A section of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., recalls the lunch counter protests.
An old video shows young black people sitting at a counter, being denied service. A crowd of white people has formed to watch. Young white men begin pushing the protesters. One flings a bottle of sugar on them. Others drag protesters off their stools and begin beating them.
Some white people in the crowd laugh and cheer. Others just watch – it’s difficult to make out their expressions from the grainy images. You can’t tell if they’re horrified or supportive.
In any case, none of them intervenes.
As I watched the video, I wondered: If my white face was in that crowd, how would I have reacted? Would I have intervened? Or would I have just watched and felt bad for the protesters?
Honestly, I probably would have just watched. I would have been too intimidated to speak up in a crowd. And that’s both my problem and my challenge.
I don’t have to play “what-if” and wonder what I might have done then; the challenge is how I react today.
The National Civil Rights Museum is connected to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life for his dream 50 years ago on April 4. The many videos and displays remind us that people were forced to choose sides in the civil rights struggle.
Some chose to push back against injustice. Others tried to protect the status quo. Many thought they could just be spectators, watching without getting involved.
That’s not possible, then or now.
King was deeply disappointed with the many white moderates who refused to choose. His Letter from Birmingham Jail was directed to white clergy who wanted him to abandon the march for justice.
King notes that some white moderates agreed with the dream but weren’t willing to embrace it or sacrifice for it. He considered them the “great stumbling block” in to the quest for equality – more than even the overt racists.
The dream is participatory. By refusing to get involved, they were rejecting the dream.
King spoke so often and so eloquently about his dream, which is based upon Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Like Jesus, he worked to make the world more of a place where the needy are cared for, the suffering are healed, and everyone is treated as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God in all respects.
It’s never been a widely popular dream.
Many people prefer privilege for those who are like them, relegating those who are different – different color, different religion, different nationality, different sex, different sexual preference – to second-class status. They work hard to preserve a system that favors the rich and the powerful and the privileged.
Each of us must choose which dream will animate our lives. This is no time for standing back and watching.
Moderation isn’t an option.
The dream endures, but it becomes rooted in our world only to the extent that we are willing to work for it and sacrifice for it – to carry a cross for it.
We’re the ones entrusted with making sure that people are considered not by the color of their skin or any other superficial measure, but by their character and heart.
We’re the ones who are given the sacred work of making sure our divine diversity is respected and encouraged.
We’re the ones who must build a table where all God’s children can sit together and eat in a spirit of mutual acceptance and love.
Our society has come a long way since King’s assassination on the hotel balcony. There’s much work to be done. Those who value a different dream are out there right now advocating for it – white supremacists speaking up, the KKK and neo-Nazis marching boldly, leaders lauding them as very fine people.
What do we say? Which dream do we choose? How will we sacrifice for it?
Merely watching isn’t an acceptable option, then or now.