One of Martin Luther King’s mug shots. (Image source.)
I had IVIG infusion treatment, and my nurse Charlie shared with me about his time serving in the military in the early 60s. At one point, while stationed in Germany, he was detailed to secure President John F. Kennedy (the same trip during which he made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech). He even met the 35th POTUS, who asked, “So young man, from what part of the country are you?” I was amazed by this memory, although Charlie seemed blase about it. He liked Kennedy, and mourned his assasination a few months after their meeting. But the circumstances of that meeting was all a part of his duty to serve.
However, his tone changed when he discussed another incident from his time in Germany. He spoke of a big-mouthed soldier who was a member of the same group as he; Big Mouth was virulently racist, and decided to spew forth his bigotted bile particularly at a fellow soldier who was Black. Not content to just address the Black dude by the n-word, he decided to encourage the other soldiers to follow suit. At one point he teamed up with another White soldier who played a sax to compose a little tune with the lyrics of calling the Black soldier an n-word, over and over. When they were around larger groups, Big Mouth would get Sax Player to play the ditty, while he would omit the actual lyrics. Most of the soldiers (all White, includin Charlie) were “in” on the joke and would laugh, especially when the unsuspecting Black soldier would walk into the room, humiliating jazzy accompaniment and all. Still, there were others who didn’t laugh. They didn’t even snicker; but they didn’t actually say anything in defense of the Black soldier. They didn’t tell Big Mouth or Sax player to knock it off, either. They just sat there in some kind of awkward acquiescence, watching, knowing it was wrong, but then… doing nothing. Charlie was one of the soldiers in this later group.
“One day, this real stand-up soldier, Nichols was his name, pulled over W. (the Black soldier) and told him what the music was all about. He just couldn’t stand to see him being treated so shabbily. He then told Big Mouth to quit it, and continued to stick up for him, too.” Charlie grew quiet before continuing, “I didn’t. I liked W., I liked him a lot. He was a genuine good man, but I didn’t say a thing.”
“Why,” I asked.
“I don’t know, really,” he said wistfully.
“Maybe it was the peer pressure?” I offered.
“Maybe. But I won’t make excuses.” Charlie added that last sentence while looking down.
The conversation first made me think of the essay, “What Ever Happened To All The Old Racist Whites From Those Civil Rights Photos?” by Johnny Silvercloud at Afrosapiophile (by the way, if you haven’t read it, you should). But not too long because Charlie did mention that Big Mouth the Racist soldier later was discharged and became… a cop. A virulently racist cop. Sigh.
But then I started thinking of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, written just a couple of months before Charlie met President Kennedy. In the letter, King responds not to the loud, angry, faces-contorted-in-hatred racists captured on the wrong side of history in the images in Silvercloud’s essay. Instead, he penned his letter to those who chose to sit idly by while injustices continued unabated:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
In Revelation 3:15-16, John wrote that God said, “I know your deeds; you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were one or the other. So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Even God can’t stand lukewarm.
Ask yourself: am I being lukewarm, or acquiescent to injustice? Am I being an unholy spit wad?