Almost 50 years, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Stanford University where he proclaimed words that belong to the ages. He called his message, “The Other America”:
There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. In a sense, this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. In this America, millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.
But tragically, and unfortunately, there is another America.
This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.
He went on to address poverty and racism in the United States and how both these evils must die if we are to thrive as one nation. His message to Stanford was some four years after he gave the eulogy for those four little girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
The year is 2015. Segregation has ended, legally anyway. The laws in the land have changed, but one must ask if the hearts of the people have.
It is interesting to watch the wide assortment of thoughts surrounding the events of the last twelve months. It literally hasn’t been a year since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. It hasn’t been a month since a mom told some Black kids to “go back to your Section 8 Housing” and a police officer lost his cool and withdrew his firearm on teenagers in swimming clothes.
As a Christian, as a pastor, and as African-American man, I have difficulty trying to understand what happened in Charleston. Regardless of people’s faith backgrounds, but especially with respect to my own faith, I have always regarded church as “holy ground.” When I pass places of Jewish or Muslim worship, while I don’t enter, I still treat them with respect. They are sacred spaces. I am trained to welcome guests, not to fear them—especially ones that don’t look like me. Despite all the events that have happened this year, the church was the one place that was supposed to be safe. It’s one place to pray for the healing from the wounds of this year. Now, the church has been added to list as a place where wounds have been inflicted. I don’t know 1963 moved on from the murder of those four little girls. I suspect the same way we will from the murders of the 9 at Emmanuel AME: one day at a time.
What disturbs me to my core, however, is not just the Two Americas that exist to this day but their perceptions of these events:
There is one America that has rallied behind #BlackLivesMatter. There is an acknowledgement that African-Americans and other people of color in the United States have historically been discriminated against in every way possible from police brutality and mass incarceration to unemployment, housing, and educational hindrances. Pastors are regularly creating programs and calling for change in their cities, states, and the nation. As with the Civil Rights Movement, there are minute pockets of white people who have grown nauseous at the silence and closed-mindedness of some of their friends, family, and spiritual leaders. They have been advocates for justice that surprise even them. There is one America that is calling simply for justice and truth BEFORE any conversation about racial reconciliation can begin. There are groves of people with heavy hearts (in Texas especially considering today is Juneteenth) that this tragedy has happened on holy ground.
But there is still another America.
This other America has not been simply silent but rather oblivious to these racial incidents. These events haven’t been brought up in conversation, points of prayer during church, or as words of comfort on social media. I am accustomed to my people being vilified by mainstream media and news outlets. (I do not accept it, but I am aware that is how we will be portrayed.) Every black person that has died this year in an unarmed confrontation with the police has been a “thug,” “delinquent,” “troubled youth,” or some other negative connotation. That’s about the extent these events have registered in this other America.
A 21-year old white male walked into Emmanuel AME Church, a historically Black church in South Carolina founded by slaves, and killed 9 people including the pastor—on the anniversary of one of the early slave revolts led by Emmanuel’s founder Denmark Vesey (Google him if you don’t know who he is). The person who committed these terrorist acts stated he wanted “to start a race war.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines terrorism as, “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in the furtherance of political or social objectives.” But in this other America, Dylann Roof is not a terrorist. He’s not racist. He’s a troubled kid who needs help. At best, it is an opportunity to discuss gun control laws in US. At worst, this is an assault on Christians, and Christians only.
Just like in 1967, today there are two Americas. One is pretty diverse. It has people of various ethnic backgrounds from Asian to Native American, African-American, White, Hispanic, the list goes on. This America is grieved and troubled and saddened and angered by the events of this year and the painful violence that happened at Emmanuel AME Church.
The other America? Not a dot on the radar.
I have gotten a litany of text messages, phone calls, and emails asking how I am doing—as I am sure many of my Black co-workers, friends, and family have. Some of them I have responded to because they are from dear friends that truly care. Some of them I haven’t because I simply don’t have the emotional energy to repeat myself anymore.
I/We have nothing new to say.
If people want to know how the Black community is doing in light of Ferguson, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Walter Scott, McKinney’s Pool Party…and now Charleston…
I invite you to visit our America.
Sean M. Watkins
Check out comments made by Jon Stewart on the Charleston Shooting.