When the unthinkable occurs, when superlatives seem to be the only comparisons available, I seek historical assistance. We’ve done this before, but the problems remain–problems we should have gotten past by now. Our unwillingness to deal with racial bias, and our nature to both seek, and simultaneously be skeptical of power, fuel those problems.
Both have, once again, reared their ugly heads. We must add two more young, black men to an ever-longer list of those sentenced to death by police for crimes that should have been fines. We also mourn the senseless death of five officers who were going about the most dangerous job we ask humans to do. The police never know when revenge, aggression, insanity, or hatred will ring out around them.
To acknowledge the plight of one does not diminish caring for the other.
If you think there is no racial divide remaining in this country, it only takes a quick read of the vitriol posted on social media regarding the innocent celebration of Malia Obama’s eighteenth birthday. The hatred is enough to stun and sicken the most enlightened.
If you think the police have a cushy job drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, just scan the walls of any police station in this country for the black-framed photos of officers lost. For them, every day of work holds the potential for tragedy.
These problems exist and the need to continue the struggle for equality and community must go on. We also must acknowledge that neither group is blameless. Fear and lost faith are powerful emotions and both black citizens and the police forces feel them, sometimes responding in reactive, even criminal ways.
Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch looking for answers. We don’t have to let our emotions whirl out of control thinking these are the worst of times.
The history we need to seek comes from half a century ago when the fight for racial equality was raging. On the evening of April 4, 1968 Sen. Robert Kennedy stood among a large, black crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana informing them of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. While other cities broke out in riots and hatred reigned, Indianapolis remained calm and mourned peacefully.
Robert Kennedy opened his heart and spoke to the group of his understanding through the tragic loss of his brother not five years prior. He let them know that Dr. King stood for peace and love and that any violent reaction, while understandable, would not be a tribute to him. He told them to disband, go home, and mourn. They did.
Kennedy’s calming words and his heartfelt empathy washed over the crowd. Human civility was on display. The crowd in Indianapolis and the leadership of Bobby Kennedy can be held up as examples of how to work to solve our 2016 problems.
Without King’s leadership and example, the mood of the civil rights movement was inching toward violence. The leaders’ names were now Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and author Frantz Fanon. They were preaching revolution to make their points rather than the strict non-violence demanded when Dr. King was alive.
In the weeks after King’s assassination, with violence brewing, Kennedy called a meeting of black leaders to discuss what could be done going forward. This group was different. The household names of the day were not present, rather a congregation of those yet unheralded.
During the discussion one attendee stood and said that he was always a follower of King and his peaceful methods of protest. But, there was only so much patience and that his thoughts were tipping toward a different, more radical plan to gain the civil rights his people so richly deserved. The man told the former Attorney General that if the cause lost men like him, men of peace, to the violence that promised a faster, more substantial victory, the country would be lost.
Robert Kennedy listened closely, but would live only two more months before he too became a victim. We’ll never know how his leadership would have evolved, but the basic message is clear.
From the legacy of Bobby Kennedy, we know that love, understanding, and careful listening can be part of the answer. Another part of the answer RFK brought to light is to not let the patience and hope of those willing to work for community lapse. The void will surely be filled with hatred.
It all comes to leadership. As a country we need to nurture and value leaders who are willing to put aside bias, break the habit of seeking power for power’s own sake, and open hearts to the possibilities of a peaceful America.