VIEW VIDEO Tomorrow we’re celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a fitting time to honor the life of a moral pioneer, who helped the world perceive the insidious evil of racism and pointed all of us, black and white alike, to a promised land of racial justice. It is a land not yet realized, but every day, in many and various ways, many people labor and pray to make it a reality.
I remember, with almost perfect recall, when I didn’t want to be racist anymore. A college student, home for the summer, visited our home selling magazines and my parent’s signed up for Time magazine. As part of the deal, they received a book of photographs made famous in the pages of Time. One of the pictures showed a 25-year-old black man named Roosevelt Townes, chained to a tree and burnt to death with a blow torch by a mob of 500 white men, women, and children on April 13, 1937, in Duck Hill, Mississippi. It was the first picture of a lynching ever shown in a national magazine and created a firestorm of protest, inspiring an effort to pass a federal anti-lynching law, which eventually failed in the Senate when the southern senators, apparently wanting the freedom to lynch as many black people as they wished, refused to lend their support. Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana declared, “We shall at all cost preserve the white supremacy of America.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was 8 years old.
Sickened by that picture, I decided then and there I didn’t want to be racist. I didn’t want to tell jokes about black people. I didn’t want to assume the worst about black people or be suspicious of them. I didn’t want to be friends with racist people. I didn’t want white people to have one set of laws and black people another. I remember that moment precisely, sitting on the couch in our living room, looking at that sickening picture, deciding then and there I didn’t want to be racist anymore.
Senator Ellender’s sentiment from 1937 can still be found. Too many Americans are determined to preserve the white supremacy of America. A study of the January 6th insurrectionists by the University of Chicago revealed many of the insurrectionists lived in areas of the country where white people were a minority. Motivated by a conspiracy theory called the Great Replacement Theory, they, like the white supremacists and anti-Semites at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, were determined to see white people, as we become a minority, nevertheless hold onto power by any means necessary, including violence. Just as in 1937, certain senators and representatives today refuse to do the right and decent thing and investigate the January 6th insurrection, dismissing the violence and racism as peaceful patriotism. Roosevelt Townes was murdered in 1937, but in some corners of our country, it might as well have been yesterday. Let’s remember that though a Capitol police officer was killed on January 6th, over a year later not one person has been charged with murder. Whiteness has its privileges.
Here is what I have learned. I have learned that deciding not to be racist in no ways removes the vestiges of racism within me. Patterns and principles learned at an early age, still raise their hand within me, still inhabit my mind, still persist. I still feel more comfortable around people who look like me and share my history, and to this day, some 50 years after seeing that picture, still catch myself thinking thoughts I do not want to think and feeling feelings I do not want to feel. Racism is tenacious. Once it is established, it is nearly impossible to grub out.
I do not speak today with a sense of moral triumph, having conquered this most pernicious of human sins. I speak as one fully in its grip, caring less than I should care, doing less than I should do, often lacking the courage to do the bare requirements of justice when I encounter injustice. I thought when I decided not to be racist that I was done with the matter, not realizing I was only beginning. I have learned that in America, we are never truly post-racist. But we can be aware, we can be cognizant of our racial failings and our cultural privileges and strive to correct them.
For too long the church in America has been complicit in racism, has lent divine endorsement to the ungodly stain of prejudice. Far too often the most egregious racism has been cloaked in piety and prayer, perverting the gospel of Jesus Christ, a man of color. But then as Oscar Wilde said, “Irony is lost on the stupid.”
Speaking of absurdities, let’s return to the Great Replacement Theory, the most current iteration of malignant ignorance. After the 2010 census, we were told that by the mid-2020s, white people would be a minority in our country. Because I wasn’t troubled by that, I failed to realize how frightening it would be to some. Not for the first time in my life I underestimated the power of hatred married to fear. Now, in the words of white supremacists, we white people are being “replaced.” The structures of power are shifting as our population shifts. Those who have abused power, those who have used their power and privilege to keep others down, now fear the same will happen to them as they become a minority. Those who have wielded the sword of intolerance, now fear they will die from it.
The gospel has its own replacement theory, that swords should be replaced with plowshares. Let this be our hope on the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, that the swords of prejudice and exclusion can be replaced with the plowshares of love and inclusion. It is our duty as Quakers to make it so, to not fear replacement, but to welcome it. Replace ignorance with enlightenment. Replace injustice with justice. Replace the patterns and principles learned at an early age, with the dawning awareness of our own privilege and our sincere and dogged effort to extend those privileges to all. Let us not fear a great replacement. Instead, let us pray for it. Let us yearn for this Great Replacement as we have never yearned for anything. It is long past time for swords to be replaced with plowshares.