Our Racism: Tears Are Not Enough
Who or what will wash away the tears? On April 5th, 1968, I woke up crying. It was a cool morning, sunny as I remember, but a crushing shadow of sadness enveloped our small apartment. I had arrived home from travels late the night before. Stopping for fuel along Interstate 40 near Jackson, Tennessee that evening I was met by an attendant (others pumped gas in those years) who, even before asking whether I wanted “regular” or “high-test,” ebulliently announced, “We finally got the SOB.” I didn’t know what he meant. “Regular,” I remember saying. Later I would think that there was nothing regular about that evening.
Upon leaving the gas station I turned on the radio and heard the horrible news. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, in Memphis, just a few miles away. The words “We finally got the SOB” were still fresh in my ears on that Friday morning, April 5th, 1968. They continue to echo fifty years later.
I wept on that cool sunny morning. Spring was near but hope seemed to be further away than ever. I was midway through my seminary education having come to understand and believe in Dr. King’s efforts. Professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon had challenged me to think more deeply about injustice. And I was reading widely — stretched to think that sin was more than individual and that prejudice was only the window dressing of racism. I was learning that discrimination and systemic injustice were often more difficult to see and much more difficult to address. I had not joined in any marches by then. Reading Dr. King had lead me back to the works of Gandhi, and surprisingly, back to E. Stanly Jones and J. Waskom Pickett out of my own tribe of Methodists.
(I chuckle at the folks who today tell their story of heroism — joining the Freedom Riders and so on. I’m glad, but my memory of those years does not include much heroism on my part.) I did march but it was four days later at Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta. A few other students from seminary joined a couple of professors in the trip but we couldn’t get near Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral.
We did march, in truth it was a procession, continuing for several miles from Auburn Avenue to the Black Colleges in west Atlanta. I recall seeing the mules and a wagon pass. At a distance there was Mrs. King and the children. There was Harry Belafonte and other civil rights leaders: Andrew Young, Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson. The Kennedys and Nixon, Humphrey and other politicos passed by. More than anything, I remember the press of people and their tears… and songs. Men hanging on telephone polls singing. One fellow, handkerchief in hand, weeping from a perch high up in a tree comes back to memory.
“We Shall Overcome” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” were the songs. I knew then that tears and these songs would not be enough. Racism was more profound and entrenched than I understood then. My racism. Much as my heart was in the right place, this national sin required more than changing my heart — or the hearts of ten million others. Like so many of my peers in those days I was blind to this pernicious illness that touched every sector of our lives. There were expansive institutional, economic and cultural dimensions of this sin. Shaped by a predominantly white southern Indiana culture, racism was like the water in which a fish swims. It was all around me, in the language spoken and the institutions that would educate and credentialed me and in the church where I prayed.
It was in my senior year of high school that I had first experienced any real racial diversity. No, let me be more specific, it was only then I had my first lasting conversations with black students. It was then I had my first African-American friends. Here were my first arguments, first disagreements with black students, who were also friends. I was growing toward understanding, but slowly. At the time I didn’t know it, but that year was a remarkable gift, a privilege.
My “white privilege” was being unmasked, slowly and sometimes painfully, my layered naiveté about racial relationships was exposed. This unmasking of our nation’s sins continues these fifty years later. Still I live with hope — I have seen some positive changes. I have also witnessed great ugliness that can only be shaped by a nation still laboring to find equality for all.
Six years prior to Dr. King’s assassination, in 1962, the bishop moved my father, a pastor, to Indianapolis to serve a central city church. This meant I would be attending Shortridge High School. Shortridge was at the time among the most racially diverse schools in the state, probably the nation. The African-American students were about half of those enrolled.
Here I met African-American students as smart, and many smarter, than me. I remember another tenor in our choral group who one day said to me, “You have your prophet Billy Graham but we have a King.” He meant it out of kindness and I heard it in confusion. Didn’t we share both? I wondered.
Years and study have followed. I did graduate work looking at how racial attitudes, institutions, and cultures might be changed. Like my tears and songs, the teaching, preaching, writing and sharing I have done over these fifty years have not been enough. Racism still rages like an unchecked fever in our society. I have sometimes thought I should return my diploma to Emory University where I wrote a dissertation titled: “Suburban Churches and White Racism: Strategies for Change.” What more might I have done? Or, perhaps, I should turn in my ordination papers as the church seems as limited in addressing its own racism as ever. There are still too many who would join in saying “We finally got the SOB.” Some days it seems that even those in our nation’s White House live in a world that cannot acknowledge this national sin — and are far from supporting efforts to bring equity.
It is true, tears are not enough. Nor are songs, or sermons, or books. But they are all essential, I have come to discover. These and other artifacts of our learning new ways to live, help us as we work to reshape our communities, our friendships, our churches, our politics.
So there are still tears, and songs, and sermons, and books, and movies, and churches, the institutions we lead and serve, and our mundane daily schedules. All of these are a part of moving beyond our nation’s blindness.
And, yes, then there are the upcoming elections…