Sunday, February 12, 2006

Last week was a reminder that black history is American history. Lithonia joins Montgomery, Little Rock, Greensboro, Birmingham, and Selma, on the list of stops along our nation’s freedom trail where we witnessed the imperative to speak truth to power in action. And just as you can’t separate the African from the American in our history, you can’t separate The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., or his wife Coretta Scott King, from their legacy of social and political activism. They were pacifists, it’s true, but never passive.

Critics like conservative talk radio queen Blanquita Cullum, watching Coretta Scott King’s funeral from a safe distance, complained of “tasteless” and “inappropriate” comments—neither personal nor defamatory, merely true—by Joe Lowery and Jimmy Carter, that made her and her Commander-in-Chief “feel uncomfortable.” Well, heaven forbid. But the real problem was not principally Lowery, Carter, & Co., it was the thousands at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church who wholeheartedly agreed with them, if the thunderous applause and standing ovations accompanying their remarks were any indication. Turns out manipulated intelligence, wars without end, domestic spying, eviscerated social programs and inept emergency responses make the rest of us a little uncomfortable.

Unfortunately for the President, his handlers were unable to screen this audience. There were no loyalty oaths at the entrance, no bouncers to bodily remove anyone showing signs of ideological impurity. This was a rare trip outside the bubble for Mr. Bush. Even his beautifully stage-managed forays to a mythical New Orleans, complete with symbolic set-pieces worthy of La Scala, bore no resemblance to reality. In Lithonia he finally got a taste of the bitter harvest his administration has sown. He was finally forced to feel a little of what the other half feels. Uncomfortable? It’s a start. Lesson? Uncomfortable realities don’t disappear just because it makes you uncomfortable to acknowledge them.

What is the lesson for the rest of us? Those of us who have gone about our business these last several years, as the gap between rich and poor has grown obscene? Those of us who’ve sat by, helpless, hopeless, as ill-conceived and badly executed wars based on lies have driven our nation to shame in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and in secret prisons in Eastern Europe? Those of us angered but impotent in the face of an eviscerated FEMA’s tardy, lackluster response to tragedy on the gulf coast? Those of us driven to silent cynicism by bald lies and widespread corruption in the capital? We should remember that these abuses by those in power have a direct correlate in the lack of courage of those who put them there, who pay lip service to equality and human rights, but sit silent as they’re subverted. This is plain passivity, not pacifism. Those of us comfortable with business as usual have expected others to speak truth to power for themselves, as if “the least of these” were no concern of ours. But the enemies of our democracy are not only the corrupt. We, the complacent, are their co-conspirators.

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