Friday, December 5, 2014

The Larger Darkness

I was 14 the summer that three Civil Rights workers disappeared in Mississippi. That was way back in 1964, but the truth is that I've never gotten over it.

When I was young, I was confused about race, living as I did in the Deep South. I knew something was wrong, but I wasn't sure what. Most of the adults I knew were kind and rarely spoke ill of black people, though one heard it enough. But I knew there was something larger beneath the surface of our fragile civilities, and I knew that good people too often didn't look deep enough to see it.

Then, that June, James Goodman, Andrew Cheney, and Michael Schwerner disappeared in Mississippi. They were found murdered a few weeks later and buried in the earthen dam of a lake. I remember it on the TV news, remember it in the Atlanta Journal. And I remember being sickened at it more than any event of my youth than JFK's assassination. (I was 18 when Robert Kennedy died, so that wasn't really my youth.)

Now, 50 years have passed, and I'm an old man looking suspiciously at every calendar leaf I tear off. I want to believe that things are better than they were that summer of 1964. I want to believe that we have learned as a society in this country. I see signs everywhere that we do. But then the nightmare of Ferguson comes. And now, far worse somehow, much worse, the killing in New York of one Eric Garner by a police officer using a banned chokehold. And now the officer has been indicted for nothing by a grand jury. Nothing. Not one thing. And the whole incident is on video.

I want to make clear I am NOT comparing what happened in Mississippi with what happened in New York. One was a monstrous calculation by racist thugs that they could get away with murder. The other was a tragic mistake by a sworn police officer.

For Garner's family, "mistake" isn't enough. And it isn't enough for millions of Americans, conservatives, moderates, and liberals, who sense together that we have once again reached down into that larger darkness and uncovered just how much race still divides us.

I wanted to throw up when I heard no indictment of any kind was handed down. And it's hard to know where to put the blame. But I keep coming back to that descriptor: asthmatic father of six and grandfather of two, and it keeps repeating itself in my mind like the rhythm of a train on rails running all across America:

asthmatic father of six and grandfather of two
asthmatic father of six and grandfather of two
asthmatic father of six and grandfather of two
asthmatic father of six and grandfather of two

And I want to believe that maybe this time something may change, that 50 years from now when I am long gone, real change might have happened.

If, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., prayed, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," then that universe has a lot more bending to do. And it begins in all our hearts.

Are we ready to do it?

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