“I Am A Man”
In 1968, Memphis sanitation workers protested after two men, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed by a garbage truck compactor after an electric switch malfunctioned, where they were keeping shelter from a torrential downpour. The city did not compensate their families. As a result, 1,300 sanitation workers walked off of the job and protested the conditions, the hatred, and the injustice that they just experienced. This strike collected the attention and support of Martin Luther King, Jr., and drew a line to his assassination. After the protest turned violent, and the press blamed King for the violence, King returned to the protest and was killed. He was killed over demanding that he and his siblings were seen fully as people.
According to the Washington Post:
“We felt we would have to let the city know that because we were sanitation workers, we were human beings. The signs we were carrying said ‘I Am a Man,’ ” James Douglas, a sanitation worker, recalled in an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees documentary. “And we were going to demand to have the same dignity and the same courtesy any other citizen of Memphis has.”
What were the sanitation workers after? Dignity, courtesy, the mere acknowledgment that they were human beings. What was keeping them from that full acknowledgment? The power that the public works department held over them, and the white supremacy that has infected and infiltrated Memphis and the rest of the United States. As Rev. James Lawson put it, “At the heart of racism is the idea ‘A man is not a man.’ ”
The power of sincerity
Antiracism is about people of color receiving the fullness of their dignity one that they know they have because of their relationship with God, whose love transcends the evils of racism. We know we are beloved because of how our Lord sees us, and we bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth when we stand up with sincerity and dignity against those who insist on debasing us and belittling us.
Howard Thurman says it this way in Jesus and the Disinherited:
“Sincerity in human relations is equal to, and the same as, sincerity to God. If we accept this explanation as a clue to Jesus’ meaning, we come upon the stark fact that the insistence of Jesus upon genuineness is absolute; man’s relation to man and man’s relation to God are one relation… In the presence of an overwhelming sincerity on the part of the disinherited, the dominant themselves are caught with no defense, with the edge taken away from the sense of prerogative and from the status upon which the impregnability of their position rests… The experience of power has no meaning aside from the other-than-self reference which sustains it. If the position of ascendancy is not acknowledged tacitly and actively by those over whom the ascendancy is exercised, then it falls flat… Instead of relation between the weak and the strong there is merely a relationship between human beings. A man is a man, no more, no less. The awareness of this fact marks the supreme moment of human dignity.”
Pay attention to what Thurman is saying. He is saying sincerity, that God gives oppressed people, gives them the courage and genuineness to stand up to their oppressors as equals. “Overwhelming sincerity” changes the power dynamic in the relationship. He says that the “experience of power” loses its meaning in the face of sincerity. Sincerity then combats power. That’s what was happening in the protest above; these men protest declaring that they are men, nothing more, and nothing less, results in an affront to the city, one that is so powerful it ends in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thurman says that if people of color do not acknowledge white people as “ascendant” than that power falls flat. It becomes a relationship between two beings. Human dignity flourishes. But as we saw with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, the response to that flattening of human relationships is murderous rage. The one who is used to their own ascendancy and falls flat needs to develop their own sense of dignity, or they themselves will feel oppressed because they have been knocked off their ascendant platform. But they weren’t knocked down through force, or shame, or coercion, but rather through the dignity of the other, the sincerity of the other. Merely because the other says, “I am a man.”
Disrupting the ordering of our society by the undignified demanding their dignity, demanding to be treated with courtesy, to be loved as God loves them, causes a massive disruption in how things work. The means by which this change happened is different than how the society is ordered—it happens through demanding to be loved, and seen, and known—not through violence or power over. But beyond the means, the ends also change. The society is disrupted and is changing. And you know it is because you hear the howls of protest, sometimes even resulting in murder and death.
People of color learn to practice deference to survive
The tension continues to do this day. The police killings of Black and brown people is a result of those people demanding to be dignified. When a Black or brown person demands that a police officer respect their dignity, when they stand up for themselves and their rights, they are seen as disrespectful and the consequences can be deadly. I was struck by this when Osheta Moore described an interaction she had with police in her book Dear White Peacemakers. After picking up her children from camp, Moore is pulled over by police.
“I was laughing and thanking God for their good weekend, until Tyson noticed the police lights behind us. ‘Yo Mom… is that for you?’ I wasn’t speeding, our registration was current, both taillights worked properly—in fact, I’d taken the newer of our two vehicles to pick them up because I’d noticed one of the brake lights was out in our older minivan. I had no idea why I was getting pulled over. ‘No, let me change lanes to see.’ I changed lanes and the police officer followed me, then turned on her sirens.
“’Oh my God, Mom, isn’t this the city where Philando Castile was shot? Tyson exclaimed as I began to pull over.
“’Shh.. that was nowhere near here.’ I turned the loud music we were yelling over all the way down to zero, no distractions, no confirming biases… we were just a mother and her two sons driving home on a Sunday afternoon.
“The officer, a White woman with curly brown hair, exited her car, stopped, and put her hand on her holster.
“’Mom… Mom… she’s going to pull her gun.’ Tyson pulled his phone out.
“T.J. leaned back, quiet, fidgeting.
“She was just pulling her pants up and adjusting her top. She resumed walking to my car.
‘”Guys still, guys, and stay quiet,’ I whispered, trying to steady my voice. These kids needed their mom to remain in control. ‘T.J., can you take Tyson’s phone and keep recording? Keep it down by your side, though, or she’ll tell you turn it off. Tyson, can you pull my registration and my license out quickly and set them on the dash where the officer will see my hands when I reach to grab them?’
“Both boys obeyed. I could hear their shuddering breaths as I rolled the window down.
“’Hello, Officer,’ I said as she came up to my window.
“’Ma’am, are these your children?” she asked.
“I looked to them confused, and then back to the officer.
“She stepped to the back window where T.J. was and demanded, “Roll the window down.”
“Why wasn’t she asking for my paperwork? What was her obsession with my kids and the car?
“Confused, I asked, ‘Excuse me?’
“’I SAID… Roll… the… window…. DOWN!’” she yelled. I wanted assume it was because of the highway traffic behind me, but I knew I’d annoyed her by not obeying immediately.
“I rolled the back window down and she stuck her head in the car.
“’Oh…,’ she chuckled lightly as she muttered to herself, ‘he is buckled in.’
“The officer walked up to my window
“’Ma/am, why didn’t you pull over immediately when I began pursuing you?’
“’I didn’t know what you wanted me to pull over for. I wasn’t doing anything wrong—’
“’Well, it’s wrong to not comply with an officer attempting to stop you,’ she interrupted.
“’You’re… you’re right.’ I threw my hands up in exasperation, and both of my boy took a sharp intake of breath. I’d scared them by moving quickly.
“’Ma’am, I need to see some ID. I saw your boy leaning up and wanted to make sure he was buckled in, but you’re being difficult so I need to make sure everything’s okay.’
“She ran my driver’s license. Everything was okay. She came back to lecture us about safe car riding.
“’This is a warning, ma’am. Have more deference with police. We’re just out here to keep you safe.’ She ambled back to her squad car and drove away.”
You see what happens to Moore when she stands up for her own dignity? She enrages the police officer. When she says “excuse me?” The officer erupts in anger. When the officer is proven wrong for pulling her over and the officer learns that Moore was right when she didn’t pull over, the officer rage continues. The officer’s ascendancy is damaged here. And then she feels the dignity of Moore flattening the hierarchy, her rage grows. She tries to reassert the order that Moore’s demand for dignity disrupts. She asks her why she didn’t pull over right away; interrupts to tell her she’s wrong; and Moore relents and tells her she’s right. For survival, just like she tells her boys to be quiet. It’s why they lower the music, and why they act in a fashion that the officer would see as “proper” for Black people. Moore knows that she has to deal in this sort of deception to survive, because the officer cannot handle her sincerity. After Moore concedes that the officer is right, the officer uses more power to ask for her ID, and runs it, and finds no other problems. She leaves her with this, “Have more deference for police.”
Moore debases herself in order try to circumvent her own death, and is still left met with rage and belittlement. That is the power of holding on to one’s sincerity, of speaking the truth, of insisting on being seen as a human, as an equal. And it will enrage and disrupt the order, and you will be named as a rabble-rouser, as someone who is divisive, and as someone employing hatred. But the Lord tells us otherwise, and shows us another way.
Turning the other cheek is about demanding dignity
In the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that the best way to love your enemy is to make them see your dignity. Jesus instructs his disciples to turn the other cheek when they are struck. Not so they passively accept their abuse, but because turning the other cheek turns the diminishing back-handed slap, one given to an inferior from a superior, into an equal confrontation, an open-handed slap. It levels the playing field. It asks your enemy to see you equally, and though that may spark rage in them, it does not mean you’ve assaulted them or injured them. It means you asked them to see you fully, as a human. You asked them to see you as God does. You’ve asked them to put aside their hatred, and love you.
Jesus, himself, descended in order to be on equal footing with us, to show us that he loved us. And while he was here, he did not debase himself lower than that, and he asked his own enemies to see him as an equal. That disrupted the social order to the point of his death, and his crucifixion. It is a curious thing about the nonviolent way of peacemaking and antiracism work. It disrupts the social order, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. did in Memphis, but it does not excise violence or keep the peace. The way of Jesus is fundamentally disruptive. Those who want to hold on to their ascendancy are incensed as the power they wield can no longer be used to oppress, and they’re faced with the fact that the person they are stepping upon is insisting to be treated with courtesy, and with decency. Antiracism is about seeing people as people and loving them.