Martin Luther King Day
January 17, 2022
A few weeks ago, I went to a ceremony where the Governor of Louisiana signed a formal pardon of Homer Plessy, convicted in 1892 for riding in a “whites only” train car. Plessy boarded that train in the Bywater neighborhood to create a test case, a challenge to the segregation statutes spreading across the South. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and became one of the most infamous in our history. Instead of striking down segregation as a fundamental violation of the new Fourteenth Amendment, the Court upheld segregation under a contorted theory of “separate but equal.”
We study history to learn from mistakes, to learn that progress isn’t an inevitable tide that moves us forever forward. Because it could have been different. Homer Plessy was born into a moment of hope, a post-Civil War New Orleans that allowed African American men to vote, run for office and serve on juries – a city that had begun to integrate its police force and public school system. Instead, it all came to a violent end.
Segregation wasn’t inevitable – it was a new and grotesque attempt to reinstitute the conditions of slavery. We tend to forget that. In fact, Justice Harlan’s famous dissent to Plessy mocked the new railcar statute by predicting that it might even spread to streetcars and courtrooms, as in fact it quickly did.
History doesn’t just happen to us. It tells the story of real choices made by real people, just like us, and gives us the chance to learn both from those who made terrible mistakes and those who engaged in extraordinary heroism.
Today we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of those whose brilliant strategy and incredible courage dismantled the brutal systems of segregation. Some were lawyers (as many of you will be) who chipped away at the absurdity of the Supreme Court’s logic in Plessy v. Ferguson, case by case.
Some, like Dr. King, were ministers and religious leaders (as I hope some of you will be), whose voices rang out with moral vision. Because often it is only faith that cuts through political rationalizations, the fog of denial and self-interest.
And countless others were activists (as I hope all of you will be for causes you believe in). They marched tirelessly and bravely, not just in the 1960s but for decades before and since. They matched wits with the forces of opposition and won countless battles along the way, with strategic genius and stunning bravery.
All of them, the lawyers and ministers included, faced the very real threat of violence with unimaginable courage. Too many, including the globally-renowned, Nobel Prize-winning Dr. King, were gunned down or beaten to death, martyrs for the cause of freedom and human dignity.
Our faith (and that of all of the world’s great religions) calls on us to be willing to give our lives for each other, to prove that love has a force that conquers death and violence and hatred. I hope you’ll spend a minute today thinking about what that really means.
And in February (and hopefully every other month of the year), we celebrate Black History Month. We do so with the integrity to really know our history, to face it without defensiveness and denial. We do so because the point of history is to learn from our mistakes, not to wish them away.
We put ourselves in the shoes of those who suffered and gain empathy. We put ourselves in the shoes of those who made bad moral decisions to think about how we ourselves might do better. We learn of the achievements of those we have been encouraged to ignore and underestimate.
Loyola, I hope you have a meaningful and blessed King Day.