“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous — therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” – Cry of the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk
This ancient plea strikes a deep chord in me and among many today. After the horror of the racist terrorist murders in Charleston, South Carolina many of us have been crying out with questions about all the strife and violence permeating our nation. How long until America confronts its historic love affair with guns and violence and undergoes a healing process of first truth and then reconciliation about our profound crippling birth defects of slavery, Native American genocide, and exclusion of all women and non-propertied men from America’s dream and electoral process? Only when we face the truths of our past which continue to flare up in our present can we work toward true reconciliation and wholeness as a people and begin to close the huge gap between our dream of equality and our reality of massive racial and economic inequality. How long and what will it take to make America America?
In South Africa, many people credit that nation’s formal Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a key component in the country’s transition from the brutality of apartheid to the ongoing struggle to build a fuller and freer democracy. The Commission was a court-like body set up to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty for the violence and human rights abuses of the past—giving South Africans from all sides a formal way to acknowledge their shared history of violence, racism and injustice. At its interfaith commissioning service in February 1996, South African President Nelson Mandela said: “Ordinary South Africans are determined that the past be known, the better to ensure that it is not repeated. They seek this, not out of vengeance, but so that we can move into the future together. The choice of our nation is not whether the past should be revealed, but rather to ensure that it comes to be known in a way which promotes reconciliation and peace.”
Our nation has not gone through a similar truth process. Our “racial” wars—including slavery, genocide, lynchings and repeated unjust deaths of Black citizens at the hands of law enforcement officials and self-appointed vigilantes or racist terrorists—have been manifestations of racial beliefs among us in various incarnations. Today, a Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ feeds our mass incarceration system. Our resegregated and still hugely unequal schools for children of color, especially if they are poor, are repeating pre-Brown v. Board of Education era practices. Our massive child and family poverty—which unjustly affects children and people of color—and indefensible massive wealth and income inequality continue two Americas of haves and have nots. And guns, guns, guns everywhere lethalize hate, terrorize inner-city children daily in dangerous neighborhoods, and darken the future of millions of children in search of America’s elusive dream. There are no safe havens from the carnage of guns which kill or injure a child or teen every 35 minutes. The recently publicized police killings of unarmed Black boys and men have opened a new chapter in exposing many old and still deeply engrained systemic problems of racism and classism in America. And the murders of nine Black churchgoers in a Charleston, South Carolina prayer meeting by a 21-year-old White man remind us that the most aberrant and violent kind of racial hatred is still alive in our gun saturated society—passing on the old poisons to new generations. While the removal of the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate war heroes symbolizing slavery and racial apartheid is a step forward, it does not confront the deeper historical national blight of slavery and the structural and cultural inequalities and racial seeds from our shared past that still permeate the tainted soil of our nation today.
It’s time for real truth and then reconciliation in America from the bottom up and top down. And it must begin with teaching truthfully American history. And while we can’t just imitate South Africa’s or Germany’s or Rwanda’s or other countries’ processes we can learn from them in designing a process that fits America’s history and context if we are to redeem our future for our children’s sake. There are thoughtful beginnings with Brown University’s examination of the slave trade’s role in its history and Trinity Church Boston’s and Trinity Church Providence’s examination of their historic engagement with slavery. Perhaps other colleges, universities, churches, denominations and other prominent institutions which benefited from slavery and the slave trade should consider following their examples to set history straight. All of us would benefit from reading Ebony and Ivy by Craig Steven Wilder and supporting efforts by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama led by Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, to put up markers indicating where slave markets existed and documenting lynchings in our not very distant past.
When the prophet Habakkuk asked “how long,” the answer he received was: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” America’s great 20th century prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., answered the same question in his time: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man. I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men?’…I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ How long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow’….How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu, appointed by President Mandela to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is a prophetic voice in our world today. An outspoken defender of human rights and campaigner for justice for the oppressed, he is revered for his commitment to fighting poverty, racism and all forms of discrimination against any human beings, and dedication to reshaping our conversations about peace, equality and forgiveness. He sent a video message to faith and youth leaders attending the 21st annual Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry in July at CDF-Haley Farm and shared what he believes is God’s dream for all human children:
“And God says, I have a dream. I have a dream that all of my children will discover that they belong in one family—my family, the human family—a family in which there are no outsiders; all are held in the embrace of the one whose love will never let us go; the one who says that each one of us is of incredible worth, that each one of us is precious to God because each of us has their name written on the palms of God’s hands. And God says, there are no outsiders—black, white, red, yellow, short, tall, young, old, rich, poor, gay, lesbian, straight—everyone. All belong. And God says, I have only you to help me realize my dream. Help me.”
I hope America can realize God’s dream for all humankind. I believe we can realize God’s and Dr. King’s and Bishop Tutu’s dream if each of us holds ourselves accountable and refuses to give up challenging our personal and collective prejudices and special privileges. I hope all of us will do whatever is necessary to pass on to our children and grandchildren a better and more just country and world than we inherited. But to do so, we must wake up, open our eyes and ears, avoid convenient ignorance, seek the truth, speak up, stand up, and never give up fighting for justice for all. How long? Not long, if a critical remnant among us is determined to do whatever is necessary to make sure that love trumps hate and that the truth of our history is taught and discussed and enabled to help make us free.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.