“Too often, we find ourselves living in monologue rather than dialogue.”
Though this aptly describes our current scene, it was said on March 12, 1961, in a Boston synagogue, by Martin Luther King. Thanks to a long chain of events (see today's blog post), a bunch of us listened to a recording of that speech last Sunday afternoon at Temple Beth-El.
March 1961? Six weeks after Jack Kennedy's Inauguration. Five years and a week before Texas Western (now UTEP) shocks the world by starting five “Negro” players and upsetting Kentucky, and its racist but famous coach, to win the NCAA Basketball Championship.
A Kenyan graduate student and his pregnant white wife, just married in February, haven't a clue that the son who'll be born in August will someday be the 44th President of the United States. In 23 states, they could be arrested and jailed for getting married. March 1961 is six years before the U.S. Supreme Court will decide Loving v. Virginia, striking down a law forbidding “interracial” marriages. If Barack Obama's parents had married in Virginia or Texas, not in Hawaii, they could have been sentenced to a year in prison.
King discusses “whether there has been any real progress” in race relations. He notes “there are three possible answers: “the extreme optimism” that points proudly to “marvelous strides” and concludes “we can sit down now comfortably by the wayside and wait” for the inevitable equality; the “extreme pessimism” that calls those strides “minor,” notes the insurgence of the KKK and the White Citizens Council in the South, and concludes “that we have retrogressed rather than progressed” and that “there can be no progress” in race relations; and “the realistic position” that “combines the truths” of the first two positions but avoids their extremes. He concludes, “We have come a long, long way” but “We have a long, long way to go.”
He adds, “To put it figuratively in biblical language, we have broken loose from the Egypt of slavery Editand we have moved through the wilderness of segregation and now we stand on the border of the Promised Land of integration. Now the great challenge facing the nation is to move on.”
I recall those times. I recall how strange the neatly dressed young black men “sitting-in” seemed to most whites. Nonviolently, they integrated lunch counters in more than 100 southern cities. I recall that even in my northern high school, Italians and blacks were at odds. When a white girl dated a black boy, the principal called her parents to make sure they knew. That angered a few of us. In August 1965, just back from going south in the civil rights movement, I was drinking beers with our softball team. A black man briefly came into the bar to buy cigarettes and one of my teammates muttered “Nigger!” under his breath. When I spoke up, I nearly got attacked by my own teammates.
March 1961 was a pause along a steep mountain path with a lot of switchbacks and the usual mix of grand “Aha!” views and weariness.
“Are we there yet?”
No, but despite a racist president we have made even greater strides. Integration is mostly assumed; but equality is still somewhere around the bend. Some day, people will wonder what the fuss was ever about. But today, as in March 1961, that's a future we cannot assume, but must struggle for.
[The above column appeared this morning, Sunday, 18 February 2018, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG's website. A spoken version will air during the week both on KRWG and on KTAL-LP, 101.5 FM.]
[How we happened to listen to this "lost" speech involved the Rabbi who had invited King to speak that day, and Frances Williams. King was invited to speak at Temple Emanuel, in Worcester, Massachusetts, by Rabbi Joseph Klein, who'd served as Rabbi there since 1949 and would continue until his retirement in 1977, when he became Rabbi Emeritus. Still in 1977, he then became the first Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Las Cruces, where he remained until 1984. He was well acquainted with Frances Williams, and respected her work; and when she gave him a YEI Indian Rug, he wanted to give her something special in return, and gave her the tape of the MLK speech. Long afterward, when she had extra time, she dug it out and got it enhanced by a friend. The listening was enhanced by a video made of various stills from the time, and a choral group sang before and afterward, and some folks talked about the history of the speech and about its meaning today, and there were refreshments and lots of nice people.]
[Anti-miscegenation laws. Most or all states had 'em at some point. New Mexico had one from 1857 to 1866. Many such laws forbade "whites" to marry not only "blacks" but Asians and "nonwhites," which I assume included Indians and Mexicans. New Mexico's extend only to blacks. Ten states rescinded such laws in the 19th Century. Fourteen (including California, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona) did so only during 1948-1967, before Loving. That court decision overruled the anti-miscegenation statutes in 23 states, including Texas (where the laws extended to other nonwhites). A 24th state, Maryland, where the law even prevented marriages between blacks and Filipinos, only rescinded its law while the Loving case was in progress, in response to that case.
So New Mexico was a star; but before we get too self-congratulatory, consider a bit of history mentioned by NMSU Professor Bobbie Greene: in 1939, when the first black woman to graduate from NMSU was there, state law required that she sit outside the classroom! Although some of her professors (perhaps risking a possible criminal citation) let her sit inside their classrooms, but the law was what it was.
Looking at the history of those laws, one key fact stands out: that from 1877 until well into the 20th Century, no such laws were repealed and several, repealed in southern states during Reconstruction, were reinstated. Virginia had strengthened its law in 1924. One more bit of evidence of how far we slid back once Reconstruction ended -- which resulted partly from another cliffhanger (and allegedly stolen) Presidential election in 1876.]
[Obviously we have come an incredible distance from March 1961. But we will not be "there" yet until skin color means as little -- and can be commented on as naturally as -- hair color or the color of a man's suit or a woman's dress, or where you went to college. We will not be "there" yet until kids are all gradations of human coloring and no one feels a need to classify someone a little dark-complected as anything. We will not be "there" yet until none of us feel the impulse, referring to a professor or deliveryman or citizen who made a speech at a city council meeting as "the black professor" or "this black woman got up and said . . ." unless skin-color is directly material to the subject the person teaches or was talking about. When no one is in the least surprised every by a couple who are of mixed ethnicity. And when cops are not startled to see a black man walking in a neighborhood with expensive homes in it. (As to that last, right now it's perhaps wroth noting that while profiling is wrong, and I was furious that my closest friend at the law firm in San Francisco, a friend I'd gone to law school with, was questioned by police in his own driveway, washing his own car, because he was black and the car was a pretty cool one, at the same time if you're a cop, you're meant to be alert, and the natural tendency to include ethnicity in the factors that go into an almost instantaneous assessment of a situation may represent not "racism" but the nature of the unequal world in which we find ourselves.)]
Note: What follows is an email I received in response to the above column. I insert it here (without the writer's name because I haven't had a chance yet to ask him whether that's all right) not for the undeserved compliments but for his summary of his own background, and particularly the role the Gospels played in developing his character and consciousness. It feels particularly welcome because with regard to gun issues today (following the latest school massacre) my suggestions of some reasonable responsive steps have been met by comments from other friends that the problem isn't the guns but the move away from a deeply Christian society. (Haven't yet gotten a good answer to the question of "Okay, assuming we need to get everybody back on the Christian track, could we, until we accomplish that, take some sensible steps?")
Thanks Peter, for the long term dedication to helping us move toward peace. It seems like the move is away from peace right now, but I think you all will prevail.
My parents were Virginian by birth, my dad being raised in Baltimore (slums), my mom being raised in an isolated hollow in in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My dad said very little, but showed us how to live an honest, decent life. My mom was fearful and hot tempered. Both were always aware of the wolf at the door. Since we lived in a remote mining camp in Colorado, the issues of race were not really present. We had northern European, Mediterranean, Hispanic (Mexican) and Indigenous (Ute) neighbors and they were mostly kind people, with a background of poverty (our parents were WW1, Great Depression and WW2/Korean War survivors). It wasn't until I lived in the Southeast, that I actually saw what the social conflicts were all about.
Fortunately I received a pocket size New Testament in the military (pre Vietnam thank God). The 4 Gospels more or less came to be the standard I looked at when I judged my own actions or assessed what I saw around me. So I managed to live peacefully with my neighbors down through the years. Over the years, though I noticed a schism develop in society. It seemed to me the black churches were doing a better job of teaching than the "white" ones. Indeed the very presence of "black and white" churches flew into the face of the 4 Gospels. And I knew it wasn't the black churches that were driving the segregation.
The upshot of all this was I drifted along at peace with my neighbor, voting but not civically active until around 2000. By then I felt reasonably confident that I understood what was going on. It became apparent I needed to do a bit more than I had been doing. It was then I began to become acquainted with people like yourself who had seen the problems decades before and had been "fighting the good fight" all along. If people like you hadn't been persistent, I'd have been adrift when I finally figured out I should be doing more.
Thanks very much for your persistent efforts!