I stopped reading. I knew that he was killed in the next chapter. I didn’t want to read on.
A few years ago, I read Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. This history took me step by step through the appalling and racist working conditions endured by black sanitation workers in Memphis and the apathy and hostility of white politicians and city leaders. City policies, public comments and unjust actions throughout the story truly made it clear that the lives of black workers did not matter to these leaders at all. It was painful to read. I learned new and upsetting realities about systemic racism, the Jim Crow era. I learned about the various individuals and groups working for change, and Dr. King’s role in the movement. I realized how sheltered I have been from much of this history. I knew that it is important for me to grapple with our country’s systemic racism and how insidiously it dehumanizes black people and it harms our nation. Yet, when I reached the chapter about the events of April 4, 1968, I stopped reading. I knew that Dr. King was assassinated that day. I didn’t want him to die.
Eventually, I finished the book. But I put it off for many weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to let the events of Dr. King’s death unfold, so I acted like I could stop it from happening by not reading it, by setting down the book, by not paying attention. Of course, I was wrong. The shooting happened whether I read about it or not. The violence and injustice that happened in the book, through the Civil Rights era, and up to this day happen whether I pay attention or not.
As one who tries to follow Jesus, I am called to reach out to the vulnerable, to care for those in need, to work for justice. We are called to see our neighbor as God’s beloved child. Each in our own context and in our own way, we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves. We need to hear their stories and their struggles in order to truly see them, and to love them. Just as I couldn’t stop Dr. King’s death by not reading about it, we cannot stop the racism in our culture by looking away. As a predominantly white denomination, we need to hear the stories of black people and stand with those who are seeking justice.
You’ll find some resources here. Take a look and explore at least one or two. It may be that you are already deeply engaged in the issues of systemic racism and working for justice. It may be that you are struggling to figure out how to respond. It may be that you don’t see how this applies to you, since you don’t see how you are abusing anyone. We are all at different points on the road. These past two weeks have made clear that we are all on this journey together. Not paying attention will not change what is happening.
Peace, my friends.
Alicia Anderson serves as campus minister with Lutheran Campus Ministry at Penn State, and is the advisor to Lutheran Student Community. She is rostered as a Minister of Word and Service (deacon) in the ELCA. and lives with her busband, daughter and two dogs in the State College area.