— Martin Luther King Jr.
I knew what I wanted to say in this column ever since I reflected Saturday evening on the tragic events that happened in Charlottesville, Va. I’ve since reflected on those events, engrossing myself in reports and commentary from “many sides, many sides.”
Even though I knew what I wanted to say, I didn’t know how to say it. How do I convey exactly what needs to be said in a way that makes a difference? On Monday, my lovely wife, Mary, dropped a bombshell on my research.
It seems our 14-year-old middle child, Bailey, heard about the violence in Charlottesville and started asking questions. It was fascinating to hear it from a child’s perspective when she wondered why one of her friends – a black girl from a former softball team – would cry all day about an event that happened hundreds of miles away that involved people she didn’t know. She had no concept of how someone could hate another person solely based on the color of his or her skin.
And even when her mother tried to link the events she’d studied in school on segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, etc., we’re still not sure she fully grasped how hatred could fuel someone to do such things to another person. In retrospect, we’re thankful she doesn’t get it.
Just before I sat down to write this column, I came across a quote from comedian Denis Leary, who once said, “Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a 2-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.”
And you know what? That’s kind of funny, but it’s also so true. As Shakespeare said, “Many a truth is said in jest.” And that’s where I think we, as loving people of this world, are missing the opportunity. This serious topic needs a little humor thrown into it. Besides, I doubt white supremacists would enjoy anyone making fun of them. I believe laughter may be where we hold the power. It’s certainly on the polar opposite of hate.
But I continued to delve into the issue. It wasn’t until Thursday night when I settled on what I would say here today. And my conclusion led me to a couple of unlikely sources in my home state of Alabama – a place where hate has truly lived – but not the first place one would look when discussing how we go about fixing it.
On Twitter, I came across an interview with Charles Barkley – again quite the most unlikely of sources on the topic. But, as some of you may not know, Barkley grew up in Leeds, Ala., which is a suburb of Birmingham. I have little doubt he’s witnessed his share of racism.
“I’m not going to waste my time worrying about these Confederate statues. That’s wasted energy,” Barkley said. “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to continue doing great things. I’m going to keep trying to make a difference, No. 1 in the black community, because I’m black. But I’m also going to try and do good things in the world. I’m not going to waste my time screaming at a neo-Nazi who’s going to hate me no matter what, and I’m not going to waste my time worried about these statues they’ve got all over the country.
“I’ve always ignored them. I’m 54 years old. I’ve never thought about those statues a day in my life. I think if you ask most black people, to be honest, they haven’t thought a day in their life about those stupid statues. What we as black people need to do, we need to worry about getting our education, we need to stop killing each other, we need to find a way to have more economic opportunity and things like that. Those things are important and significant. I’m wasting time and energy worrying about a neo-Nazi or screaming, ‘Man, you’ve got to take this statue down.’”
The last source of inspiration came from John Archibald, a journalist I’ve admired ever since I got into the business. Archibald writes a column for The Birmingham News, and in his column this week, he said all those things I wanted to say. It’s in stark contrast to what Barkley said.
Here’s just a bit of that column.
“At times I have to work to see both sides. So I try.
“And when I do it makes me feel conscientious, open to ideas and somehow ... enlightened. It makes me think that, like Atticus Finch, I climbed into someone else’s skin to walk around in it.
“So I pat myself on the back. And call myself reasonable.
“But there are times, like now, when I have to work to see that both sides are not worth seeing.
“Because there is right. And there is wrong. And there are, quite literally, no two ways about it.
“On those days – these days – I’m genuinely haunted by words that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail. They are words deep in his letter to fellow clergymen, a scalding rebuke of those who urged moderation and equivocation and delay.
“They are not the most famous words in that letter, written two weeks after I was born. They are not the most quoted. But when I contemplate my place in the world I find them the most damning.
“‘Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,’ he wrote. ‘Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.’
“It sears like a brand every time I urge patience and hear only complacency, every time I point toward progress, but see only grudging change.
“…Pick a side.
“Hate is hate and racial supremacy is poison to this country and this world. The “alt right” is all wrong, and the name itself is nothing but a euphemism for white supremacy and hate. Simply calling it ‘alt right’ is an effrontery, for it puts hatred on a political plane instead of a moral one, where it belongs.
“…It is not enough to mean well. Not ever, but especially right now. You have to stand for it, and speak for it, and call for it. Out loud.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
“It’s not time to be Atticus Finch. It’s time to be Martin Luther King.”
And, quite frankly, that’s all I intended to say, but more – much more – deserves to be said.
Jared Felkins is The Democrat’s editor. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @paperboyfelkins.