There is no excuse for racism. It is based on ignorance, the sins of previous generations, and fear. There is nothing to commend it — ever. It is also true that we human beings are forever tribal in our thinking. That is not a bad thing unless it causes us to mistreat those who are not in our “tribe.”
It is obvious to anyone who lives in the United States (or anywhere else in the world) that racism is alive and well amongst us. Progress is painfully slow, especially for those who are victims, and there are occasionally massive steps backwards. One day I think that this will never go away until we stop talking about it so much. The next I think that we must talk about it more to understand its roots and kill those attitudes and structures that sustain it.
The history of “race relations” in our nation is ugly, painful, and hard to look at. What is worse is our tendency to think that we would have behaved any differently than those whom we condemn. We are all products of our culture and environment and to think otherwise is just as ignorant as the racism that is justly condemned.
One thing I have come to appreciate in my life is the gracious forgiveness that has been offered repeatedly by those groups who have been treated shamefully. There is still violent rhetoric (and sometimes violent actions), but the balance has been toward forgiveness and reconciliation.
This Monday, we will celebrate the life of one whose rhetoric was bluntly honest and still sought peace. As so often happens to those who challenge the status quo and seek to maintain peace, his life was ended by violence. I am part of the society that produced both the one who challenged all of us and the one who took his life — we all are.
There was another shocking event in Memphis 93 years before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. It involved one of the most infamous racists in our history — Nathan Bedford Forrest.
A little background. Life insurance was virtually unheard of before the Civil War. After the war it began to be offered in the south, but not to African Americans. There grew up several “pole-bearer (pallbearer) societies.” They were Black civic organizations whose primary service was to give respectable burials to its members. On another historical note, the ancient church was also known for this.
In July 1875, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the now repentant and converted founder of the KKK, was asked to speak to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association at the annual picnic at the Memphis fairgrounds. His speech was short. Here is the opening.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none.”
At the conclusion of his speech, he kissed the young woman, Miss Lou Louis, on the cheek, who had offered flowers to him.
His language borders on the offensive to our current sensibilities. We know that this is a political speech and so much be considered in that light. We also know that Forrest underwent a nearly miraculous spiritual conversion, which some consider genuine, and others have serious doubts. I am amazed that the Pole-Bearers Association was gracious and forgiving enough to hear him. After that, it is complicated and open to interpretation.
There is no imagining what those who heard him were thinking or what they experienced because of what he stood for. Such is the nature of things when attempting right great wrongs.
I am thankful for Martin Luther King Jr. and what he stood for. I am thankful to all those who are courageous enough to speak the truth in love. I am thankful for forgiveness, reconciliation, and repentance.
For those who may wonder why I (a white man) need to repent for what my ancestors might have done (I know they didn’t because the weren’t here), I need only to look to Jesus. He was baptized by John the Baptist (a baptism of repentance). He did this, I believe, to identify with his people who had sinned. Hurts a little, but I believe I should do the same when it comes to civil rights and the eradication of racism.