The rally was forming. I was a college student studying for final exams at a downtown Spokane park when I saw the signs. That’s how I found myself, a Black man, sitting curbside at an Aryan Nations rally in 1982. And it’s when I chose to love Washington state — not leave.
I was enthralled by the sight of a 5-year-old girl being led through the rally by her mother. To my mind she was blameless. The culpable ones, the adults around her, seemed so poor and uninformed that I didn’t see them as enemies. They were impoverished, like me. They were searching for purpose and meaning in their lives. I was, too. The mother and I made eye contact for a brief moment. She did a double take and kept walking. I averted my gaze.
The rally participants were listening to Richard Butler, the founder of the Aryan Nations. Butler openly admired Adolf Hitler and longed for a whites-only homeland in the Pacific Northwest. He sought to form a “Christian Posse.” I was studying Martin Luther King Jr. and theology texts that may well have derived from the same biblical tradition Butler was referencing. We had nothing in common. Yet our meager existences brought us together.
I’ve thought about the young girl often throughout the years. How is she now? Did she grow and become learned? What did she need to unlearn in order to feel herself beloved? What of her mother?
For Dr. King, love was at the heart of such matters. His message typified that of Gandhi, who inspired Dr. King. This was reflected in his call to action in a speech he gave in 1955 following the arrest of fellow Montgomery resident Rosa Parks. He described justice as “love correcting that which revolts against love.” Richard Butler’s separatist message was a revolt against love.
King got to the heart of the problem when he spoke at Cornell College in 1962. He said, “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
Getting to know one another is not the solution to segregation, bigotry or systemic problems that have arisen from a racist history — like the health disparities people of different races experience. But the simple act of a conversation is a start toward caring enough to ensure that we improve life across our state, from the child taking their first breath in Mabton to the grandparent in hospice in Mercer Island. I am convinced that what matters most is the quality of the years we live here — how we are nourished in order to live well and what we give so that nourishment is shared. This means giving our attention to the interests of others, giving specific attention to the needs of those who are suffering the most, and no longer perpetuating suffering through politics of fear and “othering.”
Let us find a way to be young together, to grow old together, to love the young girl in the march — particularly if she did not choose that march. Let us find a way to love the woman in the hijab, the man in a yarmulke, to see the humanity in each. Let’s find a way to love the gas station clerk in Everett, still learning English, the farmer in Brewster and the migrant worker. Let’s honor the historical and current lived experiences of Native Americans, the first inhabitants of this land. And let us connect to those who are relatively new to Washington, those by way of Scandinavian migration, or German lineage; the Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, Ethiopian, Iranian, Hindu and Sikh residents; gay, lesbian and transgender people; and African Americans who made this home in the 19th century. Let us no longer look away from each other.
According to john a. powell of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, nationwide we are witnessing increased anxiety, much of it related to an increase in a perceived “other.” Our politics appear to take us down two routes. The first is toward breaking, where we turn inward, solely to what and who we know. This path leads to isolation. The other direction is bridging, where we turn outward to connect with other groups and strive for ways to build commonality and the sureness of being at home here. This ultimately takes us toward belonging and empathy and love. This is a route worth choosing, and a journey worthy of the celebration of Martin Luther King Day.