As we remember the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. today, we can celebrate the vast changes that our country has undergone in the years since his murder in Memphis in 1968. Despite racial incidents in recent years, such as the 2017 Charlottesville riots and the several race riots under President Obama, many of us who are under the age of 50 really have very little concept of just how far America has come in just a few short decades.
I realize that many Americans still feel that the United States is filled with racism and bigotry but that it has merely been driven underground. I don’t mean to disregard their experience and concerns, but driving racism underground is progress in a country where racism used to not only be above ground but institutionalized as both African slavery and later as Jim Crow laws.
On the other hand, many white Americans, myself included, not only are not aware of what many minority members go through on a daily basis, we cannot fully comprehend how they feel when racism rears its ugly head. Many conservatives scoff at the idea of modern racism, but when Republican stalwarts like Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) say that racism still exists, it is harder to ignore.
As a child of the early 70s, I just missed the civil rights era. As a native Georgian, I was closer to the struggle for racial equality in terms of geography than in time. I grew up about 20 miles from the bridge on Ga. Hwy. 172 that crosses over the Broad River near Athens where one of the most infamous incidents of the civil rights struggle occurred. Later, as a college student at the University of Georgia, I would drive across the bridge and past the historical marker that memorialized the murder of Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, a decorated black veteran of WWII who made the mistake of driving past a trio of Klansmen in Athens.
Seven years before I was born, the racists followed the car driven by Penn and two other army officers, catching up to them about 20 miles outside of Athens. The Klansmen fired shotguns into Penn’s car and it careened into a bridge abutment. One of the blasts killed Lt. Col. Penn. After the colonel’s murderers were arrested, an all-white jury in Madison County found them not guilty. In the first case of its kind, Penn’s murderers were retried under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on federal charges of violating Penn’s civil rights by murdering him. Two were found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
What a difference a decade makes. When I started elementary school, I went to a rural school where over the half the class was black. I didn’t know until a long time afterward that if I had been a few years older I would have been in a segregated classroom of white kids. I remember my black schoolmates from those days fondly. Black and white got along well. We didn’t know that we shouldn’t.
But things weren’t totally colorblind. The races usually remained separate outside of school. I remember being taught that we should be friendly and respectful to people of other races, but that we shouldn’t date or marry them because of cultural differences.
In my job as a pilot, I’ve had the opportunity to travel the country and visit many other places where the struggle for civil rights took place. I’ve sat at a replica of the whites-only lunch counter in Wichita where activists staged a sit-in in 1958. I’ve visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where KKK terrorists planted a bomb in 1963 that killed four young black girls who were going to Sunday School. I’ve stood on the National Mall where Rev. King delivered his “I Have A Dream Speech,” telling America that he foresaw a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Fast forward 40 years to when I had my own children. I am proud to say that the new generation has fulfilled Rev. King’s dream. I thought of King’s words when my daughter’s best friend was a little black girl who came to play at our house. My daughter went to visit her friend’s home as well. Likewise, one of my son’s good friends was a boy of Mexican descent whose parents barely spoke English. I think that my children are almost literally colorblind when it comes to race because when I ask them to describe their friends, they seldom mention skin color.
My children are probably less prejudiced than I was at their ages, but I’ve changed as well. I realized years ago that racism was inconsistent with my Bible which teaches me that all are equal in Christ. If people can’t stand to be around people of other races on earth, what will they do in Heaven where believers all colors and creeds will spend eternity together? It is sadly ironic that the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning.
When it comes to love and marriage, I teach my children, as Rev. King said, to prioritize the content of the character over the color of skin. I would prefer that my children marry good, respectable, loving people of other races than “white trash.” As U2 sang, “I believe in the kingdom come when all the colors will bleed into one.”
It is disturbing that a number of Republicans seem to be turning their backs on the “proposition that all men are created equal.” Most recently the ironically-named Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) defended white nationalism and white supremacy and was rightfully censured by his colleagues. President Trump called the participants in the Charlottesville riots “very fine people” even though they were alt-right white nationalists. The discussion of race riots, police killings of black men, and illegal immigration often has racial overtones, such as the fake pictures of Trayvon Martin that circulated on the internet and the false claims about an illegal immigrant crime wave. I recently had a conversation on Twitter with a conservative Christian Trump supporter who denied that the Bible condemned white supremacy. [DT1] [DT2]
One of the most disturbing racial problems in recent years is the conservative response to the killing of Philando Castile, a concealed carry permit holder who was shot and killed by a police officer in Minnesota in 2016. Gun activists and the NRA were largely silent despite the disturbing nature of Castile’s death. At the time, many were quick to dismiss Castile, a school cafeteria manager, as a drug dealer or gang member. I have to ask myself if the reaction would have been the same if Castile had been white. If I’m honest, I have to say “no.”
Things aren’t perfect in America, but they have improved by an astronomical degree since Martin Luther King’s time. Whatever you think of King, a flawed man with human failings (but not a communist), the bottom line is that King was responsible for the largely peaceful transition from an American racial caste system to one of the most racially equal societies on the planet, at least in terms of the law.
But two centuries of racial oppression are not easily undone. While my generation did not see segregation ourselves, I have no doubt that black kids grew up hearing stories from their parents and grandparents about the bad old days of segregation just like I grew up hearing about my ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. It should be understandable that some blacks are still sensitive about slavery and segregation.
It isn’t necessary to be politically correct to be respectful of other races. Being politically incorrect does not mean being impolite or bigoted. The condemnation of Steve King is a step in the right direction for a party that is hemorrhaging minority voters, but ultimately the Republicans should condemn the bigots in their midst because it is the right thing to do, not because it will help them at the polls.
Republicans will claim King as one of their own today, but the modern GOP shouldn’t defend itself by pointing to the actions of past Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln or the 1960s Republicans who helped to pass the Voting Rights Act. Instead, they should recall the words of President Reagan who addressed those “who still adhere to senseless racism and religious prejudice” in 1981.
“To those individuals who persist in such hateful behavior,” Reagan said, “if I were speaking to them instead of to you, I would say to them, 'You are the ones who are out of step with our society. You are the ones who willfully violate the meaning of the dream that is America. And this country, because of what it stands for, will not stand for your conduct.’”
Racism today is so socially unacceptable that even most racists won’t admit that they are racists. That is Martin Luther King’s ultimate victory.
Originally published on The Resurgent