In Light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaching
“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.” – Declaration of Independence
I want to talk about the Truth. Truth is so valuable.
Do we teach our children the truth? What do we teach our children?
We have seen in the last several years tremendous friction in this country, some call it sectionalism. Everyone in his own class against everyone else. Much of it is race-based. Many are upset with this. Many are confused by this. Many are angry about this. I am upset with much of this, with classes of people pointing the finger at other people. With the idea that we can change reality by making our history look like something different, something some think it maybe should have been. But I believe that much of the distrust--the friction, the animosity-- stems from the fact that we have never honestly dealt with the history of our nation, the history of our people, and the history of what has happened on our own soil. I understand the desire to have a noble-sounding history. And I understand the tendency of people to try to legitimize themselves. But I also understand the problems inherent in drifting from the truth.
What do we teach our children? For example, we teach them that the Pilgrims and the Puritans came here seeking religious freedom. We know that is not true. They were completely intolerant. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. I believe in the truth and am fairly intolerant of anything that I do not see as the truth. But whether one agrees or disagrees with the religion of the Pilgrims, or with their tolerance or lack thereof, we have to be honest about the fact that they were not tolerant of anyone disagreeing with them. Some historians tell us the reason the pilgrims came here was not so much a search for religious freedom as for economic reasons. I am not a historian. But whatever we believe about their motives, we do know that they were not tolerant of religious differences. This is not some novel theory of mine. We know this. We know that in pre-independence America, Quakers were persecuted for their beliefs, and by persecuted I mean they were hanged about the neck until dead. Catholics were condemned and made to denounce papal authority. This is not tolerance. Yet we teach our children a pretty, fictionalized version of history.
A large part of the continental United States was purchased from France. It has been called the greatest real estate deal in history. Fifteen million dollars for all that land. The problem is, the land was occupied by a variety of people, and had been for many, many generations. And they weren’t French. But we accepted that it belonged to France, and we know that because they obtained it from another European nation, Spain. And we bought it. The only drawback was getting rid of the human beings who actually lived on it. And we did. And so, to soothe our collective conscience, we had to de-humanize them. And so, we invented a generic Indian. He was half-human and half-naked. Not a real person. He was an animal, a savage. He had to learn to be a white man or die. We did nothing wrong. And we continue to teach about and talk about the Louisiana Purchase as if there were no question as to its legitimacy.
And we don’t want to talk about slavery. We seem to want to believe that African Americans came along in the 1950's and 1960's, and golly gee, haven’t we been nice to them. I am not a big fan of Louis Farrakhan. He is very extreme and very abrasive, perhaps intentionally so. Nonetheless, many years ago I heard him describe the horrible details of slavery. The details of human beings being captured and transported under conditions that probably wouldn’t be legal if done to animals today. And the response? He was roundly condemned as hateful. We didn’t want to hear that kind of talk. Never mind that it was the truth. Now we never seemed to mind hearing the horrible details of the holocaust. We’ve seen the pictures of the mounds of human flesh and the ovens. And the holocaust was horrible, horrible beyond description. But so was slavery. But we’ll talk about the holocaust because we didn’t do it. We support the efforts continuing today to track down and punish those responsible. But we don’t want to acknowledge the horrible details of slavery.
One of the frustrations of dealing with past wrongs, individually or as a people, is dealing with the frustration that comes from not being able to make things right. We cannot change history. The history of the world is a history of injustices, of people being conquered, slaughtered, captured, enslaved. Of empires rising and falling. Malcolm X said, “You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress.” We cannot “un-stab” someone. But we seem to try to pretend that no one was injured, so we don’t have to feel guilty about the wrong. And so we don’t talk about it. We’d rather pretend it didn’t happen. And so we don’t understand one another.
And so, if we are going to be brutally honest, honest in a way that feels brutal, a way that might not always be consistent with what we want to believe about our history, we have to address the foundations of this country.
Our founding fathers wrote:
“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.” (Emphasis added).
These truths are self-evident. They didn’t have to be proved. They could not be contradicted lest one declare that some humans as a class were worth less than others, which most civilized Christians are not willing to declare. All men are created equal. It goes without saying. The founding fathers did not feel like that had to prove this.
This same belief was the strength of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arguments. He was not proposing a new concept, a new theory of justice. It was the same concept that the founding fathers relied upon. The concept embodied in the Declaration of Independence, and later, in the Constitution. This was the concept that Frederick Douglass spoke of: “I have never placed my opposition to slavery on a basis so narrow as my own enslavement, but rather upon the indestructible and unchangeable laws of human nature, every one of which is perpetually and flagrantly violated by the slave system.” (emphasis added)
But did the founding fathers really believe in the concept, that all men are created equal. If so, why did they not say so? Why did they not live it? Were they not as brave as we’d like to think? Were they not as smart as we’d like to think? Were they greedier than we’d like to think? Did the offenses of the British completely overshadow the inhumanity of slavery? Or did they just go along with the way things were?
I have witnessed good people going along with things. As I grew older, growing up in Teague, I began to notice the way things were, the things that no one talked about. We didn’t have much separation by class in Teague. We had black civic leaders and black teachers even before formal desegregation. But I began to notice that most of my friends who were black lived on one side of the railroad tracks. And the streets on that side of the railroad tracks were not maintained as well as the ones on the other side. And in our little movie theater, which was the only place where I recall seeing people separated by race, my black friends went up to sit in the balcony, while we sat in the lower seats. No one seemed to know why, or at least no one told me. We went to school together. We played together. We couldn’t sit in the movie together? I think we tend to get used to the way things are, and we take things for granted. So we don’t really pay attention to things. I have written before about my Texas History teacher, Mr. Bryant, and how he opened my eyes to some of the things that we didn’t pay attention to. I will never forget him saying, in a voice suitable for a Southern Baptist preacher, things like this: “We were owned by other people. We were property.” It wasn’t just history in a book. It was about me. It was about my little town. It was about my beloved Texas. It was about my friends, some of whom happened to be black. It was about things we couldn’t go back and undo, but that we needed to understand, we needed to talk about, we needed to be honest about.
Every large city in America has a part of town that we seem to pretend doesn’t exist, that has been, as some would say, disenfranchised. I remember taking my sons though the Fifth Ward in Houston in the late 1980's or early 1990's. It was an area I was told not to go to, and if I did I should make sure my doors were locked. My middle son, who was about six, was looking out the car window and asked where we were. I told him Houston. He said, “This doesn’t look like Houston.” No, it didn’t look like the Houston we like to talk about. It wasn’t the Houston on the Chamber of Commerce brochures. About this same time there was a terrible crime in the River Oaks area of Houston--the very wealthy area of Houston. A lady had bought a breakfast sandwich at a fast food restaurant and was eating it in her car when she was robbed and murdered. It was a horrible crime. And it was one of those sensational crimes that was the lead news story for some time. It was the lead story on the TV news. It was the front page headline in the newspapers. Follow up stories tracked the progress of the investigation. And there is no doubt--it was a horrible tragedy. About the same time, I remember flipping through the back pages of the newspapers. There was an item in one of those “other news” columns. It went something like this: “Two men were found shot to death outside a bar on the east side of Houston, investigation is continuing.” Period. I never saw or read anything else about it. Was this not as great a tragedy? Was it less a tragedy because it happened in a part of town we like to pretend doesn’t exist? Were those men “created equal?” I believe we don’t want to talk about the history of those disenfranchised neighborhoods because we don’t want to acknowledge their history.
I love my country. I love saluting the flag. I am a veteran. I have served many years as the commander of our American Legion Post. I love my county. I love Teague, where I grew up. And I believe that the founders of this country, and the founders of this state, were great people who did wonderful things, and we are the beneficiaries of that. They were not completely evil, but they were not completely perfect, and truth should not allow us to pretend that they were either. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23).
Thomas Jefferson eventually acknowledged: “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it.”
Frederick Douglass, very well read in the scriptures, said, “How can I claim to love Jesus Christ and still reserve for myself the right to continue to hate Thomas Jefferson?”
Truth and forgiveness go a long way in bringing peace, to a people and to an individual. There is no real peace without both.
We have to have a dialogue. We have to accept that we cannot undo our past. We can go forward together and make a better future. We have to stop the finger pointing. We are all responsible for our country. If we want to move forward, we have to do it together. I didn’t invent slavery. I am descended from poor farmers and sharecroppers; most of them couldn’t afford their own mule much less a slave. And I didn’t eat that fruit in the Garden of Eden. But I inherited the sin nature of man, all of us did. And we inherited the history of our people, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We need to talk about it. We need to be honest about it. We need to understand one another. We have made so much progress, albeit belatedly. We can’t afford to lose the progress made by the leadership of men like Martin Luther King, Jr.