Today is the anniversary of the assasinationn of Martin Luther King, Jr, which, I am pleased to say is an official day of remembrance in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church. In America we like to recognize beginnings more than endings and I think it would have been prefereable to make April 4th MLK day rather than in February, but I don't recall getting to vote on it. In fact, as I recall there was a great deal of opposition to creating MLK day generally across the country. It is a shame, an enduring shame, that too many people still see this as a "Black" holiday and not an American one. Though in some ways a flawed human, Martin is, nevertheless, one of the greatest Americans ever. His witness to the truth of segregation and prejudice and his unflinching resolve to confront it non-violently is an example worthy of emulation.
I grew up in an environment of passive prejudice. I don't think any of the adults I knew growing up were involved in any kind of violent acts towards African-Americans, but they weren't afraid to express their disdain. Looking back, what is so surprising is how open and pervasive their bigotry was. Nice people who loved me and cared about their communities, who were faithful and hardworking had this one thing about them that was just out of synch with the rest of their lives. And we kids were taught lots of ways to incorporate this passive prejudice into our own lives; Brazil nuts were "n-----r toes," we chose using the rhyme "eenie, meenie, miney moe, catch a n----r by his toe."
The southside of Indianapolis, where I gre up, was not a place that welcomed African Americans, and in truth they existed more in my imagination and on TV than in reality. But the year I started high school was also the year that court-ordered desegregation and bussing became a reality. I'd like to report that initial fears and anger were overcome and that a community of tolerance and understanding blossomed. That isn't what happened though. By and large, we and they lived seperately in the same space. Personally, I never understood racism and had begun to call out my parents for their casual racism, but even I was dismayed to be met by people who hated me for the tone of my skin. Black anger was a palpable reality and to see it was confounding and confusing. I had imagined that people who suffered oppression would in some way be more tolerant and enlightened then their oppressors. It was a disappointment to find them all too human.
All that was a long time ago. Much has changed, but not everything. By and large the people I grew up with abandoned our neighborhoods and moved further south across the countly line and away from desegregation. No one I know under the age of 70 would openly say any of the derogatory names for African Americans we once used so commonly. I think most of my siblings even voted for Obama. Blacks are no longer to be disdained in the abstract or openly. Perspectives have shifted, but in their hearts I have to wonder how much has really changed. My father said, "really I don't hate black people, I just don't want my daughter to marry one."
What Martin was aiming at in his dream was a world where father's worried more about their daughters marrying people of dignity and self respect rather than skin tone. Martin talked about this in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail where he described the hurtfulness of white liberals who weren't exactly in opposition, but who weren't actively seeking justice and reconciliation either. At the foot of the cross we stand convicted of our desire to put ourselves at the center of the world, of desiring the power of the world to make the changes we desire. Christ's love, God's grace frees us from those needs though and should free us to see the reality of our likeness with our brother and our sister. I am thankful for the witness of Martin Luther King to God's promise of grace and reconciliation and I am thankful that his memory endures.