Before I came to Kansas City, I served in a hospital in downtown Detroit. One of the outreach programs of that hospital was support for three middle schools in the inner city. The schools served poor and working-class African-American neighborhoods, and many of the children would fit into someone's category of "at risk."
As a part of that program, the Sixth Graders from each school were brought to the hospital for breakfast with an African-American professional who was a leader in the hospital. The purpose was to offer role models, images of possible futures that were not a part of their common experiences.
I was present to say grace for one of those breakfasts - another call to "sing for my supper," or at least to pray for my eggs and sausage. The speaker was the new head of the Pediatric Medicine, the first African-American in the position.
At breakfast I found myself sitting across from the speaker. As we spoke, we discovered we had many experiences in common (although I am careful never to claim we had a common experience). We were about the same age. We had both grown up in the South - he in a small town in Alabama and I in a small city in Tennessee. And we both had clear memories of growing up in the Civil Rights era, and in the culture that made the struggle necessary.
Again, I would never claim we had “a common experience.” He was on side of the racial divide, and I was on the other. And yet there were those events in our lives that were parallel. Each of us had been gently but firmly turned away from drinking from wrong fountain and using the wrong bathroom; and each time by an elderly African-American man. Each of us remembered expectations of how we were to behave, how to associate, expectations so common in the culture that it didn’t matter that we didn’t learn them from our parents.
And each of us remembered being afraid. In a culture that spoke in discrete colors I was white and he was black; but both of us knew to be afraid. Each of us remembered encountering gatherings of white-robed Klansmen – public gatherings Saturday mornings on courthouse lawns. And each of us knew that it didn’t matter whether you were white or black: if they decided you were “dangerous” by their standards they might come for you, and the results would be horrible.
As we spoke about these things the 11- and 12-year-olds around us were quiet, their eyes wide and attentive. They had heard about that world, but they had not grown up in it. They knew a little about the history, but for many of them these specific injustices were more legend than fact. It’s not that they didn’t encounter the consequences of racism and bigotry. It was simply that Detroit in the 1990’s was not the South of Jim Crow; and like all children they were inclined to see their own experience as the way it had always been. Here now were two adults, two professionals – a priest and a doctor – providing independent confirmation of family stories and school lessons of what it had been like, from their perspective, “long ago.”
We finished breakfast and the doctor went on with his speech. He spoke to them of opportunity and education and hard work and hope. My hope is that each of them heard him and that each was inspired by his model to pursue futures of promise. Still, I like to think that our witness, our sharing that those stories of days gone by were true, was also important. We cannot either acknowledge progress made or goals still to be pursued if we don’t also acknowledge the truth of how it was. If we forget why the Civil Rights movement was necessary then, we are risk ignoring why it is necessary now, what goals of justice and compassion are yet to be achieved.
Coretta Scott King died today. Her husband Martin Luther King, Jr., died working to bring the justice and grace of God to American society – that there might be “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” – neither oppressor nor oppressed, for race or any other reason. Coretta Scott King lived for that ministry, not because it was her husband’s call, but because it was God’s call to all of us. Those of us who were witnesses to those times – even, and perhaps especially, those of us who were the beneficiaries of an unjust society - can have a special part in that ministry by testifying to the facts of that history. If we are ever to be able to say “Never Again!” we must continue to say “Never Forget.” Those of us who remember, beneficiaries and victims alike, have a special role in remembering what was, seeing what is, and working for what can be. Those of us who were beneficiaries have a special responsibility to acknowledge the sin of racism, and to give, work, and pray for the spread of the Kingdom, and of a society of justice and equality.