If there were ever an excuse for retaliatory anger, it was the murder of these children. And you can tell King was feeling that emotion’s pull. This act, he said, was “one of the most vicious, heinous crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” He then channeled the girls’ voices, speaking to a hypocritical, racist, complacent society: “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 the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. . . . They say to each of us, Black and White alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.”
This was probably expected. But King proceeded to make two points that would have left many uncomfortable.
First, he argued for a definition of justice larger than a correct legal outcome. “We must be concerned,” he said, “not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
Second, King held out hope that white-supremacist philosophy could be challenged and changed among Whites themselves: “We must not lose faith in our White brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.”
This remains shocking, even decades later. Speaking in King’s place at that funeral, I would not have been large enough to assert “faith in our White brothers,” given how thin the reasons for such faith appeared to be. King could have said, based on strong evidence, that most White Americans were beyond hope, and that a government of the Whites, by the Whites and for the Whites was irreparable.
I thought of King’s message in light of the death of George Floyd and the conviction of his murderer. In the case of the Birmingham bombing, justice took decades to arrive, during which time the murderers grew old in freedom. In Floyd’s case, justice was swifter. But we are left confronting “the system, the way of life and the philosophy” that led to Floyd’s death.
White people in America tend to assume, at a deep level, that America’s economic, governmental and legal systems are roughly fair. This, after all, is how people such as me generally experience them. And this allows for facile, sometimes unconscious, judgments. Because American systems seem fair, it must be individuals’ fault when they are poor, powerless or imprisoned.
It is a failure of imagination that leads to the persistence of injustice. People for whom the system works have a hard time understanding the lasting, disastrous economic consequences of centuries of stolen labor, or the continuing legacy of disenfranchisement and voter suppression, or the fear generated by policing that targets and dehumanizes minorities.
Focusing on such systemic injustice is not the recent result of “wokeness.” It is unavoidable when a country’s treatment of some groups is dramatically at odds with its national ideals. Through much of American history, this tension was described in religious rather than academic language. In 1775, an African British Methodist missionary was expelled from South Carolina after preaching “against the Laws of the Province respect[ing] slaves [and] compar[ing] their state with that of the Israelites during their Egyptian Bonda[g]e.” For centuries, Black Americans have taken the story of Exodus — the story of an oppressed but divinely chosen people seeking a promised land of freedom — as their own.
But if Black Americans play the role of Israel in this historical drama, then America must be Egypt — the Bible’s embodiment of tyranny and oppression. This was a critique of systemic injustice far harsher than anything the New York Times’s 1619 Project has produced, and a challenge to the dominant myth of American identity — its claim of moral exceptionalism.
So the accusation of systemic injustice is hardly new. But the reaction of civil rights leaders such as King was remarkable. Rather than judging America beyond hope, they loved it for what it might someday become: a multiracial society of equal justice and opportunity. Opposing racism was not only a method to confront injustice; it was also a way to help reclaim the personhood of Whites, who could finally lay down the burden of their bias.
America, it turns out, is both Egypt and Israel — an oppressor struggling to challenge oppression. And the voices of those girls killed in Alabama, and of a man murdered in Minneapolis, still urge us to courage.