On Wednesday, February 13th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside UAB’s Department of English and the Jemison Visiting Professorship in the Humanities about the legacy of civil rights activist Reverend Charles Billups. The lecture was led by civil rights scholar Dr. Keith Miller (Arizona State University) then followed with a conversation from Billups’ daughter, Rene Billups Baker.
Charles Billups’ was a pastor at New Pilgrim Baptist Church in (Birmingham, Alabama) and one the founders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), a faith-based organization addressing civil rights from 1956-1969. Members of ACMHR would meet every Monday night to coordinate boycotts and lawsuits relating to segregation. Billups was a friend of fellow ACMHR member and civil rights icon Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and was the first person on the scene after Shuttlesworth’s house was bombed. Shuttlesworth would also be the one to drive Billups to the hospital after he was beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
With the civil rights movement facing discouragement nationwide, Billups was chosen by the ACMHR to lead the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham because he attended all their strategy sessions. During the demonstration, local law enforcement warned demonstrators that if they were to not back down, they would turn the dogs and fire hoses loose. Matching their physical force with the soulful force of civil rights activism, Billups taunted these threats and, as fate would have it, firefighters refused to spray the demonstrators. As a result, the Children’s Crusade, and the larger Birmingham Campaign, become a model for non-violent direct-action protest and overall success for the civil rights movement.
After her father’s death, Baker claimed she was angry with the world as well as God; all Baker wanted back was her father. For years, she didn’t even like to murmur the words or discuss “civil rights”. However, through the years, she has learned to forgive and wants younger generations, such as her nieces, to know about her father’s pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. With a greater appreciation for her father’s perseverance and sacrifice, Baker closed by saying that he, MLK, Jr., and Shuttlesworth are all smiling down on her agreeing, “She’s alright now”.
Baker’s book, My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement, can be purchased here.
As we reflect today on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, I am thinking about an older Black man using an edger on the front yard of a house in my neighborhood as I drove home the other day. On any other day, this otherwise seemingly insignificant sighting would not have elicited the shedding of tears. I cried as I silently thanked him for making it to whatever age because he, unlike Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Stephon Clark, and even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had made it. This man has defied the odds, and each time he shows up to complete his landscaping job, he, like so many Black men, continue life despite a snapped “A string”.
In “The Dilemma of Negro America” from his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King describes a violinist who, after experiencing a “snapped A string” during a performance, adjusted immediately by transposing the music into a different key, and finished the concert with three strings. King likens the Black community in America to this violinist.
To Dr. King, the predicament of Black America lies in the brutal reality that a significant portion of white America refuses to understand the systemic nature of oppression associated with race.
“There is very little in the life and experience of white America that can compare to the curse this society has put on color. And yet if the present chasm of hostility, fear, and distrust is to be bridged, the white man must begin to walk in the pathways of his black brothers and feel some of the pain and hurt that throb without letup in their daily lives.”
He details the anguish that exists within Black families shattered by physical, emotional, psychological, and structural violence. Violence often perpetuated by a lack of employment opportunities, segregated neighborhoods, a delinquent education system, and the knowledge that “he who starts behind in a race must forever remain behind or run faster than the man in front.” This is the dilemma of Blacks in America generally, but Black men specifically.
The land of the free and home of the brave is not without innuendo and assumption of Black men, regardless of their physicality – unarmed and laying on the ground or standing in their backyard with a cell phone. America remains the land where rumors of liberty and justice for all exist but often fail to live up to that expectation. America is the land where eagerness “to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness” abounds, and where there is no easy “escape from the awareness of color and the fact that our society places a qualitative difference on a person of dark skin.” It is this America—the one that perceives group defect and impurity before individuality and personal character, which Dr. King fought valiantly to see, redeemed.
Even with the advancement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dr. King acknowledged that being an American who is Black is uncomfortable at times. “It means being a part of the company of the bruised, the battered, the scarred and the defeated… It means being harried by day and haunted by night by a nagging sense of nobodyness and constantly fighting to be saved from the poison of bitterness.” The fight against bitterness occurs when the interstate quarters the neighborhood or when gentrification and revitalization contribute to the “misery generated by the gulf between the affluence he sees in the mass media and the deprivation he experiences in his everyday life.” Additionally, the fight against bitterness wages when mothers and grandmothers, brothers and sisters, and daughters and sons prolong the process of grief to pursue justice, only to have to experience its denial. This is a consistent burden carried by Blacks in America.
The dilemma and predicament of white Americans to counter their “long dalliance with racism and white supremacy” meets with the fivefold charge Dr. King lays out for Black Americans. This charge challenges the “temptation to seek negative and self-destructive solutions” including succumbing to feelings of inferiority, dropping out of school, taking refuge in substances, and resorting to meanness. Here is the charge:
Develop a rugged sense of somebodyness – “we must develop the courage to confront the negatives of circumstances with the positives of inner determination.”
Establish a group identity – the kind of consciousness needed to “participate more meaningfully at all levels of life” within the nation
Make full and constructive use of the freedoms we have – work towards excellence with the understanding that “doors of opportunity are gradually opening” and “all labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and worth”
Unite around powerful actions that eradicate every vestige of racial injustice – “Structures of evil do not crumble by passively waiting”; therefore, add persistent pressure to your patient plea, or you will end up empty-handed
Enlarge society as a whole by giving it a new sense of values as aspects of solutions – do not “consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character” for questions are a reminder of the need for a “radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.”
Dr. King asserts that “a great people—a black people—who bore their burdens of oppression…through tenacity and creative commitment” can inject new life into the veins of America. This new life requires the identification of commonality among all Americans: the power of the vote, a more person-centered economy, a government more dependent upon morality than military, exhorting a passion for peace and an “allegiance to the empire of justice”. From this commonality, King proclaims that the establishment of a new set of values becomes the new normative culture due to the eradication of the three evils: racism, poverty, and militarism.
All Americans are fully equipped to do this.
** For this blog, given that a significant portion of Dr. King’s chapter spoke of Black males, I felt it necessary to give voice to them within this context. Certainly, the message of this blog can extend to the impact of Black women through these many years of struggle. This decision should in no way diminish the leadership roles of Black women within the family and community, or the imbalanced narrative that repeatedly overlooks their contributions and lives. I fully understand the complexity of being Black, female, and American, in the days of Dr. King’s America and that of mine.
Excerpts from profound leaders, such as Gandhi, Mandela, and King, become useful during times of civil unrest. Their words seemingly echo the heart, inspiring both comfort and action for a moment. However, the full weight of their words remains unheeded and leave the daily lives of some who ferry them out as temporary mantras. One reason is lack of context. The words themselves are out of context because the remainder of the speech or sermon discarded, and the sacrifice of the lived life narrowed to a soundbite or repost. We will look at the legacy and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over the next few blog posts. The goal is to see if the words he spoke and life he lived find application in society today. This small project is in conjunction with the 54th anniversary of the March on Washington where Dr. King famously declared, “I Have a Dream.” Writers have looked across the depth of King’s work, found pieces with modern day applications, and have written powerful analyses.
Dr. King, on 17 November 1957, preached a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, entitled, “Loving Your Enemies”. This sermon is the basis of this blog.
The sermon, based on Matthew 5 in the scripture, demands believers do four things when it comes to their enemies: love them, bless them, do good to them, and pray for them. King uses this sermon to cultivate a paradigm shift about the nature of love, while also breaking down its complexity into practical applications. He argues what seems like impractical idealism is practically realistic because of love. There is a recognition that loving an enemy—those who seek to defeat you–is difficult. Yet, as a mandate of Jesus, it is the individual’s Christian and moral responsibility to understand and live out this command. The first step in initiating and implementing love is self-analysis.
America has long prided itself on being a Christian nation and police officer of the world, often to the disparagement of allies and enemies alike. King asserts the element of bravado may arouse resentment and hostility by other nations when they view from afar the injustices taking place by the American government against her citizens. “There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual. This is true in our international struggle… in spite of all the weaknesses and evils inherent in communism, we must at the same time see the weaknesses and evils with democracy” (44). He confesses democracy itself is the greatest conception of man, although its weakness lies in the trampling of “individuals and races with the iron feet of oppression” through mechanisms such as colonialism and imperialism. He considered the success of other ideologies, like communism (at the time), lay in the failure of democracy to hold to its principles and ideals (41-5). For America, as a nation of individuals, to love their enemies, an internal analysis of how we treat each other is required.
Many believe the present conversation about racism is a perpetuated by the media. The belief ‘if I don’t see racism in my community, then it must not actually exist’ creates a deniability that hinders the plausibility of justice and liberty for all. A united self-analysis could assist in the identification and acceptance of the knowledge that racial tension has been a factor in the American narrative since the pilgrims arrived on the shore. This acknowledgment will confirm the notion that the election and presidency of Barack Obama did not remove the established tension. The political platform of speaking to the “left-behind” sparked a populist movement that further exasperated the divide.
In a November interview with 60 Minutes, when informed of the horrific behaviors taking place around the country under the banner of “Trump’s America”, he denied liability and culpability, simply stating, “stop it.” He has recently come under fire for his duplicity on the attacks in Charlottesville. Some shouted the current president emboldened white nationalist ideology and the hate-filled attacks that took place during the campaigning process and have continued over the past seven months; others remain stoic in their support of him. However, last week as a measure of notice and concern for the rise of vitriol and violence, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released its “Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedures” report. The report calls upon, urges, and recommends the US, a a State Party on the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to
“fully respect its international obligations…to not only unequivocally and unconditionally reject and condemn racist hate speech and racist crimes but to actively contribute to the promotion of understanding, tolerance, and diversity between ethnic groups; ensure that all human rights violations which took place in Charlottesville…are thoroughly investigated; the government… identify and take concrete measures to address the root causes of the proliferation of such racist manifestations; ensure the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are not exercised with the aim of destroying or denying the rights and freedoms of others.
Second, look for the good as a countermeasure to each hate-filled thought. The decision to identify the good forces each of us to confront the “many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality… there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives” (45). King labels it ‘the isness versus the oughtness’: the recalcitrant South of our soul in revolt of the North of our soul. Synthesizing teachings from Ovid, Goethe, and the Apostle Paul, he concedes the division within us is the knowledge of good but the choice to do bad; a cry, that at the core, each of us has had at one point of another in life (45-6). In other words, choose radical empathy. Hate and discrimination extend beyond race; let us look at Muslims and Islamophobia as an example.
King declares hate removes the ability to see the “image of God” whereas love, challenges what the eyes see because “no matter what he does, you see the image of God there. There is an element of good that can never slough off” (46). A tenet of the US Declaration of Independence is states the Creator has endowed with inalienable rights to all humanity; this belief is also foundational to the Christian faith. Since the aftermath of 9/11, American Muslims are at the center of significant discrimination and hate. Harassed for their hijab and religious beliefs, the blanket assumption that each Muslim is a terrorist and actively threatening the wellbeing of Americans with sharia law and Islamic fundamentalism is contrary to the founding principles of this nation, and the principles of Islam itself. Even President Obama found himself on the receiving end of a birther conspiracy and dissention labeling him a secret Muslim. When considering this entrenched and unjustified hate, is it feasible to believe that reposting “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that” automatically removes the racial, religious, and psychological injustices of innocent Muslims over the last 16 years? Does it absolve the character assassination of Obama? Does it remove the stigma unfairly applied to millions of Hispanics, specifically Mexicans, labelled rapist, drug dealer, or job stealer? Or any marginalized population in America?
Third, choose not to defeat your enemy, even if the perfect opportunity presents itself (47). The Greek language has several words for love, including eros, philia, and agape. Agape love looks for creative ways to win the one who hates over to love’s side by bridging the distance in the same way Christ did for the world in John 3:16. True love contains the refusal to defeat individuals; the goal of love is to defeat the system, which generated and perpetuated the distance that results in hate. Agape love seeks conversion, not defeat. King suggest when we act on agape love, we love “not because people are likable but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him…” (48-49). Love is a stronger feeling than like. Like is swayed by perception and attitudes; love, on the other hand, is consistent in nature due to its rooting in the soul. At the core of the soul, love allows for acceptance of the person while disagreeing with the behavior. Let us take the removal of Confederate monuments as an example.
The removal of confederate symbols, for many, is an affront to their white heritage and an assault on the historical narrative of America. What many have failed to discern is that the erection and permanent reminder of the historical narrative of confederate whites in America is, and has always been, an affront to the heritage of Americans of African descent. Racial unity in the United States of America requires the truth that hate has existed at the core of this country, permeating through every institution. Therefore, the removal of and proposed relocation of the reminders is not to destroy white individuals, but rather initiate the destruction of the system upon which inequity, hate, racism, and discrimination originated. If we apply King’s three ideals for practical application of creative action through agape love to the monuments, to interact with marginalized communities, and to race relations, can they contribute to a narrative and paradigm shift?
Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe (49). “Civilizations fail… if someone doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world” (51). Someone must inject the strong element of love within the very structure of the universe (51).
Hate is irrational. It destroys the personality of the hater, blinding them to the truth and distorting the vision of what is just (52). Hate destroys the hater and the hated.
Love alone has a redemptive power (53). Hate removes the ability to bring about transformation.
The conversation around race produces responses that vary from “I’m not racist because I have black friends and coworkers” to “we are living in a post-racial America because we elected a black president”. However, manifestation of hate and discrimination is not merely about black and white. It is the denial of love’s full expression and love’s creative, redemptive, and transformative power over the human heart, mind, and embedded systems of oppression. King, in the conclusion of his sermon, explains three ways that the oppressed respond to the oppressor: violence, resignation, and massive nonviolent resistance based on the principle of love (56-60).
Love is the way Jesus did it.
Love is the way for Dr. King.
Is love the way for you? Love, like hate, is evident in alignment and actions.
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