I wrote this article for our church blog to encourage participation at our MLK 2020 event. This is an expanded version.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an annual holiday that celebrates the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. and was first honored as such on January 20, 1986. King’s actual birthday is January 15. Only three individuals have dates honoring them in our civil calendar: George Washington, Christopher Columbus, and Martin Luther King Jr.
I have to admit, I am not a holiday guy. I celebrate Christmas, but lean toward the scrooge side of things. I never really paid much attention to MLK day. Aside from my anti-holiday bias, I felt it was for someone other than me, maybe going so far as designating it as “their” holiday. Mind you, I would never say this out loud. But something inside me “protested.”
Martin Luther King stood for racial equality and reconciliation. If we think about what that means it is more important for “white” people to honor this day and therefore it is important to ask what it is we need to do, say, or acknowledge on this day.
Let me take a stab at it.
First, I need to be honest about my own personal culpability. I am a person who doesn’t want to be a racist, but find that in many ways I am. I need to acknowledge that the problem of race still exists in our country, and if I am to be honest, it still exists in my heart. For whites in America, repentance1 is an important component of honoring this day.
“Hold on Steve, maybe you are a racist, but I am not.”
Here is what I have learned about my own latent racism, maybe it will resonate with you:
- I have defined racism very narrowly and personally2.
- I have benefited from racist policies and systems that have benefited me and disadvantaged others3.
- Although I am not actively racist, I have done nothing to combat the racism that exists in our country. I am not an active “anti-racist.”4
I could talk at length about these points, but the bottom line is my passivity exhibited in those three realities is the equivalent of watching a crime from the safety of my balcony, and, instead of helping, going back inside to watch the Dodger game.
Second, I need to gain new knowledge that leads to wisdom in this area. So this MLK day I am committing to continue my journey of understanding that leads to new behaviors when it comes to race issues. I am exposing myself to the black community. Here is how I am starting this journey:
- I am reading books by people of color about the issue of race. That list so far: “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism” by Jemar Tisby. “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US” by Lenny Duncan. “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi, “Solitary” by Albert Woodfox, and “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson.
- I am listening to podcasts that take a deeper look at the problem, one of my favorites so far is called “Seeing White” from the Scene On Radio podcast hosted by John Biewen with regular guest host Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika.
- I am trying to figure out how to expose myself to a more diverse relationship circle. When we break bread with people we tend to see their side of things more readily.
Weeks ago, our pastor challenged us to read some books that he had been reading and I responded by joining one of the groups that was formed from that challenge. Our group is reading “Dear Church” by Lenny Duncan. One of our participants suggested we do something this MLK day. So we are organizing a simple gathering for prayer and reflection on MLK day at our church. We will meet to pray, listen to readings from Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and reflect on the import of this day.
Here is a link to the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it is a powerful read.
- I define repentance as a reformation of the mind, how I view things correctly after having my error pointed out. This leads to life change.
- What I mean by this is that I characterized a large problem from within my limited experience and vantage point.
- It is not ok to say that others have been disadvantaged, but since I wasn’t the perpetrator my benefit, however tacit, is legitimate.
- An anti-racist is “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea (Ibram X. Kendi, “How to Be an AntiRacist.”