Twenty-four years later, on another April evening, another city was burning. Someone who had been, as I was, deeply moved by Martin Luther King, Jr's moral challenge to American society was watching the news coverage of the riot from his hospital bed.
On April 29, 1992, tennis star Arthur Ashe lay in a hospital dying of AIDS contracted from a blood transfusion. The TV monitor was tuned to the news of the riots that broke out in South Central Los Angeles when the police accused of brutally beating Rodney King were found not-guilty by a court in Simi Valley. The rage and the reason for unleashing it found each other, and a riot ensued that demolished large portions of South Central Los Angeles. Ashe was shocked, as were most people, by the terrible behavior of the police officers who beat Rodney King, but he was witnessing something that caused him even more moral revulsion. Two rival gang members from the area of the riot were being interviewed about the beating of the white truck driver, Reginald Denny, who just happened to have driven his truck into the area of the riot, and who was dragged from his truck and beaten by several of the rioters. When the gang members were asked about Denny’s beating, they didn’t respond as Ashe assumed they would. He had expected them “to concede that the beating of Denny was unjustifiable, that it had been wrong!” “Their response was exactly the opposite. Denny meant nothing to them. His innocence meant nothing to them,” Ashe continued, anguished by what he was witnessing. “The principle of right and wrong meant nothing to them.”
Watching the television screen and listening to these two young black men, I felt sick. That’s not us, I thought. That’s just not US. It was as if spirits from another planet had come to earth and invaded black bodies. We were once a people of dignity and morality; we wanted the world to be fair to us, and we tried, on the whole, to be fair to the world. Now I was looking at the new order, which is based squarely on revenge, not justice, with morality discarded. Instead of settling on what is right, or just, or moral, the idea is to get even. . . .
What went wrong within black America? We might as well ask what went wrong with America as a whole. What happened to blacks is, to be sure, only a heightened degree of the national weakening of morality and standards. . . .What went wrong with black America, and what went wrong with America as a whole, Ashe concluded was that the moral authority that once resided in the Black Church in America, and that was championed by men like Martin Luther King, Jr., had been surrendered. It had ended up in the hands of political firebrands whose message was not justice but vengeance.
Fifty years ago blacks in American society suffered far more discrimination, racism, and poverty. They had available far fewer legal protections and government programs. Materially, their suffering was greater. But the crime rate was far lower, the out of wedlock births minuscule compared to today, the incarceration rate a fraction of what it is today. Even after factoring in all the mitigating factors to which those who think all moral problems the product of economic injustice or political inequality will with some justification call attention, the transformation that has taken place in the black community in America is staggering. To what can it be attributed?
These are hard realities, and those determined not to recognize them for what they are reassures themselves that their motive for overlooking them racial sensitivity. But what we are reluctant to recognize is not the racism of minorities, for they are no less prone to this sin than are others. The determination of both whites and blacks to look the other way is rooted in our reluctance to realize that it is Christianity that has been lost to an alarming degree in both the black and white communities. Arthur Ashe's words bear repeating:
What went wrong within black America? We might as well ask what went wrong with America as a whole. What happened to blacks is, to be sure, only a heightened degree of the national weakening of morality and standards. . . .On a happier note:
Liz and I have been taking at least one non-medical outing a week, on Sunday afternoon to a movie theater. A couple of weeks ago we saw a splendid film, not a great film, mind you, but still and all a warmly entertaining, well-acted and inspiring film nonetheless. It was "Pursuit of Happyness" staring Will Smith.
It wasn't until I thought about it later that some of the most remarkable things about the film occurred to me. These things came back to me this morning as I was thinking about the civil rights struggle in this country and Martin Luther King, Jr's famous "I have a dream" speech.
"Pursuit of Happyness" is about a young black man struggling to make a living to support himself and his family. His wife leaves him with his small son and his fortunes go from bad to worse. I won't spoil the plot, which is predictable enough but still nicely done. What is unpredictable and quite out of character for a Hollywood film is that though the main character is a black man and the business world to which he aspires is clearly a white-run world, the film never mentions race. Even more astonishing, perhaps, it resists the standard Hollywood depiction of business or corporate life as revolting.
All the markers are there. A typical director could have written a script with a black lead trying to pull himself out of a dead-end and provide for his young son in his sleep. It would have shown that racism was to blame for most his problems and that greedy and unscrupulous corporate executives were to blame for the rest of them. The Will Smith film does neither. It is a story of a loving father overcoming obstacles by behaving honorably and working hard and not giving up.
It's a piece at least of Dr. King's dream, and it's still alive, thank God.