Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky…
U2 drew the parallels between the crucified Jesus and the martyred Martin in their 1984 classic Pride (in the name of love); it seems like poetic justice that the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination is marked just three days after the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter, less than a week after remembering his own murder.
When I was growing up in predominantly white suburban Chicago communities in the 1980s and 90s, we often spoke of racism as a thing of the past. We read biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. with a sigh of thanksgiving, grateful for those who marched, and bore witness, in an era now brought to completion. With the official end of apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s and the freeing of Nelson Mandela, it seemed justice was on the march and we would surely soon see the end of racial discrimination and race. In 2008, we elected a Black man to the highest office in the land, and Black children could see themselves in the faces of those who had achieved greatness.
Of course, the story, many white Christians are slowly (belatedly) learning, is that racial injustice continues unabated, though it has shifted forms and focus. At our Before We Get to Mars learning/retreat in early February, we studied the racist practice of redlining, which contributed greatly to the educational disparities in the city of Chicago and neighboring suburbs and continues to affect economic lifetoday. At a recent Executive Council meeting, we discussed the recent research which demonstrated the “punishing reach of racism for Black boys” still today. On Good Friday, I referenced the banal evil of the ongoing Flint water crisis. On Sunday night, our family watched John Legend play Jesus and my daughters asked, “Oh, was Jesus Black?” Last night, a Black University of Chicago student was shot by university police during what appears to have been a manic episode. There are myriad ways in which institutional racism is alive and well.
The casual way the people turned their hearts against Jesus is repeated again and again as we turn our eyes and hearts from the injustices wrought against our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Today, the National Council of Churches (of which our denomination is a part) launched a new initiative “Unite to End Racism” which calls on us all to Awaken ourselves, Confront racism, and Transform the hearts, minds and behaviors of people and structures that shape society and begins with a large gathering in our nation’s capital. This call to action speaks to the ways we have fallen short of Dr. King’s legacy, which we remember on this anniversary and to which we renew our commitment: It’s time to finish the work.
Churches, university and other institutions across the country tolled their bells 39 times at 6:01 pm central in memory of Dr. King.
I have a copy of one of King’s books, Why We Can’t Wait, sitting on my desk beside me. It’s a first edition, published in 1964. I am not sure how I came to own it. But on the cover is an endorsement by Time magazine. Martin Luther King has made himself the unchallenged voice of the Negro people – and the disquieting conscience of the whites.
For too long, white Christians have allowed our racial consciences to be quieted. This day, let us awaken them once more, in gratitude for those who have laid down their lives for others, and in hope that their legacies of love and justice will grow, changing our lives and world. Let us continue to study, to organize: let us finish the work.