No More “Thoughts and Prayers”February 15, 2018
I was stopped behind a school bus on my way to work this morning and as I sat there, at first mildly annoyed for the delay, I watched the children getting on board and the moms standing on the sidewalk waving goodbye to their kids. All at once, I felt a rush of great sadness — how many parents have waved goodbye to their children not knowing it would be the last time? Parents in Parkland, Florida are the latest to suffer this most horrific of all parental nightmares, the deaths of their children at the hands of a madman with an assault rifle. They and the families of the murdered faculty and staff, and those who survived but must live with the memories of the horror, now join the longest, most damning parade in human history, the parade of the living victims of gun violence in America, a parade populated by the survivors and families of Las Vegas and Sandy Hook and Orlando and Aurora and Virginia Tech and Columbine and so many other places across this nation. In just two months in 2018, there have been 18 school shootings. The year is young.
Yes, the young man who perpetrated this latest massacre is sick, as were the (mostly) men who perpetrated the other mass gun murders. Yes, there were signs he could have been stopped. Yes, the school took all precautions and did active shooter drills, to no real purpose except to provide some semblance of a protection that is impossible to provide. No amount of drills can stop the madness. No after-the-murder dissecting of family life and mental health can stop the next act of mayhem.
The craven political response to the prevalence of gun violence is outrageous. The extent to which the money of the National Rifle Association has corrupted our democracy is appalling. The majority of Americans want sensible gun controls but this ongoing demand of We the People is repeatedly stifled and shunted aside by members of Congress and people in the White House who are beholden to the NRA’s political money.
This nation is very confused about the Second Amendment, an artifact of colonial times and in reaction to the struggle of the young republic to keep itself free from British rule. The militia was the basis for the Revolutionary War in an age before the creation of the U.S. Army, and even in the early years of the new country there was no standing army so the idea of the “…well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” was the means by which the nation maintained its sovereignty against external powers. “… the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” is the clause in relation to the militia, not a general statement to allow people in 2018 to build arsenals of assault rifles.
Does this nation want to stop the violence, or not? The moral question is simple. And the moral course of action is clear: imposing reasonable controls on the sale and possession of guns is the most important thing this nation can do to proclaim it’s believe that “life and liberty” are pre-eminent values. Sure, gun controls won’t stop all gun violence, but the failure to enact reasonable gun laws is also a statement — a statement that says that the nation will tolerate mass murder as a political calculus for some people to stay in power.
And, by the way, some of the very politicians who claim to be oh-so-pro-life are precisely the ones who are beholden to the gun lobby.
A nation that cares about the health and safety of its people would have acted on gun control decades ago. But it’s not too late. We need action NOW.
Thoughts and prayers? No. ACTION NOW. STOP THE GUN VIOLENCE.
Let’s make it possible for parents to wave goodbye to their kids on the school bus without fear.Read comments (0) Add Comment
Remembering Barbara Patterson ’84 ’93February 11, 2018
Every so often we meet a person whose dynamic presence compels greater attention to essential issues. Barbara Patterson was such a compelling leader. One of the early pioneers in Trinity’s degree completion program, she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1984 and then her master’s degree in Education in 1993. Barbara died in late January after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.
I first met Barbara when she was president of the Black Student Fund, a legendary DC organization devoted to advocacy and academic support for black children in school, and in particular to providing scholarships and access for low income black students to attend private K-12 schools. Barbara led BSF for 25 years, and during her tenure the organization became a powerful presence on the educational scene in DC.
Barbara helped me to understand the racial dynamics that were changing Trinity in the early 1990s, and she readily accepted an invitation to join our Board of Trustees. Having her wise counsel during the critical change years of the mid-1990’s was essential for me and the board as Trinity experienced a radical transformation in our student population. Barbara was a clear and unequivocal voice for equity and justice; she was firm in her expectation that Trinity must provide access with quality and academic rigor. She insisted on holding our students to high standards. Those principles guided her daily work at BSF.
Barbara earned many awards including recognition as a Washingtonian of the Year. Her legacy will last for generations in the great educational opportunities she made possible for so many black children in the Washington region.
Our condolences go out to Barbara’s husband, daughters and family, along with great gratitude for the many gifts she shared with Trinity. We are so much better today for having known her and reaped the benefits of her leadership as a loyal alumna and trustee.Read comments (1) Add Comment
#MeToo Is Higher Ed’s Challenge, TooJanuary 25, 2018
Appalling. Nauseating.Numbing. Nobody with a functional conscience can read about or watch videos of the testimony of the Olympic gymnasts and other women athletes abused by Larry Nassar and not be shaken to the core. Sally Jenkins, great sports writer at the Washington Post, in a scorching column called it, “…the worst sex abuse scandal in the history of sports — and maybe in the history of this country” and that is saying a lot in the age of #MeToo. Legendary Sports Journalist Christine Brennan wrote in USA Today that the sexual abuse scandal is “the darkest stain in the history of the U.S. Olympic movement” and she calls the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) an “…out-of-touch, antiquated organization unable to grasp the magnitude of this reprehensible situation.” How could anyone not “grasp the magnitude” of the sexual abuse of more than 160 young girls over a long period of time?
So much can and must be said about this utterly reprehensible scandal and the people who failed to protect the children, but I want to focus on one particular aspect right now: the responsibility of colleges and universities to confront the conditions that foster and coddle the perpetrators of sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
Lou Anna Simon, president of Michigan State University where Nassar worked, rightfully resigned last evening after Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison for his crimes. But Simon and her defenders on the Michigan State board were slow to act and obtuse about the horrors as they unfolded. Reports of Nassar’s ongoing practice of sexually abusing women athletes had circulated for years at Michigan State with some investigations ensuing but no concerted action by the university leadership to confront the problem. Numerous commentators point out the obvious parallels between the Nassar/Michigan State case and the horrific sexual abuse case at Penn State involving football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and leading to the firing, indictment and conviction of Penn State University President Graham Spanier and other officials for their failure to report to the police in a timely way.
How much can a university president be expected to know about criminal activity and breakdowns in policies and procedures on campus? In a story in Inside Higher Education, writer Rick Seltzer states, ” While some might say it isn’t practical to hold a president to the standard of knowing everything happening on campus, advocates retort that clear expectations, good personnel and strong policy should allow presidents to know what cases are important and when they need to get involved.”
Here’s my answer: as president, I am responsible for everything that happens on campus. Period. No fudge language. No finger-pointing or wriggling out of it with mushy words about being kept in the dark or couldn’t have possibly known or wasn’t my job. That is no guarantee that bad things won’t happen, or that I can fix everything directly, but the first and most obvious step in leadership is accepting the burden of widespread responsibility even, and perhaps most importantly, for the unseen and unexpected and deceptive and warped human behaviors that are the basis for so much criminal activity and sexual abuse.
Acknowledging responsibility for what goes on also means that I have to have people, policies and procedures in place to act when stuff happens — the minute I hear a report of something going awry, I have to insist that we get inside of and underneath what is going on. I don’t do the investigation myself, of course, but I have to have honest, forthright leaders in key positions who will tell me the truth and do what is necessary to get at it.
At Trinity, we have strict policies on Harassment (covering all kinds of harassment, not just sexual) and Sexual Misconduct, and we maintain a web of resources on sexual assault. The federal law known as Title IX that protects women’s rights in school has also covered sexual assault, and Trinity’s Title IX Coordinator China Wilson handles cases as they arise along with our support team in Student Affairs, Health Services, Campus Safety and other resource centers. We offer programs at orientation and other times throughout the academic year, and our personnel must complete routine training on harassment and assault prevention.
We take student safety very seriously, and we investigate every complaint immediately. We can and do confront inappropriate individual behaviors, and we have and will continue to take action, including termination, when individuals violate our policies on harassment and sexual misconduct. Most of all, we don’t wait for a major case to arise — by acting effectively on every complaint and investigating rumors, we are able to address bad behaviors immediately.
Having the right “tone at the top,” strong policies and vigorous enforcement is no guarantee that something bad will not happen. But taking ownership for a strong environment for protecting students and everyone on campus from sexual predators helps to manage the context for incidents before they become huge. In almost every notorious case — whether Larry Nassar or Jerry Sandusky or others — including an appalling list of cases in the Catholic Church — the incidence of sex abuse could have been stopped if people in positions of authority and responsibility had acted immediately to call the police, separate the predator from the institution, and take all steps necessary to make sure that victims were cared for to the greatest extent possible.
I invite comments and suggestions from everyone in the Trinity community on ways we can improve Trinity’s environment for safety and freedom from sexual harassment and abuse.
See my article “President Simon’s Resignation: Too Little, Too Late” in the Chronicle of Higher EducationRead comments (1) Add Comment
Voices of Trinity: Shutdown ShakedownJanuary 19, 2018
The United States Congress has one job: to enact laws that serve We the People of the United States. Congress is failing miserably at this job. Partisan gridlock has grown worse and worse over the years, but we may have reached the nadir — the worst possible point — this week. As of this writing it appears that Congress is unable to reach agreement on a short-term funding bill to keep the government running. While some people may joke that life is good if the government is closed, in fact, many, many people are hurt by a shutdown of the federal government. Making matters worse, the shutdown is really a shakedown — a tactic used by lawmakers and the president of the United States in a cruel and cynical political competition to please their “base” for votes and to get their way through brute force rather than reasonable negotiation and compromise. We are at a point in America where the art of compromise is seen as being only for losers. What a shame, what a loss, what a detestable retreat from what was once the most important part of national governance.
Many people suffer real harm even if the shutdown is short, or for some, even if the shutdown is only a threat. People are worried about their jobs and income, the availability of federal government services, the ability to get answers and assistance from federal agencies responsible for everything from Social Security to Medicaid to federal financial aid. People worry about the impact on our military and national security. People can’t even turn to national parks to relieve the stress since many might close. Even the National Zoo.
I asked members of the Trinity community to let us know what they are worried about if the federal government shuts down. As usual, the Voices of Trinity are loud, eloquent and passionate. Here’s a summary of the results of our informal internal survey as of 6 pm on Friday, January 19, 2018:
Among 110 responses from students, faculty and staff,
- 62% are working in government themselves or have family members working in government, the military or related businesses
- 37% depend on Social Security, Medicaid or other kinds of federal social services and support
Question: How will a federal shutdown affect you? What is your biggest worry?
The human cost of political irresponsibility is almost incalculable. Even if the shutdown does not occur this time, or if it only lasts a few days, the stress, pain and suffering of real people who feel helpless, threatened and at their wits’ ends with our current political leaders is quite real. For the Trinity community, being in Washington means that we are more affected by the federal government than we might be elsewhere. Students, faculty and staff are legitimately worried about their paychecks or those of their family members, their Medicaid benefits, their ability to get answers in student financial aid offices, and so many related agencies. This stress is piled heavily on top of the issues that have created this meltdown in our political system — the ongoing treatment of Dreamers as political bargaining chips in the cynical ping-pong game of DACA legislation, the issues about immigration policy and TPS and funding The Wall, the president’s utter disdain and contempt for people who are poor and in need and from countries like Haiti and El Salvador, the ways in which political leaders have fostered a mean-spirited, small-minded, inhumane and profoundly immoral culture that degrades so many people. Our Democracy is quivering, our hope of finding a stable center for a Good Society is challenged like never before.
In all of this, the threat of a federal shutdown affects people in different ways. While individual concerns may seem small, the collective impact for every day people trying to live their lives is enormous. These are some of the many replies to the question, “What is your biggest worry about a federal shutdown?”
A student replies: “Since I quit my job to go to school our only income is with my husband who is a contractor through the federal government — if it shuts down he will not be paid and it will not be paid back to him.”
Another student replies: “The gov’t shutdown will have a major affect on my life as I depend on my salary to support my household. Now with my financial situation being affected that will further threaten my student status at Trinity.”
Student who is a federal worker: “I’ve been a public servant for 15 years and my biggest concern are loss if income, inability to pay my bills and how long the shutdown will last.”
Faculty member: “The shutdown stands between the biologist in the family receiving NSF funding for his research or not.”
Staff member: “My aunt works for the federal government and she helps financially to support my extended family. I am concerned for workers like her who support themselves and others with their salaries. My concern is for workers who may be living check to check.”
Another student who is a federal worker: “My biggest worry is that I will be unable to provide for my 1 year old daughter after I’ve exhausted my savings depending on the length of the shutdown.”
Faculty member: “My son is a government employee. My husband receives military retirement and now, social security. I receive military retirement pay. A huge impact for us, especially since we pay most bills on the first of the month–which is when these paychecks are deposited.”
Student: ” I have Medicaid & I see constantly see a therapist. I’m afraid that if the federal government shuts down I won’t be able to see my therapist anymore because of no Medicaid.”
Faculty member: “My husband has a contractor job that is assigned to the federal government and when the government closes he is not paid or has to use his sick and vacation days until they are gone and then not get paid for the remainder of the time. We are already living basically paycheck to paycheck so it is a huge issue for us.”
Student: “I am a government employee & my biggest worry is being furloughed & being unable to get paid.”
Staff member: “My daughter and her husband both work for the government. Newlyweds who just purchased a home.”
Staff member: “Our students that may have federal jobs and might be affected as they may have payment plans to fulfill aside from not having money to pay the babysitter, bus fare, gas, other that allows them to come to school. In general, our school may be impacted as well, although not like our students and federal workers, because the government will only allow essential personnel to work. This means that customer service representatives for the FAFSA site, COD, NSLDS, etc. may not be available unless they are contractors which I doubt. This may have an impact with students trying to navigate the FAFSA site and receiving help with issues with their FSA ID, etc; the same for the schools, as it may be more difficult to find help when trying to reach COD, NSLDS, FSA to resolve any issues or seek guidance.”
Question: What would you like to say to President Trump and Members of Congress about the shutdown and the political issues that led to this point?
A pervasive sense of exhaustion, disgust and anger threads through the many answers to this question. Representative sample of the replies:
“How can our lawmakers sleep at night, while individuals on DACA, parents relying on CHIP, those with federal jobs live in uncertainty and the stress that comes with it? It is time for compassion and courage to reign above servitude to pride, above pretense, above fear of appearing weak. Governance in a democracy requires listening to all, not just the constituency that donates the most campaign funding. Governing is not a game. It is a job with serious responsibilities and consequences — to real people.”
“I would let President Trump and his administration know that as the daughter of two naturalized citizens, I am disgusted with what they’ve rightful laws and policies they are trying to remove. This was a nation founded by immigrants. Immigrants help this nation thrive with astounding new ideals and beliefs. Immigrants and their families have helped shaped the greatness of the nation, what is in it for you to know that millions of students like me trying to make this nation better will be kicked out to start ALL OVER, in the “shithole” countries we come from? We come for the opportunity that the United States gives us that isn’t otherwise provided in our own homelands. We come to seek refuge. If you believe in the Holy Family, they were immigrants as well. Please take this into consideration.”
“Have a heart.”
“I don’t want to speak to the politicians in this situation as they have made it beyond obvious that they are not willing to listen and work collaboratively on solutions for our country. I WOULD like to speak with voters, though, and explain to them what a shutdown actually entails (Congress will still report for work, it’s regular employees and contractors with mortgages, rent, and families to support who suffer). I would encourage voters to actually educate themselves on issues like CHiP and DACA, since there’s so much misinformation about these programs floating around (like DACA recipients are welfare abusers who don’t work, when actually they are students, employees, and members of our military). The dysfunction evident in the legislative and executive branches is a mirror of the dysfunction of society right now- these politicians are only making the decisions they make to appeal to their bases. Since politicians don’t put themselves in office, our time would be better spent trying to create real dialogue among ourselves so we can vote in people who are actually willing to listen and work with others.”
“Stop the blame game and address the issues.”
“Honestly… my concerns would take all day… so if I had to break this situation down in one sentence in terms of how I would address the issue regarding. DACA, immigration, The Wall, Children’s Health Insurance, military spending. My message would be: “You WORK for the people and NOT your constituents.. You’re Fired”
“Peoples’ lives are at stake. This must be a time when you evaluate history and acknowledge the legislation held up by generations of politicians and presidents before you. Acknowledge the past and recognize the impact these decision will have on future generations. Not just the immediate effect— but long term affects. No president has created so many new changes to eradicate so many diverse populations of people with regard to detailed systems of aid, research, community support, and funding in history of the US. Step outside the insular thinking and recognize the immense damage — it is everlasting and irreversible.”
“Mr. President, we all walk our own journey in life and by God’s grace we do our best to live. You are not the first president to bring to face the hatred and racism bred in our country but you can be the last. Please look beyond the color of my skin and the accent carried in my voice. All is asked is that you do your job and serve the people of this country- Caucasian, African American, Latino, Asian, Indigenous. We all come from the same Father and bleed the same red blood. Aren’t I, like you, a child of God”
“Stop thinking about building walls (actual and metaphorical) between this country and others, between the people within this country, and start focusing on quality of life and opportunities for all people.”
“If I were were able to speak to President Trump, I would tell him to stop being selfish and inconsiderate. His actions affect ALL of us and by acting childish YOU are causing America to look foolish. I don’t think anyone would want to be allies with a country that singles out their OWN people. When thinking please think of the pros and cons for EVERYONE. Just like you,many have families to care for and taking away those rights are outrageous. The DACA, taking away Obama Care that helped MILLIONS who could not afford healthcare, immigration, and this ridiculous wall is truly out of hatred and it is very obvious. Put yourself in the shoes of the families you have ruined and tell us what it felt like. You are only president for the title not to help America and its citizens.”
“Fix DACA now and reauthorize Children’s Health Insurance. And just do your job of governing, which includes passing annual budgets”
“Include them all in your budget. Did the Dr. find a heart during your exam?”
“I wish we had a president who was really concerned about the working people of this country not just the wealthy. The people who will be adversely impacted by the policies of Trump will survive because they are resilient, but they will be damaged. His policies will limit the potential of so many marginalized people which will do nothing to make America great!!”
“To make sure that all programs stay in place because they are beneficial to all people. Especially DACA because some of my colleagues are on that program and it has help them to get through college and achieve milestones and dreams.”
“I would tell them that if there is a government shutdown because of these topics, then maybe they weren’t right for the jobs they are responsible for.”
“I will tell them to not be cold-hearted, that I’m losing more than what they could ever imagine; that my family will lose everything, too; that I would have to go back to a country that I don’t know because I came when I was 3 Years old here and I don’t remember my country; please take a moment and think if it would be your son or daughter dealing with the fact that they will go back to a place that is unknown to then start over and lose everything they have —- how would you feel?”
“To please stop holding DACA hostage as it relates to this wall. The government needs to do it’s job and keep the government running. The people who are making the decisions will continue to get paid, while many Americans and their families would suffer”
“Put your ego aside and actually do what is right for the people. Protecting life on all levels is urgent.”
“It’s a shame that the people elected into office and congress and those who run the world can not come up with a deal. I want to know what’s the issue? I can see if immigrants didn’t work or go to school and we’re lazy then maybe I could reason with the government but I cannot. These people are just like everyone else . They work hard jobs and go to school and to have to face stupidity from a leader with no common sense what so ever is astonishing. Trump doesn’t think things through at all. If he wants to deport them, where are they going back to? They came to America for a reason a better living and experience at life why would he do that. It’s beyond me and it makes me furious.”
“I will tell them to stop messing around because they are going to affect us more if their is no solution to DACA. And they need to come together and fix the problems their owns self have cause. Realize how much of this situation is affecting families. They don’t know what it’s like being apart from love ones”
“Going against DACA/immigration is against what this country was founded on. Immigration is key to this country’s success and humanity.”
“Honestly, these politicians have been inundated with how this will impact their constituents and they do not care. They can sit on a plane next to a man with a disease that will kill him without medical care (that he now depends on ACA for insurance) and they do not give a damn. Talking with them does nothing. They have been bought and paid for by big businesses (for profit prisons, NRA, etc.). It is time for term limits and the elimination of gerrymandering. It is time to get EVERYONE to the voting the booth and keep them engaged.”
“The criteria for establishing our priorities must be what we are doing to the image and likeness of God present in those effected by what we do. Yes to making DACA and CHIP permanent, to inclusive and compassionate immigration policies, greater balance in funding for the State Department and for diplomacy along with military spending. Any funding for a “Wall” is a waste.”
“Imagine that DACA existed years ago when your family immigrated to the United States and was suspended resulting in your family or you being sent back to a country you know nothing about. Imagine being forcefully separated from your children, as was the case with the young man who came to America as a child, married a U.S. citizen and just this week was separated from his family. What explanation can you give to his children? These are lives being affected, not just numbers.”
“I would recommend that their salaries be impacted by the shutdown as well. Give a briefing on the history of US with respect to “melting pot”, colonialism, and the danger of mimicking Hitler’s philosophy of supremacy.”
“Although I am afraid that it would fall in deaf ears as they all are only looking out for themselves. I would say that if they don’t fix it immediately, not only would I not vote for them (which I wouldn’t anyway) but I would make darn sure that no one in my immediate family and friends wouldn’t vote for them. I can not influence the president and republican party (intentionally in lower case) but I can sure be vocal and let my voice heard to influence those who vote. I will drive people to the polls and so will my family, I will do whatever it takes to ensure that our voice is heard at the polls. I firmly believe that the thought of not being elected again would make a dent since being kind, patriotic, and standing for what the majority of the people believes and wants doesn’t work.”
“Remember the people that your decisions will affect in these “issues” that you are having such difficulty coming to an agreement. What if these people were your direct family members? Would you still make the same choices? Will you be making the best decisions for their health and overall success as a member of society? Proceed with empathy.”
“A government shutdown is no way to run a democracy and is a failure of leadership and collaboration. However, today, at this moment in history, being on the brink of a government shutdown is absolutely the right course of action if it means swift passage of DACA and CHIP!”
“Our government should not be a racist capitalist machine. It should be a democracy and as elected leaders they should act accordingly.”
THE MESSAGE: DO YOUR JOB!Read comments (0) Add Comment
MLK 50 Years Later: Where We Are as a NationJanuary 15, 2018
What if Dr. King had lived?
50 years ago this year, April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated by a white supremacist in Memphis. He was just 39 years old. Had Dr. King lived, he would be 89 today, not so great an age any more when we consider the ages of people still dominating the Senate of the United States. In a sense, prodigious as his accomplishments were in the four short decades of his life, Dr. King’s best and most productive years were still ahead of him. Imagining history’s “what ifs” is an interesting but rather pointless parlor game, except for what we can learn by thinking about what we lost because of the murderous foreshortening of his life. If we realize the loss more clearly, we can know even more urgently what we must do to reclaim the march for racial justice.
Dr. King is often quoted as saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” He led the great bending inflection point in the 1950’s and 60’s, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education banning school segregation and triggering the end of “de jure” (enshrined in law) segregation everywhere. At the zenith of his work he stood alongside President Lyndon Johnson, once a notorious racist and southern segregationist, as President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In too many ways we can see clearly today, the arc of the half century since then, while characterized by some ongoing gains for civil and human rights in this nation, has also been the steady erosion and regulatory containment of those rights now seeming to be cascading downward with a president whose rhetoric and policies are profoundly racist and show no hope of a Johnson-like conversion (if even for cynical political reasons, as Johnson’s conversion was.)
While many individuals exerted leadership for civil rights after Dr. King, we have not seen a singular leader with his charisma and eloquence and power to organize the movement. Part of the erosion in his great work for civil rights has occurred because in place of great leadership we saw the rise of bureaucracy, regulatory dithering, challenges to civil rights progress made by people who misused the rhetoric and principles of civil rights to advance very different causes and a great deal of self-interest.
Dr. King insisted that nonviolent protest was the most effective means to achieve the fundamental changes necessary to achieve civil rights and racial justice in America. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King responded to a group of white ministers in Alabama who criticized him for organizing protests. His letter clearly sets for the principles and purpose of nonviolent action:
“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
“… My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Dr. King goes on to establish the foundation for nonviolent action and opposition to unjust laws in the ongoing abuse of African Americans and refusal of the white community to admit its complicity in racism:
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
“Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”
On this day when we remember Dr. King, every American should take the time to read or listen to the Letter from a Birmingham Jail and consider, not how far we’ve come, but how much erosion we have allowed to thwart the march toward racial justice. The arc of history has bent from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Donald J. Trump. To be at a moment in American history when the president of the United States stands before microphones declaring, “I am not a racist” after he completely trashed nations whose citizens are black and brown, who praised white supremacists after Charlottesville while trashing black communities throughout his presidential campaign, who is on record as saying he’d prefer immigrants from Norway rather than Haiti or Africa, who has made few African American appointments at any level of government, to be in this moment is to realize that we have all stood by while the arc of the moral universe suffers entropy and decline. (Read this New York Times compilation of evidence on President Trump’s longstanding racist behavior and rhetoric.)
If this day is to be more than a memorial to a man long dead, we must re-ignite the engines of that arc, we must confront the unspeakable evil that has gripped too many parts of our country, the evil of hatred openly expressed against other human beings, the evil that tears families apart with deportation, that thwarts and oppresses undocumented persons, that looks the other way when white supremacists march down Main Street, that tolerates appalling police brutality and official oppression in the name of security. We must restart the movement of the arc of history toward justice.Read comments (1) Add Comment