When I was a scout on my first camp-out, each boy in the troop was assigned a task; some scouts were in charge of the food; some took care of the large canisters of Kool-Aid and water; some helped with tent raising; and others, usually at least one older boy along with a couple of younger scouts, were in charge of the fire pit. As one of the neophytes, I had the task of collecting firewood (from a prearranged area), and learning how to build a proper fire in the pit. The fruit of our fire-pit labors was a wonderful blaze over which we cooked hot dogs, and made s'mores, and around which songs were sung and spooky stories were told.
The adults kept the fire at a low burn during the night so we could enjoy the flames that heated our eggs and bacon in the morning. When we broke camp to begin hiking, each boy was directed to the nearby stream to fill our canteens and food pots with water, and then douse the fire until the pit looked like a slurry of ash and not a wisp of smoke ventured forth. To me, it was clear the fire was out. No flame could withstand the veritable Niagara we had poured upon the burning wood.
But one of the older boys who had been the fire-pit supervisor, gave me a stick and told me to stir the pit to be sure every ember was extinguished. It seemed like a fool's errand to turn the slurry over and over with my little stick, but stir I did...and as I stirred, red, steaming embers came to the surface; they had not been snuffed, and as they floated on top of the sodden ashes, it was clear that had they been left, they would have been viable sources of another fire, one that the scout troop, long-departed on a hike, would not have been able to control.
Racism, particularly the kind that foments or exercises violence against black Americans, is the fire pit of un-stirred embers in America. In my lifetime, I have watched fine men and women of all colors try to pour the waters of legislation, activism, and justice into that roiling pit; I have watched television, or heard my parents and their peers talk, about church bombings where little girls died, marches where leaders were shot down, or read news stories of lynching not far from my home.
I am an older white American--66 last month--and I've been around long enough to have seen what racism looks like up close in the South...to use "Whites Only" bathrooms, eat at "Whites Only" lunch counters, listen to playmates and their parents use the N-word with no conscience. I've driven down dirt roads in Louisiana, past the tar-paper shacks of impoverished black sharecroppers. I've been discomfited by teachers and community leaders who wore "Whites Only" glasses when it came to looking at the world around them. I was old enough to appreciate the Civil Rights marches, and the trials of America's black leaders.
As a speechwriter, I could never find a quote more stirring than what Dr. King wrote in a Birmingham jail in April, 1963:
Was not Amos an extremist for justice: 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.' Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: 'I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.' And John Bunyan: 'I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.' And Abraham Lincoln: 'This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.' And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .'"
"So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
There is no question that we have to address root causes of the very real mistreatment of blacks by whites, whether by police or by unscrupulous businesses or bigoted communities. We have to address financial inequalities that chain the middle class to mediocrity and punish the poor for being poor; we have to right the wrongs that are shearing us away from our electoral principles of fair elections, redress, and referendum; we have to fix educational inequalities; we have to offer the disenfranchised among us--blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, gays, anyone who is marginalized by an elitist few who don't give a damn about hurt, pain, frustration, and anger they promote, support, or finance--a fair shot at success and equality. That's not happening. We are in a morass of unequal states of living, and that's a real crime. But that does not fully explain Charleston's hour of trial.
What is the chemistry that fueled the hate in Dylann Roof? It did not spring wholly-formed in his mind, ab initio, to murder nine men and women in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. It was not a random decision on his part. It was not even six months in planning. It did not even begin 21 years ago, at the start of Roof's life. The fire from which Roof's ember of hate exploded began more than 200 years ago, and it was not quenched in 1865, or 1955, or 1965, or in 2015. It began in an atmosphere toxic enough to spontaneously combust and burn under the flame-fed fury of a long-ago lost war and bitter accommodation to legal fiats calling for integration and equality.
The ember of hatred that illuminated Roof's road to the AME church on Wednesday came from a fire pit of bigotry that we all wish had been flooded and extinguished by our laws and demonstrations and moral and ethical values. But Roof's heinous, unthinkable deed tells us we have not stirred those embers enough. Open dialogue, honest introspection, and critical examination of the heart of darkness that is racism is not yet enough to drown forever those hidden embers in communities all across our country.
The embers of hate and distrust glow not too far below the surface of what we think--what we tell ourselves--are lifeless ashes of centuries of injustice. They are still in our nation: men, women, and children who may actually be cheering for Dylann Roof; they may find comfort in wrapping themselves in the sad and stained fabric of the Confederate flag; they may actually have wished that Roof had been successful in starting some sort of race war.
In our country, those bigoted, vile, views are protected by a Constitution that was paid for in blood and treasure of patriots. Even though those views were repulsed at Gettysburg and Antietam and Vicksburg, they did not die on those battlefields. They rose from the ashes of the Civil War and found waiting fire pits wherever a Klansman burned a cross, wherever a sheriff beat and jailed a black man with impunity, wherever a civil rights activist was murdered, wherever someone turned their gaze away from racial injustice and allowed bigotry to enter their homes or businesses. And wherever a parent or a relative preached division instead of inclusion. Fifty-two years ago, Dr. King closed his Birmingham jail letter with a prayer for peace:
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
I am an unapologetic admirer of Dr. King, and I am moved every time I review the body of his work. And as I learned more about Reverend Clementa Pinckney, I wish I had been able to listen to his sermons, or see him on the floor of the South Carolina statehouse; his was clearly a voice that was doing its best to stir up that pit, find the embers, and quench them with the cool waters of love, understanding and justice. It would be a fitting tribute to his life, and the lives of every person vilified, intimidated, hurt, or killed by those for whom hate is a way of life, if we could all stir that pit and drown those embers forever.