Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs

Rev. Paul M. Turner

All I can say about the movie “Selma” is that it ought to be mandatory viewing in every high school in the country. And there are a million reasons why. But mainly, the civil rights movement is now so far in the rearview mirror that we have generations of young people who have no idea what a struggle that movement really was. What a pity.

We have Santa Claus-ified Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., putting him in the cultural/historical equivalent of a cute little snowglobe where he perennially delivers the “I Have a Dream” speech, the nation’s laws change for the better, and everyone links arms and goes back to the work of being American.

We’ve been sold this idea that Dr. King’s legacy is that we should go rake mulch in a community garden on what will probably be a rainy, cold day. Or maybe paint a mural on a wall in a part of town we’ve never seen before and may never see again.

But here’s my version of “A Day On, Not a Day Off”: Let’s get off our duffs and be honest with ourselves about the civil wrongs of a nation that thinks its civil rights are firmly established. Because I do believe, in my heart of hearts, that if Dr. King were alive today, he would have burst out of that snowglobe long ago and would still be marching and preaching. And I also firmly believe that it might surprise a lot of people just what he’d be marching and preaching about.

You see, the attitudes that allowed for those people to be beaten and treated with such contempt in Selma five decades ago are actually very much with us today. The methods have changed, but the underlying attitudes are still very much present.

I know that there are those who say that things are different now, that things are better. But I believe that point of view that depends on which side of the political, theological or socioeconomic street you live on. Here in Atlanta, it might be affected by whether your side of the street is in Buckhead or, say, the southwest side of town.

To anyone who really thinks we’ve evolved since Selma: Please explain to me why my transgender sisters and brothers are being brutally murdered and the cases often go unsolved.

Explain to me how a Kansas pastor can call for the government execution of gay people.

Explain to me why our privatized jails are filled predominantly with black men.

Explain to me why the nation’s drug laws, when enforced, are heavily weighted toward black offenders being charged with felonies while white offenders walk with misdemeanors.

Explain to me why every year in the state of Georgia, less and less money goes to treatment for mental health challenges.

Explain to me why in a metro area that has 11,000 homeless, we only have 5,000 beds.

Explain to me how we live in a country where a person’s love for another is not only not recognized but is demonized – and those who demonize it in their hearts are the target audience for laws made under the cover of “religious freedom”.

Explain to me how we live in a country where our police officers – who are called to “serve and protect” – now look, feel and behave like a military occupying force.

Explain to me how every year the fake “War on Christmas” is the object of frivolous lawsuits, making lawyers rich and garnishing headlines while people freeze to death in our streets.

Explain to me how a 911 call results in the death of a 12-year-old boy at the hands of a police officer.

Explain to me how we can live in a country where feeding the disenfranchised could actually be against the law.

Explain to me how in the city the size of Atlanta there are practically no public restrooms to be found.

Explain to me how a pastor is allowed to stand in front of the Georgia Legislature and preach about “erotic liberty” as though a) it’s a thing and b) it would be in opposition to “religious liberty” if a) it were actually a thing.

Actually, don’t bother.

Instead, would you mind standing in front of a mirror and explaining these things to yourself? And hopefully resolve to think differently? To do business differently?

In fact, could we just resolve to practice the Golden Rule? That would be a great start.

We could also take more seriously the words of the Prophet Micah, who wrote: And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Or maybe we could spend some time finding the way into God’s heart as Jesus indicated: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “

I welcome your commentary. But if you’re tempted to stereotype me as just another big-government liberal, then you really must not know me or my heart.

As Dr. King said: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

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