It was the summer of 2012. I was nineteen years old, working as an intern in Washington, DC—that swamp of politics, and humidity, and the slow-moving Potomac. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial had just opened the year before, and, curious, I went to see it one morning.
It was swarmed with tourists, mostly busloads of white suburban kids hauled in from summer camps. I squeezed between them, through the entrance, and there he was—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Standing there, arms crossed. Carved in white (white?) stone. The black man who fought to end segregation, Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, lynching against black bodies. The man the FBI and US government called “the most dangerous man in America.”
I wandered around the monument, reading the quotes. So much love. Peace. Universals. And not one mention of racism, of the long history of American cruelty toward black lives that King had struggled against. The only mention of race at all was one quote that spoke of transcending it for peace.
Back then, the monument unsettled me. Now, I realize it stirred the same feelings that I have today when people scream “All Lives Matter” to drown out the voices of people calling for American society to finally affirm that Black Lives Matter. The feeling I get when I see the Black Lives Matter banners across the country, where vandals have ripped out the word “black” or spray-painted it away.
Erasure. Denial. White stone for a beautiful black man, and quotes cherry-picked to focus on love, love, never racial injustice.
Oh, America. We love to carve white statues of our prophets. And we love to forget their radical calls.
And even my religious community, us justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists, are guilty of this.
We love to quote King. To recall how UU minister Reverend James Reeb went down to Selma to answer King’s call to religious leaders around the States. How Reeb was killed by white supremacists there. How another UU who came to Selma, Viola Liuzzo, was murdered by the KKK a few days later.
At the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we have a plaque dedicated to Reeb and Liuzzo, our martyrs—along with Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young black man killed while trying to protect his mother from an Alabama state trooper.
And I was at Selma this spring, for the fiftieth anniversary of King’s march there. Where we honored those martyrs. Where we remembered.
It was beautiful—seeing all those UUs now old and gray: the veterans of the Civil Rights movement. Still firecrackers, still telling stories of the bomb threats and Klansmen they faced down. The hours spent marching to Montgomery. Their grief at losing their friends James and Viola, fifty years past.
But on the actual day of the march, as our UU group of a couple hundred squeezed into the tiny streets of Selma with thousands, I noticed something.
There we were. Apart from our small youth and young adult delegation, our group was mostly older. Mostly white. Civil Rights veterans, every step of the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge a memory of the same trek fifty years before.
And…They kept trying to sing. The songs of the Freedom Rides. The sweet strains of “We Shall Overcome.”
But—the songs wouldn’t take. They kept on dying away, fading into the past. Drowned out by new chants: No justice, no peace. Hands up, don’t shoot. We can’t breathe.
Because the people around us were, for the most part, a new generation of people of color.
They were holding signs with the faces of black people who had been killed, in this century. At the peak of the bridge, I remember, one young black woman hoisted a full-size cutout of Trayvon Martin, hoodie and all, high into the sky, like he was leading us forward, to the other side—the promised land.
Some UUs came to Selma, I think, expecting to be remembered. To be thanked for, fifty years ago, showing up. And even dying.
But most of the people marching in Selma that day weren’t even alive in 1965. They didn’t know the names of James Reeb or Viola Liuzzo. They knew the names of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford. New names.
They were living the legacy of the Selma marchers more fully than any plaque or statue could do.
And the rest of us can do the same. In my own community, at our UU national conference, I saw our high-school-age youth caucus come together to write a motion to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And to speak in front of the whole assembly of thousands of UUs to get it passed, by all of us.
I was part of the action that was planned after the #BlackLivesMatter motion was passed. A die-in, on the streets of Portland, in collaboration with local justice activists.
I was there as we gathered on the street corner afterward, shouting the new songs of this generation: Black Lives Matter! Sí, se puede!
And there, in the midst of our chanting and energy and love, I looked up at the statue we were standing beside. There he was again. Martin Luther King. But this time, different. A monument cast in rich black metal. And he was not alone. There was a little girl sculpted beside him. And a young immigrant woman. And a working class man. The artist had titled the sculpture “The Dream.”
And, looking around at that group of us, young and old, white and black and Latino, gay and straight and trans and queer, differently abled and all beautifully made, I felt it. The dream.
King born again in our young people, in the next generation, in all of us—to be a living, working force for justice and racial equality.
It is always easier to memorialize our heroes. To carve stone statues and cast great plaques. Far harder it is continue their work. But it is what we, who are alive, are called to do.
Image Source: Wikipedia. Graphic edits: Abigail Clauhs.