JANUARY 17, 2016 ~ Malcom or Martin: A Moral Fusion

                                                                                                              ~ ART MCDONALD


Approximately 20 years ago I preached a sermon in Pittsburgh on a book entitled: HOW the IRISH BECAME WHITE, an amazing historical study of the relationship of African Americans and recent Irish immigrants and how they were thrown together, in some cases married, and vied for the same low-wage jobs at the bottom of the social ladder. As one can imagine, there was lots of conflict as the white Protestant establishment played these two poverty-stricken groups against one another. Eventually, tragically, the Irish figured out that if they separated out from the “smoked Irish – designation of African Americans – and blended into “white” society, they could move slowly up the ladder once they lost their Irish identity under the cover of “whiteness” and lost their funny way of talking. The sermon got posted on the internet and, over the years, I’ve received e-mails asking me more about this phenomenon.

Last Fall I received an e-mail from an African-American film writer who said he was working on a film about this very issue, i.e., the relationship between mostly Irish immigrants (some Polish and German) and African Americans in Philadelphia around 1865 and asked if I would read his script and give him feedback as to its accuracy. Over the internet, I did a Ralph Cramden (Honeymooners), who when caught in a pickle, would simply start stuttering, huma, huma, huma, etc. I responded to Kenya that I was no historian or expert on the period and didn’t think I would be of much use. Somehow he didn’t hear that and seemed to trust that as a minister and someone sympathetic to the dilemma, I would still be a good resource, so he sent me the script and asked if I would read it and respond. He also said no one else had seen it so far. So, with trepidation, I read it and was incredibly moved by this tragic yet hopeful and redemptive film in which an ultimate alliance between Irish and African American dock workers resisted and overcame a plot by the establishment’s bullies to keep the groups divided. The film is called: GOD’s GANG, and Kenya is clearly a serious African American Christian hoping to do his part to overcome the ongoing racial/ethnic/cultural  divide in this country through the medium of his form of art.

As we are all aware this divide, despite significant progress, lives on. The most recent examples that have come to light involve what is called “racial profiling” and the relationship between mostly poorer, young black males and police departments across the country. In response to the shootings of any number of young black males by predominantly white officers, a movement has been spawned which is known as “Black Lives Matter,” a national movement to look not only at police training and the demographics of police forces, but the much wider issue of ongoing racism, most obviously demonstrated in the demographics of our prison system, i.e., who gets locked up and why?; a system law professor and author, Michelle Alexander, refers to as the NEW JIM CROW, the post slavery system of continuing to treat people of color differently and using the prison system to get many young black males off the streets and deprived of their human rights. Tomorrow, on the date in which we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, some of us will be joining with our sisters and brothers at the Rockport UU church for their annual ML King march and service where a speaker from the local BLACK LIVES MATTER campaign will share some thoughts with us.

With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the U.S., I think many people wanted to declare and believe that our “race problem,” if you will, was over. Even though Obama is bi-ethic, racial, with a black, actually African father, and white mother (and Irish ancestry I might add), he is most often referred to as our first African American President. And, of course, he does have brown skin. So is our race problem over? Maybe to some but to a panel of African American leaders I heard on the Greater Boston evening news program the other night, the problem goes on even if it has morphed into new directions. All three African American panelists, a minister, a professor at Berkeley School of Music, and an ACLU staff person, agreed that, in their view, one of the reasons President Obama has experienced such opposition to his policy initiatives, is that a segment of the population, including Congress, cannot yet accept a person who looks like Obama, despite two very impressive victories in 2008 and 2012. Whatever you think of Obama’s politics and policies, I ask you to seriously consider whether they might not be right. Interestingly, all three are disappointed, to some degree, in his policies, and think he has not done enough for the still struggling black underclass. Nevertheless, and I got very emotional at this point, the Berkeley professor kept repeating that for his parents and grandparents the election of Obama was an incredible moment in their lives, having been born into a system of such racial divide. It was an enormous victory for those generations given our tragic history on this issue.

Fear and prejudice toward the OTHER, in this case African Americans, goes deep in our history and our cultures; we have all inherited something of it, despite all our attempts to overcome such indoctrination and bias. It can be subtle yet real. At a meeting of our community organizing network, ECCO, a group that is part of the bigger BLACK LIVES MATTER campaign, one participant, in response to a discussion about racial profiling and how folks of color often get stopped for no good reason, what’s referred to as driving while black, suggested that if he were a policeman in a town like Essex and spotted a person who didn’t seem to belong, he would likely stop them and ask what are they doing here. Some of us were stunned. We shouldn’t have been. Maybe many would think the same thing, even if they wouldn’t act on it. We all must do soul searching on this, I believe. This is what ongoing segregation does to us all.

So, as we celebrate together and as a nation, yet another holiday dedicated to the legacy of Dr. King, what does it all mean? Like the many Americans and members of Congress who still can’t believe a person who looks like Obama is our leader, is there a sentiment that we shouldn’t have a holiday in this man’s honor? Wasn’t he, after all, an agitator, didn’t he have Communists or sympathizers in his cadre, wasn’t he too political for a minister, and wasn’t his politics way too far to the left of the spectrum? I was thinking about this recently as I re-read portions of a wonderful book by a seminary professor at a school I attended many years ago, James Cone, entitled MARTIN & MALCOM & AMERICA: A DREAM OR A NIGHTMARE? It’s a wonderful study of these two giant figures in the Civil Rights era and how they, ultimately, influenced one another, though from very different aspects of the movement for change. We recognize Martin as a hero, even though I believe we have sanitized and defanged his more radical side, a side that evolved in his last years and got him killed, but we hardly remember his adversary for black minds and hearts in this period, Malcom X, who also got killed, not because he got more radicalized, but because he left the black nationalist and anti-white group, the Nation of Islam, and adopted orthodox Islam after a visit to the Middle East and Mecca, as well as Northern Africa, and went through a serious religious conversion to the religion first articulated by the prophet Mohammed. Upon returning to the U.S., Malcom for the first time, sought out Martin, suddenly seeing him as an ally not adversary, shortly before his own assassination. And what was Malcom’s insight that provoked this conversion? Listen to the words of professor Cone: “In Mecca he discovered (that black nationalism’s ) idea that white people were devils by nature-contradicted orthodox Islam. Malcom saw white Muslims in Mecca treating persons of other races, including himself, as brothers and sisters, showing no prejudice whatsoever. The experience of racial harmony, among many shades of humanity, from all over the world, shocked him. He was told by many Muslims that Islam, the religion of God, is also the religion of brotherhood. It requires its adherents to treat all persons as human beings, without regard to race or color…Malcom spoke of his experience in Mecca as a ‘spiritual rebirth…Never before have I witnessed such…overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people…here in this ancient holy land…They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blond to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe could never exist between white and non-white.” Let me venture to say that this history of MalcomX’s conversion, and his experience that Islam is a great uniter and a preacher of harmony of all peoples, has been lost in our history. Who talks about Malcom X except those who remember is radical and violent rhetoric, laced with hate of white people? And that he got these insights through areligious conversion to Islam?

Because of the actions of a very small group of radicalized thugs, who somehow think that Allah or Islam calls them to slaughter anyone who opposed their viewpoint, our own minds and hearts have been altered to be suspicious of a great world religion we know as Islam. Our extreme fringes in our society, even some who now aspire to the Presidency, are proclaiming we must stop the flow of Muslims to this country. Actually, it an ironic twist, not only do I vehemently resist such a notion, but I want to suggest that what we actually need in the U.S of A is more Muslims to immigrate here and to help spread the message of harmony among all peoples. I actually think that Islam can help us overcome our long standing dilemma around race relations or ethnic/cultural divisions. Muslims can actually be a bridge to a more integrated, multi-cultural society and world. Does Islam have some internal problems and divisions? Yes, I believe it does. And I think Muslims must address these conflicts that fester among Shias and Sunnis and Sufis. And we who are not of that faith need to get out of the way and let that dialogue and dispute and reformation occur. But this doesn’t, for me, take away the amazing potential Islam has to bring together people of all different cultures and ethnicities, as I’ve personally witnessed in Pittsburgh and here in Greater Boston.

Many years ago a black civil rights’ leader, I believe it was Whitney Young, a UU by the way, and a collaborator with Dr. King, proclaimed that the most segregated moment in the U.S. each week is 11am on Sunday as people gathered for Christian worship. Well, I can tell you personally that at 5pm on Friday at the Mosque in Roxbury, or in Pittsburgh, and I’m sure all across this country, worship gatherings of Muslims are anything but segregated, rather they look like a gathering of the United Nations. Maybe serious, peace-loving, justice-oriented, orthodox Muslims can actually help us with our ongoing racial and ethnic divides. I’m for welcoming vast numbers of Muslims from across the world to help bring us some of the harmony that Malcom witnessed and was transformed by in Mecca.

Meanwhile, as we await for this influx of Muslim brothers and sisters, we have loads of work to do as the faith community to bridge the current ethnic/racial divide that threatens to tear us further apart as Americans. I take great hope from a movement begun in North Carolina by Rev. William Barber, a black preacher, who addressed our UU General Assembly last Summer, and who appears in the recent Winter edition of our UU World magazine, as he and others continue to create what he calls a movement of “Moral Fusion” among people of good will who are interested in working to bring racial justice and harmony to our nation, community by community, state by state. This minister of God, steeped in the African American tradition, calls this movement not a political but a moral one, and he calls us all to participate in it. Rev. Barber suggests we need a third reconstruction to bring all of this about. The first reconstruction followed the end of slavery and accomplished some progress; the second reconstruction was the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, led by so many but among them Dr. King and Malcom X; and now we need a third, 21st century reconstruction, to finish the job and bring us all together and, like the first two reconstructions, people of faith need to play a major role in this. ECCO, our community organizing network, is part of this reconstruction, part of this “moral fusion”, as, among other things, we work on building what we call the beloved community, our take on the black lives matter campaign, and this Wednesday our Cape Ann ECCO group will meet ta the Gloucester synagogue to help further this effort. Feel free to join up. The train is leaving the station.

Am I optimistic? I wouldn’t say optimistic but I would say hopeful. Hope goes deeper, I believe. It is more theological, more rooted and long serving. In a sense, optimism can come and go, whereas hope is unshakeable, uncompromising. But there is no hope without action. History is in our hands and positive action helps build hope on a strong foundation. That’s what I believe we are called to as UUs.

Speaking of hope, I received an e-mail from the filmmaker, Kenya, last week in which he said: “I appreciate you reading the screenplay and for your feedback. It’s gratifying to know it touched you. I have submitted it to a couple of screenplay competitions. My hope and prayer is that it resonates with a producer with deep pockets who shares my vision. My desire is for the movie to be made as soon as the finances materialize. Pray for your brother…Essentially my work is about ethnic diversity. This was a story where ethnic relationships are at its core. Whether people want to admit it or not, we are interdependent on each other on this planet we share. The division mixed with hate that is so prevalent, and has been for hundreds of years in our country, breeds vitriol even among Christians of different backgrounds, or points of view, in my mind is satanic. Ignorance and fear are the tools of manipulation. My film ministry is an attempt to stand in the gap, to illustrate to people in entertaining ways that God was right when He commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I just wrote another screenplay where a white co-ed becomes friends with a black person (a male student) for the first time and comes to realize that the hate her “Christian” father espouses is diametrically opposed to the Word of God. May the Lord continue to bless you and your ministry! I’ll stay in touch and let you know how things progress. Blessings, your brother, Kenya.”

Do I hear an AMEN?!