mlk day

January 15, 2001

As you all no doubt know, today is the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, a minister who changed the way that the United States views and understands race. Had he lived, he would have been in his early seventies now, and one can only wonder how much more he would have contributed to American society.

In 1968, an assassin’s bullet ended King’s life and the ministry that he’d worked so hard to create. At the time, I was a young civil rights worker and antiwar activist. Even before he was murdered, my colleagues and I had already decided that his belief that change could be achieved through nonviolent means was a doomed vision. Even as his commitment to nonviolence gained greater resolve, our frustration with how badly America was responding to his call led us to greater and greater militancy. Of course, time is the best judge of the truth, and as I matured I realized how right Dr. King was, and also how much more patient he was than we were back in his time.

In thinking about his legacy over the weekend, what came to mind was how difficult it is in this country to get a national hate crimes bill passed. When Martin Luther King spoke, he spoke for all of those who suffer under racism. For all those who are assaulted and even killed, not because of who they are, but because of their ethnicity — be it African-American, Latino, Arabic or Jew.
Hatred still exists. I’m not sure I could really define hate even if I wanted to, and I don’t want to. I sure as hell know it when I meet it. It’s scary stuff, which you know if you too have ever been confronted by it.

There was a brief time in my life when I experienced hatred. It was 1968, and not coincidentally connected to the killings of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. I hated this country. I hated that nothing we did seemed to really diminish racism and the attacks on black people. No matter how much we taught, worked or protested, the war in Vietnam was still escalating. Every leader who stood for our principles was getting killed. What I remember about myself in that hatred was how dark, closed and bleak my heart had become. How far removed I got from any capacity for joy, for connecting with my own humanity and, finally, from any productive action.

I still want a national hate crimes bill. It is time that we formally state that hatred for people because they are part of a certain ethnic group or have sexual preferences different from our own will not be tolerated. We need a law on the books that says crimes of hatred will be punished.
Now, I know the counterargument here: murderers are already punished, so why should we have another law when the current laws take care of the problem? The answer to that is real simple. Not all hate crimes result in murder, and the laws we do have against discrimination don’t have enough teeth.

True, the killers of Matthew Shepherd in Laramie, Wyoming, got sent up as murders. So justice seems to have been given to the parents of Matthew Shepherd. But that still begs the question: will the sentencing of the two killers help gay people sleep any better? Will it relieve them of the mortal fear too many have to live in? Probably not. If there had been a hate crime law in place, it is even possible that Matthew Shepherd would never have been killed, because maybe, just maybe, such a law would by its very existence have created a clear warning to those two kids who murdered him.

It comes as no surprise to me that for the most part, those who oppose hate crime legislation tend to be those who have never experienced being the target of hatred. They just don’t get it. How would a nice Christian white boy like Georgie Bush even begin to know what it is like to suffer because of the color of his skin? He wouldn’t.
In 1930s Germany, how would even a decent German have known what the experience of a German Jew was? They couldn’t. But the fact that you cannot directly know the experience of another does not mean that the other’s experience didn’t happen.
Again, it is no irony that the people who make the laws for all of us aren’t truly representative of all of us. They still tend to be white Christian males. What do they know about hate?
If you have ever met hatred like this, you know how scary and weird it is. If you are black and know that there is hatred out there that targets all black people, how do you protect yourself?
When I was a kid, I was the one and only Jewish kid in an all-Christian neighborhood. I can’t recall all the times that I was called “Jewboy,” “kike” or “yid.” I was physically attacked a number of times. I loved my neighborhood, but I walked it with a wary eye — a wariness that no other kid in the neighborhood had to have.

By my teens, I hung out with a small gang of guys who I trusted as friends. They were all Irish and I was the Jew. They always told me I wasn’t like a Jew, which made me feel accepted. The worst part was that it made me feel good.

One time, me and my oldest friend in that group got in an argument. In my neighborhood, arguments were not typically resolved with logic, persuasion or words. They were pretty much decided by whoever was left standing at the end of a fight. So we squared off. He was 6’4” and had fists the size of cantaloupes. By that point in life, I taught myself to not be afraid and to take on anybody. I never really had a choice. So me and this kid — I’ll call him Billy — squared off. The other four guys were leaning against the wall. Just then Billy looks at me and says “‘Eff you, Jewboy.”

No punch he could have thrown would have hit me harder, struck me deeper or knocked me further. “Eff you, Jewboy.” Just like that.

My first reaction was that this was really unfair, so I turned to my friends for help, expecting somebody to tell Billy that he was being unfair. And every one of those guys just crossed their arms over their chest and stared at me, their eyes saying, “That’s the way it is Jewboy, Christ killer.” Wow, that story still hurts. It was as though even with our friendship and all that we had been through together, I was still beneath it all just the hated kike.

We all eventually pretended it never happened and got along again. But — and here is the difference between those guys and me — they could and probably did forget that it ever happened. But even though it was almost forty years ago, I have never forgotten it. This is why being hated is a different experience.

Now, I don’t think that my old friends should have been arrested, but I do think that had there been a hate crimes bill, it would have helped me. Maybe they would have been more aware, or maybe it just would have given me a way to respond, by telling them that what they were doing was considered immoral, if not criminal. Who knows?

Not many of you know this, and I just stumbled on it one night last week: the cable music channel MTV recently did something extraordinary. It cancelled all of its regular programming for seventeen straight hours and replaced it with nothing but programs on hate crimes. They began with a movie about the murder of Matthew Shepherd, and then did more than fifteen hours of people describing one hate crime after another. I stayed up until 1AM watching it, just appalled and grateful to a media company for doing the right thing. What are you doing?

Now let me end with an uplifting story.

In 1994, I was the lead consultant to the Stockton School District. It was my mission to turn the district’s system around. One day, a third-grade teacher who knew that I had been a civil rights worker in my youth asked me to address his class about Dr. King. Of course, I accepted.
When the day for me to talk to the class arrived, I became a bit anxious. I didn’t have a clue how to talk to third graders. But, they taught me instead.

When I got to the school and walked into the classroom, there must have been kids of ten different ethnicities in that room: black, white, five varieties of Latino and nearly as many types of Asians.

As soon as I walked into the classroom, the teacher asked the kids, “How many of you are surprised?”

Just about every hand went up. I had no idea what was going on, but learned that this was one hip teacher. The teacher asked the kids what about me surprised them. One little Latino girl simply said, “Well, he is white.” The other kids mumbled their agreement.

The teacher had taught them about the civil rights movement and Dr. King — so they were expecting a black man, but they got a white one. And right then, I knew how to talk to them. I said what I thought, that they seemed to be having trouble understanding that a white man would put his life on the line for people different than he was. They nodded.

Then I told them about Dr. King and how at the time of his assassination, he was very famous and internationally respected. He could have been safe by teaching at a university or traveling the world, but instead stayed in the fight and went to Memphis, Tennessee, to help in a sanitation workers strike. So I asked them why people do things like that. Why do people help other people who are different than them, when it would seem that they really didn’t have to?

I had them meet in small groups. Each group elected somebody to go to a final small group to formulate the answer for me. It didn’t take them long, so at one point a little Vietnamese girl was elected to report their findings to me. She stood and addressed me and said something like this: “We think the whole world is really just one big heart that we are all part of. So what you and Dr. King did was really just the heart taking care of itself.”

Just the heart taking care of itself. Reflect on that this day. Write to your senators and congress people to demand hate crime legislation today.

In the meantime — if you meet hate, well, just try a little tenderness.

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