As I was growing up, my father taught me many lessons about the history of African Americans. These were lessons he had learned first-hand in a racially torn South and in a tolerant, but often ignorant North. He taught my brother and I to value the heritage that had helped define our family. He told us of heroes who made a difference.
Fifty years ago, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Chaney was an African American from the area, and Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish men from New York City. The young people were part of the Freedom Summer project, working to register African Americans to vote. All three were between the ages of 20 and 24.
Those who remember the sacrifice of these fine young men are hoping that Congress will posthumously award them the Congressional Gold Medal. Such honors have recently been awarded to other Civil Rights martyrs, including the four young victims of the 1963 Klan bombing of an Alabama church.
Unfortunately, in today’s highly polarized political climate, reactions to the anniversaries of such tragedies often veer to one of two extremes. The first uses such evil acts to discredit the idea that there is anything good in the American past. This is nothing new; at the time they occurred, such horrors did much to undermine the moral authority of American leaders both at home and abroad.
Klan murders, along with Bull Conner’s fire hoses, exposed the ugly specter of racial terrorism in the South that had been long hidden from the rest of the country. And it is easy to understand why many who lived through such things, as well as those who read about them in the papers or saw them on television, began to think of the American promise of liberty and justice for all as little more than a joke.
The other extreme reaction often elicited by allusions to these kinds of events is to note that such atrocities are unthinkable today and so conclude that racism no longer exists in any kind of meaningful form. These are the speakers, writers and thinkers who are constantly urging us to “move on,” because there is supposedly nothing more to say or do on the matter.
Unfortunately, both reactions miss the complexity of the tragic and unique history of race in America. It is true that slavery and segregation led to unspeakable atrocities against black Americans, but this does not mean that most black Americans are not also currently blessed with tremendous opportunities. The fact that black Americans have come so far, however, does not negate the fact that there is much work left for us to do.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.