Even if there were no national holiday honoring the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I would still hope that this event would be recognized and reevaluated each year in our churches. The Civil Rights Movement began in the church - and it was a profoundly religious - spiritual - experience, continuing what the Emancipation Proclamation had begun 100 years earlier. Sadly, more than thirty years after Dr. King’s gospel gripped the conscience of our nation, the dream still has not yet been completely fulfilled for all.
For many years now I’ve kept a file on social justice issues - or, rather, injustice issues. Every few months I’d drop in another article - the file grew at a reasonable rate. But a few years ago it virtually exploded, beginning with the action of the University of California to rescind Affirmative Action, and with that state’s parallel Proposition 187, which denied public services to illegal immigrants. I say parallel action, because the current uproar against immigrants - even legal immigrants - is first and foremost thinly disguised racism, targeted primarily at Hispanics. It worked: minority enrollment in both California and Texas law schools has virtually bottomed-out.
I’ve long considered California to be a bellwether state on sociological matters, and it hasn’t taken the rest of the nation long to catch up. Declaring the emergence of a Black middle class to be sufficient is the grounds used to do away with all forms of Affirmative Action. Yet the Census Bureau reports that the median family income of African American families has not increased appreciably in 25 years: despite the good fortunes of some, the poor are poorer than ever. Truth to tell, it is the white households which have benefited the most: white women have been the major benefactors of the affirmative action program, and yet even our salaries are not at parity with our male counterparts.
Today many young black males in our inner cities have no dreams at all. Think about that. Those in my generation grew up believing ourselves immortal and invincible. While our children, unfortunately, grew up under the threatening cloud of nuclear war, they were still not preoccupied every day with thoughts of death rather than life. Yet now many inner-city youngsters grow up convinced that they will not live to adulthood. They have no hope. They dare not dream beyond the moment, knowing how many of their friends have already died in the senseless, random violence that has already claimed more lives that all of the infamous KKK lynch mobs combined.
Two years ago, while exploring the implications and expectations of Jesse Jackson’s “Politics of Fear” summit meeting on the problem, Jim Lehrer interviewed a young man on the causes of black-on-black violence. He laid it to self-esteem, saying “If I don’t like and respect myself, I might not harm someone of a different color, yet I would not think twice about harming someone who looks just like me. We are of little worth - we are disposable.” Without jobs - real jobs with real futures and real benefits - welfare reform can accomplish little except to fuel our propensity to blame the victim. Our country’s business and industrial leaders must rise above narrow corporate concerns to establish such jobs, and our government must provide the incentives for them to do so. With jobs...with relevant education...will come self esteem.
Where do we UUs stand in all this? Historically, it’s been three steps forward and one step back. While there were many northern Unitarians actively supporting abolition in the pre-Civil War days, others - especially merchants - were ambivalent. Their own fortunes were derived from the South’s cotton crop... literally, a slave-driven industry. Some years ago Mark Morrison-Reed, now co- minister of our Toronto congregation, chronicled our history in race relations in his thought-provoking book, “Black Pioneers in a White Denomination.” Mark cries openly when he tells of one black minister, a convert from another denomination, who was told bluntly that he’d better bring along his own congregation if he ever planned to serve a UU church.
Racial diversity has been a priority national interest for UUs for several years now, with major “Jubilee World” workshops conducted in every district. One will be held in Norfolk next Saturday, if any of you are able to attend. Despite increased scholarship funds targeting minority students, at present there are only a handful of African American ministers settled in our congregations - only two in our larger churches. Unable to find accepting congregations, others now serve as interim or community ministers, or have accepted positions on the staffs of UUA or the Service Committee.
Sometimes we’re only thoughtless. But it this day and age, such thoughtless- ness is not excusable or acceptable. When General Assembly was held here in the Thomas Jefferson district, delegates were invited to a Jefferson ball and asked to dress in appropriate costumes. Our black delegates boycotted the ball: Jefferson was a slave holder, and appropriate costumes for them would be chains and rags. Four years ago a major preaching seminar was held in Indianapolis. The planning committee accepted an offer by a white woman to teach black preaching techniques, not stopping to consider that we had African American ministers better qualified to teach that unit.
Two years ago at Ministry Days in Indianapolis, clergy were asked to stand if they had ever been stopped by the police for DWB: driving while black. All of my African American colleagues stood. And the response was identical when we were asked how many had ever been followed by store detectives as potential shop lifters. It was a sobering moment; a terrifying moment.
So, is there any hope that King’s dream can ever be realized? That the evils of racism can really be exorcised? I hope there is, and I welcome this memorial occasion, if only that it affords an opportunity to examine racism and admit our own complicity. Estimates are that only 10-20 percent of North Americans are entirely free of prejudice in any form I suspect that figure is overly generous. I suspect that many of us here today harbor some negative images of and resentment towards at least one group different from ourselves. I suspect that, if for some reason our privileged status were seriously threatened, some of us would displace our fears and frustrations on others.
Kay Montgomery, Executive Vice President of the UUA, has a term for it: she calls the gap between our liberal intellectual understanding and our emotional or internalized reactions “heart lag.” Heart lag can occur when you look up and find that your ER physician is from Pakistan. Heart lag can happen when you note that your Hispanic neighbor drives a more expensive car than you can afford. Heart lag is working when your throat tightens in fear at the sight of several black teenage boys hanging out at night near your street corner. Heart lag has already happened if you only lock your car doors when driving through certain neighbor- hoods. I suspect that most of us who are over forty suffer from heart lag on some occasion...the civil rights movement in this country is not yet two generations old.
But does this mean that prejudice and the hostility it too often engenders are inevitable? Freud’s theories of aggression would appear to support such a view. Yet, on examination, his examples are far from conclusive. The young child asserting ownership of a toy is doing merely that - there is no deliberate intent to harm another child in the process. The theories about prejudice are numerous and complex. One authority or another will emphasize economic factors, social class or status, population density, scapegoating or even sexuality.
It’s been pointed out that racism as an expression of group prejudice is a fairly recent phenomenon. Some would date it to the late 18th century when the U.S. and French revolutions toppled traditional class distinctions. Others would see the growing influence of science over religion as the turning point - certainly in western culture the antipathy towards both Jews and blacks was originally on religious grounds. Jews were labeled Christ killers, while blacks were believed to be the descendants of Ham, cursed for all time by Noah for disclosing his nakedness. While remnants of this mentality still linger today, much more ammunition has been supplied by natural and social scientists whose own prejudices have biased their claims of racial inferiority for certain non-Aryan groups.
A few years ago a new version of this insidious mindset resurfaced with the book, “The Bell Curve,” which claimed that the difference in black/white intelligence scores is genetic and thus it is a waste of time and money to try to achieve significant improvement through education. Fortunately, a more scholarly work on human genetics has also been published which proves through blood typing that racial differences are literally only skin deep - adaptations for climactic factors with no significant bearing on other traits.
The most definitive studies on western prejudices were done some years ago by Gordon Allport, a psychology professor at Harvard. Allport carefully analyzed prevailing theories on prejudice and, while acknowledging that each formed part of the picture, found them all to be lacking in major ways in explaining prejudice. His view is that prejudice is not inherent, but taught. A child may adopt and internalize prejudice directly from his or her parents or local culture.
Studies prior to the civil rights movement showed that both black and white pre- school children would select a white doll as “prettier” - that was even one of the questions for preschoolers on an intelligence test! Perhaps even more significant is the finding that children of highly authoritarian or abusive parents tend to acquire prejudice as an outlet to displace frustration and hostility. As we have noted, the person with low self-esteem has no self-love and, therefore, cannot love others. Hatred develops from long-standing frustration, anger and disappointment. Alice Miller’s detailed analysis of Hitler’s tortured and traumatic childhood gives ample evidence to the root of his later crimes against humanity. Yet Hitler’s childhood was different only in degree from that considered the norm in the Germany of his day.
It makes an enormous difference when we understand that prejudice is a learned attitude or response. For something learned can be unlearned - it can be changed and corrected once it is recognized and challenged. Yet it would be incredibly naive to think that change will come easily. Prejudice - even racial prejudice - is not a new phenomenon. Its roots go deep; its ugliness touches all of us in some way. While we’ve been busy developing unflattering stereotypes of minority groups, they’ve been developing stereotypic judgments of us, as well. In many cases we’ve forced people to become what we say they are- an example of self-fulfilling prophecy. And once again we blame the victims to justify our own actions and beliefs.
I have in my files a deeply troubling article by Dave Von Drehle of the Washington Post. In examining the racial tensions in cities like New York and Detroit, he notes that the veneer of optimism regarding civil rights and racial harmony so prevalent twenty five years ago has all but evaporated. Despite the real advances of many African Americans in politics and the professions, Von Drehle holds that all blacks, not just those millions left stranded in the inner cities, have been dispossessed and robbed of their full humanity insofar as Americans have failed to recognize and celebrate the extent of the influence of black culture on our joint history. In our schools, especially, it is critical to think beyond Martin Luther King Day and Black History month. It is critical that so-called black studies be integrated into the fabric of this nation’s history and culture for all to recognize.
It’s important to be reminded of how far we still have to go. It’s important not to be come complacent while others would erode the gains of the past four decades. Mel Hoover, director of the UUA Office of Racial and Cultural Diversity, defines racism as prejudice coupled with institutional discrimination. And it won’t go away until we change the system. With that in mind, last year our UU congregations were asked to conduct a diversity audit as part of the “Journey Towards Wholeness” adult curriculum. I commend this congregation for its long involvement in the community’s interfaith Martin Luther King birthday celebration. And I’m sure you’ll support the efforts of the planning committee to incorporate a racial tolerance unit in Dare County school curricula.
By far our finest hour as a denomination was in March, 1965 when hundreds of UUs responded to King’s call to the nation’s churchgoers to witness this struggle to literally save democracy. James Reeb, a UU minister, was murdered as a result of that struggle. I didn’t go to Selma. As a single parent, I believed that my first responsibility was to safeguard my own children. But friends of mine did go, and many of them also had young children. Some of them were jailed in Alabama, and their careers suffered as a consequence. In retrospect I know I took the easy, expedient way - I let someone else fight the battle and take the risks. I was one of the silent ones responsible for, in the opinion of Edmund Burke, the breeding of evil. The virus of racism.
Sometimes good intentions are not enough. Sometimes there’s no substitute for direct action. What began in the churches must continue to thrive within these same churches. If we do not commit ourselves to this cause, the Martin Luther King holiday becomes an empty observance - one predicted by the poet Carl Wendell Hines, Jr., who wrote: “Now that he is safely dead, let us praise him; build monuments to his glory; sing hosannas to his name. Dead men make such convenient heroes; they cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion from their lives. And besides, it is easier to build monuments than to make a better world. So, now that he is safely dead, we, with eased conscience, will teach our children that he was a great man...knowing that the cause for which he lived is still a cause, and the dream for which he died is still a dream. A dead man’s dream.”
It is up to us to give that dream new life...to rekindle it for each new generation. There is so much more that each of us can do. Perhaps this may be the year we reach the mountain top together. Amen