By Doug Magill
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When writing to white religious leaders in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr.was clearly angry about discrimination. While acknowledging that his fellow clergymen were “men of good will,” he nonetheless rejected their concerns about “outsiders coming in.” Elevating his emotions, he described the injustice, brutality and “smothering in an airtight cage of poverty” that members of his race were subjected to and to which he must address his efforts.
Clearly incensed, he articulated why there is a time “when the cup of endurance runs over.”
In light of recent demonstrations and violence concerning the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, preceded by the highly publicized death of Trayvon Martin, one has to wonder if we have not reached another inflection point, where endurance has indeed overfilled its available capacity. And, the question lingers as to what Martin Luther King himself would have made of these events.
When writing from his jail cell, King clearly spoke of the times when the law must be, and should be broken. Drawing upon Catholic theologians, Augustine and Aquinas, he clarified circumstances when injustice and adherence to a higher morality not only encourages us but requires us to follow our principles, even at the expense of incarceration and a criminal record.
Our media pundits breathlessly tell us today about the actions of the crowds that have recently been protesting, and imply that there are just grievances which cause these seeming eruptions of anger and destruction. The results are reflected in polls which show that confidence in the progress of race relations is declining. An unusual trend.
The primal scream of Michael Brown’s stepfather urging destruction of Ferguson, Missouri was glossed over in the media, but it clearly represented a feeling shared by many residents of that city. The looting and destruction which followed the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Brown was the culmination of that atavistic instinct.
Since then there have been at least 25 violent incidents in shopping areas all over the country that have not been well covered by the media: Ann Arbor, Ocoee, Conyers, Cheektowaga, Albany, Indianapolis, Salisbury, Fresno, Toledo and many, many others. The one thing they all had in common was that the individuals involved were black.
While members of the media either ignore or distort such incidents, they don’t reach for context. One doesn’t expect erudition from journalists and most have clearly not really read King’s writings. In that same letter King identified the four basic steps of a nonviolent campaign: collection of facts, negotiation, self-purification and direct action. Nothing in these recent events comes even close to following his vision. It seems that many prominent black people want to jump over all of that, past the non-violent requirements and right to violence, destruction and revenge.
Something that used to be called a lynch mob. Only now it’s for a black cause.
In Reverend King’s dream of judgment based on character, how is it that a black man is to be judged immediately innocent because of his color, and a white police officer guilty because of his color? And violence is to be ignored because of the color of those engaged in it?
One cannot hope for progress when it seems that those who should know better, and at least pay lip service to Martin Luther King’s beliefs, are so ready to make immediate racial judgments and throw away all the progress that has been made.
As America tries to gain perspective on the Martin, Brown and Garner cases, there are additional and powerful questions to be raised that cannot be ignored: the incredible amount of ongoing violence of blacks against blacks in our cities, the wholesale slaughter of black children in the womb, the cataclysmic breakdown of the black family and the miserable state of the schools that their children must deal with. A staggering circle of poverty, misery and despair. And yes, the Obama economic policies have been devastating to employment of black youth.
All as if to diminish the sense of outrage that many black people feel about the recent deaths of young black men.
King is often quoted not as a defense of these circumstances, but as an explanation of why black people shouldn’t be held to the same standards as others. I am not sure he would have that same perspective. I think he would have expected more of the people to whom he witnessed.
I have a very intelligent and insightful black friend who immediately claimed that Michael Brown was murdered before hearing any of the evidence. Who still will not let go of the Trayon Martin verdict.
Another sensitive and passionate black friend made a blistering and staggering comment when told of a recent Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria that she guessed that black lives didn’t matter there either. The equivalency is incomprehensible.
Others are sure that murder was committed in the Eric Garner case and are apoplectic about the shooting of Tamir Rice here in Cleveland.
These people are educated, intelligent and often wise. Yet, these situations are immediately judged as racial in nature by them and their aggrieved sense of minority injustice is palpable.
I know them, trust them and believe in them. So, I cannot shrug off their evaluations as irrational, with some lingering racism in their hearts. There has to be more.
There are things that I have not experienced that affect their perceptions in ways that I cannot know. My friend that jumped on the Michael Brown bandwagon as murder was twice pulled over while driving black last summer. In the space of two months. Without doing anything wrong other than driving by a white police officer in a not-so-new sedan and being dressed in a style that might be considered modern pimp. Still, he was dragged out of his car, handcuffed, made to sit on the curb while his car was searched.
He is a Christian young man who rarely drinks, doesn’t smoke and who doesn’t do drugs and would be the first person I would turn to in a fight. Who I know would be there for me regardless of circumstances.
His shame and embarrassment must have been immense. And not for the first time.
A woman who I work with at a non-profit pregnancy counseling center recently described to me how her son was stopped blocks from her house several times by police because he was young, and black and in a car. This is in a city that prides itself on diversity and peaceful relations between races. She called and complained without effect.
I recently gave a ride to a hitchhiking young black man whose car had broken down and who immediately thanked me for not being afraid of him. And then apologized for the way he smelled because he worked on a road crew.
There are many, many more of these stories, but the issues are the same. Black people being told in unsubtle and stinging ways that they are suspicious, not good enough, and to be considered guilty even though innocent.
I don’t know that it’s racism. Police are not fools, they know who to be suspicious of with good reason most of the time. Yet the pattern is ultimately destructive to both black citizens and the police (black or white) who struggle to maintain order in dysfunctional neighborhoods. It is experience laced with bad assumptions and inherent suspicion.
I was young when the riots destroyed black neighborhoods in Detroit. But I saw the destruction and the shock of seeing armed federal troops on street corners and automatic weapons on the rooftops of nearby buildings. It was called a race riot. It wasn’t. It was a mob, an orgy of violence with no purpose and no results other than the harming of innocents and further deterioration of struggling neighborhoods as businesses moved out. Barry Gordy took Motown records to LA afterwards because he feared for his life. And Detroit has been in a downward spiral ever since.
The tragedy of Reverend King’s death at age 39 is that his work was undone. It still is. He has not been replaced. We all cry out for his moral leadership, and a way to restore families and give hope through education and opportunity. People that put fuel on the fire like Obama, Holder and Sharpton create issues. They do not want to assume moral leadership and certainly don’t know how.
More than anything right now we all need a black leader who can move the tide of history. To live and give substance to Reverend King’s principles and belief. And more than anything his faith: not only in God but in the basic decency of human nature.
I don’t know that we are struggling with race issues, but we are all certainly wrestling with black ones.
Doug Magill is a consultant, freelance writer and voice-over talent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org