Reflections on race and the continuing problem of bigotry

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. by Heidi Blomster

As we consider the origins of Anti-Judaism in our own religious tradition it is fitting that we take time to ponder the wider problem of racism within our larger society and the Church. I am profoundly grateful to Dr. King for his leadership in the movement that transformed the society in which we live, but that transformation is not yet complete.

When I started school in Oneonta, Alabama in 1964, a year after the Children’s march in Birmingham, my school was still segregated. There were no black children in my first-grade class and none in my second grade class. When I reached fourth grade there were a few.

In class one day I was arguing quietly with George, one of the new black students. It must have been loud enough for the teacher to notice, though, because she turned around and saw us. She sent us both to the office. I knew what that meant. I had been there before. It was sure to lead to a paddling.

I never imagined what would actually happen, though. The blows came with such force they knocked me to the floor. The principle put his left hand in the middle of my back and held me down as he continued to assault me with the paddle. His furry made no sense to me and I was terrified. He was even more brutal with George. I was in the emergency room the next morning covered with bruises, and George had a broken arm.

My father tried to press charges, but his employer informed him that he would be fired if he did not drop them.

The seething anger of such men, and the collusion of others who kept them in power was a form of evil with very real consequences for the children who had to face them. I see Martin Luther King, Jr. not only as George’s champion, but as my own. I am white, but Dr. King’s self-sacrificial commitment to non-violence brought about far reaching changes that make events like the one George and I experienced less likely to happen (though I’m sure they still do in some places).

Fifty years since the schools were integrated in Alabama, 11:00 am on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week in much of America. How can it be that people who claim to follow Jesus are unable to solve this problem?

I wish George well today and hope he finds comfort and pride in remembering the work of Dr. King. We still have a lot of work to do to flesh out the dream.

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3 Replies to “Reflections on race and the continuing problem of bigotry”

  1. I also went to segregated or mostly segregated white schools and lived in a middle class white neighborhood. When I went into nurses’ training at an urban city hospital, I cared for many African American patients from the nearby ghetto. At graduation I got chosen for the exciting position of working evenings and nights in the emergency room. It was there that I encountered the effects of the poverty and violence in the lives of our patients. I also encountered racism in how they were treated: beat by the police, disparaged by the staff, and a general lack of concern for their dignity as human beings, one of God’s children, At the end of my first year, something in me snapped. I don’t know where it came from but my conscience, my soul told me that if I didn’t leave this environment I would become like “them” (police, staff) and treat African Americans without dignity and care. While this launched me into my highly successful career as a pediatric nurse, I realize now that perhaps I should have had the courage of MLK to try to change the system.

  2. I also went to segregated white schools here in North Carolina. It wasn’t until I entered college at UNC-G that I shared dorm space with young women who were African American, but that was only a crack in the door. I had a work study job in the cafeteria and can remember being afraid of the young black men who worked in the kitchen – that fear was part of what I had learned growing up and it stayed with me. I am so very thankful for my marriage and move to Chapel Hill. Had I not been exposed to different ideas that caused me to challenge some of what I had been taught, I would not have come to know and enjoy some of the dear friends I have from different backgrounds and cultures.

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