I have repurposed a post I wrote a few years ago for the 50th Anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The humanity, sacrifice, and love celebrated in this post really stuck with me, and I have rewritten and updated it with new cartoons in the hopes that the subject matter will strike a deep chord within all our hearts as we celebrate the 87th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Do you know what I discovered about Martin Luther King Day in 2016? What he said in his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 was prophetic, but we’ve stopped listening and remembering since then. We’ve forgotten or chose to ignore what it is we ALL need to do to keep the dream alive—thus the nightmare is recurring.
Cartoon used by permission: Steve Sack, The Minneapolis Star Tribune/Cagle Cartoons
There is no such thing as a “post-racial America.” This lie was started by a group of people who didn’t want to deal with the issues of race. One can’t have 200 years of caustic, brutal slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow segregation resulting in abject poverty, ignorance, and want, and think that all it takes is the election of a half-Black president and racism will be banished. Whether it is the racist screed coming out of the GOP or Black on Black crime, it’s as if most of us have forgotten the sacrifices made to eradicate racism in our country. All we have to do is listen (and watch) the front runner of the Republican candidate running for President, as he unleashes his dogs on the Black Lives Matter demonstrators who are protesting the murder by the police of a twelve-year-old Black kid playing with a toy gun in a park, along with the countless stories of other unarmed young Black men being gunned down by policemen, and you know that justice for Black people is the furthest thing from Trump’s mind and heart.
Cartoon used by permission: Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune/Cagle Cartoons
And where did all these angry White men and their Tea Party hags come from? Their rage has blinded them, stopped up their ears, and shriveled their hearts. (I personally know a couple of them, and all their loss of income, health issues, and disappointment with their children’s lives they now blame on our President and a political party that has not given them what they think they deserve by divine issue.) They cling to their guns while spouting Bible verses taken out of context, and both Jesus and Martin Luther King are weeping—of this I am sure.
Cartoon used by permission: Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune/Cagle Cartoons
I watched people I once knew and loved from the 70s—who said they loved me—go to bed one night wearing Hippie dresses and spouting Born-Again Christian philosophies of love and tolerance, and wake up on the morning of the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008 spouting racism, fear, and hatred. (It’s as if I never knew these people—never broke bread with them—never shared the vision of seeking the grace of God toward all men and women with them.) I watched their eye balls rolling, their mouths frothing, and their heads spinning on their necks in anger at the thought of the White House turning Black. Dr. King may have had a dream that paved the way for our first Black president, but he didn’t tell us about the nightmare of the raw hatred, obstructionism, and horrid disrespect that would assail both his terms in office. It doesn’t matter what this President does—it will never be good enough for most of the GOP (there are always a few exceptions to the rule—thank God), and if we are being honest, the major bone of contention is his race.
Cartoon used by permission: Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune
I have tried to calmly, but urgently, address the racism, xenophobia, and homophobia with the “friends” I no longer have (influence who you know), but to do so only hardened their hearts, and increased their negativity toward our President even more. It is as if they forgot the history of the Jim Crow and the McCarthy eras and were dooming themselves to repeat them. I was bordering on despair until I meditated one morning on our civil rights history and remembered that there have always been angry White people, but there were also those righteous White Americans who fought alongside Black Americans to bring about Martin’s dream. In most cases, they lost their lives to do so. I especially remembered James Zwerg who lived to tell his story and should be seventy-six-years old now.
James Zwerg in 1961 after being beaten by a racist mob in Montgomery, Alabama during a Freedom Ride/Courtesy of Wikipedia
James Zwerg was the White college student from Wisconsin who’d been raised in a really tight-knit Christian family, and he eventually became a Freedom Rider (civil rights activists who rode interstate buses to force the South to obey Federal Law banning segregation on public transportation). He became a Freedom Rider after seeing his black roommate treated with contempt at Beloit College in Wisconsin. James volunteered to be an exchange student to an all-black college in the South (Fisk University) for a semester so he could get a taste of what it felt like to be a minority.
When James went to Fisk he made a decision to join the Freedom Riders from Nashville to Alabama. James said the morning they set off, he read Psalm 27 over and over again as he prayed that God would give him courage and forgiveness for his attackers. He prayed that the Lord would keep him from striking back if and when he got attacked by the white racist mobs, who considered white Freedom Riders as traitors and deserving of death. The first line of the Psalm he read was, ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’ and the final line that James read was, ‘Though my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will receive me.’
James was severely beaten along with the other freedom riders by the racists who stopped their bus. When the picture of James’ pulverized body appeared in the local newspaper, his parents never forgave him because they felt, as James’ father so articulately stated: ‘Those damn niggers used you.’
I remember reading that the parents’ relationship with James Zwerg was never restored even when he tried to explain that he was simply living Christ’s love as they had taught him to do. He was beaten so badly that his teeth were shattered, his vertebrae were broken, he suffered from PTSD, he drowned his sorrows in alcohol for a season, he tried to commit suicide at least once, and he ended up in therapy for months. As I meditated on the sacrifice that Pastor Zwerg made for me and mine, I momentarily forgot the hatefulness of some of the White people I have known in my life as the scripture rang through my head: “Greater love has no man than he lay down his life for his brother!”
And then the roll call of other Whites who stood brave and tall against the racist order of the day came to mind, and I sat for a moment of silence to thank them for laying down their lives so my children and grandchildren might live Dr. King’s dream:
Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo, ethnicity: white. Viola was a mother of three children from Detroit and was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama. The last words she said to her husband were that the civil rights struggle: “was everybody’s fight.” (Wikipedia)
Michael Henry Schwerner, ethnicity: Jewish. Michael was one of three Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field workers killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, by the Ku Klux Klan in response to their civil rights work. (Wikipedia)
Andrew Goodman, ethnicity: Jewish. Andrew was one of three American civil rights activists murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi, during Freedom Summer in 1964 by members of the Ku Klux Klan. (Wikipedia)
Paul Guihard, ethnicity: white. Paul was a reporter for a French news service and was killed by gunfire from a white mob during protests over the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. (Southern Poverty Law Center)
William Lewis Moore, ethnicity: white. William was a postman from Baltimore, and he was shot and killed during a one-man march against segregation. Moore had planned to deliver a letter to the governor of Mississippi urging an end to intolerance. (Southern Poverty Law Center)
Rev. Bruce Klunder, ethnicity: white. Rev. Klunder was among civil rights activists who protested the building of a segregated school in Cleveland, Ohio by placing their bodies in the way of construction equipment. Klunder was crushed to death when a bulldozer backed over him. (Southern Poverty Law Center)
Rev. James Reeb, ethnicity: white. Rev. Reeb was a Unitarian minister from Boston, and was among many white clergymen who joined the Selma marchers after the attack by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Reeb was beaten to death by white men while he walked down a Selma street. (Southern Poverty Law Center)
Jonathan Myrick Daniels, ethnicity: white. Jonathan was an Episcopal Seminary student in Boston, and he had come to Alabama to help with black voter registration in Lowndes County. He was arrested at a demonstration, jailed in Hayneville and then suddenly released. Moments after his release, he was shot to death by a deputy sheriff. (Southern Poverty Law Center)
Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer, ethnicity: white. Vernon was a wealthy businessman who offered to pay poll taxes for those who couldn’t afford the fee required to vote. The night after a radio station broadcasted Dahmer’s offer, his home was firebombed. Dahmer died later from severe burns.
After all was remembered and gratefully acknowledged, I got up off my knees and turned to face the new day with peace in my heart, knowing that the hatred I see in 2016 will not win the day because there will always be people of all ethnicities who have courage enough to fight for the freedom needed so that everyone, of every color, creed, and gender, can live the dream.
Cartoon used by permission: Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch
ELEANOR’S “SELAH” (AHA!) MOMENT ABOUT RACE IN AMERICA—2016
I am discovering that “we the people” have an ongoing, ever vigilant job to embrace that dream afresh, if we are to erase the virulent infection (and reinfection) of racism from our hearts and our country. We must never forget the corrosive stain of slavery on our nation’s psyche. Our white children should be reminded, not so that we hold the sins of the parents over the heads of their children who are not to blame, but to serve as a beacon of light so that they don’t repeat that history again. We must not let our black children forget so that they don’t take for granted the freedom and liberties that have been won for them by the blood of others—both black and white. But it can’t be done if we are too afraid to talk about racial issues that still swirl like roaches in and around our churches, mosques, synagogues, homes, businesses, and legislative hallways. We do not live in a post-racial era. That’s called Heaven. As long as there are imperfect people with access to free will, we will consciously and unconsciously fall over the racial tripwires of each other’s history, and the only way to become righteously untangled is with the scissors of love, forgiveness, and grace.
“James Zwerg remains a devoted loving Christian to this day and what is most important to him is love. ‘I think the thing I would add is love is still the most powerful force in the universe. Hatred will never beat it. Violence will never beat it.’”—Wikipedia
“Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.”—Helen Keller
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.”― Toni Morrison
“And yet words on a parchment [the Constitution—parenthesis mine] would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”—Presidential Candidate Barack Obama
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