Today, I am in deep sorrow over the absence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as our society becomes increasingly divided over racial tensions. I can’t help but wonder what the state of racial reconciliation would be like today if we had 50 more years to benefit from this incredible leader. And with regards to the current Black Lives Matter movement, I try to imagine where Dr. King might be standing in the midst of all this chaos, unrest and mutual distrust. What would he be saying to us if he were still alive today?
As a proud resident of Atlanta, Georgia—home of this inspirational figure of American history—I have often heard Dr. King’s name invoked as the model for civil rights activism. “Dr. Martin Luther King did it right,” I hear people say. “The BLM movement, however, is doing it all wrong.” These are the people who may agree that there is still a problem with racism in our nation, but who harshly criticize the methods being used to resolve them. I have heard this sentiment espoused time and time again. And while I personally agree that violence of any kind will not bring about the right kind of solution, I would like to point out the main flaw in this line of thinking—which is as glaring as it is underrated: That is, that Dr. King encountered massive opposition in his time and was, eventually, murdered at the hands of someone who disagreed with his methods and his cause. Dr. King’s peaceful protests were consistently met with violence.
The point I am trying to make is this: There is no “right” way to change a culture without offending and provoking the groups of people who were not experiencing pain by the way things were before. The vast record of human history stands as a witness that upending the status quo will inevitably be met with denial and opposition. Violence always breeds violence—but a soft answer does not always turn away wrath. In fact, even Jesus—who did not answer Herod’s inquisition—was put to death by false political charges. In a purely historical sense, Jesus died an innocent scapegoat in order to appease a threatened political system. Likewise, countless Christians are martyred across the globe without having committed a single violent act.
Therefore, it is not helpful to harken back to Dr. King’s movement, because he was a product of our culture at the time. In a majority white population which was mostly Christian (in value if not in practice), Dr. King had to be what he was to accomplish what he did—there was no other way. He had no choice but to speak out in a way that he would be heard, and to act in such a way that he would not be dismissed or rejected entirely by the society that surrounded him. And even he – for all his moral compass – was eternally silenced by a product of the very immoral spirit he sought to exorcise.
In the past few years, I have met people who try to define racism in such a narrow way that they do not fit the definition. No one wants to be labeled a racist – and I don’t blame them. I’ve also met white people who have themselves been a victim of aggressive racial assumptions and are embittered as a result. But more than anything, I have met people who are simply unaware of the effect that racism still has on our country, on both an individual and an institutional level.
Individually, racism can be a gut-level instinct. It is the result of many life years encountering black faces publicly in negative scenarios but not privately, within the context of a relationship. It’s this very instinct which can play a role in a cop’s momentary assessment of danger in a given scenario. Institutionally, racism is still subtly woven into the very fabric of our society—the white flights and the red-lines that keep our nation segregated in many municipal and thus experiential ways. It’s not the number of years since slavery existed that matters (150), but the number of generations (2) that stand between us and a culture that felt no moral discomfort at the possession and degradation of other human souls.
Here’s the real truth: Any time you change laws faster than the hearts who made them, the process cannot possibly be complete. The cry of blacks today is not for more concessions, but for more confessions that we still have a race problem—one that is deeply rooted at the heart of our nation. To invoke the tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous, “The first step to recovery is admitting that there is a problem.” We will not recover from racism as a country until we can confess on an individual and an institutional level that there is still some self-examination and uncomfortable conversations that need to take place before we can fulfill Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. A nation divided against itself cannot stand.
In reality, the political laws and provisions that Dr. King fought for could only externally eradicate the “separate but equal” mindset. Racial prejudice and segregation are both internal and systemic. And so to be truly set free from this age-old bondage, we must address the matters of the heart. We don’t need more reparations from repression—we need a holistic restoration of relationship. If you do not have any black bodies sitting in your living room or black faces staring at you from across your dinner table, that’s the first place to start. I’m not talking about the ones you meet at the Subway counter. I’m talking about developing relationships with black friends and peers—ones who might even feel comfortable sharing their experience of this racial unrest. Even better, reach out to those who sit near you at church—the ones raising their voice in worship to the very same God. And if you don’t have many black voices in your church, pray for God to bring them. He’ll do it.
I long to hear what words of challenge or encouragement Dr. King would deliver to our divided nation right now. Maybe he could bridge the gap—he always seemed to find the perfect words to do so. But he’s not here. We are—you and me. Can we still find the right words and the right ways to collectively heal our country? I dearly hope so.
“I may not get there with you—But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
— MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. [“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, April 3, 1968]