Thinking about Justice

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Berlin on September 12, 1964;  PhotoquestGetty Images

Coffee, aloneness and silence. A perfect time to think! It’s what I need in the morning. I may be running around the rest of the day doing those tasks that most of us have to do. But in the morning, I crave the quiet time that allows me to think.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Since yesterday when we remembered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I have been pondering a very intriguing article I read about him yesterday in Time Magazine. It was about Dr. King’s 1964 visit to West Berlin.

Now you need to understand this: being a lifelong student of Dr. King’s life and legacy, I should have known about this visit. I did not! According to Time, West Berlin’s Mayor Willy Brandt invited Dr. King to participate in a memorial ceremony for President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated the year before. Simultaneously, Dr. King also received an invitation to speak in East Berlin from Heinrich Grüber, who had been a pastor at a church there and a prisoner in a concentration camp for three years during World War II for openly criticizing the Nazi Party. So it would seem that Dr. King was in the company of leaders who, like him, challenged systemic injustice.

Historian Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson wrote that Grüber had been driven out because of his “anti-government views.” In a letter to Dr. King, Grüber wrote, “I write in the bond of the same faith and hope, knowing your experiences are the same as ours were. During the time of Hitler, I was often ashamed of being a German, as today I am ashamed of being white,” Grüber wrote. “I am grateful to you, dear brother, and to all who stand with you in this fight for justice, which you are conducting in the spirit of Jesus Christ.”

The Time article reported that on Sept. 13, 1964 — two months after the Civil Rights Act was enacted and a month before he won the Nobel Peace Prize — King addressed 20,000 people at a rally at the outdoor stadium Waldbühne in West Berlin. Later, King delivered the same sermon at St. Mary’s Church in East Berlin, which was over its 2,000-person capacity, and then gave another, unscheduled speech to the overflow crowd at Sophia Church, similarly over its 2,000-person capacity.

It is interesting to me, in light of the demagoguery of our day, that standing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, Dr. King said, “While I am no expert in German politics, I know about walls.”

As always, Dr. King’s eloquence was evident in the words he spoke to East Berliners:

It is indeed an honor to be in this city, which stands as a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth. For here on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.

As you might expect, the U.S. State Department nervously monitored this visit. Historian Michael P. Steinberg explained the nervousness: “King is determined to cross the wall and see East Berlin, and it’s very clear, at this point, that the U.S. embassy does not want him to do this. They do not want the press.” American officials were particularly concerned as racial violence in the United States was frequently held up within East Germany and the Soviet Union as “an indication of the failure of American society.”

The embassy did confiscate Dr. King’s U.S. passport, hoping that doing so would deter him from crossing into East Berlin. But Dr. King managed to get into East Berlin by flashing his American Express card. 

German scholars have written that the visit was key, not only to raising the Germans’ awareness of the American civil-rights struggle, but also to sow the seeds of non-violent resistance there. Some say it inspired participants in the Prague Spring four years later, as well as the activists who campaigned for the Berlin Wall to be torn down in 1989. 

A final interesting historical fact from Waldschmidt-Nelson: East German opposition movements marched to “We Shall Overcome” in the 1980s.

So there you have it: a little-known story about a very well-known man! And thanks to him for a lasting legacy that continues to inspire us toward justice.

Moving Elephants

1d7ce45b-06ac-4a0a-92a0-8d51176ca80fThe wisdom for this day comes from Hannibal of Carthage: “We will either find a way or make one.” It was a Latin proverb, most commonly attributed to Hannibal in response to his generals who had declared it impossible to cross the Alps with elephants.

We need this wisdom for today because for the past two years, racism and other divisions have been promoted by the extremist in the White House and his enablers in the Congress. In general, Congressional leaders are creating policies that enforce systemic poverty. Plain and simple!

The truth is that this country has a long and tragic history of classicism, sexism, misogyny, and violence against women. And those who participate in oppression against women are often on the same side as racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and fascism.

This is not the way a nation and government should be moving, and the masses have said it will not be tolerated. They have looked squarely at the injustices and have determined to “find a way or make one.” They cannot be deterred or thwarted. They will persist as they have always done. “A change is gonna’ come,” sisters!

What are the signs? 

Sign number 1: a record number women were elected to seats in the House of Representatives, many of them flipping districts from red to blue. This nation elected the first Native American and Muslim women to Congress, and the first openly bisexual woman to the Senate. South Dakota elected its first female governor. North Carolina elected another African American woman to the state supreme court.

Sign number 2: the powers that be fear women who persist. As Rev. William Barber points out, they are afraid of women like Rosa Parks. They cower in the presence of women like Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign’s who has fought to tear down systemic poverty and oppression. They are terrified of women like Women’s March national co-chairs ― Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory ― who are bringing women together across every race, creed, color, religion, sexuality, and class. They fear women like Sister Simone who fights for affordable health care or like Lucy Parsons who fought for labor rights and living wages.

They’re afraid we’ll march, or vote, or advocate, or speak the truth, or run for office, or persist. But “a change is gonna’ come,” sisters! It won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But if any people can find a way to cross the Alps with elephants, sisters standing together in solidarity can do it! Women have shown that they will “either find a way or make one!”

But there is one caveat: stick together! Forget about infighting.

Yes, There may be realities of real conflict that need to be addressed head on. No social justice movement is without conflict, and disagreements around the Women’s March were there from the start: Should the march include anti-abortion women? Were the needs of women of color overshadowed by the priorities of white women? What about transgender women? Is it true that accusations of anti-semitism hang over the march?

Let us pray that women and those who support women will find ways to mitigate these concerns and show up on Saturday ready to march. After all, we made history together. That was our stellar beginning. Remember?

It started just days after the fateful 2016 election. A small group of women who feared the Trump presidency joined together at a New York restaurant to plan a demonstration. What resulted from that meeting was the largest single-day protest in U.S history, the Women’s March, which took place in about 600 American cities and towns and on every continent in the world. And that march was a part of what inspired a record number of women to run for office and win. Elephants or not, we “will either find a way or make one!”

So let us march on Saturday and if we cannot march, send positive energy in solidarity with those who do march. Be encouraged. Be encouraged by the words of Dr. William J. Barber:

As you march this weekend and as you step into the new year, I urge you to keep fighting. Do not relax until poverty is eradicated, until every American receives a living wage for their work, until racism, bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny are words of the past. Continue to register your friends and family and neighbors to vote. Continue to run for office. Continue to march, protest, and make your voices heard.

Keep the faith. Keep fighting.