It is April 4, the solemn anniversary of losing a moralist of the ages. On a humble motel terrace in 1968 in Memphis he was gunned down, a victim of hate.
Since that year, more American citizens have died from gun violence than all the soldiers in all the wars in her history, combined. Over 1.5 million people have been on the fatal end of a bullet in this country in the last half century. There is a stark difference over the decades. Today, hatred, vitriol and division are mobilized and publicized as never before. The digital age has ushered in a new breed of mass massacre, often accompanied by social media platforms serving as incubators stoking and encouraging violence, and all-too-often memorializing the deed in a final tribute produced by the assailant to trigger social responses. We are in new territory where going out with a bang leaves a lasting, on-line legacy, no doubt fueling intentions for others bent on acting, and promoting, concentrated hate into a 24/7-news cycle, WiFi world.
The undercurrent to the violence, and where the hatred flows much more subtle, can be discovered in the most mundane manner as we go about our daily business. I was in my bank, greeted by the teller who has always been outgoing, warm and kind – but today was different, or was it not? A large plasma screen behind her, a cable news show ran, the volume muted, capturing her attention. It was news from the border, showing teams of people in detention, a commentator expressing her concern of the conditions. My gentle teller had seen enough. Soon she was making her position very public, making audible comments between the steps of my transaction, how “that commentator” can pay to take care of “those people.” She seemingly felt threatened by the detainees’ intentions, too. Why should we pay for “their healthcare” when her bank, after so many years, doesn’t provide her with adequate benefits? She saved her last blast for Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, claiming the upstart lawmaker clearly has a “screw loose.”
I was tempted to retort but disciplined my thoughts, thinking of the peacemaker’s role in these times. We must regularly contemplate when, where and how we choose our battles. Clearly, I was being baited for a response. The not-so-clever test we see applied today is to wear a provocative hat or utter a phrase, directly or in code, to illicit a comment of affirmation to validate one’s company – or garner a speedy dismissal to define one’s enemy. I allowed my straight face and silence to define my position, to her, the bank and to myself. It was on the drive home I played out a score of potential responses, arriving at a few sad conclusions as well. I believe the teller does not realize she has more in common with the detained migrants at the border than she cares to know or acknowledge. Her angst is not with them, but with her employer and her circumstances. Her fear is not that her future can be jeopardized by the huddled masses crossing into America, it is not actualizing her financial security after dedicating years of employment in service to a major financial institution. She and the hard-working, dream-seeking migrant seek the same ends, only via very different paths and circumstances.
All labor has dignity, as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded. Yet one of the profound challenges of our times is the incessant campaign stirred by hatred, fear and paranoia – perpetuated by the influential unto the working vulnerable – a Southern Strategy on steroids. A division of labor today can be found right down the spine of the working-class back, and it has bank tellers fuming over migrant workers in cages. For some, this is mission accomplished.
When I was a young, naïve man, freshly in pursuit of climbing my self-righteous, college-educated ladder, with high aspirations in mass media communications, I came home to the dinner table aghast at an offer to start as a runner in the NBC newsroom at 900 dollars per month. I complained over a meal earned by my hard-working father, and fixed by my daily-driven mother, that such wages were less than that of a garbage collector. My Dad sat quietly, for a few moments before asking, gently yet directly, “Do you think the job of a journalist is more important or worthy than that of a sanitation worker?” I knew better than to reply, waiting for his substantial experience and reason to reveal the answer. “How many days do you think you could go without a news broadcast or newspaper? One day, three days, a week, a month? Now, what would the conditions be like after one day, three days, a week or a month, in this city, this country, without the garbage being collected? That is the value of the sanitation worker,” he concluded.
At that dinner table I was painfully close to possessing the attitude of the teller I encountered at the bank. The time is long overdue for us to remedy our collective anxieties, fears and, yes, false expectations of ourselves, and align on shared ground with our brothers and sisters who, in the final analysis, simply yearn for the same things in this life. From the border cages to the teller booths, dinner tables to TV anchor desks, it is remarkable that jobs so different are held by human beings sharing similar DNA, aspirations and common dreams. The interruption of this spirit can be molded over decades, but it can take hold over seconds, be it a campaign slogan, a derogatory Tweet or an ugly sound bite.
We are goaded constantly, but we need not take the bait. Still, some messages should be fully digested. On the way home today a sign, lonely but attractive, catches the eye as it sways in a gentle wind in a simple planter inches off the sidewalk. It has the patriotic symbolism of the American flag enveloped in the shape of a heart – HATE HAS NO HOME HERE, it says, translated into multiple languages.
Another April 4 passes and a messenger who died on this day would have stopped to reflect and read these words. He was not too busy in 1968 to live such words. He was in Memphis, after all, supporting sanitation workers.
Written by John McKenna, Executive Director, Operation Respect