As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 21, 2013, many will take the opportunity to honor Dr. King’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement, by responding to the President’s national call to a day of service. The national call to a day of service seeks to “empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems, and move us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community.”
This year also commemorates the 150th anniversary of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation – an executive order by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War proclaiming all those enslaved in Confederate territories to be forever free. Together with the 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, it completed the abolition of slavery in the U.S.
The abolition of slavery did not lead to the path of real racial reforms in the century that followed. The Fourteenth Amendment gave African Americans citizenship and the Fifteenth Amendment African American males the right to vote, but the next hundred years saw the failure of Reconstruction, the disenfranchisement of African Americans, the legalization of racial segregation, economic oppression and exploitation of racial minorities, and massive racial violence.
Civil rights for all have never come as a foregone conclusion. Even today, our coming to terms with the compounding effect of racial inequity that follows the legacy of slavery awaits a maturity that is envisioned in Dr. King’s beloved community. Slavery remains a touchy topic, and, as a racial justice blogger in www.colorlines.com put it, we have “outsourced [our popular discourse on slavery] to Hollywood” as entertainment, for example, in the recent movie releases of “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained.”
The blogger pointed out that movies are not honest historical explorations. They are about marketing a commodity that has broad crossover appeal. It may be too much to ask “‘Lincoln’ not to be about slavery being “a thing debated and settled by important [W]hite men while [B]lacks await deliverance.” Similarly, it might be unfair to question the realities of the slavery experience in “Django Unchained,” for the depiction of “[B]lack masculinity and swagger alone in overcoming any obstacle” is totally credible in our era of the action hero.
It is indeed true that these movies about slavery are often less about the historical realities than they are about our present myths concerning a national past and a yearning for a history that was less horrific. But racial justices are more than about past milestones like the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Civil Rights Acts. These milestones point us not back to themselves, but to unfolding horizons of what it means for all to be truly free.
As we honor Dr. King’s legacy and aspire to the vision of the beloved community, we stand on the shoulders of the abolitionists and the civil rights leaders, so that we can stand tall and look far as we face evolving, emerging and global realities of racial inequities. May 2013 be a year of learning and service for racial justice.
The United Church of Christ has 5,194 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.