History’s Legacies & Our Unfinished Work
By Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister, Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
– Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail
Two months ago I had the humbling opportunity to visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. They are the creation of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization founded by human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy”. Stevenson and EJI have won reversals, relief, or release for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row.
The museum chronicles in stunning visual detail the legacy of racial terrorism in the United States: slavery, Jim Crow, and the present-day reality of mass incarceration. The memorial – often referred to as “the lynching memorial” – is a haunting physical reminder of the 4400 African American men, women, and children who were lynched by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. At the center of the memorial site are over 800 steel monuments, each of them representing a county in the U.S. where a racial terror lynching took place, engraved with the names of those murdered. Among them is one monument remembering Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, three young black men lynched in Duluth in June of 1920.
As I turned a corner in the museum to view an exhibit of signs displayed by businesses and communities during the Jim Crow era, one in particular stopped me in my tracks. It read: “No Jews. No Dogs. No Blacks.” I was horrified by the absurdity of it, the shocking denial of human dignity and worth it communicated. It captured the appalling ugliness of white supremacy, how it views persons of color or ethnic difference as less than human, nothing more than an unloved animal easily ignored.
The inherent dignity and worth of each Created being lies at the heart of our faith. We read in our holy scriptures that we are created in the sacred image of God, and that acknowledgement is meant to shape our interactions with one another, compelling respect and love and mercy. Yet too often we have forgotten this basic premise of our faith. In fact, history confronts us with the bitter truth that the Church and we who comprise it have often been willing vehicles of white supremacy.
In a recent interview, Bryan Stevenson said: “During the time of slavery, we as a Church allowed people to be trafficked and abused and mistreated. We created this narrative of racial difference where we said that black people aren’t as good as white people. Too many people of faith were silent after the Civil War. We had a hundred years of terrorism where black people were lynched, pulled out of their homes, beaten, brutalized, drowned, murdered, tortured, sometimes within yards of churches and places of worship, and no one said anything. We had a horrific era of legal segregation, racial apartheid, and the church was largely silent during that period. The Church must reckon with its history of inaction and strive to work with communities that are struggling so much to recover from the extreme punishment that we’ve imposed over the last half-century.” [The Christian Post]
On this day that remembers the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are right to honor Dr. King’s prophetic and brave leadership in the struggle for Civil Rights, a fight for which he ultimately gave his life. But we should be reminded that the struggle for true racial equality is yet unfinished. Nearly every day our news provides fresh, head-shaking evidence that white supremacy is still alive among us. We should all be appalled by it. We in the Church must be part of repairing the trauma and heartache of so many who have suffered under the weight of racism for centuries and who still endure its horrors. We must not repeat the mistakes of our past.
In the Minnesota Conference, our efforts to examine our own White Privilege over the last several years have been part of that work. Our commitments to being an “immigrant welcoming” church and to advocating for Minnesota to be a Sanctuary State recognize that the backlash against immigrants and refugees is a contemporary manifestation of white supremacy still at work. Our discernment about what reparations might look like in our life together is another element of this effort. All of this is good and important work, but it too is unfinished.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
We honor the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. best by confronting with clear eyes the reality of racism and white supremacy still today and continuing his work to dismantle it. As Church that is every bit our work to take up, a new legacy of love waiting to be built.