I grew up in a very middle-class home. For me, things like country clubs and private dinner clubs were things that I had heard about, but I frankly had no idea what happened there or why being a member seemed to be so important to so many people. But when I became a minister, the social invitations did involve trips to country clubs and other even more exclusive clubs.
I was still in my 20’s when an elderly gentleman in the church asked me to join him for lunch at a gentleman’s club. I still have the souvenir shot glass from that visit. It was not a “gentleman’s club” in the sense that term is used in some communities. There were no naked women dancing on poles, it really was supposed to be a club exclusively for gentlemen and though it was very nicely appointed with big leather recliners, a library, a cigar room, a billiards room…. Still, it was, in many ways more obscene than the kind of men’s clubs that are the more sexy kind.
It wasn’t simply that you had to be a man to be a member, but more specifically you had to be a white man, and more specifically still, you had to be a white man who was not Jewish.
The waiters were all black men, neatly dressed in uniforms that were reminiscent of Pullman Porters. I was horrified and couldn’t wait to get out of there but my hosts, two active members of my Louisville church, obviously didn’t see this very expensive place as being the racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic institution that it undeniably was.
I thought the Club was a racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic place -they thought it was a place a man could enjoy a bourbon
In fact, were they still alive, they would probably be shocked that I thought that the Pendennis Club was a racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic place . . . they thought of it as a place where a man could enjoy a nice bourbon, a hand rolled cigar, and not be bothered with the conversation of either women or Jews.
And, I don’t want you to think that my hosts were moral monsters. They were not. They were kind, generous, friendly guys who were totally blind to the humiliation the Black waiters were being subjected to, and what it meant that women and Jews were not allowed in the building.
Such prejudices, until they are challenged, are almost always invisible. You grow up with these social barriers and you are blind to them until you are forced to see them, and, hopefully, once you see it, you will never tolerate it again.
I was only 11 years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by a man in Memphis, TN. Unfortunately, I share a last name with the assassin, which earned me some unsolicited attention in my school in rural Kentucky, where my history teacher literally congratulated me in front of our entire class which had only been integrated a few months earlier.
I am certain, because I grew up with these people, that my history teacher would have been deeply offended if anyone had suggested that he was a racist. He would have said that he did not dislike black people but Martin Luther King, Jr. was disturbing the social order.
In those days, white people didn’t think that they were being oppressive or discriminatory, they just thought that white people had one place in society and black people had another. You could say that what King was doing, in the 1960’s, was making the invisible visible, and white people didn’t like what they were seeing.
Of course, when our nation was founded, slavery was the majority of the labor market. Many of our founding fathers were ideologically opposed to slavery, except for when it came to their own slaves. Several generously made provisions for their slaves to be freed upon their deaths, but not before.
In fact, Thomas Jefferson, who is credited with being the author of our Declaration of Independence, owned more slaves than any other of our “founders,” with more than 600. And yet he wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”
Everyone is equal and government is instituted in order to protect and secure everyone’s basic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And yet, at the time that our government was established, only about 6% of those governed were allowed to vote.
Only white men who owned property were allowed, through the ballot, to give their consent to be governed. Thomas Jefferson, intellectually acknowledged that we are all equal but his singular vote spoke for more than 600 people who were not consulted.
There were writers and social philosophers around before the founding of the nation who advocated for equality among men and women, Blacks, whites, Mexicans, Native Americans, and Asians, but, for the most part, they were ignored.
It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that freed slaves and women realized that they were both fighting for the rights of full citizens and, for a whole, they tried to work together to gain their human rights.
As we expanded and took over more territory from Mexico, the people who were there when we stole their land, were not allowed to vote. After the Civil War, Black men were recognized as citizens although their real access to voting was very limited.
In 1876, and this will give you a headache from sheer paradox, the Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans were not citizens of the USA and therefore couldn’t vote. A few years later, Congress declared that people of Asian ancestry could not be citizens.
Desperate for soldiers, Native Americans were granted citizenship if they served in the military during WWI. Women fought for and gained the right to vote just one hundred years ago, in 1920, but it was not until the 1950’s for Native Americans, Latinos and Asians to gain full citizenship and still, voting suppression came in many forms such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats of violence.
When James Madison sat down to pen the first draft of our constitution, he begins with the soaring language, the first three words, “We the people,” no, kings, no monarchy, no feudal incest of power between church and state, no, “We the people,” but Madison was not thinking of the more than 100 slaves back on his Virginia plantation. And it would be nearly 200 more years before “We the people” would include women, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans.
The genius of Martin Luther King, Jr. was his awareness that the rights of Black people in America was a nearly invisible issue to white people. By the mid 1960’s, most people had a television in their homes, and news stations had cameras that they could send with reporters to show the world, in real time, the plight of Black people.
King and other civil rights leaders had met with President Kennedy and President Johnson. Black men had been legally allowed to vote since 1870 but most southern states made it nearly impossible to register or to actually vote.
King realized that by staging demonstrations in which participants had pledged to suffer being beaten by police clubs, bitten by police dogs, and trampled by police horses, without fighting back, if they could get the white police on camera abusing black people who were only trying to register to vote, that he could put President Johnson in a position where he could not fail to pass a Voters’ Rights bill.
The march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama was in March of 1965. The TV cameras were there. That was when the late John Lewis literally had his skull broken by a police club, but the events of Bloody Sunday were broadcast into the living rooms of white America and they couldn’t stand what they saw.
It didn’t end racism in the south. It didn’t end voter suppression. But, five months later, King witnessed Lyndon Johnson signing the Voters’ Rights Act on August 6, 1965. It wasn’t the end of segregation and racism in America but it was a step in the direction of progress that can hardly have been equaled since the Emancipation Proclamation.
And it happened because white America had, for a moment, been shown what they otherwise tried hard not to see.
Let me show you something:
This is a wooden bell from Haiti. Making a bell out of wood doesn’t make much sense. It can’t make as much noise as a human voice. You couldn’t call the kids in for dinner with a bell like this. But this bell was made to illustrate an old proverb from Haiti: It says, “No one listens to the cry of the poor or the sound of a wooden bell.”
I suspect that it was a proverb that evolved out of resignation and desperation. The poor and oppressed of every nation become invisible. They live in neighborhoods where there are no nice stores, restaurants, or bars. There are no lovely streets with carefully manicured lawns. So, people who are not poor don’t go there. They don’t know anyone who lives there. Frankly, they don’t feel safe there.
Did you know that poverty causes crime? When salaries and employment go up, crime goes down. It isn’t magic, it is just what happens. I have tried for years to point out to anti-abortion advocates that what causes America’s abortion rate is not the Row v Wade decision, it is poverty.
During the “dot-com” bubble in the 1990’s, the abortion rate went down by more than 50%. Poverty causes crime and abortions. And what is more, the violence and stress of poverty creates drug and alcohol abuse, which often causes domestic violence, all of which makes poor neighborhoods feel unsafe, right? The stress of poverty causes mental health issues: depression, despondence, dependence on substances and charity.
When you hear people talking about defunding the police, most of us have no desire to do away with police entirely . . . some do, but most of us want to reallocate the majority of the budget to raise the standard of living of the poor, because if you take poverty out of the equation, you don’t have as much crime, addiction, violence, or mental health issues.
Look, Joe Biden announced his list of things he wants to get passed to help America to get past this pandemic and on his wish-list is raising the minimum wage, coast to coast, to $15/hour.
Let me make a prediction right now, and please watch and hold me to it. If he gets that through the Senate, six months after salaries have been raised to $15/hour, you will see a dramatic reduction in crime, in arrests, in the number of people in jail, in the demand for addiction treatment, and mental health services, and, in fact, the abortion rate will go down. And those figures will continue to go down if we reallocate police funding to things like safe housing, social workers, addiction treatment, and vocational training. Check me, please, because I already know that I’m right about this . . . I just want to hear you say it.
It’s the little things that make life worth living.
Yes, I am certain that it was resignation that inspired the saying, “No one listens to the cry of the poor, or the sound of a wooden bell.” But I want you to hear it as a challenge. It may be a statement of fact, but it doesn’t have to be the last word.
We remember Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, but please, do not let this holiday become a history lesson. Don’t just memorize the wonderful things that he said, the great things that he did, the purpose of this holiday is for you to find the inspiration to do what he did.
In the 1960’s he amplified the cry of the poor so that we all had to hear it. He got the plight of Black American’s on TV and made us see what happens in the places where white people do not normally go.
In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voters’ Rights Act, saying that it had accomplished its mission. “It worked,” Justice Roberts argued, “so we don’t need it anymore.” A stunning 5-4 decision that will haunt Justice Roberts legacy. But, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg predicted, within 24 hours of this tragic decision, southern states started to take action to suppress Black voters. The next day, Texas led the charge in changes to voter ID’s…. classic for Texas; your conceal and carry ID will get you into a voting booth, but not a student ID . . . because Texas Republicans know that gun owners will typically vote for Republican candidates and college students usually won’t.
For 50 years, the redrawing of voting districts in these southern states had to be approved, changes to rules, and eligibility all had to be approved, but as soon as they were out from under federal management, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, started to shamelessly reconfigure their laws and districts to minimize the minority vote.
Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, has lately been in the news because he refused to throw out the results of Georgia’s November election and give Donald Trump a win in that state.
Trump was beside himself with rage because, even though they recounted the votes so many times, Biden might actually now be our 48th president rather than the 46th, but Kemp wouldn’t steal the election for Trump. But, if you look back to 2018, when Kemp was Secretary of State in Georgia while he ran for governor against Stacy Abrams, a really shameless situation in which he was in charge of an election in which he was a candidate . . . a white man running against an amazing black women, so Kemp purged 53,000 voters from the roles because their signatures didn’t match.
They closed voter locations in minority neighborhoods. They shortened early voting periods. And for a host of other reasons, by the time the vote was taken in November of 2018, Kemp had purged more than 1.4 million voters, mostly from minority neighborhoods.
Kemp won by about 50,000 votes. So why wouldn’t Trump think that Kemp could steal the 2020 election for Trump? Kemp had stolen the 2018 election for himself! That may seem like an impudent thing for a corpulent cleric to say, but if you had been listening to the cry of the poor in Georgia in 2018, you would know that I am right.
147 Republican members of Congress and the Senate voted against confirming the results of the 2020 election. What they specifically were wanting to do was to discard the votes from majority Black cities, like Atlanta and Detroit.
Many of the people in the January 6th riot in the Capitol really believed that Trump won the election but underlying that was a belief that Black people shouldn’t be voting, or their votes shouldn’t count. I know that is strong, but why do you think they were carrying the battle flag of the Confederacy through the Capitol building? Race is at the root of Trump’s complaint, race is at the heart of pro-Trump terrorists, and race is at the root of voter suppression.
Martin Luther King, Jr. found a way to amplify the voices of the poor in 1965. In 2021, we don’t need or organize another march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but if you want to honor Martin Luther King’s memory, the way to do that is to amplify the voice of the poor today, so that the white people in Georgia will know that Stacy Abrams really should be their governor, and they have some important changes to make before they vote again in 2022.
This is what it means to be a prophetic witness in 2021. This is what it means to be a progressive Christian, a progressive Jew, a progressive Muslim, or Buddhist in 2021.
It is up to us to help the world see the poor, to hear their cry, and to make sure that no matter how tricky or slick racism becomes in the 21st century, we have to keep shining the light on it. . . because speaking truth to power is the primary reason we exist. If you are not doing that, well, enjoy your bake sale.
Dr. Roger Ray