There is no excuse for racism. It is based on ignorance, the sins of previous generations and fear. There is nothing to congratulate him – ever. It is also true that we human beings are forever tribal in our thinking. This is not a bad thing unless it causes us to mistreat those who are not part of our “tribe”.
It’s obvious to anyone who lives in the United States (or anywhere else in the world) that racism is alive and well among us. Progress is painfully slow, especially for those affected, and there are sometimes massive setbacks. Someday I don’t think this will ever go away until we stop talking about it so much. The next day, I think we need to talk more about it to understand its roots and kill the attitudes and structures that support it.
The history of “race relations” in our country is ugly, painful and difficult to watch. What is worse is our tendency to think that we would have behaved differently from those we condemn. We are all products of our culture and environment and to think otherwise is just as ignorant as justly condemned racism.
One thing that I have come to appreciate in my life is the gracious forgiveness that has been repeatedly offered by these groups that have been treated shamefully. There are still violent words (and sometimes violent actions), but the balance has been towards forgiveness and reconciliation.
This Monday, we will celebrate the life of one whose rhetoric was frankly honest and who always sought peace. As so often happens to those who challenge the status quo and seek to maintain peace, his life ended in violence. I’m part of the society that produced both the one who challenged us all and the one who killed himself – we all are.
There was another shocking event in Memphis 93 years before Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. It was about one of the most infamous racists in our history – Nathan Bedford Forrest.
A little background. Life insurance was virtually unknown before the Civil War. After the war it began to be offered in the South, but not to African Americans. Several “mast bearer (bearer) societies” have developed. They were black civic organizations whose main service was to give respectable burials to their members. On another historical note, the old church was also known for this.
In July 1875, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the now repentant and converted founder of the KKK, was invited to speak to the Independent Order Association of Pole Bearers at the annual picnic at the Memphis Fairgrounds. His speech was short. Here is the opening.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern States. I accept it all the more since it is from a colored lady, for if it there’s someone in God’s earth who likes ladies, I think it’s me. (Huge applause and laughter.) I came here under the mockery of some white people, who think I’m doing wrong. that I can wield some influence and do much to help the people strengthen brotherly relations, and I will do everything in my power to uplift everyone, not to bring anyone down.
At the end of his speech, he kissed on the cheek the young woman, Miss Lou Louis, who had given him flowers.
His language borders on the offensive for our current sensitivities. We know that this is a political speech and therefore it must be considered in that light. We also know that Forrest underwent an almost miraculous spiritual conversion, which some consider genuine, and others have serious doubts. I’m amazed the Pole-Bearers Association was kind and forgiving enough to hear it. Afterwards, it is complicated and subject to interpretation.
It is impossible to imagine what those who heard it thought or what they experienced because of what it represented. Such is the nature of things when trying to right great wrongs.
I am grateful to Martin Luther King, Jr. and what he stood for. I am grateful to anyone who has the courage to speak the truth with love. I am grateful for forgiveness, reconciliation and repentance.
For those who may wonder why I (a white man) have to repent of what my ancestors might have done (I know they didn’t because they weren’t there), I don’t just look to Jesus. He was baptized by John the Baptist (a baptism of repentance). He did this, I believe, to identify himself with his people who had sinned. It hurts a bit, but I think I should do the same when it comes to civil rights and eradicating racism.