There is reported evidence of a shooting of one black man by white police officers every ten days over the last year in the United States. Public officials like to point to 'how far we have come' in race relations following the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King prior to his death. In his challenging and inspiring work, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken includes a passage from Stewart Burns' To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America*
that portrays the South in the mid 1950's as background to the Rosa Parks' act of civil disobedience in refusing to move to the back of the bus when asked by the bus driver:
...a that time, the segregated South was a different place from what it is today. Behind the mannerly speech and outward politeness was a heightened tension that was conveyed in the body language, in the eyes, and in any number of dismissive gestures. And beneath it ran an even deeper current, one of latent and explosive violence, even mayhem. Months before, in Mississippi, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till had unintentionally whistled at a white woman shopkeeper (he had a speech defect from polio) and was lynched three nights later by a party led by the woman's husband. He was mutilated, castrated, and shot, his skull crushed beyond recognition. The lynch mob was arrested, tried, and set free. This incident, though highly publicized, was not anomalous; there had been on average one lynching per week in the ninety-year-period since Reconstruction.
As Hawken also reports, on December 5, 1955, the same day as Rosa Parks' court appearance, Dr. King, at a community meeting to decide whether to proceed with the boycott, delivered his first civil rights speech, after only thirty minutes to prepare. The speech, a foreshadowing of his "I have a Dream Speech" later, is worth remembering in light of the recent spate of shootings of black men by white law enforcement officers. The lynching may be gone, the mutilation and castration may be gone, but have the bullets replaced them, leaving the racial bigotry and the power imbalance untouched?
Here is a refresher on the King homily courtesy of Hawken:
There comes a time. (long pause) There comes a time when people get tired---tired of being segregated and humiliated, tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression. We had no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we like the way we are being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice. (longer pause) One of the great glories of democracy is the right to protest for right. The white Citizen's Council and the Ku Klux Klan are protesting for the perpetuation of injustice in the community. We are protesting for the birth of justice in the community. Their methods lead to violence and lawlessness. But in our protest there will be no cross burnings. No white person will be taken from his home by a hooded Negro and brutally murdered. There will be no threats and intimidation. Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. We will only say to the people:
"Let your conscience be your guide." Our actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating ideal. Once again we must hear the word of Jesus echoing across the centuries. "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you." (The audience in on its feet shouting affirmatively.) If we fail to do this our protest will end up as meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame. In spite of the mistreatment that we have confronted, we must not become bitter and end up hating our white brothers. As Booker T. Washington said: "Let no man pull you down so low as to make you hate him." (The audience is cheering and shouting.) If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations the historians will have to pause and say, "There lived a great people--a black people-- who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization." That is our challenge an our overwhelming responsibility.**
We wish and earnestly hope that in the current racial unrest, imbalance of power and unwarranted killings of black men and the ensuing protests, the United States could find a voice that could and would emulate, echo and enhance the rhetoric and the leadership that we heard from Dr. King.
*(San Francisco: Harper, 2004, p.19)
**Paul Hawken, ibid, p 81-2, from Steven Millner, The Montgomery Bus Boycott: A Case Study in the Emergence and Career of a Social Movement, in The Walking City, The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-56, ed. David Garrow (New York: Carlson, 1989), p. 461