We who believe in freedom should not rest until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.
Tom Airey, Washington D.C.
This week, on a sunny Fall Wednesday at D.C.’s Freedom Plaza, SpiritHouse Project of Atlanta, recognizing that racial justice is both a spiritual and social concept, hosted a “Day of Remembrance” for the “slow genocide of extrajudicial killings” of people of color that continues to plague the United States. This event took the form of a memorial service, a wooden coffin taking center stage, filled with the scrolls of one thousand names of those killed by the police or state-sponsored vigilantes (think Trayvon Martin) since 2007.
My wife and I drove 8 hours from Detroit to join dozens in this space. We are pale-skinned allies. We knew we needed to make this trip to stand in solidarity, mourning with those who continue to catch hell. We do not understand experientially: to be discriminated against, hated, humiliated and killed. But we are angry too. And, at the very least, we can use our white privilege to call out the white supremacy that continues to dehumanize communities of color all over our country.
The vigil was saturated in Movement history. It was here, 46 years ago, that Martin Luther King led a Poor People’s Campaign, pitching 3,000 tents to dramatize the scandal of the American scarcity mentality. Sarah Collins Rudolph was with us. At age 12, she was blinded by the blasts in that Birmingham church in 1963. Her sister Addie was one of the four murdered by the KKK, in retaliation for the Civil Rights March on Washington two weeks prior. Trials in ’77 and 2000/01 did not bring justice. It was here in D.C., almost 6 years ago, that more than a million hopeful supporters attended the inauguration of the first black President.
The hope, however, has not led to change. The racial terrorism continues to haunt us in policies & practices that crudely draw color lines. This “New Jim Crow” keeps young African-American men locked up in prisons at alarming rates. It is a situation, according to Lancaster, PA pastor (and St. Louis native) Nick Peterson (photo above: behind Ruby Sales), that reflects the street sign in Ferguson, MO that reads “No Outlet.” As Peterson lamented, “You enter on your feet and you leave in a body bag.”
Throughout the two-hour-plus ceremony, scores of names were read by white and black leaders who came to D.C. to bear witness:
Jason Aaron Pierce
Richard Julius Lawrence
There was preaching and singing and eulogizing, much of it still shimmering more than 48 hours later:
Justice delayed is justice denied
Wake up, oh sleeper,
We won’t be silent
Our lives will shine.
The real weapons of mass destruction are in blue uniforms.
We cannot allow the white elite to be the sole representation of what it means to be white.
If you are not angry, you are not paying attention.
Just because they are killing us one at a time doesn’t mean that it is not genocide.
We are Rachel. We will not be comforted. We refuse to go home and mourn in private. We are not willing to let another child be legally lynched. We are pregnant with hope—pregnant with determination. We are gonna have this baby called “Justice.”
White men don’t listen well.
But this gathering made it crystal clear that all of this God-ordained grieving and anger pushes us into the future to build the Beloved Community. As Rev. Peterson proclaimed, “There is an outlet. These voices from the grave are speaking…This is the work that is calling for our lives.”
These martyred voices call us out of a muted conundrum, towards a new way of being in the world. Ruby Sales, the public theologian, director of SpiritHouse Project and Civil Rights legend put an exclamation point on the afternoon:
We are here today because there are still some people in this country who have not given up on the Dream.
Sales made it clear that these killings are not a benign “tragedy.” Words like “torture” and “terrorism” are far more appropriate. American racism drives the devaluing of black bodies. It is systemic.
Radical discipleship, for those of us with white skin, demands that we refuse to stay silent in the face of the ongoing onslaught of racism and white supremacy. Radical discipleship demands that we do not shy away from awkward conversations with friends, family members, co-workers and old college buddies. This is a vital role for white folks who are being grafted into the Beloved Community.
SpiritHouse Project has promised to come back with the families of some of the victims named on this Day of Remembrance. They vow to march the wooden coffin, filled with scrolls, right up to the very gates of the White House. They will demand to speak with the President. They will not leave until they do. An invitation will come for anyone and everyone to join them. This will be an invitation we ought to all take seriously.