Wednesday, January 23, 2013

He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it (MLK)

I’m not sure how old I was when I first enjoyed Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, but I remember being puzzled by Atticus’s answer after Scout asked why he defended Tom Robinson when all of Maycomb seemed to believe that Atticus should not do so. Only slightly acquainted with moral dilemmas and ethical conundrums, I had never been required to oppose community norms and standards while standing entirely alone. I had never asked my family to stand with me even if doing so pushed us all to the sidelines.

But Atticus was well acquainted with moral and ethical dilemmas. He understood that living with a stain on one’s conscience is a terrible way to live, and he said to Scout that he wouldn’t be able to tell his own children what to do if he failed Tom Robinson. Atticus stood for truth and justice, choosing to defend a black man against the accusations of white people, and this, he believed, was essential to his good name, his children’s respect for him, and his conscience.

The late 1960s and 1970s, when I came of age, were days of activism and causes, and I played my part, but there were so many like-minded people that I never had to stand alone against harsh social judgments. I was never in danger either. No one threatened me with tear gas, and no one picked up fire hoses to turn me back. I moved in and out of protest mode without penalty or setback. A conscience was an easy accessory to put on each morning, and I could stow it away just as easily for my life was charmed. I had never known prejudice, never lost anyone I counted as friend to a bloody war, never had to choose between Canada and the draft, between convenience and environmental health. I lived the struggle in theory, and although plagued with an overly active gene for empathy, I never cried over personal losses and public shame.

But soon after graduating from college, I found myself in Atticus’s shadow. Granted, my dilemma was on a smaller scale, but in that moment, I could choose to act in such as way as to live with myself contentedly or betray myself. I chose to dodge shame.

In a brand new town where I landed my first job, I stood in one of two parallel lines behind a large white man in overalls. The other line, at the end of the counter, held just one black man. It never crossed my mind that this was a segregated service arrangement. I was sure such things were long dead in 1970.

A single clerk went back and forth from line to line, but when the man in front of me turned to leave, the clerk asked me how he might help. I answered that the gentleman in the other line had been in line longer, that it was his turn. The clerk told me, and even after all these years, I still remember his words and their tone: “He don’t count,” the clerk said.

“Please wait on him first,” I answered, my manner imperious, as commanding as if I were the Earl of Grantham speaking to a newly hired footman for in that moment, I understood that I had stumbled upon a relic of segregation.

The clerk did as I directed after registering several emotions on a continuum of disgust. I was satisfied with the outcome of this minor skirmish, satisfied that I had stood for right. Except that I presumed to speak for another man, one about whom I knew nothing. In fact, I obviously knew little about the community and any consequences the black man might face. I failed to consider if that man needed or wanted my intervention although he did thank me for my gesture. I can only hope that my good intentions were good for others.

But good intentions often lead to unpleasant consequences. Atticus children endured taunts and poor, hungry Walter Cunningham was caught in the crossfire of Scout’s impulse to speak up in his behalf. Atticus even put his own life on the line to face down a lynch mob, the lone defender of justice and human rights, of Tom Robinson’s life. But those are the risks we take when we take a stand. Others may deride our actions. We could put ourselves in physical jeopardy, but surely, remaining silent is worse.

Today, two days after the national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., a day when the first African-American president began his second term in office, we should remember King’s admonition: He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it. We must choose not to be passive. We must be caring, contributing members of this village in which we were born. We must rescue children neglected and abused. We must feed those who are hungry and wounded. We must knit together a strong net so that when we fall, we will not drown. And all of that begins with our voices. Speak up and stand for justice. Together we can overcome.