I was among those fortunate enough to literally have a front row seat i when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his emblematic March on Washington speech. His dream that a future generation would be judged more by the content of their mind than the color of their skin is what brought us Barack Obama. At least that is the comfortable narrative which we “White” Americans embrace. It is understandable, and many of us who watched his speech earlier this week felt once again that we were witnessing history; a straight line from Washington to Philadelphia. But it wasn’t only Martin who brought him and us to this point. It was also Malcolm. African American progress was born of King’s moral outrage and non-violent strategy, but also of Malcolm X’s anger along with the calls for Black pride and power. It was both that made it possible for Clarence Thomas to sit on the Supreme Court; for Charlie Rangel and John Lewis to sit in the halls of Congress. Outrage and anger, the first can and does make us uncomfortable, the second instills us with fear.
Beyond having been there on that August 1963 day, I also know something about preaching and the discomfit the pulpit can bring to the pew. Not only did I do it myself, but spent all of my childhood and many of my adult years listening to my father (who also addressed the March) making his congregation squirm in their seats. Nothing is more tradition-bound than the church or synagogue. For many Americans, particularly White Americans, it is a place of quiet dignity, up tight and predictable. In fact, these days it is mostly a place where the words heard are more likely to be of moral comfort and moral outrage. We sit, we stand, we kneel, we recite, we sing – all in predictable fashion. “How nice it was this evening for this morning.” Some tweaking notwithstanding, it’s pretty well as it was in our parents and grandparents day, a powerful link for past. But tradition is not monolithic. Mine may be vastly different than yours. The African American church has a tradition of its own, one that comes not out of so many years of domination that we can’t remember beyond them, but from years of suppression that remain an immediate vivid memory and painfully real.
For sure Martin preaches in Black churches, perhaps he even predominates, but so too does Malcolm. In truth, you can often find both embodied in one preacher, a tug of internal war that reflects both hope and desperation. It is true that the pews are now peopled by some who have achieved great success, broken into worlds once denied them. But the sad reality is that in no case was that a foregone conclusion. Barack Obama remains the only African American Senator, Clarence Thomas the only Black Supreme. Because of Martin and Malcolm both men and others like them can focus on the positive, “normalcy” if you will. In that, they embody what we all hope will be, and “hope” is the right word. What they do is both necessary and, however personally well earned, a luxury of the accomplished. Both Martin and Malcolm, would feel vindicated by their coming of age, even if they wouldn’t necessary agree with what normalcy has put into their minds of mouths. But Barack and Clarence are the exception and not the rule. While we look to them for leadership and as our own role models in some profound color-agnostic way, most African Americans remain left behind. Like Obama’s grandmother, despite all our good words and works, we sometimes are unnerved by their presence or more likely are happy to avert our eyes from their plight. Most of those who sit in the pews of African American Churches are not the products of affirmative action or any other benefits achieved in somehow making it through the cracks in the still formidable wall of “our world”.
This is the reality which Jeremiah Wright and other Black clergy face looking out from their pulpits. The churches in which they preach remain locked in a tradition of anguish and anger, or perhaps more accurately rising above both without losing sight of where thei assembled once were and often still are. There is much joy and animation in those places, a sense of being and self respect. They are home where one can say whatever one really thinks and not be judged or misunderstood for it. They are family in the best sense of that word, the kind of family we all hope for, the kind of non-judgmental reception that makes us feel whole and right. Jeremiah Wright wasn’t a slave, but he’s old enough to remember humiliation and indignity up close and personal. In that, he sometimes is more Malcolm and Martin, but consider the caring institution he built. On balance, he is probably more the latter than the former. What’s remarkable about this church is not that an often-angry Jeremiah spoke out in prophetic rage, but that the Senator from Illinois, who may someday be our President, came through that place. The man of hope was neither swayed nor spoiled by the anger he sometimes heard from its pulpit. However, he was reminded from where he and we came. Rather than being outraged by what he heard, we, who pay lip service to free speech, should rejoice that finally hope can prevail over anger. We should grab hold of it.
Yes Martin and Malcolm, we both, Black and White, are slowly, albei sometimes imperfectly, moving on.