In January 1998, I was privileged to be one of the two keynote speakers for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Service Program at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The other keynote speaker was Vice President Al Gore. As I sat on the stage between Coretta Scott King and Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, I found myself wondering, “How in the world am I supposed to follow the Vice President?” And, “Will there be anyone still here after he speaks?” A half-hour later it was my turn to speak. I caught the eye of my encouraging wife sitting in the audience, took a deep breath and stood at that historic pulpit.
Nervously I began to talk about Rev. King’s high expectations for America and our uneven record of providing justice and opportunity for the least-advantaged members of our community. I tried to speak honestly about challenges within the African-American community that needed attention. I worried aloud about the plight of young black and brown men who were trapped in neighborhoods of despair without jobs or education and feeling alienated from the larger society. I noted that collectively, we have helped create these young men but now we despise them for their bad behavior. I used as an analogy, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, “Frankenstein” where that strong character suddenly confronts his maker and declares, “I am malicious because I am miserable.” I hoped to invite greater empathy towards them and to link our behaviors and choices to their constricted opportunities. I concluded with a message of hope often proclaimed by Rev. King who also quoted the popular hymn, “Never Alone, God promised never to leave us, never to leave us alone.”
In that pre-social media age, I received lots of comments by snail-mail and phone calls. But, the one that stands out now almost 20 years later was written by a gentleman who began by noting that he was as different from me as he could possibly be. He described himself as an older, conservative white Republican who loved the Confederate flag (a controversy that was raging at that time). Then, he observed that he appreciated my honesty in talking about the plight of the hopeless teenagers who see crime and violence as the only options available to them. He then asked if I would be willing to meet with him. Tempted to ignore this overture for which I did not have time, I realized that the spirit of Rev. King would not allow me to refuse an invitation like this. So we met for lunch and endured the curious gazes of those who sat nearby in Houston’s restaurant. After some awkward small talk, he put a small book on the table and said he wanted me to read it. It was a collection of quotations and essays about Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General and Virginia aristocrat. He challenged me by saying that since he had chosen to view the MLK program, I should be willing to learn more about a hero of his.
I wasn’t convinced of this initially, but I promised to read the book and to follow up. Our subsequent conversations found us telling our life stories. I spoke of growing up in a working-class black family on the South Side of Chicago with aspirations of attending Morehouse College. He spoke of his humble working-class beginnings in a small isolated town where he had no contact with distant people of color. We both talked about how our families, congregations and our neighborhoods sought to make us better people.
We continued to meet periodically. I visited his church, where I spoke to a class. Over time, we became friends. I share this to suggest that the path toward mutual respect, understanding and possible forgiveness, reconciliation and healing between those who appear to be very different can begin with simple and small gestures of decency and respect.
Just before the November election, I thought that a grand gesture of post-election reconciliation and healing by President-elect Trump and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might help the nation. I was wrong. National leadership is not helping very much right now. I don’t think there will be many great and quote-worthy speeches anytime soon.
That’s why I am urging my students, and now all citizens, to begin this difficult work at the local level, and community anchor institutions can help. Schools, religious congregations, businesses, community institutions, entertainers, artists and athletes can help us take those first baby steps toward a better future.
The road forward will require some or all of the following practical courageous actions. These are practices I have participated in over the past 25 years in various communities. And, I see them offering hope in Atlanta right now.
First, we must practice meaningful ways to affirm and remember publicly our common identity as Americans. Yes, we are incredibly and beautifully diverse and our histories are different. Each of these histories and all of our ancestors have contributed to the beauty and complexity of who we are as one nation, not just the culture of early English colonists. Perhaps my friend who shared that book offers a clue about the importance of learning other peoples’ landmarks and stories. Such reading and discovery can give us something valuable to talk about. Teachers, scholars, religious leaders and elected officials can help by creating safe spaces where people can gather for conversation.
Second, we need to have constructive conversations where we listen rather than argue. Most of what passes for conversation on television is unhelpful, and may be harmful. One good conversation starter may be found by responding to the title of Dr. King’s final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” The best conversations are dynamic and spontaneous, but they also require basic rules of the road and guidelines for respect and restraint. Thanks to some courageous community and business leaders in Atlanta, this is beginning to happen. The Atlanta Friendship Initiative was established by William Nordmark and John Grant, who invited members of the Atlanta Rotary Club and others to create pairings of diverse citizens to meet for dialogue with a commitment to bringing their families together in the future for a meal.
Third, some conversations, certainly not all of them, can lead to the breakthrough experience of confession. I have seen people who began as opponents begin meaningful conversations, and in the process, they have built just enough trust to confess their own shortcomings. I believe that confession should never be coerced or manipulated. It must flow naturally or not at all. If an offender is forced to apologize, the statement is no apology at all. Admitting wrong and demonstrating personal responsibility by confessing error is a powerful, even transforming act of maturity and humanity.
If the previous stages provide momentum, then citizens groups, classrooms, congregations and others should undertake a common project together. In other words, they should collaborate on projects of all kinds that will benefit our democracy.
As the conversations continue, they should also evolve into more candid and critical exchanges. In other words, criticism is evidence of progress, trust and a desire to see another person grow. Often as students, we hate to receive critical comments from our professors, and yet, that is precisely how we grow and how error gets corrected. Criticism is the bitter medicine that can help our healing. And, it is better to engage in critical conversation later in the process after trust and respect are growing.
Finally, it is important to come together for the purpose of celebrating our common achievement. Celebration gives us permission to acknowledge and feel good together about the possibility of becoming the best people and the best nation that we can be.
Common ground, conversation, confession, collaboration, criticism and celebration. Could these six practices help us move forward as a nation? None of these is a substitute for good policies, institutional reform and real opportunities for promoting hope, respect and decency among our fellow citizens, but they could be a small part of the soul-healing work that guides our nation to become truly great and good.
Robert M. Franklin Jr. is the Berta R. and James T. Laney Chair in Moral Leadership and senior advisor to the president at Emory University.