Whites killed MLK. Now we honor him: Column
Oliver Thomas6:04 p.m. EST January 17, 2016
Centuries of kidnapping, torture, murder, rape. What white person can understand black lives? Not me.
My dad called Martin Luther King an "agitator." I bet a lot of white dads did. Seems like every time Dr. King showed up somewhere, things got torn up or burned up.
So we killed him. Not me, of course. I'm not a racist. But who thinks he is?
So we tried to fix it. Made his birthday a national holiday. Put him on a pedestal. Where we can honor him. And he can't poke us in the eye.
Plus, now we've squared everything. The Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act. Come on, we've even elected a black president! That's why people who look like me have a hard time understanding why so many black people are still angry while others have given up on America altogether.
I'll let Ta-Nehisi Coates boil it down for you. White society was not achieved through "wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land." In short, through three centuries of kidnapping, torture, murder and rape. Broken teeth, broken bones and broken spirits. Families ripped apart. Children taken from their parents. Men humiliated in front of their wives. Women brutalized within earshot of their husbands. Lash after bloody lash on bare backs. Then, sleep on a bare wooden floor. No doctor, no dentist, no nothing. Just non-stop misery with a few hymns on Sunday.
We built an entire society on these bruised and broken backs. That and countless Native Americans driven off their land. Then, after the house of horrors fell, and the sin was purged by the blood of more than a half-million young mostly white men, white America still did not relent. Despite passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, states found ways to disenfranchise blacks. We took back the vote, cordoned blacks off in the most undesirable parts of our cities, forced them into inferior schools and denied them opportunities. Few blacks owned their homes. Many could not read and write. Thousands were lynched. That's Southern for murdered without a trial. Imagine if that's what black men had done to Robert De Niro or David Bowie for marrying black women.
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When the Supreme Court — at the goading of America's greatest black lawyer — finally struck down "separate but equal," we dragged our feet for up to 10 years in some states before we would integrate our schools. Even then, thousands of white parents simply placed their children in private schools. Later, when progressive whites were able to enact some modest corrective measures to offset centuries of state-sponsored terrorism, a Supreme Court — composed of eight privileged whites and only one African American — struck them down as reverse discrimination. Checkmate. It is as if after cheating for seven innings and being caught in the eighth, the umpire could make no adjustment to the score because that would not be fair.
Now comes a phone call. I have been asked to speak at a Martin Luther King Day event. Me, a white preacher, speaking to a predominantly black audience filled with gifted preachers.
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Well, here's the message. No white person understands the black experience. Not Bill Clinton. Not Bernie Sanders. Not me. Not anybody. We can't understand the black experience any more than I can understand how it feels to be a woman.
Where does this leave us? Are whites and blacks condemned to live only parallel lives with a great chasm forever separating us? Not necessarily. White people could rise to the occasion. We could perform the first and more fundamental act of love.
We could listen.
Oliver Thomas is a minister, lawyer and member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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