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The Language of the Unheard

Cold weather has descended over Ferguson, Missouri. The broken glass is swept away, store front windows have either been replaced or boarded up. CNN has moved on to other things and Anderson Cooper is chasing other ambulances. Michael Brown is still dead. America has a long term memory problem.

In his book, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year, Tavis Smiley quotes King’s response to the violence that had erupted in the Black communities of Detroit and Newark the year before, and in the first march in Memphis by sanitation workers:

A riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that promises of freedom and democracy have not been met. It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

The periodic upheavals of the demeaned and the dispossessed shock us, trouble us, offend us, unsettle us. But when energy is spent and uprisings suppressed, the voice of the unheard is conveniently stilled. We have grown adept at selective hearing.

Case in point: In New York City the police have used the execution of two of their own to claim for themselves the mantle of victim, swiftly shifting attention away from their own systemic offenses illustrated by Eric Garner’s choke hold death and the judicial exoneration of it. Now, encouraged by their leaders, they have become petulant children rather than chastened public servants. Black lives matter only when wearing blue.

Case in point: We have been transfixed by the shooting of twelve journalists and cartoonists in Paris. Je suis Charlie Hebdo is the new cry, replacing “I surrender” and “I can’t breathe.” How many of us noticed that on the same day, thirty-seven people were killed and sixty-six gravely wounded in a bomb blast in the central business district of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen? Millions march in Paris behind world leaders. No marches in Yemen. White lives matter. Black lives? Brown lives?

The yearning for tranquility is understandable, even natural. Few of us enjoy watching riots on our televisions, or navigating demonstrators on our way to Christmas shop, or coping with traffic delays on our commute home caused by protesters. “Can’t we all just get along?” But tranquility is almost always a possession of the privileged. White lives are rarely threatened by the police. White lives seldom draw suspicion in shopping malls. White lives can steer clear of the dangerous parts of the city. White lives can be assured that their education and qualifications will be the first concern of employers conducting interviews. And on it goes. White lives matter.

Martin Luther King Day this year comes at the opening of the observances of the 50th anniversary of the voting rights campaign in Selma. A major motion picture has been released. CTS is planning its own observance with a conference in the Spring which will feature on of the marchers, our own graduate Jessie Jackson, Sr., as well as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. But even as these watershed events are celebrated, the principle accomplishment of Selma, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has been under assault from cynical politicians and shameful court decisions aimed at suppressing Black votes. White votes matter. Black votes?

As long as we embrace the privilege of tranquility over a commitment to justice and the dignity of all humanity, the language of the unheard will continue to cry out. To be sure, it can be silenced or ignored for a time. But it will be heard. When King finally arrived at Montgomery at the culmination of the Selma campaign with a promise from President Johnson to support the Voting Rights Act, he announced on the steps of the state capitol, the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” “Segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral.” It has been a long and costly funeral, and the corpse is still not in the ground. Black lives matter. Their language yearns to be heard. King’s word from Montgomery still resounds: “My people, my people, listen!”

John H. Thomas
January 15, 2015       


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