The Fierce Urgency of Now

MelanieDay 32 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”

By Melanie Morrison (photo above), Director at Allies For Change

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared in the pulpit at Riverside Church that the war in Vietnam was “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” Dr. King warned that America would continue to be a dangerous purveyor of oppressive, counterrevolutionary violence in distant lands if it failed to acknowledge the systemic racism that lay — as an unhealed wound — at the heart of our nation. He decried the egregious irony that young black men were being sent eight thousand miles away “to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

With prophetic urgency, Dr. King declared, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now… We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on.”

It would surely grieve Dr. King that fifty years after he delivered that impassioned plea, every major institution in the United States is still rife with racial disparities and inequities. It would grieve him that racism continues to exact a devastating toll on communities of color through state sanctioned violence, staggering unemployment, and mass incarceration.

In that Riverside sermon, Dr. King issued another grave warning: “There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.”

In the fifty years since, I fear that this invisible book of life has recorded far more deeds of neglect than vigilance for those of us who are white, American, and Christian; far more deeds of silent acquiescence than outrage, remorse, or reparation. Fifty years after Dr. King sought to rouse our sustained indignation about racial violence, unarmed men, women, and children of color continue to be racially profiled, stopped and frisked, hauled out of cars, thrown to the ground, choked, and killed. Invariably, the grand juries that investigate this state sanctioned violence fail to indict the white officers claiming they had good reason “to fear for their lives.”

When will those of us who are white recognize the fierce urgency of now?

When will we demand a truthful accounting of who is actually in mortal danger in this country?

When will we grapple with the stark truth that Ta-Nehisi Coates felt compelled to convey in a letter to his 15-year old son just one year ago? “Here is what I would like you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

How many black men, women and children have to die a brutalizing “death-by-scared cop” (Stacey Patton) before those of us who are white bring our collective hearts, minds, and souls to the task of excavating, naming, and untying the lethal knot that remains endemic in white imaginations?

This lethal knot has many threads – each one a legacy and manifestation of white supremacy: Threads of fear of black bodies. Threads of contempt for black bodies. Threads of rage at so-called “insubordination.” Threads of feeling powerless while we wield structural power. Threads of feeling small even when we’re armed with assault weapons.

We heard this lethal legacy of fear in the testimony of Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown was an unarmed black teenager, no taller than Wilson, when the officer shot Brown six times before killing him in August 2014. But the grand jury failed to indict Wilson after he testified, , ‘When I grabbed [Michael Brown], the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding Hulk Hogan…that’s just how big he felt and how small I felt…he had the most aggressive face… [he looked] like a demon.”

We witnessed white rage at so-called “insubordination” when a Texas patrolman stopped Sandra Bland for failing to signal a lane change. After Bland dared suggest that she was being targeted for no reason except her race, the patrolman pulled her from the car, threw her facedown to the ground, and pinned her with his knee while handcuffing her.

It is not the work of people of color to unearth, unravel, and exorcize this lethal knot of white supremacist consciousness that remains so deeply rooted in the white psyche. This is white people’s work. We must engage this deep work in every relationship and vocation at our disposal – as parents, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and citizens of this nation.

If we fail to do this urgent work, white demagogues like Donald Trump will continue to step into the breach, misname the mortal danger, shore up the guns and tanks, and stoke the lethal fear with terrifying and terrorizing consequences.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

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