This is a column about three words of moral cowardice:
“All lives matter.”
Those words have risen as a kind of counter to “black lives matter,” the movement that coalesced in response to recent killings and woundings of unarmed African Americans by assailants – usually police officers – who often go unpunished. Mike Huckabee raised that countercry last week, telling CNN, “When I hear people scream ‘black lives matter,’ I’m thinking, of course they do. But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another.”
As if that were not bad enough, the former Arkansas governor and would-be president upped the ante by adding that Martin Luther King Jr. would be “appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”
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“Elevating some lives.” Lord, have mercy.
Imagine for a moment that you broke your left wrist. In excruciating pain, you rush to the emergency room for treatment only to run into a doctor who insists on examining not just your mangled left wrist, but your uninjured right wrist, rib cage, femur, fibula, sacrum, humerus, phalanges, the whole bag of bones that is you. You say, “Doc, it’s just my left wrist that hurts.” And she says, “Hey, all bones matter.”
If you understand why that remark would be factual, yet also fatuous, silly, patronizing and off point, then you should understand why “all lives matter” is the same. It’s not about “elevating some lives” any more than it would be about elevating some bones. Rather, it’s about treating where it hurts.
And as for King: I cringe at his name being invoked by yet another conservative who has apparently never heard or read anything King said with the possible exception of the last few minutes of the “I Have A Dream” speech. No one with the slightest comprehension of what King fought for could seriously contend he would be appalled at a campaign geared to the suffering of African American people.
Whose rights did the Montgomery bus boycott seek to vindicate? For whose freedom was King jailed in Birmingham, punched in Selma and stoned in Chicago? In his book “Why We Can’t Wait,” King answered complaints that we shouldn’t be doing something special for “the Negro” by noting that, “our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years.”
Does that sound like someone who would be “appalled” by “black lives matter”?
No, that cry would likely resonate for him for the same reason it resonates for so many others. Namely because, while police abuse is not unknown in other lives, it is disproportionate in black lives. This is what Huckabee and the “all lives matter” crowd quail at recognizing. To treat where it hurts, one must first acknowledge that it still hurts, something conservatives often find hard to do because it gives the lie to their self-congratulatory balloon juice about how this country has overcome its founding sin.
That sort of willful ignorance has unfortunately become ubiquitous.
Which is why, for me, at least, the most inspiring sight to come out of Charleston following the racial massacre there was not the lowering of the Confederate battle flag, welcome as that was. Rather, it was a march through town by a mostly white crowd chanting, “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” To see those white sisters and brothers adopt that cry was a soul-filling reminder that at least some of us still realize we all have access – connection – to each other’s pain and joy by simple virtue of the fact that we all are human.
God love them, they did not slink guiltily from that connection. Instead, they ran bravely to it.
And you know what, Mike Huckabee? Martin Luther King would have been pleased.
Contact Leonard Pitts Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.