We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream
“Although I must say, I do wonder why, if it’s so cool to be a grandma in public life, how come no guy running for office ever, ever defines himself as a grandpa?
Lynn Sherr, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts USA, May 10, 2010
The slights are big and small – and at times beyond comprehension.
I spend some time reading speeches. There is a wonderful link to many, many commencement addresses provided by NPR: The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever: We’ve hand-picked over 300 addresses going back to 1774.
This morning, I read Lynn Sherr’s speech, delivered to graduates at Wellesley at their 2010 graduation. It addressed issues important to women, issues of journalistic integrity… a speech worth reading.
And, I was reminded… the reason women have to speak out so strongly about issues affecting women is that men (i.e., the ones in positions of power) can be so oblivious, blind, and unaware…
And, as I opened my newspaper this morning, the first above the fold article was about the effort to chronicle with markers and memorials the racially motivated lynchings throughout the South. The article came from “wire reports, but I found this source, from the New York Times: Dallas victims among 4,000 documented in new report on history of lynchings in the South by Campbell Robertson. And this paragraph is from the New York Times editorial, Lynching as Racial Terrorism:
It is important to remember that the hangings, burnings and dismemberments of black American men, women and children that were relatively common in this country between the Civil War and World War II were often public events…
These episodes of horrific, communitywide violence have been erased from civic memory in lynching-belt states like Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. But that will change if Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights attorney, succeeds in his mission to build markers and memorials at lynching sites throughout the South as a way of forcing communities and the country to confront an era of racial terror directly and recognize the role that it played in shaping the current racial landscape.
A few observations:
#1 – We have a long history of “settling” for “gradualism” in this country.
Dr. King spoke eloquently: “Now is the time…” Every account I read about what “we” were, what we did, what we stood by and embraced (I refuse to reproduce the photograph here, but there is a photo in the New York Times article of a large crowd of white Dallas citizens, including women and children, dressed in their Sunday best, gathered around the hanging body of a black man – a very public lynching, Dallas, 1910)… It is simply unconscionable.
Gradualism is not an adequate response to social and racial injustice.
#2 – In a multitude of ways, our language betrays that we don’t even think about the issues with clarity. We are oblivious to the fact that we refer to women in public life as “Grandmothers,” but do not refer to men in public life as “Grandfathers.” (Read Lynn Sherr’s speech).
And, #3 – There has been more than a little criticism of President Obama’s recent Prayer Breakfast speech. He described the violence of Christians in the past, and plenty have voiced their criticism. One opponent of President Obama stated “Barack Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a Christian.”
But, it was in the name of Christianity that racist motivated terrorism (that’s exactly what the lynchings were) was carried out in this country (in my city) in the not-too-distant past. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article: The Foolish, Historically Illiterate, Incredible Response to Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech. He provides a light slick of the history that we would prefer to ignore and forget.
Speaking of the newly formed Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. the Vice President of the new country, said these words in his “Cornerstone Speech.” (I’ve read the speech. This excerpt was included in Mr. Coates’ article).
The first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society … With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so.
It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.
Now, I do not mean to imply a parallel between the struggles of women for equal place and equal opportunity with the horrible injustices against black people in America, but there is this: people in power (white people; men) do not pay enough attention to the mistreatment of those out of power.
So, it’s easier to “ignore” the problem, and pretend it’s not even a problem.
Regarding the history of lynchings, I fully support the efforts of “Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights attorney, succeeds in his mission to build markers and memorials at lynching sites throughout the South as a way of forcing communities and the country to confront an era of racial terror directly and recognize the role that it played in shaping the current racial landscape.” If we saw the markers and memorials, we might more fully face these dark facts of our history.