Over the course of the last year, a “holy discontent” has risen within me at a greater rate than ever before as it relates to the important issues of racial equality and true reconciliation. If you read on, this post will give a little more understanding of why I feel it’s a conversation we (as Christian leaders especially) need to openly and honestly engage in and why we should be leading the way forward. Especially for us as white evangelicals, we’ve been afraid to step into this space for fear of personal risk, being misunderstood, and I think, because we haven’t had to “feel” in ourselves the tension our brothers and sisters of color are certainly well acquainted with.
In 1951 (just 66 years ago), this is what America looked like:
– The State of Florida did not allow black and white students to use the same editions of textbooks.
– Interracial boxing matches were prohibited in Texas.
– A white nurse in Alabama was not allowed to take care of a black patient. She literally had to go get someone else to help the person in need.
– Bathrooms were segregated in the factories in North Carolina, the cotton mills in South Carolina, and the mines in four other states.
– In six states, white and black prisoners were not allowed to be chained together.
– In seven states, parks, playgrounds, bathing and fishing and boating facilities, amusement parks, race tracks, pool halls, circuses, theaters and public halls were all segregated.
– Ten states required segregated waiting rooms for public transportation.
– Fourteen states required black travelers to sit in the back of buses and streetcars.
– Fourteen states required separate facilities for black and white mentally ill patients.
– Seventeen states by law required the segregation of public schools.
– Four other states allowed individual communities to choose to segregate their schools if the community wanted to. You can guess where that legislative ambiguity ended up.
For me, one of the saddest and overtly absurd realizations in this realm was this: in eleven states, separate schools for BLIND KIDS were operating. Essentially, these states were saying: “EVEN IF YOU CAN’T SEE ONE ANOTHER, YOU STILL CAN’T SHARE THE SAME SPACE.”
As a dad, I sit here today and wonder how exactly parents explained this to their kids? However they figured out how to do that, the MINDSET OF SEGREGATION was passed down to the next generation.
I’m going to be continuing to share over the next few months the things I’ve been learning and the realities my eyes have been opened up to.
Not because any of us LIKE to look at this stuff, but because we NEED to look at this stuff.
And it was NOT a good year for equality and progress. It showed us all (if we’d just open our eyes to see), the mountains of inequality and heaps of injustice still around us today. We may not have segregated schools, but we have divided hearts. And it’s time we stop ignoring the diagnosis and sweeping the filth under the rug.
As I’ve continued to learn these last few months- time and time again- the injustices throughout our history to people of color have not been merely individual, one-on-one discrepancies. It would certainly make the problem of inequality easier to conquer if they were simply isolated instances between depraved individuals. But what I’m finding (and I hope beginning to communicate) is that the injustices and inequality over the years have been systematic and structural. For years, the US government has twisted and manipulated the Constitution to say what it wanted it to say, and in so doing continually departed from the original intent. There’s few examples of this better than the Supreme Court case of Plessy v Ferguson. Though this decision was made in 1896, it would go on to profoundly affect the African-American experience until its eventual overturning in 1954. At the time of this writing, that was just 63 years ago.
The case is named after a man named Homer Plessy. From just looking at his light skin complexion you wouldn’t be able to readily tell that he was black. However, on June 7, 1892, Plessy sat in the “White” car of the East Lousiana Railroad and identified himself as black. This wasn’t an accident of ignorance. His intent was to deliberately make an issue out of the Jim Crow laws of the day- legislation designed to separate the races- knowing full well it would get him arrested and hoping it would end up in the Supreme Court where it could produce change.
Like so many African-Americans who have risen out of the history books, I so admire Plessy’s courage and willingness to sacrifice his own freedom for the good of his neighbor. There’s something very Jesus-like about that. He was not violent in his protest of the wrongs around him, but yet firmly resolved to challenge the ideologies of inequality protected by the law.
He was arrested, and eventually the case did make its way to the highest court of the land. His lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendment.
In 1896, the ruling came down.
Listen to these DEVASTATING words by Justice Henry Brown, and try to follow the (twisted) logic in his statement. It is mind-boggling to me the LENGTHS they had to go to in order to safely continue the injustice within the confines of the Constitution:
“A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races — has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races. … The object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
Of the seven Justices, there was just one that spoke words of dissent to the decision- John Marshall Harlan. He could see the carnage awaiting if this went through and tried to speak reason… but to no avail. Look at his words in this excerpt from his statement:
“Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. … The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution.”
In hindsight today, we can see the very prophetic nature of his words.
One Justice spoke up. The other six went along with the prevailing thought of the day.
Today I wonder how the landscape of our history would have changed if just three other Justices on the bench engaged a little bit deeper with the checks in their soul in the moment… if just three others had the courage to side with Harlan?
This is yet again another example where the silence of a few contributed to the harm of many.
When we today see injustice or inequality, do we speak up? Are we so afraid of our social status and standing that we remain in the shadows… when our neighbor is dependant on our voice to change the cultural tide?