Recently, I took a short journey (less than 24-hours), visiting several of America’s seminal historical landmarks.
In Atlanta, I stopped by the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I sat in the pews and listened to an entire King sermon.
The message that echoed throughout Ebenezer the day I visited was King’s final Christmas message: “Peace on Earth.” King spoke about the interrelated nature of the world that binds us together:
“We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world.”
After being stirred by King’s words, I headed for Birmingham. But before reaching Birmingham, I stopped in Aniston, Ala. Aniston was the site of the first confrontation between Freedom Riders and local residents in 1961.
As the Greyhound bus pulled into the Aniston station, they were greeted by several hundred angry thugs touting pipes, sticks and bats, yelling racial epithets.
One member of the mob lied down in front of the bus in an attempt to prohibit it from departing. Finally, the bus driver was able to maneuver away from the mob. This proved only to be a temporary respite from the violence that loomed.
As the bus headed down the highway, there was a car in front that swerved in order to prohibit it from passing. Suddenly a sound emanated from the bottom of the bus that could only been the sound of flat tires. Back at the bus station, while one of mob participants lay on the ground so that the bus could not leave, others were puncturing the tires with knives. The bus driver pulled over.
The mob quickly circled the bus and broke the back window with a crowbar. To shouts of racial epithets, they hurled something into the bus. Immediately, the bus burst into flames, the black smoke in the back of the bus rendered it impossible for anyone inside to see. Then the fuel tank exploded. Everyone forced the door open and quickly disembarked, eyes burning, their lungs filled with smoke. They were now at the mercy of the angry mob. Violence ensued as people gagged, desperate for air, frantic for water, as the mob unleashed blows on men and women unmercifully.
The final leg of my journey brought me to Birmingham and the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site where four Negro girls were killed in a church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. Across the street was Kelly Ingram Park, where the Children’s Crusade took on Bull Connor and vicious police dogs and high-pressured hoses.
It sickened the country that watched on television nationally, as Americans unleashed such evil on other Americans. But it was the price those committed to the ethos of the Declaration of the Independence and belief in the Constitution were willing to pay to redeem a nation in search of its moral compass.
No matter how dark it has been within the American narrative, the embers of hope have always flickered. Whether they continue to burn or are permanently extinguished is up to us.
To arrogantly suggest we’ve reached an unprecedented moment that justifies non-engagement, opting instead for the “Apathetic Party,” is a self-fulfilling prophecy that places one on the side one supports least.
These seminal events that I visited reminded me that progress, albeit glacial at times, has been made. While we laud the efforts of kings, it should not diminish us that the success of the movement was due to countless numbers of maids, custodial workers, teachers, etc., who simply wanted America to be true to what it had already committed to paper.
If, however, we hold that only our desired outcome can save America, we suffer from the type of vainglory that will achieve the opposite.