By Brad Hicks
In March 2020, due to coronavirus restrictions, I had to cease nearly all operations of the publishing company I’ve owned and operated for almost twenty years. Without having to focus on my business as much for the past year, I’ve had more time to learn, study and research, which is something I love to do when I have the time to do it. I’m not sure why, but I immersed myself in the stories, personalities, and histories of Americans of color (particularly black Americans) and civil rights in the United States. I’ve learned a lot, not just about people of color and civil rights, but about my country, my church and theological roots, white people, and myself. It may be the most important education I’ve ever received.
The things I’ve learned have inspired me to take a month-long trip to visit several sites, memorials, museums, schools, and churches around the U.S. where either important civil rights events took place or where there are education centers dedicated to civil rights history. I plan on leaving sometime the first week in March, and I’ll be journaling, blogging, and photographing every day of my trip. I plan on being on the road the entire month of March.
First, I’ll travel to Washington, D.C., where I’ll spend a few days on the National Mall and at the various Smithsonian museums and galleries. From the nation’s capital, I’ll head south to Atlanta, Georgia, the birth town of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and where The King Center for Non-Violent Change is located. Later in my trip, I’ll also spend time at the National Civil Rights Museum across from the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, the site of Dr. King’s assassination. I plan on spending time in towns in Alabama, like Birmingham, where Dr. King wrote his famous letter from jail and where the 16th Street Baptist Church still stands; Montgomery, the site of Rosa Parks’ arrest and the endpoint of the third march for voting rights; and, of course, Selma and the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Dr. King, John Lewis, and civil rights marchers endured persecution and beatings on Bloody Sunday during the first march for voting rights in March 1965.
While in the Deep South, I want to also visit a few sites along the infamous Trail of Tears, during which, from 1830-1850, over 100,000 Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homelands throughout the southern U.S. states and made to travel by foot for hundreds of miles to relocation territories in eastern Oklahoma. Historians estimate that up to 15,000 men, women, and children died en route to these first Indian reservations.
Why am I immersing myself in the stories and places of these tragic events and volatile eras in our nation’s history? Honestly, I’m not sure. I do know that it’s an unusual immersion that I’m experiencing, and it feels urgent and important. Even though I don’t know specifically yet what the purpose might be, I do have some thoughts.
It’s clear that black and Native Americans (and all non-white groups) have endured unimaginable suffering and injustices at the hands of—and as a result of the broken treaties and inequitable policies made by—white Americans in power since the days we arrived here from Europe. The marginalization of these groups throughout history continues to oppress many of them to this day, particularly the U.S. government’s retreat from its commitment to equality after the Civil War, thus ending Reconstruction for the newly freed black slaves in the South. What followed was the horrendous government enforcement of Jim Crow laws—state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation—for the next 100 years. Slowly, Jim Crow laws began to be eradicated after World War 2. They remained intact in many states, however, until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the Fair Housing Act in 1968. Technically, Jim Crow laws were then off the books, though these Acts have not always guaranteed full integration or adherence to anti-racism laws throughout the U.S.
I’ve been aware of these inequities my whole life and have done little to nothing to be a part of the healing between racial groups. I was raised by a family who taught me well that all people were to be treated with dignity and respect, but no one in my family was activistic. Racial injustice, poverty, and human rights were other peoples’ problems, not ours. In my parents’ case, maybe it’s because they both were raised poor as kids and were able to better themselves once they became adults. Nonetheless, this uninvolved posture has remained with me my whole life, even though I’ve been a Christian and church-goer for over forty years—Evangelical: Long on preaching the Word, short on social activism. I’m 59 years old, so I figure I have a good 20-25 years remaining in which I can change this posture. How to most effectively do that is what I’m committed to figuring out and about which I’ll be asking others who are already active in the struggle.
Donald Trump’s term as president opened my eyes to the sinister reality of the prejudice, discrimination, and hatred that many whites still have toward people of color. This racism was always there, but Trump’s tenure brought it out in the open like America hadn’t seen in decades—white America, that is. Black and brown people were well aware of it all along.
Also, in my learning over this past pandemic year, I’ve become aware that there are even more of us whites who are deeply affected by a more subtle kind of racism—systemic or institutional racism—but we’re often too disengaged emotionally from caring that we deny this reality about ourselves. This is a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organization and shows up as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues.
We’re living in a time when racial tension and unrest have erupted to a height we haven’t seen since the 1960s. And those of us who care need to search deeply inside and ask ourselves where do we really want this to go? Do blacks, Hispanics, Natives, and Asians need a more sincere acknowledgment from whites of the damage we’re responsible for? Reparations? Policy changes? Legislation of new laws? Do we honestly want peace and reconciliation? Can people of color ever truly trust white people? Is forgiveness possible? What should equality look like? How will we know if and when we’ve reached a satisfactory level of justice and equality?
Great strides in the right direction have been made to recognize, acknowledge, atone for, and amend racial injustices and inequality in the United States, but we have a long way to go. I hope to stay the course in this struggle, to be a part of positive change, and of working toward finishing the job.
For me and other concerned Christians, the right place to start is in our churches. We play an integral role in healing racial tension and unrest even though our churches are all-too-often as systemically racist as any other American institution. The New Testament refers to the Christian church as “the family of God, the church of the living God, and the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Christian friends, we make a mockery of this reality when the world sees us as fragmented and as racially discriminatory as any other human system. The world is closely watching us and, I believe, hoping that our Christ is real and alive and can save, as we claim He is and can. The not-yet-believing world will always jeer at the church, that’s normal, but may it jeer because we’re doing our righteous best and not because of our hypocrisy and discrimination.
I have far more questions than answers. Stay tuned. I’ll be writing about my findings and discoveries during the whole month of March while on my learning journey.