Driving home in the early evening darkness, we were talking about how much hadn’t changed with race relations in this country, following the exoneration of police officers accused of killing unarmed black men in Ferguson and Staten Island.
Suddenly, I had the sensation of falling through a wrinkle in time. I have lived in a small town in upstate New York for nearly 30 years and have loved the old-fashioned civility of the people and the quiet country pace. I have never felt unwelcome here, despite being one of only a handful of African Americans.
But my fiancé, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, is less sanguine. He waits to pick up mail after pickup trucks with gun racks pass. I felt like we’re a black couple during the height of the civil rights movement, with little corners of fear curling in on a once-peaceful existence. America’s racism has spent decades in the dark, but in the years since the election of our first black president, more of its systemic disparities have come to light (Luke 12:2-3). It feels like falling through time.
That’s what I thought when I saw the movie Selma last week, watching David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. I was in second grade when the events depicted in the movie took place. I can remember writing a big 7 on the chalkboard for my birthday in September. Months later, and hundreds of miles away, civil rights leaders led thousands to march for voting rights.
For many years, African Americans have felt that those events were part of a painful but thankfully receding history. However, recent events have made many of us feel differently. My sister put it this way: “We feel stripped of our illusions.”
The names of dead black men have become a familiar roll call: Oscar Grant in Florida; Eric Garner in Staten Island; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Mike Brown in Ferguson; and John Crawford in Ohio. The rallying cries have been I Can’t Breathe, Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, and most sadly, Black Lives Matter, something we shouldn’t need a hashtag to remind us.
Therefore, this MLK Day feels different from many others. There’s terrorism abroad, and hate at home. Ugly tensions have festered between the mayor of New York and the police department, with angry words shouted by both sides. We don’t just need to remember what MLK did for us then. We must take his words to heart now.
In rallies reminiscent of the protests led during the civil rights movements, we saw multitudes take to the streets in almost half of the United States last year, calling for unity and peace. Every tribe, tongue, and nation, to use biblical language.
Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, an 800-plus-page tome on the Great Migration of southern blacks to the north, told The New York Times, “A map of the largest protests those first nights, and of the high-profile cases of police violence in recent months, lit up like a map of the Great Migration: New York, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Washington, Los Angeles, Oakland, all of them the major receiving stations of the movement.” She doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the discrimination and the violence our forebears were fleeing is turning up in the very places to which they fled.
When protests resumed in New York the night after two officers were murdered by a disturbed shooter from Baltimore, they were more subdued. Protesters marched their way to Bedford-Stuyvesant and joined with those who had come out to honor the slain officers at a candlelight vigil, their voices mingling as one in the night air singing, “This Little Light of Mine.”
Could it be that we are finally coming together? Johnny Enlow, a prophetic Christian author who has urged racial reconciliation, interpreted recent dreams involving foods as indicating a flood of God’s spirit bringing renewal to his people. I could not help but think of this as thousands flood American streets every day; the grandchildren of the civil rights generation, black, white, brown, yellow, coming together as one; saying all lives matter, whether black or blue. As believers, we are bound to see God—the Ultimate Good, the Most Just, and the One who unites us all—behind the recent joining together.
Actor David Oyelowo, who played MLK in Selma, insists the movie came at a divinely appointed time. By revisiting the horror of our past, perhaps we won’t be doomed to repeat it. For God himself has promised that, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves, turn from their wicked ways, and pray and seek my face, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).
Could it be that the victims of such violence, both civilians and police, have played the role of “angels,” God’s messengers, telling us in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., that if we cannot learn to live together as brothers then we may perish together as fools?