Feeling desolated by the violence in St. Paul, Minn.; Baton Rouge, La.; and Dallas and feeling somewhat removed from the sites of our nation’s conflict and protests, my son and I recently ventured to a Sunday service at First Congregational Church of Oakland.
In a rousing sermon, community activist and visiting minister Ben McBride spoke to the congregation about the importance of “crossing the street” between African American communities and law enforcement communities. He spoke of the history of policies and duplicitous bargains that Americans have embraced, each of them denigrating the ancestors of our citizenry.
McBride challenged our nation’s leaders’ choices to commit genocide against native people, to kidnap and enslave generations of Africans, to subjugate immigrants and women and LGBTQIA folks, as if any of these actions could somehow be excusable or reconcilable steps toward becoming a great nation. Too many of us and our ancestors have been treated like rungs on a ladder.
Neither African Americans feeling threatened when they step out of their homes or into their cars, nor police officers who fear for their safety with so many unregulated firearms on our streets, should belittle the humanity of any other group in order to gain a feeling of security, McBride argued. With lessons from our nation’s history in mind, he said, we should recognize that violence and threats of violence never make us feel more secure.
Our civil rights leaders can inspire us to make better choices. A year before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he told Harry Belafonte, “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”
King continued, “I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”
When asked what could be done, King responded, “Become the firemen. Let us not stand by and let the house burn.” Keeping King’s analogy in mind, perhaps all of us might consider how we could help to carry the water buckets or turn on the hose.
I have been reading the news of this past couple weeks with distress and sympathy, as well as with admiration for those who peacefully protest. Like many, I wish that the love we feel for the ideals of our country could be made more manifest. To do that, we must endeavor to press for goodwill and justice in all our interactions.
As Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Andy Jones is a lecturer in the university writing program at UC Davis. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.