Nearly 10 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1957
was established to ensure that black Americans would be free to vote, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. steps up to a podium in Atlanta, GA to give an address that has come to be known as Where Do We Go From Here? In this speech, he would address a reality that people now would do well to heed. He says, “[the black man] emerged from his struggle integrated only slightly...in spite of a decade of significant progress, the problem is far from solved. The deep rumbling of discontent in our cities is indicative of the fact that the plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower.”
Dr. King saw that, ten years after the courts yielded to the onslaught of civil rights activism, black people were still suffering from overt and structural forms of racism. He noted that black people were still being lynched. He explained that centuries of racial oppression had yielded contemporary economic inequalities. He reported that a change in the laws were good, but that black people still languished under unfair and untrue stereotypes of inferiority, dangerousness, and criminality. He pointed out that black people constituted the majority of lost bodies in the Vietnam War. He conveyed that children were still being trained to associate “black” with all kinds of negativity and white with all kinds of positivity:
In a nutshell, Dr. King was reporting, some 50+ years ago, that the Civil Rights Act did not render a movement for civil rights obsolete. In fact, he was suggesting that the civil rights movement be upgraded to a human rights movement. “Yes, we have left the dusty soils of Egypt, and we have crossed a Red Sea that had for years been hardened by a long and piercing winter of massive resistance”, he affirms, “but before we reach the majestic shores of the promised land, there will still be gigantic mountains of opposition ahead and prodigious hilltops of injustice.”
King would be assassinated, because in acknowledging that desegregation and voting rights were just the beginning, he had also implied that he intended to be in that number of those trying to scale those gigantic mountains that stood between the black community and true freedom: to end the teaching of subtle white supremacist ideology in schools, to dismantle the structures of economic injustice, and to break the tradition of American hyper-militarism, being among the peaks to subdue.
In the biblical story, the Exodus is just the beginning of Israel’s story. They did not leave Egypt to eek out a living on the shores of the Red Sea. Neither did our foremothers and fathers intend to pitch their tents just east of the Civil Rights Act. There was still a wilderness of inequality that they were more than willing to traverse in order to finally be included in all the blessings and privileges of being an American citizen. Civil Rights Leaders have been systematically neutralized, exiled, and killed to prevent any would-be Moses or Joshua from continuing that journey. And so, 50+ years later, Dr. King--if he were still in the land of the living--could take to a podium on this very day and deliver the same speech he did, and his assessment of the culture would still be as accurate, that the problem is far from solved.
This week alone, we have witnessed enough to know that America is not ready to confront (and therefore not ready to part with) its racist traditions. We have seen a racially motivated mass shooting, the lynching of Jordan Edwards, an act of racial intimidation against a historically black sorority, and the killers of Walter Scott and Alton Sterling evade the consequences for killing innocent black men (not to mention one of them somehow eluding the consequences for obstructing justice). And yet, many Americans will fail to see that these events have a genealogy--that these events are but leaves on the sprawling branches of an immense and old tree of injustice.
To consider each of these events in turn isn’t possible to do in one short article, so let’s just take one: Jordan Edwards. This precious little black boy was leaving a party that had gotten out of hand. A police officer shot at his car with his rifle, killing young Jordan. Why? For what reason? Saying that it was because he was black is too simplistic (although it is true). That officer doesn’t have to personally hate black people in order for that to be true. He killed that little boy like wild game because in America it is normal for the police to try and stop unarmed civilians with bullets, especially certain people in certain neighborhoods (and by certain, I mean black).
It is a simple fact that an officer knows that they’d better have a damn good reason to discharge their firearm in the streets of Beverly Hills; but no such trepidation exists in a neighborhood like Watts, or Harlem, or Ferguson, or Northwest Pasadena, or in the projects of Baltimore or Atlanta. That officer shot that boy because he felt a certain freedom to shoot at a civilian vehicle, a certain freedom he wouldn’t have felt in a different context. And that freedom is the result of an unspoken, implicit cultural value deficit on neighborhoods and people of color.
That freedom to shoot is also the result of the reality that law enforcement officers are usually protected from being tried and punished like any other civilian. That freedom is also the result of the reality that many times, the criminal justice systems and judicial systems often work together to cover up gross violations of justice.
So it’s the network of racial prejudices, police militarism, government corruption, and so on that make up the sum of current racial injustice.
Americans need to come to grips with the fact that this is the type of society we are living in: where people continue to suffer because of the color of their skin, where people are literally hunted by those who have been sworn to serve and protect, and where there are systems and policies in place to protect that social order and those who participate in it and profit from it.
It is time we wake up to the reality that America has yet to live up to its great creeds and songs about liberty, justice, equality, and democracy. It’s time we wake up and realize that the world doesn’t have to be this way, and that people have the power to change things if we resist the current program. But people can’t solve problems they’re unwilling to admit they have.