Determined to Be People

An April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, telling them the reason he had joined them in their month-long protest of their working conditions was simple: “We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”

We are determined to be people.

Sounds a lot like “Black lives matter.”

“The issue is injustice,” Dr. King said to the sanitation workers. “The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers…. We’ve got to march…in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be…. When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory. We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis.”

An assassin’s bullet stopped Dr. King the next day, but it didn’t stop his march towards justice. Like too many other times since that spring day in Memphis, we’ve seen the march towards justice played out peacefully and violently in the streets of America’s cities and on the screens we hold in our hands. The Memorial Day murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, captured in a horrifically graphic cellphone video, set off yet another wave of protests across the nation, many of them violent.

The beginning of the end of Mr. Floyd’s life was his purchasing of a pack of cigarettes from Cup Foods, a small community store, using a counterfeit $20 bill. Within an hour, he was dead. In the chilling video, Mr. Chauvin is seen pressing his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck behind a police vehicle outside the store. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, the officer stared toward the ground with his hand casually placed in his pocket as his captive gasped repeatedly that he could not breathe. Bystanders waved their cellphones, cursed and pleaded for help, and still, for two minutes and 53 seconds after Mr. Floyd became unresponsive, the officer continued to kneel on his neck.

Like many Americans, we were outraged at what we saw. And we were deeply troubled by the violence that ensued. We spent most of our weekend retreat at the Sanger KOA camped in front of the television, watching in shock and anger as events unfolded in real time.

Racism is once again being debated and discussed and denounced. And, like many privileged white people, we found ourselves taking on the difficult, self-reflective work of examining our own prejudices.

We cannot escape the hard truth that our nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal, began as a slave society. The enslavement of Africans has been called America’s “original sin.” There’s no question that this most undemocratic of institutions left an indelible mark on our nation’s soul.

Although we paid a terrible price in a calamitous civil war, it wasn’t enough to rid us of the effects of our original sin. It took another century before segregation was ruled unconstitutional. And 75 years after that, we still see communities of color subordinated, stereotyped, and stigmatized.

Despite advances made by a large and stable black middle class, our nation continues to grapple with the effects of its original sin. Hundreds of years of indifference and hostility toward African-Americans has led to a permanent black underclass, characterized by crime, drug addiction, family breakdown, unemployment, poor school performance, welfare dependency, and general decay unrivaled in scale and severity by anything to be found in the industrial West.

Tucked away inside Dr. King’s briefcase the day he was murdered was the title of his next sermon. He hadn’t written anything more than the title, “Why America May Go to Hell,” so we’ll never really know what he intended to say. But considering his focus, at the end of his life, on economic justice, it’s not hard to imagine. By 1968, he envisioned a change in America that was more revolutionary than mere reform. Citing the systematic flaws of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism,” Dr. King argued that “reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

More than 52 years after he was assassinated — an unarmed black man killed by an angry white man — America still struggles with the racial injustice and inequality he sought to overcome. What might Dr. King have thought about our current situation, when COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting the black community, and we continue to be indifferent to that daily reminder that there really is no context in which black lives matter? What would he have said about the numerous incidents of police violence in recent years in which unarmed African-American men have died as a result of seemingly mundane encounters? How might he have responded to the destructive and chaotic reactions of so many frustrated individuals who are determined to be people? What would this icon of nonviolence have about the rancorous public discourse that has come to dominate America’s politics and mired our nation in seemingly intractable conflicts?

America may go to hell?

No. We think he would have repeated some of the last public remarks he made in his life: “Be concerned about your brother,” he said. “You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”