Opening Words & Sermon delivered Jan., 18, 2015 in Huntington, NY for MLK weekend
Since joining a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship roughly 15 years ago, I have spent every year around this time in a service devoted to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. UUs love to remember Dr. King and well we should take time to honor a remarkable individual who led a revolutionary movement for civil rights. However, I think sometimes these services become feel good services. We mention how our ministers flocked to Selma in 1965, we talk about losing minister Rev. James Reeb and Viola Gregg Liuzzo in those marches. We quote some of King’s powerful speeches and we affirm our belief in equality and justice for all people. But what do we do next?
In 1966 Rev. Dr. King was the speaker at our UU General Assembly. General Assembly is the annual gathering of UUs and the Ware lecture is the lecture held in highest regard among all the lectures and workshops taking place the week of GA. The Ware lecture is always delivered by someone who is not a UU and in 1966 that someone was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King titled his lecture “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution”. In his lecture, which you can access online through the UUA website, he spoke of the special role churches and places of worship have in the fight for equality. Rev. Dr. King said “Certainly the church has a great responsibility because when the church is true to its nature, it stands as a moral guardian of the community and of society. It has always been the role of the church to broaden horizons, to challenge the status quo, and to question and break mores if necessary. I’m sure that we all agree that the church has a major role to play in this period of social change.“(end quote)
Dr. King went on to give a list of actions the church should take to remain awake and engaged, one of which was a call to action saying, “It is not enough for the church to work in the ideological realm, and to clear up misguided ideas. To remain awake through this social revolution, the church must engage in strong action programs to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination. “ (end quote)
In recent months news stories of police brutality targeting African Americans have become prominent. The deaths of Mike Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island have sparked conversation and social action through marches and blockades. Protestors around the country have taken on a “shut it down” approach to their demonstrations, often blocking highways and in the case of NYC managing to shut down bridges and train stations for a short time. Why this action? Simply put, so we would finally pay attention. The disruptions of day to day life force us to have a conversation about race.
It is my hope that today’s service will inspire you to action. There are moments in the service that may be uncomfortable. If so, may that discomfort keep each of us awake during this revolution. We are needed and as Rev. Dr. King reminded us in 1966, as a congregation we have a great responsibility in the work for justice.
Coming from the South, I wasn’t prepared for the racism of the North. I grew up in a sundown town, a town indicating in ugly words that blacks were not to be caught out after dark. There was a sign in our town saying so until the early 80s. An hour drive from my childhood home would take you to the location of the grandmaster of the KKK. I grew up in schools with white kids until high school where there were a handful of black kids and growing numbers of Latinos. I know what the sounds and sights of Southern racism are. They do not hide. They are in signs in small towns, nasty words spoken aloud, and declarations of pride around only knowing other whites. It’s glaring and in your face.
It was easy to believe growing up that the North was free of racism. Cities like New York with all their diversity had to be better than the rural South. It was a belief I held onto well into adulthood. I suppose I knew better when I thought about it, but I didn’t want to think about it.
We moved here two weeks after Eric Garner was murdered in an illegal choke hold maneuver by the NYPD in Staten Island. Days later Mike Brown’s death in Missouri made headlines and social media sites erupted with more data about racial profiling, lethal force, and cracks in our judicial system.
I started having heated debates with family members back in Arkansas about racism and the police. Then found myself scrambling for words to explain to other white liberals why we needed to pay attention and figure out how to listen to people of color tell us their story. I sat shocked when people on my Facebook page complained at how much I was posting about this stuff. I kept reminding myself that as a white person I could easily not focus on these issues but my UU values told me I must continue to speak out, to listen to the stories of people of color. I am still trying to learn how to be a better ally and how to best work for justice and change.
We’ve gone from Selma to Ferguson. Ferguson has come to be the sounding word to mean all the black lives lost unnecessarily. It represents not just the case of Mike Brown but numerous instances when African Americans have been profiled, harassed, assaulted, and the victim of lethal force. Ferguson is still happening.
Sandwiched in between Selma and Ferguson is 50 years of institutionalized racism; Institutionalized racism meaning racism happening in institutions such as schools and prisons and happening in systems of business and government. This is the less obvious kind, less obvious unless you are a person of color. As a white person I have the privilege to ignore these inequalities. In fact, as a white person, I have never suffered this kind of discrimination and it can even be hard to believe when you hear about it happening. For 50 years a system of racism has been so well established in this country that most of this in this room we have to struggle to see it.
We have been drinking the poisoned waters of racism our entire lives. We struggle to talk about racism without feeling racist. We are so entrenched in a system of inequality that while we no longer have legal segregation we self-segregate. I recently read a report from the Civil Rights Project released in 2014 discussing trends in segregation in public school systems in the United States. The most segregated schools in our country are right here in New York. No one does this overtly. It is part of a larger structure of how race and poverty are tied to one another. The new form of white flight seems to be whites searching for the best schools for their kids which land them in nearly to all white schools, in nearly to all white neighborhoods.
This summer when the grand juries for both Mike Brown and Eric Garner decided not to indict, we began to realize something was off about the system.
While institutionalized racism feels like we are still doing much better than we were before the work of Rev. Dr. King, I am not convinced. I will go as far as to say I am worried that as long as we allow oppression and discrimination to become part of the system, institutionalized, we will always come to another Ferguson.
A system of privatized prisons, militarized police, and schools where we see a higher percentage of black students expelled than white students each year will continue to lead us to the glaring racism we used to only associate with the south. We cannot escape it without a system overhaul and each one of us has to be willing to be awake and engaged.
What can we do? This echoes in our minds. It is normal to feel overwhelmed and hopeless. What can we do?
We can question whether or not systems are fair. We can question the way we use words like urban, inner city, thug, and riot We can choose to think about our friend group and whether or not we truly are friends with people who do not look like us. We can make efforts to ensure we seek out doctors, lawyers, and other professionals in communities of color. We can work with local groups to figure out how we can work for healing here in NY, in the City and on Long Island. We can write letters and make phone calls to government officials. We can keep taking steps to stay awake during the revolution unfolding around us.
A quote often misattributed to Dr. King that was actually first said by Unitarian Theodore Parker is “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice”. There will be no short cuts. There is no easy fix. It is messy. It is work that will take time, but it requires our full attention to overcome injustice.