LAST Wednesday, a bipartisan and multi-racial group of political leaders led by Gov. Ralph Northam held a press conference in Richmond to announce their support for a resolution to make 2019 the Year of Reconciliation and Civility in Virginia.
Gov. Northam was joined by former Gov. Bob McDonnell, House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. “It is at this moment in time we truly have an opportunity to make a paradigm shift and live up to the true creed of our nation and ensure equal justice for all,” said McQuinn, who is sponsoring the Joint Resolution on Reconciliation (HJ617) in the House of Delegates “to promote a more just and civil society in America.”
The resolution cites Virginians for Reconciliation, which is planning to host a series of events across the commonwealth “to help participants understand and accept the hard truths that exist in black and white America, with the goal of establishing a new dynamic where people of different races will have a much healthier dialogue and work more closely together to advance the common good.”
Monday’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers an opportunity for Virginians to reflect on just what racial reconciliation means 400 years after the first enslaved African-Americans were brought to our shores as chattel, their skin color used as an excuse to deprive them of their basic dignity and humanity.
Although the nation fought a bloody Civil War over slavery, and laws enshrining segregation and discrimination have long since been repealed, the deep wounds from that ugly chapter of American history have still not healed.
And as our nation becomes politically Balkanized, it might seem that true racial reconciliation is an unattainable goal.
Daryl Byler, executive director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, has pointed out that “stories retold across the generations are powerful tools for shaping our cultural, religious, and national identities—and for perpetuating conflicts. It is only by listening deeply to another’s story that we see our own story in a new light and can begin to make space for an expanded and more inclusive narrative.”
That’s certainly a start. But respectfully listening to others’ stories is not enough.
In his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King’s view of racial reconciliation was a nation in which his children “would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The great civil rights leader offered a vision of the still-segregated South being “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice,” pointing out that reconciliation is always a two-way street.
White people have to realize that “their destiny is tied up with our destiny … and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone,” King said. At the same time, he admonished his black followers “not [to] seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
According to Charles Gilmer, founder of The Impact Movement Inc., a Christian campus ministry for African–American students, groups gathered under the civil rights umbrella promote tolerance as a path to reconciliation. But “tolerance has no cohesive nor healing power in society,” Gilmer wrote. “It means little more than leaving one another alone. It leads to indifference, not understanding. Tolerance allows the gulfs between us to remain in place. In fact, there is little in the concept of tolerance to pull us away from racial isolation.”
Gilmer points out that King’s solution went far deeper than live-and-let-live tolerance. In his book of sermons, “Strength to Love,” the fiery Baptist preacher wrote: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Yet “in current discussions of race relations the word love is seldom mentioned. Dr. King insisted love was the dominant or critical value by which we could overcome racial strife,” Gilmer wrote.
In her 1981 foreword to her late husband’s book, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, made the same point: “This book best explains the central element of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence: His belief in a divine, loving presence that binds all life. That insight, luminously conveyed in this classic text … hints at the personal transformation at the root of social justice: By reaching into and beyond ourselves and tapping the transcendent moral ethic of love, we shall overcome these evils.”
After 400 years, racial reconciliation will not happen overnight. But it’s possible to have an honest and civil dialogue about slavery’s harsh legacy on the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike.
Love of one’s neighbor cannot be mandated; it must come from the heart.
But during this Year of Reconciliation, all Virginians can and should make a real effort to finally make Dr. King’s dream of brotherhood a reality.