I don’t know why, but as an 80s baby, I grew up thinking that the United States was steadily getting better. I believed it in my bones. I was born just about ten years after the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy and distinctly remember being told time after time, by my mother and others, about the rough period of human history I had just missed. In the shadows of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, I came of age in the MTV era. Michael Jackson’s Thriller and We are the World dominated my childhood. As a 1st grader, I remember locking my hands with that of a complete stranger in Hands Across America as millions and millions of people came together in a stand against hunger and homelessness.
I was a hopeful child and I held on to that hope throughout young adulthood. When I was a student at Morehouse, we were encouraged to be hopeful. As a pastor in Atlanta I found my primary mission in life was to give people hope – not only hope that they would overcome what they were facing, but hope that this world would get better for them, and for all of us.
I don’t do that anymore.
I still have some hope in God, but I must be perfectly honest with you, and I’d be doing you a grave disservice to say otherwise – I have very little hope in this world. It’s ugly.
Forgive me if you’ve read or heard this from me before, but I strongly believe that as a country, we’ve misunderstood the moment that we are living in. In great part because of the election of our first black president, and maybe even because of the wonderful prominence of people like Oprah Winfrey, millions of us, consciously or unconsciously, believed the era that we are in right now to be wholly and completely better than the 1950s or 1960s.
I don’t think it’s better at all – it’s just different. Yes, we no longer sit on the backs of busses or drink from separate water fountains, and I’m glad about that, I truly am, but now we have mass incarceration – where more African-Americans are incarcerated in this country right now, by both percentage and volume, than South Africa at the height of apartheid.
Yes, we aren’t forced to watch movies from the balcony or enter establishments from the alley, and I’m glad about that, but this year is on pace to be the deadliest year for people killed police in the history of this country.
When I think of the 60s, I think of the 4 little girls who were killed when a bomb ripped through a Birmingham church. I used to reflect on that and think to myself “thank God times aren’t like that anymore.” But now, right now, we live in the age of the deadliest hate crime against African-Americans in nearly 100 years. When Dylann Roof, the internet inspired white supremacist, walked into a Charleston church and murdered the pastor and eight other African-American churchgoers, he showed us that this generation is not better, it’s just different, and in some ways its worse.
When I learned about Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner – the three young civil rights activists who were murdered in Mississippi, I used to think to myself – “thank God people aren’t killed in this country anymore just for standing up for what they believe in.” But that’s exactly what happened this past weekend in Portland Oregon when another white supremacist began harassing two young Muslim girls on public transportation. We’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of reports since Trump’s election of emboldened white people feeling like they can say or do whatever the hell they wanna say or do to people of color in this country. And most times, we sadly see people too afraid to speak up for those being harassed. Rick Best, Taliesin Meche, and Micah Fletcher did just that, though.
These three brave, principled men have been all I could think about for these past few days. In many ways, they are our Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. They are our Mississippi Freedom Riders. In standing up for those teenage girls, who were being harassed for their very humanity, both Rick Best and Taliesin Meche lost their lives when they were stabbed to death right there on the train. Micah Fletcher, a wonderful poet, is still recovering from the wounds he received in the hospital. And what we’ve learned is all three of those men, strangers to one another, were not strangers to speaking up against the evils of society. They did it often and because they refused to remain silent, it cost them their lives.
I’m telling you – this time we are in is not better, it’s just different.
Ask the family of Richard Collins III, the young brother who was just days from his college graduation in Maryland who was stabbed to death by another internet inspired white supremacist.
Ask Colin Kaepernick about the time we are living in right now as he continues to be blackballed from the NFL in the prime of his life – not because of drugs, not because of domestic violence, but because he had a silent protest of police brutality in America.
I am vexed and deeply troubled by the time that we are living in. And here’s what I’m asking you – trust your gut. It’s as bad as it feels. And we must all join the fight against it because these problems won’t get better on their own.