I recently visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Its design is as remarkable as it is powerful. It is built within the Lorraine Motel. Your journey begins and ends with the site of Dr. King’s assassination, first looking up from the outside at the balcony on which he was tragically killed by the assassin’s bullet and ending by looking inside the rooms where he spent his last moments joking around playfully with his friends.
In between, you walk through history – from our dependence on the slave trade to build America to the fits and starts of progress in the four hundred years since. It is a living testament to Dr. King’s famous words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
There are many words that one might use to describe this journey: struggle, despair, cruelty, determination, and hope among them. But one stood out for me – courage. It is remarkable how much people have been willing to put on the line in pursuit of their freedom, justice and equality.
As you walk through exhibits document the scope and savagery of slavery, the indignity of Jim Crow, a year long bus boycott, a fifty-four mile march from Selma to Montgomery, the burning of the Freedom Riders bus, the beatings at lunch counters, taunting and threats received by children trying to go to school, time spent in jail for nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. And of course, you see stories of the biggest sacrifice of all – the loss of life. Fathers, wives, sons, daughters lynched, assassinated.
Then we are confronted with the simple question; What have we done? What have we been willing to put on the line?
At one point in the museum, we see a jail cell, similar to the one from which Dr. King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’ve read this letter before, even had the honor of meeting the man, Clarence B. Jones – Dr. King’s lawyer – who smuggled the letter out of the jail. But seeing excerpts projected onto the jail cell wall set up the contrast between what some have been willing to sacrifice compared to myself or others in a way both chilling and shaming.
At one point, Dr. King writes: “ I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ “Councilor” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direst action” who paternistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
We have as a country undoubtedly made considerable progress on issues of race and equality, yet we should not expect that to provide solace for those who still face discrimination. “At least it isn’t as bad as it was” is no consolation to the child who still receives unequal education or the parent who is denied equal opportunity. The fact that our biases may be less conscious or egregious than they once were does not make the result any less unjust.
Our collective lukewarm acceptance of injustice and our moderation is what causes the arc to be as long as it is. It is the courage of a relative few which causes it to bend.
What will be my contribution to the moral arc of the universe – the bending or the lengthening? What will be yours?