A Greater Readiness: Attuning our Lives to Racial Justice

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Kyle Lantz, Social Concerns Seminars Assistant Director, April 13, 2018.

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation,” (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis, TN. April 3, 1968).

Has there ever been a time in our young nation’s history when these words did not ring true? In recent days, we have witnessed a group of young people mobilize hundreds of thousands to “march for their lives,” pressing leaders to act in response to mass shootings to which we’ve grown uncomfortably accustomed. We have watched women rise up, boldly demanding greater equality and an end to structural violence. We have seen DACA recipients and migrant workers risk everything, even separation from their family, to urge us to do better. We have observed the Black Lives Matter movement, NFL player protests, and advocacy on the local level calling us all to a more racially and economically just society.

These collective voices are singing a similar chorus and challenging us to make America what it ought to be. We must listen to the song and consider how we can harmonize together toward a community of action built on the common good.

This justice song is nothing new. Fifty years ago this month, on April 3, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. shared the words above to a crowd rallying support for the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee. He was murdered the following evening. Dr. King was joining his voice to the choir’s, belting out a call for dignity in the face of dehumanization. Fifty years later, we remember the day a leading voice of hope was silenced.

In the 60s we saw the murders of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton. Today, the names are different. We remember Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and (too) many more whose lives have been cut short because of hatred.

Pausing to remember lives lost, as we did this April 4th,  is indeed an important thing. Reflecting upon where we have been and where we are is essential to knowing where we are going. But we must ask: are days of remembrance and memorials enough to sustain us in the hard work of creating a society in which the common good is our common aim? Does remembering the injustices of the past and present move us to protect the most vulnerable among us, give the oppressed center stage, and prioritize the human dignity of every person? To maintain this kind of focus we need the “greater readiness” and “greater determination” King spoke of.

In March, I had the privilege of traveling with 16 students to Chicago, Ferguson, and St. Louis as part of a Social Concerns Seminar exploring the current “Realities of Race” in America. This one credit course took shape three years ago when we could no longer ignore the signs of the times.

Through this seminar, we seek to humbly listen, learn, and lend our voices to the song that cries out for unity. For some of us, this experience opened our eyes to racial injustice we had ignored or been shielded from due to modern day versions of racial segregation. Many of us have not been meaningfully connected to the lives and stories of whole communities of people. Additionally, some in our group could bear witness to their own experiences of racial discrimination. This conversation, I believe, is important in order for us to be active citizens who pursue justice with a keen awareness of history and present realities. Without being informed by those on the front lines of racial justice and reconciliation, and without really hearing (and believing) stories of despair and of hope, it is impossible to maintain “a greater readiness” for lasting change.

It is not an easy conversation. Through this seminar we work diligently to establish dialogue characterized by trust and humility. We do not settle for the oft observed discourse fraught with misunderstanding, one-sided rants, and hatred. This time of deep listening and conversation in the midst of a community of trust gives us wisdom and discernment to navigate a way forward.

It must be said, however, that while the conversation is an essential element for racial justice it is only one element, and not the end goal. Dr. King reminds us that “it’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”

The point of the seminar is to pursue a conversation that opens us all up to a new way of seeing the world and encourage a new way to live in that world as engaged people. We intentionally pursue a kind of active citizenship that is “ready” and “determined” to make our communities more just. We want to embody a hard earned, resilient, active hope—the kind Dr. King called “a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

For it was not only King challenging us to action 50 years ago. In a statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on April 25, 1968, the bishops reflected on efforts by the Church in the decade prior stating “we had failed to change the attitudes of many believers.” In this statement they call on “Catholics, like the rest of American society, [to] recognize their responsibility for allowing these conditions to persist.” They made specific calls for cooperative effort in the areas of education, job opportunity, housing, and welfare assistance. And, importantly, they end their statement with these words:

“We list these needs with full awareness of the tremendous costs involved. It will take much time and even more sacrifice to implement programs needs to rebuild our society. . .There is no need for complacency and inertia. The hour is late and the need is critical.”

The need for an enduring commitment cannot be understated. The U.S. bishops are currently working on another pastoral letter addressing race in America. It will be released very soon. However, we must not wait for this nor can statements, remembrances, and memorials ever be considered enough. We remember, yes, but we also work to build the kind of communities and country Dr. King called us to be.


 

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