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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Where do we go from here?

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“These eight days will be the longest month I’ve ever spent.” So reads a recent tweet referring to next week’s presidential election. Not only is America on the eve of said election; it is on the precipice of what one observer has called “a soft civil war.”

That is not hyperbole. When domestic terrorists — emboldened by the president — plot to kidnap a sitting governor, the “unthinkable” becomes “thinkable.” Similarly, that president encourages people who are prone to violence to “watch” polling places — and to “stand back and stand by.” When the lowest morality comes from the highest office, the risk of civil war metastasizes from preposterous to plausible.

I have always supported Joe Biden’s presidential bid. History suggests that only a compassionate, centrist, older white man could help to bridge our racial divides. Presidents cannot — by themselves — heal America’s deepest wounds. But the right president can apply psychological salve to them.

America’s greatest prophet, Martin Luther King, gave compelling voice to those wounds. King’s final book is “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Published a year after his assassination, King’s prescient words easily apply to today. For example, consider how the following aligns with what happened following the Obama presidency:

“A year (after the Voting Rights Act), the white backlash had become an emotional electoral issue in California, Maryland and elsewhere. In several Southern states men long regarded as political clowns had become governors or only narrowly missed election, their magic achieved with… bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and whole lies… Many of us wept at the funeral services for the dead and for democracy.”

King understood that democracy is a living organism. Thus, he correctly asserted that it could die — just as he recognized that his “dream” had. Consider further what King wrote about the Watts rebellion in light of Black Lives Matter and today’s civil unrest:

“A simple explanation holds that Negroes rioted in Watts, the voice of Black Power was heard through the land and the white backlash was born; the public became infuriated and sympathy evaporated. This (easy) explanation founders, however, on the hard fact that the change in (white people’s) mood had preceded Watts and the Black Power slogan. Moreover, the white backlash had always existed underneath and sometimes on the surface of American life… The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.”

I have just one more quotation. As King sat in a telephone-less room in Jamaica so that he could focus his thoughts, his pessimism pours from the page:

“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity… (White America) has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken. Laws are passed in a crisis mood… but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law in itself is treated as the reality of the reform.”

For the past several years, I have publicly criticized many people (including elected officials) who invoke King’s name during the celebration of his birthday. Too many people who think, feel and act in ways that are completely contrary to King engage in the sick and sad charade of quoting one line from just one of his speeches. Their views are not his views; their actions are not his actions. Yet, the charade continues. As we await King’s birthday (and a presidential inauguration) in January 2021, I am hopeful that our nation will have heeded his warning. 

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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