Last July, my family took our version of the classic American summer road trip, beginning in Chicago and ending at a beach house in the Florida panhandle. It was a trip that featured wonderful moments: Giles and David’s first game at Wrigley Field to see the Padres play the Cubs; purely Midwestern moments: David winning a block-party egg-tossing contest and the Beamer family’s first (and last?) trip to White Castle; awe-inspiring moments: a stop in Mammoth Caves National Park, in Kentucky, the largest known cave system in the world; and a few bizarre moments: Christmas in July at a minor league baseball game, and a 90-minute side trip to the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky.
The back end of our odyssey offered us a chance to explore the deep south and the legacy of brutality, injustice and terror that our country has imposed on black Americans over the past 350 years. Moving south from Nashville to Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery allowed us to face directly some of the darkest moments in our nation’s history and forced us to consider some heavy topics along the way: privilege, religious and moral authority, use of language, slavery, and systemic racism, just to name a few. Today, I hope to open a dialogue with you by sharing some of what I experienced.
I’d like to begin with some thoughts on privilege, my own white privilege, specifically. I find that conversations about privilege are challenging. They can pit one group against another, often putting people on a defensive footing. Sometimes these conversations seem to be more effective at driving a wedge between individuals than they are at bridging differences. That’s frustrating. The bottom line is this: I am a upper middle class cis-gendered white man from Southern California, and I have two children who have a similar background. I am keenly aware that I have significant privilege because of aspects of my life which are completely out of my control. What I can control, however, is how to use that privilege. What should I do with it? How can I use it for good? More broadly, in a community like Bishop’s, though it exists in different amounts depending on who you are, we are all blessed with some measure of privilege: we are fortunate to be in a school like this, with peers, colleagues and friends who are deeply invested in one another’s growth and well-being. Being here affords us opportunities -- yes, privileges -- that may not be available to others. So, what do we do with it? And if we have it, do we have an obligation to use our power and influence to do good in this world? And if so, are we living up to that obligation?
One of the highlights of our trip was the afternoon that we spent in Birmingham, Alabama. We took in the statues of Kelly Ingram Park, across the way from the 16th Street Baptist Church, a meeting place for civil rights leaders, and in September 1963, the site of a bombing that killed four girls. After strolling through the park, we headed to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute where we spent several hours. There, we had time to read and consider a famous exchange between several religious leaders in Birmingham and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In April of 1963, Birmingham was the epicenter of the civil rights movement and during one of the many protests there, Dr. King was arrested. Shortly after his arrest, eight religious leaders from the Birmingham area wrote an open letter, published in the local papers, to the people of Birmingham. It read, in part:
… We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely … Just as we formerly pointed out that "hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions," we also point out that such actions that incite hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham. [Excerpt from “A Call for Unity” also called “Public Statement from Eight Alabama Clergymen” dated April 12, 1963.]
The authors of this letter were men who enjoyed privilege in their lives. They were in positions of power and moral authority. People followed them because they trusted their perspective, their position and their status. They had the capacity to make a difference in Birmingham and beyond: to see a wrong and work to make it right. But in this case, they urged caution, deliberation, patience and delay. Dr. King seized on what he perceived to be their moral failing. He recognized their ability to force action and inspire those who worshiped in their churches, temples and cathedrals. He responded to their letter four days later with his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I will play a recording of King reading an excerpt of his letter, but before I do, I want to warn you that he uses the n-word in this recording, and he does so to make a point. Please do not use the fact that we are playing a video with that word in it as a license to use it.
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness towards white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degrading and degenerating sense of “nobodiness”-- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. [Excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” dated April 16, 1963.]
Dr. King’s words are a call to action for all who are in positions of privilege and leadership. They are a warning to any person or community that views itself as having or believing in a moral purpose. I would argue, even, that his words are a warning for a school like Bishop’s.
Episcopal schools around the country often struggle to define what their own Episcopal identity means for them. Outsiders to those schools can make assumptions about what it means to have an affiliation with the Episcopal Church. Questions that come up include: How significant a role should Jesus have in chapel? And: Is there room to celebrate and honor religious traditions other than Christianity? Schools have found that if they do not clearly define what it means to be an Episcopal school, that others would do it for them and perhaps do so in ways that feel inconsistent with the history, tradition and foundational beliefs of the school. Recently, at Bishop’s, we have spent many hours considering what our own Episcopal values should be and how they apply to our daily lives. It was through this -- still ongoing -- process that we have centered on the values of integrity, inclusion, compassion and justice as the four guiding principles for what it means at Bishop’s to be an Episcopal School. Articulating these values is critical in helping us navigate a world that has become so polarized that any topic of real substance can be seen through the lens of politics, name calling and tribalism. As we finalize our commitment to these values and define what they mean here, we will have a way to talk about big issues with a more human perspective: for example, when we talk about the crisis at the border, we can talk with compassion for mothers and fathers separated from each other and their children without discussing the politics of why the problem exists. We can call out moments of xenophobia or racism by using our lens of inclusion for fellow humans, rather than getting bogged down in the divisive language that often dominates our 24 hour news cycle.
The truth is, though, that defining our values is simply a good first step; the real work begins once we have committed to them. How, given the privilege we all have through being at a school like this will we lean into these values and make the world better? Can we, like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and John Lewis summon the courage to act when faced with a moral dilemma? Or will we suffer a fate similar to that of those eight clergymen from Birmingham and fail to use our power, skills, influence, privilege and moral authority when we are needed most?