Like many of my generation, I learned about the civil rights movement from Al and Arthur. It was the 60's and Al, a small business owner in Milwaukee, read about the struggles for racial equality going on in the south and decided he was tired of sitting on the sidelines. He wanted to do something. So he let Arthur, his business partner, know he'd be out of town for a little while. Al was hesitant to reveal his reason for leaving, but Arthur coaxed it out of him.
Al was a kind and gentle man, giving rise to Arthur's fears for his safety. Arthur also became interested in what was going on down south, so he decided they could both close up shop for a while in order to take care of more significant matters. So off they went to participate in the nonviolent resistant movement going on in the American South. Two white guys, one portly and soft, but determined to help make a difference, the other young and energetic, who could change the hardened hearts of a segrated country by his sheer "coolness": Al Delvecchio and Arthur Fonzarelli, "The Fonz."
No, this wasn't real. This was Happy Days.
The episode first appeared on ABC in January of 1982. By then, things were different. I was seven and had never been a part of an all-white classroom. Although the term "nigger" occasionally came out of the mouths of my grandparents, it was something that was said so infrequently that I rightly categorized it into a set of words that not only were bad to pronounce, but which indicated a horrible way of thinking about a group of people. (By seven, I had also already made the discovery that my grandparents were crazy.) I had black friends, teachers, and even was quite unmoved at the apparently scandalous occurrence of an interracial couple on The Jeffersons. (Yes, I watched way too much television.)
Yet the unfortunate thing is that those of us in similar situations, by virtue of having lived in a different time and under greatly improved circumstances, drank the comforting elixir of belief that everything now was just fine. In our estimation, justice had already rolled down like a mighty river, and we were bathing in the utopia it had created.
Yet our houses were not quite in order, as we had thought. Although I attended school with black students, the issue of them underperforing academically because they had been reared under the affects of years of systemic oppression was never addressed. Our elders, while seeking to appear upright, still insinuated it was a lack of intellect and not of opportunity that placed these friends of mine at the bottom.
It is true, I had black friends. Quite a few, actually. But if you were to ask me why I was friends with them I would have said, with a pious tone, "They're just great people. I don't even think of them as black because they seem kind of white." Yes, I was very progressive.
I'm co-leading a Sunday School class that is using Phillip Yancey's Soul Survivor. In the book he profiles several people who helped salvage his faith. The first chapter is on Martin Luther King, Jr. I read it a few weeks ago and had this strange urge to begin reading up on the civil rights movement. I was a little hesitant, what with MLK day coming up. (It's a sickness we suffer from, this avoiding things that may make us appear to be jumping on a bandwagon.) But I read and I read and in my reading I've come to discover something about American history.
We all have heard it said that Lincoln freed the slaves. And he did. Although it took a while for the Emancipation Proclamation to take root, it did and set into motion the possibility that a little boy in Chandler, TX would sit next to people of color at school. On paper, it appears that King's mission was also to free the black men and women from oppression. And he did. But as I read his speeches and learn how his theology developed, I've come to see him not just as someone who aided the African Americans, but as one sought to liberate white people from the pain that is inflicted on themselves as a result of the injustices they perpetuated. Lincoln freed the black man. King freed the white man.
For several years I've had this nagging thought, and it's one that many of my friends have shared. If the generations before us believed they were so right about something, even to the point of using biblical texts to justify their hate, then what evils do I, and those like me, hold to that I have no clue about.
If I may take a slightly Catholic (big "C") turn to end this post, I'll just say that as we take this day to honor Martin Luther King, I can only pray that he has compassion on whatever wretchedness is within me that I am blind to, and that, as one of the host of witnesses talked about in Hebrews, will see fit to intercede for me.