My recollections of the civil rights movement of the ’60s are rather limited. I was sheltered from much of the reality and shaped by a social context that placed blame solely on “troublemakers” like Martin Luther King Jr.
Living in a community where African Americans were scarce and isolated led to little contact outside my small, white, blue-collared, baptized world.
One of the few personal experiences with the struggle for racial equality was the minor inconvenience caused by curfews in nearby Chattanooga, Tenn., designed to stem rioting. We had to get home from Kmart by the designated hour.
Of course, any effort to raise the visibility of discrimination was viewed as troublemaking, if not rioting. All blame, according to the familiar narrative, rested with those seeking equality, never those who denied it.
So, while younger moviegoers gasped at the use of strong racial slurs hurled at young Jackie Robinson in the movie “42,” it was sadly not shocking to those of us who heard such insults and insensitivity in daily discussions decades ago.
However, I wondered how the grandchildren of those baseball players, coaches and executives felt about the ignorant and obstructionist ways of their forebears.
Or how do the offspring of those who turned water hoses and billy clubs on defenseless black citizens in Alabama feel today? Is “that’s the just way things were back then” enough of a response?
However, the more constructive question for us is what are we saying and doing today that might cause those who spill out of our family trees to shake their heads in amazement and shame at our ignorance and insensitivity?
Take a young person to see “42” or to visit a civil rights site in Birmingham, Montgomery, Memphis or Atlanta – and then listen. Listen carefully.
Expect to hear an incredulous questioning of: “How could people who claimed to be good Christians act that way?”
And don’t give some flippant answer in an attempt to justify such horrors. It doesn’t help as much as confessing, “I don’t know; I just don’t know.”
However, we must keep moving to the present tense. What am I saying and doing today that someone else will someday struggle to reconcile with the faith and goodness I claimed?
It is a question many dismiss with, “but this one is different.” And then “the Bible says” gets thrown in for justification, as if that wasn’t used to justify bad behavior before.
I think about the three men representing the Georgia Baptist Convention who, a few years ago, paid a visit to the historic First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., that provides a wide and wonderful ministry in that community.
They warned the pastor that the convention would break ties with them for one reason only – because she was a woman in a position of authority reserved by God for men.
If the families of these men are not ashamed now, they should be (and more so should these men). But I wonder, what will their granddaughters or great-granddaughters think if they read the reports of that action years from now?
Sadly, so many examples could follow. We are much too comfortable in justifying prejudices and discrimination.
On the other hand, there are those who look back now with great pride at courageous and insightful relatives who stood for what was just and loving, even when it was against the grain of their culture. That must be very gratifying.
However, the wholly sufficient reason for doing what is right is because it is right.
To be found on the right side of history, when it comes to issues of justice and equality, is not some careful strategic plan to leave a good legacy or reputation.
But it sure doesn’t hurt if we stand for truth, justice and love – and those who follow are glad we did.