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From the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN; quote is from King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written to white religious leaders in the city who advised him that the 1960s wasn't yet time to request equal rights for black Americans.

 

For those watching from far away, wondering what's going on, here's a briefing to catch you up:

 

Starting in the 1600s, white settlers to what would become the United States imported kidnapped people from Africa. White landowners forced the kidnapped Africans into unpaid labor and lifetimes of captivity, abuse, rape, neglect, deprivation, torture and slaughter. Things stayed like this for over two centuries. Even Thomas Jefferson, who wrote beautiful ideas like "all men are created equal," owned slaves.

 

Because some white people grew extremely wealthy due to slave labor, they were reluctant to let these people ever be free -- so much so that they developed a philosophy which said that black people weren't actually people at all, but something lesser. (This belief also effectively discouraged poor whites from joining slaves in revolt against wealthy landowners.)

 

Fearing that they would forced to surrender their human property, the Southern states decided to quit the U.S. These states then lost the subsequent American Civil War and, with it, their privilege to own people. However, there were no gracious losers. For one, the philosophy that black people were inferior to white people was more popular than ever.

 

So white people, mostly in the South, but really, all over the nation, established laws that kept black people from ever achieving any upward mobility. They were barred from access to housing, jobs, education, medicine and justice. These laws, commonly known as Jim Crow, were enforced both by institutions and by citizens -- often through violent means (see also: KKK, lynchings). Even when such laws were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the threat of violence kept these laws on the books and active.

 

About 100 years after the Civil War came the Civil Rights Movement as we tell it -- and honestly, in my opinion, when Americans get misty-eyed about freedom on our national holidays, they tend to overlook the most meaningful narrative about freedom in our nation's history. No one understands freedom or justice better than those who've been denied either.

 

Americans as a whole (not as individuals) are lousy about coming to terms with the dark parts of their history. The typical American history narrative is a feel-good, patriotic love story about the white men who did everything right, while abuses against everyone else are written in the passive voice, with victims but no perpetrators. Native Americans were killed. Women weren't allowed to vote. Children were made to work in dangerous factories. People were institutionally abused for their sexual preferences and gender identity. Black people were assaulted and murdered while peacefully protesting for the rights to cast their vote, sit at a lunch counter or ride a bus from one state into another. But we don't specify who did these things to these people.

 

That's because admitting that we got anything egregiously wrong is saying that the US isn't the best country in the world and that God doesn't favor us over all nations -- which is contrary to what a lot of Americans believe today, despite the fact that all world history has shown that nothing good can result when any nation believes it has a divine entitlement to rule the world.

 

To bring us back to 2014 -- because we want to pretend that this history never happened, we're content to think that a. everything that was ever wrong has already been resolved, b. nobody is guilty of having committed these wrong actions or benefitted from having done so, c. the effects of these actions are no longer felt, and d. the present state of affairs is completely natural. We blame the victims now for not ceasing to be victims, even as we say things like "They want too much, too soon." We ask people to wait for justice while telling them there's nothing for them to wait for. And then we act shocked if any of these people seem a little bit angry.

 

Oops, sorry. All of the above was an error. I actually meant to write: USA! USA!!!

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Taken on April 21, 2014