One year after the widely publicized images of brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, observers were beginning to suggest that this exposure of racism’s ugly and violent side was a turning point in the national consciousness.
Fire hoses, police dogs and billy club beatings were on TV screens across the land, making the dark side of racial oppression and of efforts to preserve its structures hard to ignore.
Soon there would be a massive gathering in Washington, an “I Have a Dream” speech, and a shift in the collective mood that began to say, “Enough of this madness.”
Within a couple of years, landmark legislation would support the dismantling of the structures of injustice and discrimination that for generations had protected a way of life that privileged some at the expense of many others.
Of interest to me is the role of public exposure of physical and ideological brutality in the shaping of collective thinking.
Those of us who remember that period can point to many examples of what happens when a society looks in a mirror under bright light: The blemishes that can go unnoticed in the routine shadows of daily life are much harder to ignore.
Of course, turning points are seldom the kind of sudden transformation that corrects all ills.
It was later that same year that a bomb in a Sunday school classroom in that same city killed four young girls and injured several others.
Less drastically, the remnants of racial discrimination have continued in more subtle costumes, disguised in economic, political and even religious rhetoric and behavior.
But the turning point can be noted when the public mind began to say, “Enough!”
Such turning points in the slow movement of history are easier to see in the rearview mirror than through the side windows.
It is clearly risky to suggest that any set of present circumstances will be a “turning point,” especially when the issues are many and complex.
Still, I wonder if these next few months, as this period of our permanent “election season” is played, might be a turning point in our national consciousness, as the ideological brutality of attack ads, character misrepresentation and distorted information will be constantly before our eyes.
Early signs suggest that new levels of bearing false witness will be reached and will compete for public acceptance.
No fire hoses, police dogs and billy clubs this time, but carefully crafted and well funded advertising designed to dull the discernment of the populace with sound-byte reinforcement of fears, prejudices and stereotypes that will produce a vote in November.
Let’s assume there is a collective pushback to the extremes of this process that says “Enough,” resulting in a turning point in the way our political life is managed.
The next, and very important, question for individuals and communities of faith is how to focus helpful light on the many issues that are being used as arenas of battle.
I would affirm the value of a collection of documentaries produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics as helpful guidance after the “enough” stage is reached. Some examples are:
− “Through the Door”
What does faith do after a turning point is reached in a struggle for what it believes is the right thing? Does it gloat over the change of direction or react as an agent of the structures of alienation?
People have done both, but individuals and communities of faith can do as they have always done: be agents of reconciliation and justice, devoting energy and informed effort to helping nurture a new consciousness of wholesome participation in building community among all persons.
The value of a turning point, if it happens, is determined by the new direction that follows it. Communities of faith can have a lot do with what that direction is.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.