Yesterday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, thirty-five saints gathered on Zoom to read and discuss the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” We were brothers and sisters of various ages, female and male, representing different ethnicities and socio-economic status. There were college professors, security guards, campus workers, stay-at-home moms, IT types, retirees, and entry-level folks. For 2.5 hours we read a section of the letter then shared our reactions and questions.
Of all the rich things shared, one question continues dancing in my mind. It surfaced at a couple of points during our discussion, asked with different words each time. The question is this: What now?
It’s a question Dr. King himself dealt with in his own way in his work, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? His answers, over 50 years old, need reply from our own time and leaders.
We live in the aftermath of the classic Civil Rights Movement. That means we live in the wake of its successes. African Americans–and many other groups–enjoy many more civil liberties than any of our forebears at any point in history. We may own property–and own it in any neighborhood. We may vote. We may walk down the street without bowing our heads and white people who pass by. We can directly and publicly challenge white Americans without fear of death, Klan raids, burning crosses, or lynchings. We can marry whomever we desire. We can attend public educational institutions or frequent public accommodations. All of these things and many more come to us as a result of the Civil Rights Movement and the work of leaders and foot soldiers like Dr. King.
And yet, none of those opportunities are guaranteed or perfectly extended. Many of them are tenuous. We still face discrimination in real estate practices. Voting rights are currently under assault. Reactionary and racist sentiment, leading to mass shootings and other confrontations, is at a high in the post-Trump and post-Obama era. Police brutality was a fact of life during the Civil Rights era and it continues to be a problem today. The laws that opened access to public educational institutions are being rolled back in some cases. We live in the awkward and fragile tension of enjoying Civil Rights successes and having to maintain them.
At the same time, our community is more diverse, dispersed, and disagreeing than the Civil Rights generation. This, too, is a blessing and a curse. The segregation and racism of the 19560s and earlier forced nearly all Black people into the same existential condition. Being marginalized almost without exception and through law meant we all simultaneously faced the same problems and perils. There was no way to be Black that did not involve negotiating the daily stultifying realities of Jim Crow. But nearly 40 years post the fall of Jim Crow, we no longer have (or feel ourselves to have) the same existential condition. Gone are the “whites only” and “colored” signs that quite literally signified the battle. Gone, in most places, are the variety of “tests” that took away the right the vote. Gone, too, are a lot of Black communities that were home to teachers, bankers, sanitation workers, riff raff, juke joint proprietors, doctors, lawyers, and the like. A lot of us now live in exclusive gated communities, suburbs, exurbs, and city neighborhoods–most of them integrated and predominantly white.
Success in an individualistic capitalist society tends toward more individualism and less collective concern. So, now, the question “What now?” becomes quite difficult to answer.
But answer it we must if we would be faithful stewards of the gains Dr. King’s generation produced. We must attain the same kind of strategic clarity they possessed. We must figure out the moral and symbolic issues that harness and focus our energies. We must rally together in meaningful and substantive ways and sustain a collective consciousness that reminds us that we > me.
Answering “what now” certainly can’t be done by one man doing something as banal as writing a blog post. It must be birthed by the community, the people affected. It must originate with our shared sense of need and fragility, hope and opportunity. It must have moral and symbolic resonance; it must be authentic to who we are and what we face now. It needs to be, if possible, an answer that has as much legitimacy with the brother on the block as the sister in the boardroom.
And it need not be entirely about what White people did or do to Black people. Perhaps the next iteration of the Black struggle must take more seriously what Black people do to Black people–not in a way that denies any ongoing tensions between Black and White (or the State), but in a way that accepts responsibility for those problems that are our own making. We need an agenda that comes from talking to each other about things that matter to us.
We need an agenda that can be seen and felt locally. So much of our discourse today centers on national events and Federal legislation. That has its place, of course. But it strikes me that there was something very local about the work of the SCLC and other Civil Rights groups. They were in Birmingham. They were in Memphis. They were in Chicago. They found those places and others to be very different places, with their own actors, with their own histories and events, and with their own strategies. We, on the other hand, live and serve in a much more disembodied culture of national news, social media, and “platform building.” The more disembodied we are, the more abstract and lacking in the earthiness of local color our agendas tend to be. Abstraction rarely produces traction.
So, on the day following the MLK holiday, I’m left asking “What next?” I’m left wondering if we have enough of a sense of community and connectedness to be able to forge an agenda that heals, helps, and holds us together. I’m wondering if that agenda can be concrete enough locally to matter but compelling enough morally to move us nationally. I know there are better minds than my own thinking about these things. I pray today that their thoughts bear fruit in a new iteration of the struggle.
So, what next? What now, beloved?