Tonight, as the sun falls over our eastern shore, thousands of Americans—Black and White, alike—have once again begun to flood the streets. It has been more than 100 days since throngs of people from every walk of life started shutting down bridges, major avenues and rail systems—marching, chanting, and sometimes lying down in roadways, malls and train stations. Last Monday night, they brought that fight to Ebenezer Baptist—the very church that gave birth to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As Attorney General Eric Holder took to that legendary pulpit, grasped the lectern and began his remarks, a dozen or more protesters stood up in the middle of the grand hall. They had not been included in the evening program, not a part of the diplomatically constructed plan, but they, too, had something to say. Some pumping their clinched their fists, several lifting makeshift placards over their heads, still others holding up their palms in sweet surrender, they interrupted his speech with an organized, collective entreaty of their own– a shout so strong, yet so measured, so baked in righteousness, that a few of us began to applaud them.
As I clapped and yelled, “Tell it," “Go ‘head” and “YES," I noticed the sanctuary growing uneasy. The air thickened. I could hear the whispers and murmurs of disgust. The looks of disdain to my left, my right and behind me were unmistakable. How dare they sully a house of God? How dare they interrupt a visiting cabinet member? How could they deign to demonstrate such incivility not more than 50 yards from Dr. King’s tomb and in the presence of his youngest and only living daughter?
Local and cable news networks captured Attorney General Holder’s answer and the one ringing in my head. The congregants erupted with glee, when Holder said, “I ain’t mad at’cha.” It was as if they needed permission to join the fight. They were, you should know, respectable people—mayors and city council members, heads of faith organizations and old guard civil rights leaders– with constituencies to serve.
Earlier on, before the service started, the audience had been warned against outbursts and pleasantly cautioned us not to wave signs. The bullhorns, we were gently scolded, should be left outside. As she lay out the “rules of engagement” for the night, a young lay minister politely chided, “this isn’t the place” for that.
The irony left me ashamed– not for throngs of “inconvenient” young people spilling out into the streets holding up traffic on the highways and byways, not for those who brought their call for social justice right into the bosom of the civil rights movement. I am not ashamed of those who expect for solidarity from a diversity allies, and not of those who demand it—without condition—from the Black church and from our traditional civil rights community. If there are any places left in America where we can find sanctuary, where we can raise our voice unhampered by stone-faced, disapproving glances, the Black church—if such a cohesive thing still exists—should be first among them.
The well-oiled, gleaming pews, you see, were lined with African American pastors, elected officials and veterans of the movement—people we elevated to their stations. They pulled onto Auburn Avenue and Jackson Streets that night in town car motorcades, blacked out Surburbans and newly waxed Mercedes Benzes. “Body men”, “advance teams” and security details accompanied them. They suggested that they were there for “change”, but sat tight-faced and annoyed—if not angered—by the audacity of the specter. I will not call them by name but, for the record, I certainly know which numbers not to dial should one of my sons or daughters fall victim to “undue” process.
They, like the pastor who opened us with a lecturing prayer about Black-on-Black crime, believe the solutions to the complex problems we confront today begin with us. Theirs is a bevy of simplified solutions, unchecked by inopportuneness history and unmarred by the troublesomeness of present-day circumstance. Maybe if we pulled our pants up, we would not be targeted with such regularity. Maybe then we would not be over-policed, subjected to stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration if we just got married, finished college and found a good job. Maybe, as Pier Morgan suggests, we should stop using the n-word if we want to see an end to racism—as if we conjured up the word and a self-imposed ban would further the eradication of systemic bias—as if context means nothing.
I would remind people like Charles Barkley and Bill Cosby that two-parent homes were pervasive until the “war on drugs” of the mid 1980s and that today out-of-wedlock births among black women and girls are falling. Old school “values” did not save us from the ravages of social injustice. A stiff upper lip and freshly polished shoes did not save our sons from extrajudicial murder. Young women were beaten while wearing skirts three inches below their knees. It mattered not what we were wearing, but the skin we were in. So-called “respectability” did not deliver a quality basic education in our schools nor did it puff up our tax bases. It did not undo double-digit employment or housing discrimination. It did not break the back of “sundown towns” or the segregated, legacy of lack they left behind.
To the contrary, whatever measure of change we’ve seen has come through the decades of peaceful and, dare I say, not so peaceful unrest. Yet, they place the lion’s share of blame for our present-day maladies on those who not only did not light the fire, but also are least able to stamp it out. It’s like blaming the renter for the arson committed by the homeowner.
Respectability politics has found itself among strange bedfellows. And it is one crowded bed, to be sure. It was only months ago, when he eulogized Michael Brown, that Reverend Al Sharpton—who was not in the room Monday night– sounded a similar plea.
“We’ve got to be straight up in our community, too,” he told the mourners. “We have to be outraged at a 9-year-old girl killed in Chicago. We have got to be outraged by our disrespect for each other, our disregard for each other, our killing and shooting and running around gun-toting each other, so that they’re justified in trying to come at us because some of us act like the definition of blackness is how low you can go.”
He says this as if we are not outraged, as if the African American community has rolled out a welcome mat for criminality and does not honor success. I took immediate issue with that as I commentated live on MSNBC during the service. The good reverend, host of a semi-prime time cable news show, and others of his ilk have implored us to “get right” if we expect others to “do right by us”.
“…And you decide it ain’t Black no more to be successful.” Sharpton told the crowd. “Now, you want to be a nigger and call your woman a ‘ho.’ You’ve lost where you’re coming from.”
I would remind Morgan, and Sharpton too, that Medgar Evers was wearing a pair of nice slacks and a tight belt the night he was gunned down in his driveway. Dr. King earned a PhD and a Nobel Peace Prize before James Earl Ray shot him in the head with a Remington 760 Game Master chambered in 30-06 and fitted with a Redfield 2×7 scope. I would remind them that Black women were lynched in their Sunday church stockings and that, in 2006, 93-year-old Kathryn Johnston was murdered by Atlanta police officers in her own home. The facts are knowable to those who want to know.
But, before they take up his mantel, before they eschew the confines of context, I would beckon them to study Dr. King in full—a man who frequently called one his closest confidants and foot soldiers, now former Ambassador Andrew Young, “little nigger.” Should we let that define him? Is he less worthy of our praise?
Rather than deal straight on with the pathologies that drove those inequities, resulting in generations of disenfranchisement and that continue to fuel disparities in our justice system, far too many invest in the “respectability” of it all. That is anything but “keeping it real.”
As I rose from my seat that Monday night, armed with a speech I had re-written in the front pew, I felt a sense of urgency to correct the record. I had been afforded two-minutes to speak although, without apology, I took a bit longer. I rose, reassured by the notion that Dr. King’s words and actions were oft times uncomfortable and not always welcomed even by those who shared his skin; even by those who professed to share his mission. Tragedy, he knew, is revealing. It has a way of undressing us, of exposing our flaws and, if we are lucky, it can also give rise to our collective strengths.
But I am reminded tonight of another civil rights leader. It was Malcolm X who said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”