environmental justice, gender equality, and a host of other issues. I was eager to shift to activism when I got to college in 1975. I remember sitting in a humanities class my freshmen year when I came to the realization that the US had withdrawn from Vietnam, the protest phase of the Civil Rights Movement had essentially wound down, feminism was making gains, and the nation had even begun to lose confidence in all things nuclear. No noble struggle remained for me, it seemed.
Forty-two years later, I remember that moment as an example of youthful innocence. I believed in progress and had not learned the simple lesson that every generation must confront for itself the fundamental questions of justice and stewardship. A child of the aerospace and computer era, I identified technological advances with social progress not realizing that amoral tools can be instruments of evil as well as good. In the intervening years, I have learned that changing laws does not change hearts.
For a few weeks eight years ago, I relived my youthful innocence, thinking that the election of President Obama, regardless of how one viewed his policy positions, signaled that the US was ready truly to enter a post-racial period. Instead, of course, Obama’s presidency very soon became a barometer of race relations. Phenomena ranging from the ‘birther’ and ‘he’s a secret Muslim’ conspiracies to the ‘take our country back’ (from whom?) movement have only been code for “we don’t want a black president.” Social media, which emboldens people to say what they think, have propagated volumes of blatantly racist comments about the President, his wife, and even his children.
No, the task is incomplete and always will be. The irony must not escape any of us that, on this Martin Luther King Day, we are reading and hearing about the Twitter war President-elect Trump is waging against Rep. John Lewis, the John Lewis from the Selma bridge, the John Lewis whose favorite topics are the power of love and forgiveness. The two men model the choice every individual must make: selfish greed or selfless service; grudges or giving.
Several years ago, ABC News aired a segment that records the reunion in 2013 of Lewis and Elwin Wilson. Wilson had been among the angry, violent crowd that greeted a busload of “Freedom Writers,” including Lewis, when it arrived at the Rock Hill, South Carolina bus depot on May 9, 1961. Because it demonstrates that things can change, I recommend it for viewing this MLK Day instead of following a certain Twitter feed.