“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
~Martin Luther King, Jr.~
It was early 2017. White nationalists seemed to be everywhere in the months following Donald Trump’s election, waving Confederate flags and proclaiming the USA is a White nation. All this in spite of Oprah and Obama. I felt the need to apologize. “I am so sorry,” I told my personal trainer, a Black woman. “Racism must have been here all along.” She was probably accustomed to liberals craving penance and seeking forgiveness. She did not respond to my confession, except to say I should go to the weight machine and wait for further instruction.
I am a 64-year old White liberal overeducated woman who has been a spectator to civil rights injustices for more than 50 years, observing it all from the safe seats. My first awareness of American racial inequity was when my father’s company moved us, after six years in Europe, to Memphis, Tennessee. The year was 1966.
From the back seat of the family car, I watched Black men, women and children toiling in cotton fields, as if reenacting a scene from Gone with the Wind. On lockers at my public school, I wondered at graffiti, “The South will Rise Again.” In the middle of the school year, my Yankee parents switched me to a girl’s Catholic school for reasons still unclear. Something to do with the crass behavior of the principal, his use of language not befitting an authority figure. I suspected the n-word was at play.
April 1968- The CBS Evening News showed footage of Black male protestors in Memphis carrying signs that read, I Am a Man. In our suburban living room —occupied by my father, mother and Walter Cronkite— I wondered why garbage men protesting poor wages and unsafe working conditions needed to prove they were men.
A nun spoke tearfully of the assassination of Dr. King. She told us there would be curfews each night. The city expected riots. Fear, not grief, seemed the predominant feeling in my segregated world. Why, I wondered, would anyone want to harm a Black preacher who had come to Memphis to help garbage men? Why kill a man who spoke of dreams and peace and equality under the law?
My favorite prayer, The Confiteor, invites the congregation to recognize, “[We] have…