Every year on #MLKDay I reflect on the entirety of the Civil Rights movement. I come from a family of activists, from a father who was a child and teenager at the height of the movement. My father and his older sister integrated Jackson County schools 10 years after Brown, not because they were the first black family in the area, but because it was the right thing to do, it was the moral imperative. In Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, he speaks at length about this moral imperative, not just from a legal perspective but most effectively from the Christian perspective.
Today, we are at a crossroads that feels too familiar to those Dr. King spoke of 56 years ago. As he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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...” I’m sure he didn’t think this would be the same fight in 2019. Two recent events affecting Northern Kentucky have compelled me to call upon the community to condemn the negative peace and address this for what it is.
Over the course of this weekend, we were represented in the national media by young men from a prominent local Catholic school “engaged” with Nathan Phillips, a veteran, not because of his views but because of the color of his skin. The mockery of a Native American using a chant associated with sports teams at an event for indigenous peoples is consistent with nothing other than a stereotyped appropriation. The response, or lack thereof, to this is the very negative peace that King spoke of when he said the moderate is more devoted to order than to justice. To be sure, this is not the teaching of the true Catholic faith. As a Catholic, I was taught to stand up against hatred of any kind and to have compassion for all in our community of saints. But what we cannot ignore, regardless of faith, is the blatant racism and ignorance in taunting a brown person at a march celebrating indigenous peoples. What they were promoting was, in fact, a policy of divisiveness, of segregation as there was nobody there trying to gain a mutual understanding.
There are two other incidents seen in video footage that must be addressed though. The full Black Israelite version is full of hateful rhetoric and taunting of the high schoolers. Yes, the overwhelming mob was baited. What was being promoted by the Black Israelites was the same policy of divisiveness and segregation. To the man accompanying Nathan Phillips, you do not get to tell people to go back to Europe any more than a white supremacist telling me or any of my family to go back to Africa which is zero percent of the time. It is in fact, the same divisive segregationist rhetoric.
Dr. King continued from Birmingham Jail, “To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an "I - it" relationship for the "I - thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful.”
We have to know within our community there are consequences. Their privilege cannot be their out, we cannot ignore this negative peace. Parents will lobby that they are just children who didn’t know better and that their punishment has been met through national humiliation. These “children” chose to engage and wearing MAGA gear chose to involve themselves in an unrelated rally not to make a point but to drive a wedge between the “I-thou” relationship and literally turn a moment into an “I-it” one.
This is the negative peace we are now fighting to eradicate. At the root of this incident, these “children” found a group of brown people to engage. While they did not infringe upon the hateful rhetoric of the Black Israelites, a large crowd closing in space on five opposing people to the point a moderator has to push them out is nothing more than a mob. They did not join in to celebrate the diversity of a military veteran of Native American ancestry who was trying to create peace in his own cultural way; they were in fact mocking him.
Perfect is the enemy of good. It is the negative peace. Society will not come up with the perfect solution this time. And I am sure people will not be pleased with the punishment regardless of what it is. It is in our nature to have differing opinions and context. But to allow nothing to happen as punishment for these young men reeks of apathy or worse, consent. It is the negative peace. And that is not who we are. We are the point of freedom; the last leg to freedom started on this side of the Ohio River. The nation is watching with the hope that we have the dignity to rightfully condemn and punish all the hateful actions in this event, to invite the tension of a positive peace which demands justice. For the sake of the future, thoughtful action must be taken as Dr. King preached, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
But their actions can also be viewed as an extension of their leaders. To this, I direct my attention to Mr. Massie, Representative of Kentucky’s 4th District. On January 15th, Mr. Massie claimed he never heard Steve King, the maligned representative from Iowa, say a racist word. It could very well be true that Mr. King has never said blatantly racist words in front of Mr. Massie. Everybody knows it is inappropriate to use the n-word and other derogatory names. What I do find implausible is Mr. Massie’s inability to verify statements spoken by Mr King as racist. There is no doubt that Mr. Massie is capable of doing such as he is surely savvy with the internet. It begs the question of Mr. Massie; why is he supporting what even Senator McConnell has condemned?
Mr. Massie did not act in good faith to his constituents with that statement. In this unprecedented era of dog-whistle politics, Mr. Massie sent a message loud and clear that this behavior is acceptable and even went as far as to retweet a thinly veiled and poorly constructed rebuttal in support.
Mr. Massie’s feckless retweet of Mr. King’s statement of “misquote” is at the heart of this negative peace. The use of the 1st Amendment argument to be an overt racist is not only repugnant but the retweet is indeed promotion of said ideals. Yes, he did vote for the resolution to condemn hate speech but then did the opposite by actively promoting it. Mr. Massie living in that negative peace is the opposite of condemning hate speech. More importantly, this type of two-faced behavior is not becoming of any representative. This lack of moral leadership begs the question, is Mr. Massie the best representation for Kentucky’s 4th District’s voters and our children?
51 years ago, Dr. King gave his final speech in my hometown of Memphis, TN. I won’t be presumptuous enough to guess what he would opine about 2019. I do though have full confidence that he would not want us to sit by idly. He would want us to speak out and hold people accountable to their actions or lack thereof willfully being in that negative peace, especially those who call themselves leaders.
Once again, “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around...But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr ‘I’ve been to the Mountaintop’