Revealing the Racist Within

Forty-nine years ago, in April of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned for his participation in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. He was peacefully protesting segregation and, in doing so, he was violating a court ordinance against such demonstrations. In the tension surrounding these protests, a group of eight white clergymen had issued a public statement questioning the timing and methods King was employing. King penned a 21-page response while in prison that has come to be known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” now considered a classic in civil rights literature.

It is disturbing to read, particularly as he writes of why he can no longer wait patiently for change. Example after example is given of what prejudice looks like, on a practical level, for black men and women and children. The string of examples concludes, “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.” King’s rhetoric is powerful and his pain is real.

Even more disturbing is that the letter is written to me. Not directly, of course. I was still eight years shy of conception at the time the letter was written. But, I am reminded that King was writing to allies. He opens the letter with “My dear fellow clergymen” and closes with “Yours for the cause of peace and brotherhood.”  These were men who agreed with King’s goal of racial harmony, but questioned his methods.  They suggested patience, particularly as the brash segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor had recently been voted out of office as Public Safety Commissioner.  They believed the new leadership should be given time to bring about change.

But this patience is easy for the privileged white clergy to propose. They aren’t the ones bearing the load of on-going prejudice. King writes, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.” He goes on to say, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

I don’t consider myself prejudice. I can build my case, point to all the relationships I have with black men, and women, and children. They are co-workers, friends, and even family. But I also recognize that I have done little to combat the racism that exists today. I am, I suppose, one of those white moderates. My goodwill runs deep, but my understanding is shallow. I have only known life in the privileged majority. I don’t know what it is like to be treated with disrespect because of the color of my skin. It is a hard pill to swallow when King suggests that my passivity may be a greater stumbling block to racial harmony than the activity of true racists. But it is the pill he prescribes.

The book of Revelation offers a vision of the kingdom of God. It is a time when all wrongs are made right. Creation is redeemed and mankind is judged. It includes a picture of people from every tribe, people group, language, and nation worshipping around the throne of God (Revelation 5:9). The net is thrown wide with the use of the adjective “every” to define how expansive this racially diverse choir is. Every tribe, every people group, every language. every nation. This racial diversity, as wide as we can imagine, is held together in racial unity. Their worship is introduced with the phrase “And they sang in a mighty chorus” (Revelation  5:12, NLT).  This mighty chorus is relentlessly singular.

This is what history is plodding towards – racial diversity as wide as we can stretch it and racial harmony as narrow as we can hem it in. As a Christian, I offer a foretaste of this kingdom vision now, bringing about this harmony as best I can on earth as it is in heaven.

To that end, reading King’s letter leaves me with three personal resolutions. First, I must listen. As a white male, I don’t know prejudice personally. Still, I can know it indirectly through the stories of those who do.  One of the most moving parts of the letter to me is the paragraph in which King offers pictures of prejudice. He writes of the struggle, “to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children.”  Racism is not just a societal illness; it is a personal tragedy affecting individuals with names and faces. Stories help bring that into focus. Before rushing to offer solutions, I must be willing listen to those who have lived with racism.

Second, I must have courage. King speaks of the need to be an extremist in the same vein as Jesus, Amos, Paul, Martin Luther and others.  He summarizes, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” Racism that still exists could only survive this long because of implicit societal toleration if not acceptance. To stand against this status quo will take courage. As King notes, confronting racism does not create the tension, it merely brings it into the open where it can be dealt with.  But to expose what has been kept under wraps is a frightening prospect. I need courage.

Third, and finally, King calls me to action. To fall short of action is to join in the chorus of those who say “wait” and by it mean “never.” Having heard the stories and mustered up courage I must step out and do something. Recently, I was listening to a friend tell a funny story. It involved another person who, in her words “does not like black people.” This detail was included because it played a part in the story she was laying out. At this point I faced an opportunity to take my stand. I interrupted and said, “Your friend is a racist and I don’t think I’m interested in hearing the rest of the story.” It was an awkward moment. A wet blanket smothering the cheerful set up for a good laugh. She wasn’t sure what to say in response. Nor was I. It was a small action,  for sure. But, it was enough to bring the tension out into the open. Maybe it will change her. I know it is changing me, a white moderate chastised by a black prisoner, his letter urging me to forsake moderation and to become an extremist of love. The longest journey begins with the smallest step. For me, the journey has begun.

Phil Huber is a freelance writer.

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