After a week in which we’re all still coming to grips with hate crimes, my thoughts turned to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. at a memorial service for the four little girls killed in a hate crime in Birmingham, Alabama fifty-five years ago.
These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.
And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.
I thought of those words the last few days as I watched attempts to suggest that only the individuals involved in perpetrating those crimes are responsible. When it came to the Birmingham church bombing, Rev. King didn’t spare anyone as he proposed that our concern should not simply be about the actual men who set those pipe bombs in a church, but the “system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced” them.
Steeped as we are in messages about individual responsibility, that is something Americans have always struggled with. It should therefore come as no surprise that Donald Trump and his enablers are attempting to absolve the president of any accountability for his ongoing hate speech.
Dahlia Lithwick proposed an alternative.
We have been told over and over that we are not to take this president literally or seriously or jokingly or truthfully, even though every day he shows his supporters who he is, and they not only believe in him, they quite literally believe him. For too long we have been trapped in a cycle of figuring out how to talk about a president who is neither truthful nor presidential, who cheerfully labels Democrats as “evil” and gleefully leads chants about locking up the very people who were the recipients of bombs at their homes. How does one even begin to explain to one’s children what it means that the president denounces violence and division as he foments both, on an hourly basis? Perhaps we can look to Florida for a tip. Last week the state’s gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum said that because Neo-Nazis and white supremacists were supporting and campaigning for and contributing to his opponent Ron DeSantis, perhaps it was time to stop talking about causation entirely. “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” he said. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”…
Perhaps instead of wasting another day on the pointless cycle of whether people who tweet racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and anti minority statements actually cause anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and anti-minority attacks or just stoke what was there to begin with, we should content ourselves with accepting that this is actually beside the point. The point is that people who hate Jews and immigrants and minorities believe that when they commit violence against these people, they are behaving as the followers their president wants them to be. Do all or most of the president’s fans believe this? Certainly not. But we have we seen far too many of them performing on the words the president puts out there.
To use Gillum’s framing, “I’m not calling Donald Trump a perpetrator of hate crimes. I’m simply saying that the perpetrators of hate crimes assume they are behaving as the followers he wants them to be.”
When it comes to what each of us can do to address the system that produced these perpetrators, Lithwick ends with this:
Our job this weekend will have two components—we will not only have to do this within our lives, but for the country. We will try to show our children that there are stark differences between love and hate, between hopelessness and hope, and between truth and fabrications. We will also have to show our children what kind of people we want them to be, because as it turns out, when you show people who you want them to be, they believe you. That is the nature of human beings. It is excruciating, but we can perhaps honor those who fell in their own house of prayer this week by remembering the division between light and dark, between hope and hopelessness, and by showing our children that we need them to choose to stand in the light.
As we watch Donald Trump bully his opponents and act like a two year-old throwing temper tantrums, I am reminded that sometimes we can get lost in convoluted or complex arguments about things that we all try to teach our children at a very early age. Robert Fulghum wrote a best-selling book about that titled, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Similarly, I would suggest that all we really need to know in this Trump era we learned in kindergarten: the “stark differences between love and hate, between hopelessness and hope, and between truth and fabrications.”
Of course, putting that into practice is much more challenging than putting it into words. But we need a reminder in this country right now about the basic concepts of right and wrong, truth and lies, hate and love.