After Martin Luther King Day I find myself humming or whistling “Lift Every Voice” for a week, the same as with any of a dozen carols from Christmas Eve until New Year’s. This year was a particularly blessed MLK Day for me but I did not ponder the man that much, any more than I ponder Jesus that much at Christmas.
This year I joined in the annual MLK march that has taken place each January for forty-five years in my new city (Geneva, New York). Forty-five years ago would have been the January following the Kent State murders, which followed the assassination in the previous decade of its three greatest leaders, and more riots and demonstrations than anyone has catalogued. The 1960’s in the United States was an angry, passionate, violent decade and the one in which I became aware of the world around me.
The march I was in yesterday, commemorating The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., started at the Police Station and meandered through town and up the hill where it ended at my Church for a community extravaganza of gospel music, preaching, speaking, and eating. Since I had arrived only days before I did next to nothing to make it happen. Instead, I said a few words of welcome, was bathed in the music of the Gospel Choir, and ate my fill of wonderful food.
On the march I found myself walking with students from the local college, Hobart-William Smith. In particular, an African-American Gay Activist and I struck up a conversation and walked together most of the way. He was majoring in GLBT and Woman Studies and as we walked I kept having flashbacks to marching in my hometown of Muncie, Indiana in the 60’s and early 70’s. I remembered images of black and white high school studends separated on either side of the street by lines of police after a race riot at the big high school in Muncie; watching from a distance in the night, a torchlight Klan march the summer before my ninth grade year; shouting, jeering, angry protests and counter-protests on the campus of Ball State University.
Now, I said to myself, I am walking in this friendly uneventful march with an openly Gay student majoring in GLBT studies surrounded by people from all walks of life and everyone smiling in spite of the bitter cold. Go figure.
The second half of the march we were joined by one of the leaders of the day’s festivities, a newly elected member of the City Council. In fact, he is the first and only African-American ever elected to the Council in my new city.
Well, I thought to myself, maybe we haven’t come so far.
He was a pleasure to talk with and his enthusiastic engagement in the political process leaked out and infected me. Walking between these two men and hearing them talk about their experience of the city and campus, I instantly became more aware of my own age, race, sexuality, profession, and social status. It was not self-consciousness but consciousness – wakefulness is what I would call it.
Wakefulness to class, race, privilege, sexuality and gender was not something characteristic of the 60’s, not even among most progressive leaders.
A fierce wind is blowing non-stop right now, churning the surface of the lake with whitecaps big enough to capsize the little rowboat I left in Vermont. The turbulence below the surface of our society is dangerous like the lake is now.
On the one hand, we have finally recognized and celebrated our diversity by creating a more inclusive culture than the one in the decade of assassinations and riots I grew up in. Truly, the changes are remarkable. On the other hand, the concentration of power, abuse of power, the murdering of youth by those in positions of power, may be even worse than it was then.
Amidst such a jarring juxtaposition of progress and entrenchment are the seething passions and hatreds of reactionary white citizens who have seen their worldview fray, crumble, and attacked by reality. They use, and are used by, sensationalist politicians that warmonger and hatemonger as a means of harvesting votes on their way to possessing power.
It is a dangerous time.
It is not enough that we look across the divide and point to the enemy. Neither MLK nor Jesus would sit still and watch without a loud word of challenge as we scold and blame our enemies. They would, instead, insist that we listen to one another and dig deep for compassion toward one another, and allow that compassion to lead us instead of fear, anger, or rage.
That is the whisper I heard buried in yesterday’s activities and conversations. I am grateful for it.