Could This Be One of Those Moments In History?

This Sunday morning the Zoom forum at All Souls Episcopal Church was all about racism. Much was made of our own bishop’s remarks following Trump’s St. John’s Church photo op incident, the remarks of our presiding bishop, and a statement by all the Episcopal bishops in the Mid-Atlantic region. The message was that institutional and systemic racism are pervasive and real and will not go away without a change in attitudes and actions. Episcopalians— especially white Episcopalians— must act now, and attitudes regarding race must change. This is significant because at All Souls Church, it is very rare to talk about anything that is potentially controversial or that would make some in the congregation uncomfortable. If these discussions about race are happening like this all over the country, maybe we actually could be entering a new era.

I am mindful of four recent comments on this blog site. One was by Irwin Singer, which I have already written about. A second was yesterday by Jim Killebrew and the third today by John Franklin and a fourth today by Naomi Pena–all long time, dear friends. Both Jim and John post regular comments on the blog, which I welcome and cherish. What the first three comments have in common is the argument that in order for change to be lasting and meaningful, attitudes must change. Jim cautioned about the need for white people to listen to people of color, and John’s were about his own journey out of poverty due in large part to education, friendships and inner drive. In other words it is not just about politics and legislation but about a change in culture and the way each of us thinks and behaves and the values we hold dear. Naomi’s post deals with the systemic issues—that the system must be changed–which I also agree with. I do not see the solution as an either/or but rather a both/and. I encourage you to read all four comments, if you have not already done so.

 I am hopeful because I know how much our culture has already changed with regard to the race issue. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1950s when Jim Crow was in full swing. It was illegal in those days for whites and blacks to attend the same schools, drink out of the same water fountains, use the same restrooms, or eat in the same restaurants. Black boys and white boys did not compete against each other in sports. Racist jokes and comments were commonplace along with racial invectives. African Americans did not hold public office or have executive positions in business. And certainly, black people were poor—many dirt poor. And few people–that is, few white people– really thought that much about it. That is just the way the world was. To deny that we have come a long way since the 1950s is to forget how bad things were just over a half century ago. In 1960 when I graduated from high school , did anyone think we would have an African American president in our lifetimes?

Yet, despite the changes that have occurred, racism still exits—at least what I would call the vestiges of racism, which are more subtle and, in some ways, more insidious. The statistics tell the story. The prisons and jails incarcerate more blacks than whites, yet African Americans comprise only 13% of the population. One third of black men in their twenties are in jail, prison or on parole. African American poverty is more than twice the rate of white people, and black people have median incomes which are only 57% of those who are white. Unemployment is consistently higher among the black population. De facto school segregation still persists especially in large urban areas, and relatively few persons of color hold CEO  or high level positions at major companies or institutions.

And then there is  police abuse, which was laid bare last week when George Floyd was murdered. Add to that the murders of other black men by police and by others who were never prosecuted. This was the spark that ignited the flame.

So, yes, we have made progress, but so much still remains unfinished. And herein lies  the challenge. It was pretty obvious in the 1960s that Jim Crow laws had to go, and that equal protection of the law and voting rights had to extend to black people. Embry and I were part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, marching and working with SNCC in Southwest Georgia. It was a hopeful time, a time of belief that “we shall overcome.”

But how do you address  causes due to globalism and the economy? To the job market and the way our economy is structured? To structural or systems issues like holes in the health care insurance and delivery systems, under funded public schools, and the jobs lost to Asia or automation, which affect everyone who is poor—both white people and people of color. How do we get our arms around these things?

There are some things that we can and should jump on immediately like reform of the criminal justice system and constraints to police brutality. But the economic issues will take time and the path ahead is fuzzy. Will we have the patience and the determination to stick with this issue until the rage subsidies? Will we have the right leaders to make this happen? These are the unanswered questions. If we can stick with it and have the right leadership, this could  be one of those moments where the trajectory of history is changed.







8 thoughts on “Could This Be One of Those Moments In History?

  1. I agree with Naomi and you that the system needs to be changed world wide. Capitalism, perhaps even financial capitalism, has reduced extreme poverty everywhere, but unequally. Psychologically the very poor feel even poorer when they learn on the media how much the very rich own. And now the middle classes agree that it has to change and would like it to happen without bloodshed.
    But how can it be when the very rich are our leaders? How many of them would agree to pass laws allowing the wealth to be shared fairly? Their idea of happiness is to earn more money than any one, more than they can spend. I believe it is a question of testosterone, of which women have less than men. Notice that the countries led by women have been doing better than others recently. Which male leader can compare with Angela Merkel, with the governor of Michigan, with the leader of the FMI, etc?
    Most women have a tendency to feel that we are families. Admittedly, many men under the age of 40 share this protective attitude. Just like younger policemen have been trained to avoid the aggressiveness that defines their older colleagues.
    It is possible also that socialism is more helpful than the other systems. I was asked how to translate the word “furlough” as used presently in England, the US and Australia. You can’t, because it doesn’t exist. Dictionaries suggest “vacation, leave, permission” , but these are positive words and do not reflect that it is “vacation without pay”. Which stopped existing in the socialist system before the second world war.

  2. I have not seen a discussion of the possibility of reparations here. “Forty acres and a mule” were supposed to be awarded to every former slave. This did not happen. Isn’t it time to make that right? I realize the devil is in the details, but shouldn’t a commission be established to study how to go about this long overdue effort?

  3. Embry,
    That notion pops up from time to time but never seems to get much traction, even among AA leaders, perhaps because of the detail devil you mention, or perhaps because there are always on their agenda bigger fish to fry. The word “fair” would be debated ad nauseum. Whatever dollar amount that might be settled on after years of debate and jawing would never be enough to satisfy all Blacks and ever too much for some in the rest of the country. Who would pay and how? A special surtax to be levied on everyone, even if their forbears were still in Europe or China during slavery? Or maybe just on the descendants of slave owners like me and possibly you and Joe. Following such payment, would AA’s lose the support of some who have generally been sympathetic? Would it be looked upon as the monetary settlement of a lawsuit or a divorce, bringing to a close all further claims and debate?
    As superficially attractive as the idea may be, it seems to me to be one loaded with the ever present threat of The Law of Unintended Consequences, another divisive wedge in an already divided country. A sleeping dog best left napping.
    Another topic that has been spectacularly absent in this discussion is the role of drug abuse in the lower echelons of our society. I am reminded of Isabelle Wilkerson’s great book, “The Warmth of Other Suns.” Among her conclusions is the possibility that the plight of the Black ghetto is related to the loss of connection to family and church that was part and parcel of Black life and culture before The Great Migration.
    We whites can debate and theorize forever, but we will never really “get it” where it comes to a true understanding of the AA human condition. At least, this one won’t.



    1. You make “the devil is in the details” very clear. A commission perhaps? Georgetown University had an easier time, since they knew the names of their former slaves and were able to trace at least some of their descendants to offer free tuition.

  4. Jim,
    I agree with comment about churches. As much as we like to criticize our churches for being too conservative, they did provide a stable social support system that is not being replaced as they become less and less relevant. I was on a sixteen-mile bike ride this past Sunday when I took my first water break six miles into the ride – under a tree located next to St. Thomas Church. Evidently, despite COVID-19, the congregation, exclusively African American, was finishing up their outdoor service. As I stood near my bike listening to a testimonial being delivered by one of the congregants, I was motioned by a woman to come closer so I could hear better. So, I did.

    After a few minutes, one of the other women standing nearby asked if I wanted to say something to the crowd. I froze for a few seconds, not knowing what to say. Not only was I the only white person in the crowd, I was the only one wearing a ridiculous looking biking outfit. I was even walking strangely because I was wearing my clip biking shoes. What were they thinking of me? However, before I knew it, I responded with “Sister, I have one hell of a story to tell?” What in the hell was I thinking? Somehow, I do not know where it came from, but I was moved by the Holy Spirit. It was a God Moment. And before I knew it, I had the microphone in my hand laying out my soul to these strangers, who just happened to be all black. But there was so much love and acceptance.

    So, I told them very quickly about growing up in Louisa County without a father, about growing up with no indoor plumbing, and about Mineral Baptist Church – the church that helped save me. I told them that churches are the backbone of many communities and provide the social support structure than many of us need. And I thanked them for letting me speak and to be a part of their gathering. Again, I do not know what came over me, but I began singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” a song that speaks about universal brotherhood and that it starts with you. It was my go-to song when I sang solos in the youth choir at Mineral Baptist Church. I cried as I sang it to these wonderful, gracious people, who let me in to their intimate space. Not once did I mention the racial tension that our society is currently experiencing. I did not need to. It was understood by them and by me that the only way we are going to fix this is by one experience at a time, by one encounter at a time, and by each of us calling out discrimination when we see it.

    After I was finished, I was handed a few tissues to wipe my eyes. I wished we could have hugged, but instead I gave a few of them elbow taps. And I got back on my bike and rode off, back to my life of white privilege. I say that not to feel guilty, but to acknowledge what I believe to be a truth.

    Somehow, we have to find ways to give the underclass a sense of being valued and an opportunity to contribute, and to hold them and the communities in which they live accountable. But unless we also address systemic racism and social-economic discrimination, holding people of color and their communities accountable alone will not fix the problem.

  5. What a great story, John, a magical moment, a “God moment” indeed, for you and for every member of that congregation. And now for every reader of this blog. I suspect that church will be talking for a long time about the Sunday a stranger, a white stranger, appeared at their service and, upon being invited, told them his most personal and intimate life story of escape from a childhood in poverty; and then, spontaneously BROKE INTO SOLO VOICE SONG with “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” As I recall, the church was one of the legs of your three legged stool. They won’t forget that part ever.

    Having known Joe for 64 years, I can assure you that nothing short of an Act of God can render him speechless. But don’t let that go to your head.

    Thank you so very much for bringing that story to this blog and especially to me.


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