At the end of the summer many of us watched the verdict in the Zimmerman case with great concern, even worry. We sat with knotted stomachs, aching hearts, and frazzled nerves waiting for a just verdict but anticipating one that would once again bring us to a very unsettling place around the issues of race and violence in America. We’ve been here too many times before – stuck in a vortex of sorts, where we struggle mightily for a moral anchor for our feelings, our fears, and our outrage but knowing all the while that as a society we lack the moral courage to confront ourselves and our history.
As a Black clergy person, who is working with PICO National Network’s Lifelines To Healing Campaign, I was praying for a verdict that would demonstrate that the American justice system possessed both the capacity and the intent to value Black life. Waiting for that same system to demonstrate to the American people that the laws and policies that preserve the fruits of democracy for the privileged are also extended to those who live at the margins. Simply put, I and many of my clergy colleagues, and so many other Americans, were waiting for a sign that the instruments of justice and governance would bend to include us.
We waited for the Supreme Court to render its verdict re-validating the Voting Rights Act. Sadly, in my estimation, we waited in vain. We waited for the verdict from the Supreme Court that we hoped would lend new support for affirmative action strategies as remedy for long-standing racial inequities in higher education and employment. Again, we waited in vain. As we mourned the senseless loss of life in Newtown earlier in the year and the veritable orgy of violence and death ongoing in Chicago, we patiently waited for the administration and Congress to act on sensible gun legislation. Our waiting again, produced no fruitful policy change, no legal respite, no moral response.
And we waited for a Florida jury to pass judgment on a case that brings into question many of our deepest racial fears and animosities. Waiting this time, for an all-white Southern jury to render a verdict that would bring justice to a case, that had at its heart the senseless loss of a precious child, seemed like the most perverse kind of waiting. We’re waiting for the time when true racial justice will be realized, and knowing in our hearts all along that that time has not yet arrived because we haven’t the moral courage or clarity to work to make it so.
Fifty years ago, at the height of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pricked the nation’s moral conscience in a letter that he penned from a dank jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. He declared with great moral exasperation that the time for waiting for justice had come and gone. At the top of his prophetic voice he proclaimed, “For years now I have heard the word "wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see…that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
His words still ring true today; we cannot continue to wait for justice. We shouldn’t expect that the wheels of the American system will turn in our direction without applying the grease of moral outrage and organized action. We should not expect that which we are not willing to labor for, even suffer for.
Dr. King goes on in his letter to indict our tendency to wait on justice as a “tragic misconception of time.” He asserts that in all of our waiting we conspire with those of “ill will” to delay, defer and deny. We misuse time to allow us distance from the moral imperative of “now action” and we allow time to seduce us into complacency - and ultimately complicity.
Time is on the side of those with moral courage. Time is on the side of those who would work to make commonsense gun laws the law of the land. Time is on the side of those who would fight for voting rights for every American, including those returning from incarceration. Time is on the side of those who would advance laws ensuring everyone a fair chance at opportunity. Time is on the side of those who value the lives of young Black men.
We must pull ourselves out of this moral vortex. We must carry our voices into the public square and have our say on issues that define our democracy and determine our freedoms. We must organize our communities to develop collective power. And we must use that power to press for real justice - now is the time to challenge ourselves to use time in the service of justice.
- Rev. Alvin Herring is the Director of Training and Development for The PICO National Network
The Lifelines to Healing Campaign is a national movement of the PICO network of faith-based organizations and congregations committed to addressing the causes of pervasive violence and crime in our communities. We believe that the criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, coupled with the lack of meaningful and quality opportunities, have contributed to a state of crisis in our country. Lifelines to Healing is committed to advocating for policies and resources that contribute to the healing of our communities.