Since elementary school–maybe earlier–I’ve had a sort of hyper-awareness of racism. Maybe the seeds of this keen sense of bigotry were in the fliers left on our front lawn in 1968 by the KKK. Very likely, awareness grew in the friendships I had with kids in my school whose skin color was different from mine. Certainly, working in the community college alongside my friend Keisha deepened my understanding of the daily (hourly?) micro-aggressions committed against Black people and other marginalized groups.
A trip to remember
When I was in divinity school, I took a class on the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and faith. The course included some preliminary readings and final reflections, but it was mainly an extended field trip. There were 15-20 students; a little more than half were Black, the rest of us were either White or Latina. We travelled to Atlanta where we visited Ebenezer Baptist Church, ML King’s childhood home, and Morehouse College. From there, we went to Montgomery and saw Dexter Street Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Memorial, and Dexter Baptist Parsonage. Then, we moved on to Tuskegee where we toured Tuskegee University, Tuskegee History Center, and the Tuskegee Airman National Historic Site.
We went to other sites along the way as well; but one of the most rewarding components of the trip was spending time with my colleagues, discussing what we’d seen, sharing stories, and creating memories. Even if I had been blind to the injustices inflicted against my Black friends and their ancestors, that trip would have removed any of the scales remaining on my eyes.
New awareness–deeper and wider
That experience, concentrated with historical landmarks and transformative dialogue, made me more intent than ever to seek out bigotry in my own heart. It also strengthened my ability to recognize racism when I see it. But it did something else too. It enabled me to notice improvements in race relations, even if they’re found in fleeting moments between strangers; moments like this incident that happened a few months after that class.
Riding on the metro
The Washington metro was packed. Slightly motion sick and seriously wide-eyed, unused to traveling via underground transport, I sat tight. To the regulars, I’m sure it was normal: Washington, DC at 5 o’clock is not, after all, the most deserted place in the world. But I was a tourist from Smalltown, NC and subway trains are scary enough to me when riders have room to spare.
The train rushed on, slamming into its next stop. Weary workers flooded the aisles, reaching up and grabbing hold just as the train sped forward to its next destination.
In front of me, a man had been napping on and off throughout the journey. I’d watched him, amazed by his commitment to rest despite the chaos that surrounded him. A devoted sleeper myself, I was impressed. But as we took off this time, he sat up, eyeing an older woman who stood holding the pole in front of him. He watched her until she met his gaze.
“Here,” he said, gesturing to his seat and starting to rise.
She shook her head smiling unspoken thanks, “Next stop,” she said, pointing to the door.
The man nodded, pulled his cap back down over his eyes, and resumed sleeping. When the train stopped again, the woman exited and went on her way.
And that was that. No big deal. No one called the police. No one staged a riot.
A Black man offered his seat on the train to an elderly caucasian woman. They had a polite exchange, and life went on as if nothing had happened—as if what I had just witnessed was not, in fact, a little miracle.
None . . . until all . . .
That exchange illustrated for me what the students in the Mississippi Freedom School knew back in 1964 when they penned their “Declaration of Independence from the State of Mississippi” in which they listed their grievances against Mississippi’s government. They enumerated injustices common in the Jim Crow South and then they closed with a remarkable statement. They said, “No man is free until all men are free.”* MLK said it too. So did others in the years to follow.
See, the man on the subway could offer his seat (or not) because he was free. And the woman, because he was free to offer it, she was free to refuse. Seventy years ago, they would not have been on the same train at all. Sixty years ago, they might have been on the same train, but few would have questioned it if the woman had awakened the sleeping man and demanded his seat. Fifty years ago, tensions ran so high between the two groups, that no one knew what to do.
And we still don’t know. We have so, so far to go.
But that day, two people passed each other courteously, respectfully, and peaceably. To me, it felt like I had glimpsed the Kingdom of God, right here on earth, just as it is in heaven.
*It was 1964, so I’ll forgive the use of “man/men” instead of the more appropriate “person/people” or the equivalent.