The names and faces in the struggle for racial justice may have changed in a half-century; the issues, not so much, Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith said at the Jan. 16 diocesan celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy.
Bishop Suffragan Diane Bruce presided and the Episcopal Chorale performed at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul gathering.
As guest preacher, Smith compared to Dr. King a new generation of leaders who have emerged in the wake of the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Miss. A grand jury later declined to file charges against the white police officer who shot Brown.
Like Dr. King and other 1960s civil rights era leaders, many of whom were in their 20s and 30s, a half-century later these leaders are mostly “very young … 20-something,” Smith said. “They’re almost all black. This time around they are almost all women, and more than a few of them are LGBT. It’s a different-looking cadre of leaders this time.”
And the structure of the struggle, loosely organized nationally as #BlackLivesMatter, “is a lot flatter this time around,” Smith told the gathering. “It’s not so much top-down. It depends on communication via social media. Decisions are made mostly by consensus. Consensus is sloppy and sometimes the movement is sloppy. And insofar as it is going national under the heading “Black Lives Matter,” it is doing so organically. People are catching on here and catching on there.”
Smith told the gathering of about 150, “When I hear the voices of leadership in St. Louis these days, I hear a distant echo of those voices from 50 years ago.”
Recalling Dr. King’s two visits to St. Louis in 1964, Smith said King preached at Christ Church Cathedral in March and, during an October visit, addressed the 61st General Convention’s House of Deputies. He also addressed an overflow audience of 2,000 at a dinner hosted by the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, or ESCRU.
“I can find no record that he addressed the House of Bishops,” Smith said. “And that fact embarrasses me.”
King reportedly told those attending the ESCRU dinner that “the Church is still the most segregated institution in our country.” King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following day. He was 36.
#BlackLivesMatter: ‘Their demands are reasonable ones’
Amid thunderous applause and a chorus of “amens,” Smith said: “It is crucial for us to say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ There are two reasons I think that’s the case. First of all, no one can possibly say that all lives matter until black lives matter — and dear friends, we still have some work to do.
“And second, just as Common raps in that imposing music (“Glory”) in the movie Selma, ‘Justice for all just ain’t specific enough,’ the leaders I am talking about in St. Louis are angry and … their rage radiates out from them like so much heat.”
Like Dr. King, today’s young leaders “are angry, but they are neither violent nor destructive, and don’t let anyone confuse you about that point,” Smith said.
“Insofar as this is true, they are learning from the tradition of those who have gone before, including Dr. King. They are loud and they have some demands. Their demands are reasonable ones. But I will tell you that the demands frighten all people who look like me. They frighten people the same way that Martin Luther King did in his own day. He frightened people.”
Citing “the audacity of Dr. King’s demands” Smith said they grew larger toward the end of his life. In addition to struggling for racial equality, King embraced and advocated for the working poor and for human rights, and against the war in Vietnam.
“He said American imperialism was a scandal, and he said that out loud. The war in Vietnam made him weep and he invited us to weep with him,” Smith said. “Dr. King was angry. Let us not domesticate his heritage. He was radical. He challenged privilege wherever he saw it … and people were afraid.”
‘Racism and the American fetish with firearms’
Unfortunately, Smith said, today’s young people share another commonality with King. “We know that he (King) died from a gunshot wound when he was in Memphis to support the strike undertaken by garbage workers … a subset of the working poor. He was there for them and to be with them.”
St. Louis has one of the highest rates of gun violence deaths in the nation, “188 killed last year. That’s 188 too many and that’s just in the city, it doesn’t include St. Louis County,” he said.
Noting that victims of gun violence are “mostly black, they’re mostly young and they’re mostly male,” he said: “A common cry we hear the protest community scream is ‘stop killing us’ and they aren’t singling anyone out to hear that. They’re saying it to everyone. ‘Stop killing us.’”
While praising President Obama’s executive actions on gun control, Smith took aim at the Second Amendment’s provision for “a well-regulated militia” — a precursor to the National Guard, but grounded in racial inequity and violence.
That “well-regulated militia … a whole body of white men who by law and in various places had to be ready to put down any slave rebellion — that was called a well-regulated militia.” The larger the number of slaves in an area or state, the more white populations supported this constitutional provision, he said.
Yet, “there were very, very few violent slave uprisings in this nation,” Smith told the gathering. “I like to think that goes mostly to the character of those communities of African descent. I don’t think I’m overstating the case by saying so, but there was also an ever-present threat of a well-organized militia. And the sentence expressed in the Second Amendment may account for the ongoing fear that white people have about black males.”
Returning to the events that focused the world on Ferguson, Smith said fear was palpable in the days and weeks leading up to the announcement of the grand jury decision whether or not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer charged in Michael Brown’s death.
“I will tell you that firearm sales went through the roof in St. Louis, both the city and the county, and whites there — white people were afraid of black people,” he said. “The rumors were crazy about what would happen if the grand jury did not return a verdict of an indictment against Darren Wilson.”
Although there was some unrest and civil disobedience after Wilson’s acquittal, the level of violence anticipated by the fear-mongering didn’t happen, he said.
“And in the aftermath of that, there is a well-armed bunch of white folk in St. Louis. Racism and the American fetish with firearms cannot be teased apart. They have to go together. The second Amendment in its perfectly awkward language embeds this truth.”
The church and racial justice: ‘We’ve got work to do’
Smith said this inequity matters to the church because “we are accountable to a dream and a vision that includes … King’s vision, his dream, but it goes beyond that.
“[The Book of] Revelation tells us that God through Christ is working to build a brand new royal priesthood, formed from every family, language, people and nation — that’s what God is dreaming about.
“We are accountable as the church to that dream,” Smith said. “It matters to the church because St. Paul writes that we are being saved all together or not at all. Re-read Romans 8. It is an exquisite argument. My salvation depends on your being saved and your salvation depends upon mine and altogether we need one another because we’re not being saved in isolation.
It matters because Jesus paid special attention to the stranger and the other and commands us to do the same, Smith added, citing scripture’s recording of Jesus’ encounters with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:21-31) and the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:17-27).
“His mandate pulls us away from our kind of people toward the “wrong” kind of people, who actually turn out to be the right kind of people, the people necessary for our salvation,” Smith said. “Jesus commands us toward the stranger and, dear friends, the stranger the better.”
Joseph’s brothers describe him as a dreamer (Genesis 37:18-28) “and they didn’t mean anything nice by it,” Smith said. “People said it about Martin Luther King Jr., and rightly so. He was a broken man, he was a dreamer and we are richer for him,” Smith said.
Hopefully, he said, “they will say the same thing about us.”