In 1963, Dr. King called out white people for the tepidness and flaccidity of their commitment to racial reconciliation. That problem endures in 2019.
Our topic for today: three stories and a letter.
The stories all made recent headlines. The first was about the state of Florida posthumously pardoning the Groveland Four, a group of African-American men who suffered torture, prison and murder after being falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949.
The second concerns broad Republican condemnation of one of their own, Rep. Steve King, for an interview with The New York Times in which he questioned why the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” should be considered offensive.
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The third involves a directive — since rescinded — NBC News sent its writers, reporters and anchors about King’s words. “Be careful to avoid characterizing King’s remarks as racist,” it said, suggesting that the remarks instead be described as ‘what many are calling racist’.”
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As for the letter: It was written by Martin Luther King Jr., whose 90th birthday the nation commemorates Monday. King famously penned the epistle from a jail cell in Birmingham in response to a group of white clergymen, eight moderate, principled men, who had condemned as “unwise and untimely” his demonstrations against segregation in their city.
One passage of King’s response seems especially apropos to this moment. In it, he confessed that he had become “gravely disappointed with the white moderate.” Too often, he said, they were “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”; and preferred “a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”
Added King: “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
Make no mistake: King well knew that all over the South, liberal white kids were risking their lives for black freedom. He was calling out other white people, often older, more moderate white people like those eight men, for the tepidness and flaccidity of their commitment to racial reconciliation. This was 1963, but as the stories above suggest, that problem endures.
It is possible, for instance, to celebrate that Florida has finally done right by the Groveland Four — and yet, to also be disgusted that it takes 70 years for the state to belatedly admit its crimes and deliver some small measure of delayed “justice.”
It is possible to consider the GOP’s condemnation of Steve King all well and fine, yet also a little arbitrary and affected given that King has a history of racist rhetoric that passed without his party seeming to much notice or care — and that the GOP itself has a long record of thinly-veiled racism as obvious as the writing on Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
It is possible to concede that NBC has an interest in ensuring its people remain disinterested observers of events they report, yet feel that in asking them to refrain from calling obvious racism obvious racism, the network doesn’t embody journalistic rigor so much as it does white peoples’ too frequent refusal to call out such racism even when it’s right in front of them.
We may safely assume most NBC executives, Republican lawmakers and Florida officials would say — and probably believe — all the right things if you asked about their commitment to racial justice. Yet given a chance to put force behind that commitment, they failed. In Florida’s case, they failed for seven decades.
“The ultimate tragedy,” King once said, “is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” He was right.
If you are good, yet silent, maybe you’re not really as good as you think.