Seeking Justice: The Evolution of Freedom

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A few days ago we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Some celebrated his legacy by simply taking a moment to think about something he said or did. Some celebrated by taking part in organized celebrations in their cities. Still others celebrated by practicing the very art Dr. King was well known for–non-violent civil disobedience.

I’ve been struck by several things recently that make me think of Dr. King and others who have fought tooth and nail for freedom in our country. I have toyed with the idea of blogging about several of those thoughts, but most of them escaped my ability to put them into words. Then I started listening to Dr. King. Literally. A friend of mine is letting me borrow a box set of his “Landmark Speeches”. It only took me three speeches to realize something that speaks profoundly to us today.

If you listen to the speeches of this giant of the Civil Rights Movement, you will hardly get a minute into any of them without hearing him speak of Freedom. He speaks passionately about the fact that he and other People of Color are not free and he dares to dream of a time when Freedom is realized for all.

I am also reading a book by Dr. W.E.B Du Bois, called “The Souls of Black Folk”. He published this book in 1903–only 40 years after the famous Emancipation Proclamation was issued as the Civil War raged on.

Lending an ear to both of these giants has given me a new appreciation for the journey toward racial justice in our country. Primarily it has caused me to focus on this idea of Freedom. It has caused me to see how the concept of Freedom has evolved within the consciousness of the black community–always through intense resistance from many within the white community.

Dr. Du Bois speaks of the pursuit of freedom before the Emancipation Proclamation as being single mindedly about no longer being forced to work for free. However after slavery was no longer legally sanctioned in the U.S., it quickly became apparent that Freedom meant something more. Still, the black community was not free.

But I can imagine the voice of white opposition trying to “reason” with Dr. Du Bois and others. I imagine those voices saying something along the lines of, “You are free! You are no longer slaves!” To which Dr. Du Bois might have replied, “We have begun our journey into Freedom, but we are not there yet.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who became a prominent person in the Civil Rights Movement more than 50 years later, also spoke about Freedom. He had realized that while the condition of life for the black community had certainly improved since the days of Dr. Du Bois, the black community was still not free. Segregation, both legally in the South and practically in the North, lack of educational opportunity, lack of work opportunity, lack of housing opportunity, police brutality, etc. all worked together to ensure that the black community was far from free.

Again I can imagine the voice of white opposition saying, “OK, maybe you weren’t really free immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation, but you are free now! Blacks are being educated, they have jobs, they hold power. You are free!” To which Dr. King might have replied, “We have continued down the road on the journey to Freedom, but we are far from our destination still.”

Today many activists across the country, operating under the name Black Lives Matter, are still talking about Freedom. They are pointing out, as Michelle Alexander does in her book “The New Jim Crow”, that Mass Incarceration continues to ensure that the black community is not free. They are pointing out that racial profiling by law enforcement continues to ensure that the black community is not free. They are pointing out that food deserts, under-funded schools, gentrification without justice, and many other pieces of the puzzle of our society continue to ensure that the black community is not free.

And still the voice of white opposition is present.

Perhaps I’m acting too hastily by interpreting today’s events in this way, but I think it would be a mistake to attempt to view them without any consideration of history. This is not the first time that the cry for Freedom has been met with intense resistance. Clearly, it always has.

Dr. King also teaches us something profound about this cry for Freedom. It is not only Freedom for the black community. Indeed, the Freedom of those who have been oppressed will always come with Freedom for everyone–even the oppressor.

As I contemplatively listen to history I am learning that, despite that resistance, the journey toward Freedom will march on. I choose to intentionally unplug from the vehicle of resistance. I choose to listen rather than speak. I choose to accept the invitation to march alongside my brothers and sisters toward the growing understanding of what it means to be Free.

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