I remember reading about Martin Luther King, Jr. in school, though I don’t recall many details. My mind replays his booming voice, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we’re free at last!” But that’s only because the sound bite was included on the D.C. Talk cassette of the same name that I wore out in junior high. I know what Rosa Parks did and I remember reading a book on W.E.B. DuBois in high school, and I watched with fascination the movies 42 (about Jackie Robinson) and The Help but that’s about the extent of my knowledge of civil rights.
I observed in wonder last year as people bickered online about black lives and police lives and the confederate flag. I had no frame of reference.
Let me explain why.
I grew up in a small, racially monolithic town a few miles from what I was told was a KKK stronghold. I still don’t know if that’s true. Anyway, the only black people I saw were on TV, with the exception of a new student in high school whom everyone loved. (Then suddenly he moved and no one knew why.)
I considered myself “color blind” as was the popular term of the day. Obviously, it’s easy to be color blind when there’s no color in your region.
A memory surfaced for me recently of a time when I visited my aunt in the opposite part of the state where my family grew up. I was about 13 I would guess. One day, a friend of my family’s visited my aunt and began conversing with her and my parents. At one point he referred to a “nigger” who worked for him. That was a bad word in my mind and I called him out on it with all the naïve boldness a 13-year-old could muster. “I’d rather you not use that term, please,” I said as respectfully as I could.
My aunt looked at me in astonishment and the man just about jumped out of his seat. I think I was ushered to another part of the house, or he left, I can’t remember exactly. But I don’t recall being scolded, and I was undeterred. The comment was a negative one and I wasn’t standing for it.
In college I moved to more diverse city, though still a majority is white. Most of the black people I have known over the years were no different than the white people I’ve known all my life.
That’s why I didn’t really understand the race-charged events of 2015. I didn’t comprehend what the big deal was about the confederate flag. I am and have always been to a fault a respecter of authority and supporter of law enforcement so I couldn’t understand why white police officers were being accused of the things they were. None of this made sense. My environment, both growing up and now, contributed to a myopic view of a very complex issue.
But then I read a book that has changed the way I view race. It’s called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is the founder of and attorney for the nonprofit organization Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). They represent prisoners who have been “denied fair and just treatment by the legal system“–most of whom were and are black.
The true stories Stevenson shared simply broke my heart. I would stay up way too late reading but couldn’t put the book down. When I finally did I would go to sleep depressed, asking God where He was when these horrific things were happening to people–adults, children, the mentally ill, the traumatized, the impoverished.
In addition to the major theme of the book – people falsely accused and wrongly convicted being placed on death row and even executed before getting a fair trial – a repeated occurrence that seared my conscience was young boys accused of crimes and being placed in adult prisons, where they endured horrific rape and abuse. I felt like my heart was pounding out of my chest with sadness and angst. What angered me most was how Stevenson’s work was done in my lifetime. I thought the civil rights issues were over well before I was born!
Besides the engaging storyline – the main narrative is one particular man falsely accused – I gained an awareness of race issues I never have had before. My appreciation for those who are standing up for the truly oppressed has grown exponentially. But, in addition to this awareness, I gained something far deeper in my reading of this book:
I need to be careful making assumptions about issues when I don’t know the whole story and I haven’t walked in another’s shoes. I need to be intentional about educating myself in matters of justice, mercy, and poverty — the very issues we see repeated in Scripture (Isaiah 58 for starters).
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. -Nelson Mandela
I’m convinced we are divided – whether that be in race, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, etc. – in part because we don’t seek out an understanding of even some of the very complex issues that make up a person’s viewpoint.
So today, on Martin Luther King, Jr., day, I am a small step closer to understanding more of what he and people like Bryan Stevenson fought and are still fighting for.
And if I fail or am wrong in my view on certain issues, I’d rather err on the side of justice and mercy.