This morning, after listening to the podcast "State vs Johnson," by Malcolm Gladwell I was uncomfortable. No, that's not right. I was angry - pissed even - because I just hate stories like these. It's about a colored man accused of raping a white woman during the Jim Crow era. He didn't do it, but that didn't matter. She said he did.
The podcast ended about seven minutes before the walk was over so I had time to try and digest it a bit. It was a bit like trying to swallow a much too large piece of apple. After forcing it down with a giant chin-to-chest gulp, it scraped all the way down, leaving my chest soar and bruised for the rest of the day. Suddenly, simple eating becomes a painful chore.
Around noon, I grabbed a beer and tried to sort out my thoughts. I drank coffee instead.
A few nights earlier, I wasted too much time watching Louis C.K. videos because a good friend of mine, Eric Trauger, always talks about him, and for good reason: Louis C.K. is brilliant - in a hysterically difficult to watch sort of way - because, well, he nails us. Right on the head. And it's super uncomfortable.
Especially if you're privileged white.
In "State vs Johnson," Gladwell points out the parallel between Johnson's case and that described in To Kill a Mockingbird. The only difference being, Johnson didn't have Atticus Finch. He had a drunk who didn't understand the constitution, or the rights of all men.
(As a side note, I absolutely, with all that I know and am, disagree with Gladwell's assessment of Atticus' motive of persuasion).
Soon after the podcast ended, one thought that came to mind was on the idea of rights. After the trial, where Johnson was unsurprisingly found guilty, a new lawyer, Vernon Jordan, stepped in to try and rectify the verdict on the basis of violated Amendment rights - the fourteenth specifically- which says that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws (via)."
Johnson, a born citizen of the United States, had certain unalienable rights. But because of the color of his skin and because of the egregious actions he was assumed to have done, his rights were tossed aside, like crumbs on a picnic table.
Suddenly, inherent rights, seam so fickle, so fragile, only as strong as the men and women who ensure them.
The twin brother to rights is deserve, and in our American culture, we use them interchangeably. He or she deserves or has the right to do this or that, we feel the freedom to buy or do as we please because we deserve it, and please, feel the freedom to speak up and speak out because it is our First Amendment right, any high schooler knows that.
These ideas of complete independence and freedom are rooted in the declarations of our constitution, that all men are created equal and with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As Americans, we understand these truths, and we hold them to be self-evident.
But, what if they're not? What if we don't actually deserve anything? What if we, really, have absolutely no right to demand any rights at all?
What if, like Atticus Finch, all we really have is the weight of responsibility.
None of us chose anything about our birth, we just showed up, involuntarily. Louis C.K. hits on this when he says, "If it were an option, I would re-up (on being white) every year."
That's a pretty important "if" because it emphasis the point that none of us had a choice in anything about how we came into this world. Not who are parents are, their nationality, or ethnicity they are or decided to have sex with. We didn't decide any of it. We had not a single bit of input. Even after we were born, our opinions didn't count. If our parents lived on a farm, we lived on a farm. If they moved to the city, we went along - kicking and screaming or otherwise. From the beginning, we had no say, none, on some of the most deciding factors of life.
We didn't even have a say if we wanted to be born at all.
However, overtime, we begin to expect, demand even, what we are so confident think we deserve.
Yet, these men and women, without rights and without privilege, shaped the course of America.
We know America is what we make of it. That, "the Tuskegee Airman, and the Navajo Code Talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty (a right or privilege) had been denied" taught and lived out for us a great lesson on what it means to be American, and what it means to be human.
"We are all called to do something. We are all called, to play a role," not simply sit about, demanding our rights and privileges, but to live a life of deep responsibility, like Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Atticus Finch
Many of those men and women who walked that bridge, including that southern baptist preacher who had a dream, didn't look to the Constitution for strength to stand up and do something, they looked to their responsibility, their role within the time, and they made something of it. They were men and women of integrity, not entitlement. And they, along with many others both past and present, are what have helped make America great. Not their rights.
But we're not finished. In fact, if we look around, I think it's clear to say we are far from it.
May we, especially those of us born into undeserved privilege, live in a similar way and with like conviction and embrace the roles we are called to play - to make our homes, our communities, our country and our world great, not simply ourselves. To live, not with selfish and ambition, but with a sense of urgent responsibility, to use our gifts and talents and rights for the benefit of others, not merely ourselves. And to love. Good God may we learn to love and think of each others as more important than ourselves.
Then, and only then, will We be great.
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