On Friday, my partner, Ann and I decided to take the afternoon and go visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolence and Social Change. I am embarrassed to say that I have lived in Atlanta my entire life and have never visited this amazing place.
The campus is split into a number of buildings. As we walk from the parking lot to one of the main exhibit halls we passed these marble stone plaques built into the sidewalk with people’s names and then outlines of their shoes. There are names like Pres. Jimmy Carter, Sidney Poitier, Congressman John Lewis, Stevie Wonder, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and on and on. You literally walk in their footsteps as you approach the entrance of the exhibit hall.
As you enter, a glass wall blocks you from moving quickly through the space. You can’t quite see what is written on the wall until you find your way around it. Then standing in a circular display, one of six that we will visit in that room, you realize that what is sketched on this wall in tiny print are all of the laws that existed just 50 short years ago to subjugate African-American citizens in our country.
- In North Carolina, there was the law that protected white nurses from having to serve or care for African-American patients.
- Then there was the law in Georgia that said that all restaurants shall either serve white people exclusively or colored people exclusively but shall not sell to both races in the same room or under the same license.
- Also in Georgia, African-Americans could not frequent any public parks that were frequented by white people. Funeral directors were not allowed to bury people of color upon grounds set apart or used for the burial of white people.
- In Mississippi, any person who printed, published or circulated material that urged public acceptance in favor of social equality or intermarriage between whites and Negroes, was guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine.
- Also in Mississippi, the marriage of the white person with a Negro or mulatto or person who shall have 1/8 or more of Negro blood, shall be unlawful and void.
I remind you, this was just a short fifty years ago. As we stood in that circle, living now in a different time and place but with echoes of the past that still shapes our present, it was a harsh reminder of how powerfully the laws of our land literally give life and death to a people and a nation.
We moved to the next exhibit and here we found ourselves in a jail cell in Birmingham. The images on the wall now showed people being hosed down with fire hoses and police dogs threatening attack. It is here as we stand in the jail cell that we see the stark consequences of pushing back against unjust laws. And it is here that we read the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. penned from his jail cell:
“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
It is a lesson we must remember.
As we leave that exhibit, the next shows how the laws begin to change. After the March on Washington, the anniversary of which we remember this week, this country ends up passing the most sweeping social justice legislation that we have seen since emancipation. It was an extraordinary thing to see such human transformation made possible through the ironclad commitment to nonviolence.
The final exhibit shows how work for racial reconciliation continues to this day–an unfinished work of a past generation passed on to us today.
I left haunted by the question it raised for me: How am I helping on the march to freedom today? What should be clear to all of us in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the gutting of the Voter Rights Act is that our work on racial justice is far from over. So, put on your marching shoes…we are not done yet.
We Are All in This Together,
Rev. Cameron Trimble
Co-Executive Director, CEO
The Center for Progressive Renewal