Have you ever read or heard about something from the past and thought, “Hey, wait a minute. That’s what’s going on now!”?
Sitting in recently on a seminar that has been studying the American South during the 1950s and ’60s created that kind of “flash forward” for me as I listened to students report on events and people from that era. Being old enough to remember much of what they reported probably intensified the experience.
We saw pictures and listened to reports of the murder of Emmett Till. We listened to interviews with the survivors of the “Orangeburg Massacre.” We heard stories of the prophetic careers of Judge Frank Johnson of Alabama and of Will Campbell.
Weaving through all the reports was the subtext of a culture being confronted with a major flaw in its character, which for several generations had gone without highly visible challenge because it was widely accepted as “the way things were.”
When things like the Till murder and Montgomery bus boycott began to illuminate this feature of Southern culture, it was no longer possible to pretend that the problem didn’t exist.
Lines were drawn between those willing to expose and address this cultural character flaw and those willing to defend its preservation seemingly at any cost.
The demagoguery and fear-mongering of political leaders in the South were a powerful force in solidifying the thinking of many that a wider umbrella of justice would somehow deprive them their measure of it.
Many were driven to violence, and many more were led to accept an understanding of their world and an interpretation of who they were that supported the flawed system.
Economic and religious leaders had to choose whether to support efforts to reform the system, to defend it so that its benefits would flow as they had, or to keep quiet and hope to avoid the injuries and loss of security that would come from taking a stand. All three choices were made.
It is now clear, a half-century later, that efforts to preserve a form of injustice benefitting only part of the nation’s people were no match for the voices that called on the nation to “live out the true meaning of its creed.” But the outcome was slow in coming, and the casualties were high.
One might wonder (and here is the “flash forward”) if we’re in the midst of a similar cultural conflict – now even with global expression – where a cultural flaw, defined this time in wealth instead of race, is being exposed and challenged.
Demagogues are defending an unjust system that benefits the few at the expense of the many, and they are proposing “solutions” that exacerbate the problem.
That’s driving some to violence and leading many more to accept an understanding of reality that is less concerned with truth than it is with effectiveness in shaping public opinion.
Leaders – political, economic and religious – are making choices. Some call for an honest and realistic effort to address the cultural flaw, which we all share responsibility for letting develop.
Others defend its preservation because it provides significant benefit to some who have considerable influence. Still others keep quiet in an effort not to offend those on whose good will they depend.
These leaders are also making choices on which side of history they will be seen by students who someday will write reports on the first two decades of the 21st century.
You wonder if the main thing history teaches us is that history doesn’t teach us very much. But the good news is that every morning gives us a fresh opportunity to start listening again. Some students who weren’t even alive during the events they were reporting taught me that.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.