Almost forty years ago, Martin Luther King was in Memphis, Tenn., to support a strike by African-American sanitation workers. King was at this point the most targeted man in
America—a point driven home by his flight to Memphis, which was delayed by a bomb threat against King. On the night of April 3, he gave a speech, now known as the I’ve Been
to the Mountaintop speech, which concluded with these words.
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! [applause] And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
This is a sermon presented on January 18, 2009, at Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
The next day, he was assassinated, ending a ministry that had stretched over two decades and was best articulated five years earlier, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, when he said:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
And so here we stand, one day before the nation celebrates King’s life and legacy, and two days before we inaugurate the first African-American President of the United States, and it’s hard not to feel the electricity of the moment. And a closing of the loop. A promise made—and fulfilled. There’s a feeling of a deep longing satisfied.
And part of that satisfaction has been a debate—and honestly, it began in earnest almost a year ago, when the first glimmer of an Obama victory crossed the nation’s consciousness—about what a post-racial America would look like. And would sound like. And what would it smell like. What, indeed, would a post-racial America be?
My curmudgeonly answer: A dream.
Because while exclusively white police forces no longer descend on black marchers with billy clubs and high-pressure hoses, while Jim Crow no longer walks so defiantly through the South, we are a long way from a America where ethnicity doesn’t matter. And after four decades of progress after 1964’s Civil Rights Act, the cataclysm of Hurricane Katrina laid out graphically what many felt but found difficult to grasp or articulate or prove—that being poor and black in America didn’t mean you were hated. No, being poor and black in America meant you were forgotten‚—that you had disappeared, into jail, into corners of the country where prosperity did not show its face, into New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, where nobody bothered to save you from calamity.
It reminded me of Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man, told by a narrator who never is named in the book. He is the high school valedictorian and a talented speech-maker later in his life, but he is buffeted in his attempts to make something of himself and find his place in two worlds, both Black and White, that will never accept him. Sometimes it’s the White world, where as a young man he is asked to deliver a speech he wrote on the requirement of humility for the black man’s progress, then forced to take part in a battle royale, in which he is blindfolded and put in a boxing ring with many other black men. Sometimes it’s the Black World, like when the president of his Black College sends him north to New York City with a note he is to deliver to potential patrons. The contents of the note? Do not help him, and do not tell him the contents of the note. In the end—and it takes a while, as Invisible Man is one long novel—the narrator, unable to find His Place in America, sinks into the basement of a whites-only building “that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” The worldview: America the Alienated—and Alienating.
And so we come to another man who resides in this place between these two worlds, black and white, and his take on a post-racial America. Now, Obama Barack is often credited, if that’s the right word, with promising to bring this post-racial state into fruition. Over the past year, he’s often been credited with most everything—by supporters and foes alike. And as is often the case with serious thought, this intellectual shorthand does him a disservice.
Everybody knows about the speech that Mr. Obama gave in Philadelphia in March of last year, after several sermons by the minister of his Chicago church, The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, made their way to Youtube and cable news. And we all heard the part where he said he could no more disown Rev. Wright than he could his own grandmother, who had confessed her fear of passing black men on the street. But the speech goes on for 10 more minutes, and don’t worry, I’m not gonna read the whole thing, but listen up and tell me if you hear anything post-racial from Mr. Obama in his most extensive comments on race in the entire Presidential campaign.
Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now …The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care or education or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were and are inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education. And the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Legalized discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions or the police force or the fire department — meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between blacks and whites, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persist in so many of today’s urban and rural communities. A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family contributed to the erosion of black families — a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods — parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pickup, building code enforcement — all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continues to haunt us.
This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up.
He then goes through the grievances that whites, especially working class and lower-income whites, have—primarily an understanding that America at their level is a zero sum game, and that any advance for blacks is by rule a loss for their class. And after all that he lands on an America that isn’t post-racial, but instead is trans-racial, aware of its shortcomings but on its way to a reconciliation and accommodation.
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.
And so here we stand, on the cusp of a remarkable week, with a clear vantage point backward 40 years, to the last days of Martin Luther King, and the culmination of his vision—as Obama, 7 when King died, is most certainly one of his children. And so are we, Martin’s children, tasked again with the charge to do our part to bind up the wounds of a hurting world and to love one another. And that would be a great place to leave this talk—at a dream come true. But I want to challenge you to a new dream, one that has been coalescing in corners of our thought and experience, and which contains the glimmer of truthfulnesss and righteousness, and—dare I say it—inevitability.
As the work ends to put a person of color in the Oval Office, let us think seriously about what it would take and how it would be possible to elect a woman President of the United States. And let’s dream a little bigger, what would it take to elect a woman—and her female partner? Can That America exist in some of our lifetimes?
I think we know the answer know: Yes, it can. And UUs will be part of that dream, and another, the dream of developing a sustainable plan for our planet Earth. For both of these post-racial goals, UUs holistic, every-person-is-valued, we’are-all-part-of-the-big-picture perspective will be invaluable to a world that, as Virginia said earlier, arcs toward justice.
So enjoy the great excitement of this historic moment. And if you’re off tomorrow, join us at Germantown to care for a community that—like all communities—can use our help.