“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
— Inscription on the pedestal at the base of the Statue of Liberty, extracted from “The New Colossus” by Sephardic Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus.
As the 36th observance of Martin Luther King Day (he would have been 93 years old) approaches, we find his native country (and much of the world) embroiled in discord economically, politically, and especially socially. To provide an element of clarity in understanding the situation we are currently in, let’s remember that people of color were originally brought to America as burden bearers and not as citizens who would benefit from this radical approach to government.
Flaws in the execution of a noble endeavor
“The United States of America was founded as a bold experiment designed to demonstrate the possibility of creating a society governed by ordinary citizens that gives full expression to the ideals of liberty, justice, and opportunity for all. In its time it was a truly audacious idea.”
— Former Harvard Business School
faculty member David Korten
Building upon this idea, one might say that America remains an audacious idea. Founded by expatriate Europeans fleeing the tyranny of a feudal system wherein peasants toiled for the benefit of the nobility, its establishment was abetted by a unique form of hypocrisy, where land was appropriated from native Americans, then transformed into “civilization” through the labor of African descendants, assisted by other non-natives as needed (such as the Chinese who worked on the transcontinental railroad).
In essence, the labor and sacrifices of the masses thusly resulted in benefits earmarked for a chosen few, and exclusion and inequality are as American as apple pie.
The societal gains that King and his contemporaries toiled to achieve have, over the past half century, brought with them a curious by-product of bitterness and resentment by other elements of the populace (the not so silent majority) who now consider themselves marginalized and threatened by these advancements.
This animosity, always present or perhaps just dormant, has gradually manifested itself, perhaps egged on through the manipulations of skillful politicians.
Things came to a head with the Capitol building insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, as Black capitol police officers were peppered with the “n-word.” These flaws in the prestige of American democracy provided sustenance for its rivals, eager to topple its image as a global model of integrity and morality. Internally, far-right fanatics, White supremacists, and minions of similar sentiments embraced the chance to express their discontent under the mantle of “making America great” again.
Paying lip service to a dream
“…civil disobedience is in order when human laws are contrary to God’s demand.”
— Jimmy Carter,
39th President of the United States
If America is an audacious experiment, one might say that Christianity is itself a revolutionary concept. A philosophy spawned in the Middle East by a Jewish carpenter who likely spoke the Semitic language of Aramaic, has over the centuries been appropriated and depicted as a light skinned Nordic Western European in appearance.
Religion, like any human precept, can be confiscated and morphed to suit the needs of the worshiper’s agenda and motivation.
The Rev. Art Cribbs, most recently pastor of Los Angeles’ Filipino American United Church of Christ and now the Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Va., suggests that our current problems might benefit from an agenda based on cooperation.
In our present environment he observes that the economy is fixed so that mundane emergencies such as serious illness or loss of a paycheck can push the average family (even Caucasian) into destitution.
“We have to change priorities and transform our country’s values to make all human life sacred,” he said. “At the core of Dr. King’s public ministry was a commitment to elevate the value of all human life.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, adherents to Christianity and Dr. King’s message display no real commitment to these ideals and merely go through the motions of societal respectability.
John Cager began his ministry as a protege of the Rev. Cecil Murray in the West Adams District’s First A.M.E. Church, circa 1989, time enough for him to settle in by the time of the riot/uprising of 1992. From this perspective, he has borne witness to one of the most polarizing periods in the history of Los Angeles—and the world.
For many people — Black and White — Jan. 16 amounts to no more than, in Cager’s words, “a day off from school or a day off from work.”
Princeton philosophy professor Cornel West has also railed against the superficial commitment displayed “…the milquetoast, cowardly activity we see too often in the Neo-liberal wing of the Democratic party.”
“Going to church and worshiping the God of Jesus are not synonymous,” he said.
“The facade of faithful worship is blasphemous and a sham. In like manner, the popularization of Dr. King without transforming a nation that puts a premium on weaponry and the buildup of war is insulting and demonic.”
Looking backwards to shape the future
“I think what we are witnessing America as a failed social experiment.”
— Academic Cornel West in an interview
with CNN host Anderson Cooper.
West and other alarmists understandably sound the coming of a U.S. implosion within its governing apparatus. This criticism is valid, but periodically throughout its history, the American experiment has regularly undergone the growing pains of descent and turmoil.
In 1967, America endured a series of riots that came to be known as the long hot summer, the worst of which occurred in Detroit between July 23 through 28. Some 43 people were killed with nearly $45 million dollars (over $300 million today) in property destroyed.
Detroit native Michael Brunker who was 15 years old at the time, would go on to a distinguished career as an executive in the nonprofit sector pushing an agenda of youth empowerment throughout San Diego County. The divisiveness he witnessed as a youth shaped his pathway as an adult. He remembered a statement King uttered during that period:
“A million words will be written and spoken to dissect the ghetto outbreaks, but for a perceptive and vivid expression of culpability I would submit two sentences written a century ago by Victor Hugo: ‘If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’”
The difficulties we face today will likely end, and prove the continued resilience of these United States.