Tomorrow is Memorial Day: a day set aside to remember and honor those who died fighting in American Wars. It has been expanded to include all who have died. It is a difficult holiday for me. I certainly sympathize with those who visit cemeteries placing flowers on grave sites of their deceased loved ones. Such an act brings back into consciousness sacred memories of the deceased. For some it is a time of mourning and gratitude for those who touched their lives in a special way. It can also remind us of our finitude and the gift that each moment of life is.
It revives deep connections and love for those who fought believing that somehow what they were doing was good, even honorable, in support of the survival, protection, and future of the nation. Many loving people participated in the war enterprise believing that it would make the world safe for democracy or that it would end all wars.
Notwithstanding the honorable intentions of those who have fought, war has not made the world safe for democracy. It can’t! War, the killing of others, undercuts moral conscience. We are told as children that God commands: “Thou shall not kill”. War is a contradiction to this foundational idea of our shared morality. It reduces what Martin Buber has described as an I-Thou relationship to an I-It relationship, objectivizing the other, reducing the other to a thing rather can a human being, a kinsperson, brother, or sister. Consequently, the promise of a new government of the people, by the people, for the people is stillborn.
Dr. Kathleen Berry writes: “The ultimate goal of combat training is to prepare soldiers to kill without remorse, to act without conscience. Think about it—having no feelings about taking the life of another human being! The goal, remorseless killing, requires redesigning the soldier’s humanity. In target practice, a man’s image is placed on the target, which as Major Peter Kilner, a West Point instructor, points out enables ‘soldiers to overcome their aversion to killing by conditioning them to act spontaneously to conditions that are combat-like yet morally benign’.”
War causes a moral conflict which can neither be the foundation of democracy nor its guarantor. It can, however, cause moral injury where survivors often struggle with whatever tools they can grasp to reconcile their fundamental moral center with their actions of eliminating other human beings. Who have they become? The act of eliminating others is not limited to the military.
This moral turmoil spills over into the rest of our society. The 232 mass killings this year, including the one in San Jose last week, indicate that something is seriously and devastatingly wrong in the psyche of the nation. The database I am using tracks mass killings defined as four or more dead, not including the shooter. Multiply the 232 by 4 to get some idea of how horrific this is. Remember, these figures do not include the murders of fewer than four people.
It is very difficult to reign in violence once it has been unleashed. As Marvin Gaye tells us “War is not the answer only love can conquer hate.” The connection he makes between war and police brutality as well as other forms of violence must be taken seriously. And yes, “We’ve got to find a way to bring some loving here today.”
Today I need to focus on another war, one not officially designated as such, yet, very real. It is the war that levelled the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, one hundred years ago. The April edition of Smithsonian carries informative and unsettling accounts.
The first article that I read was entitled: The Promise of Oklahoma. This immediately caught my attention. For I still must believe in the promise of this nation, the America that must be but is not yet. It is this promise of America to which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., alluded during the March on Washington and the night before his assassination in his “I’ve Seen the Promised Land” speech. Promise talks about possibilities. It argues against what is and contains dreams about tomorrow and the next day, and all the days after, unfettered by an incarcerating past and present not worthy of our humanity. Promise projects an intent, an ideal by which we can measure the manifestation of our dreams. The reality that people are rising around the globe to assert our interrelatedness despite beliefs and actions to the contrary is a promise of a future far more noble that what we now experience.
The article states that in October 1907, eleven Black leaders from what was called the “Twin Territories” travelled to Washington, D. C., in an effort to prevent Oklahoma from becoming a state. These leaders had become successful in a geographical location in which the racial hierarchy had not become entrenched. They were fearful that by becoming a state Oklahoma would implement Jim Crow laws. President Theodore Roosevelt had indicated that he would veto any state constitution that contained such laws. “They thought that Roosevelt might recognize that Oklahoma did not deserve to become a warped appendage of the Deep South, when it could be so much more—when it had been so much more.”
As a nation, we too could be so much more if we would lay down our swords and shields and study war, concepts of inferiority/superiority, greed, hypocrisy, and othering no more.
In post-Reconstruction Black Creek and Seminole tribal members “farmed together on communally owned farms, served as justices in tribal governments and acted as interpreters for tribal leaders in negotiations with the growing American empire.” White and Black children attended school together. Black people held high political offices, owned businesses in the downtown section of town and even had white employees. “Oklahoma was evolving into an unusually egalitarian place. But it was also nurturing a vision at odds with America’s increasingly rapacious capitalist ideals.”
“Aye, there’s the rub.” That’s the problem, rapacious greed preying on the innocent rather than praying with and for them.
In 1893, former Massachusetts senator Henry Dawes led a federal commission to compel the Five Tribes to divide their communally owned land into individually owned allotments. Dawes considered himself a “friend of the Indians,’ as white humanitarians of the era were called. But his approach to ‘helping” Native Americans hinged on their assimilation into white America’s cultural and economic systems. He was mystified by Native Americans’ practice of sharing resources without trying to exploit them for personal profit. “There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization,” he reported to the Board of Indian commissioners in Washington. ”Until this people consent to give up their lands. . . they will not make much progress.” In a series of forced negotiations beginning in 1897, Congress compelled the Five Tribes to convert more than 15 million acres of land to individual ownership. Tribal members became U.S. citizens by government mandate.
Eventually, some Black people benefitted from this re-distribution and privatization of land. When the ten Black leaders arrived in Washington, D.C., in October 1907, the die had already been cast in Roosevelt’s mind. On November 16, 1907, he signed the proclamation that turned the Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory into the 46th state of the union. That signature and stamp of approval emboldened members of the state legislatures to make segregation the law and practice of the newly admitted state.
Despite the racism, there arose in the Greenwood District of Tulsa a thriving Black community. There were Black dentists, doctors, barbers, lawyers, grocery stores, hotels, schools, churches, theatres, a hospital, and a library.
At 5:08 A.M. on June 1, 1921, a whistle pierced the predawn quiet of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
There was disagreement later about whether the sound came from a steam engine on the railroad tracks or from a factory in the center of the booming oil town, but there was no doubting its meaning. It was the signal for as many as 10,000 armed white Tulsans, some dressed in Army uniforms from their service in World War I, to attack the place known as Greenwood, the city’s uniquely prosperous African American community. “From every place of shelter up and down the tracks came screaming, shouting men to join in the rush toward the
Negro section,’ a white witness name Choc Phillips later remembered. By dawn, “machine guns were sweeping the valley with their murderous fire.” Recalled a Greenwood resident named Dimple Bush. “Old women and men and children were running and screaming everywhere.”
When the massacre was accomplished 300 people were dead, 35 square miles had been torched, 1,000 homes obliterated, with an additional 215 looted. Burned were 5 hotels, 31 restaurants, 4 drugstores, 8 doctors’ offices, a new school, its public library, and a dozen churches. Nearly all its 10,000 residents were left homeless. Estimates of the damage range from $20 million to $200 million by today’s standards.
Although not to its former prominence, Greenwood was rebuilt.
And this is a message for us. We must rebuild that which has been destroyed: moral fiber, ethical adherence, a common consciousness that views no one as expendable. It is a consciousness that upholds the commandment: “Thou shall not kill” and goes beyond the “shall not” to we are all going to sit at the welcome table.
That consciousness is already in process. The fact that military personnel are recognizing that their moral center was compromised is an important beginning to a new way of resolving problems without resorting to war. The national group Veterans for Peace is an outstanding example of a new way forward.
Dr. Barry continues:
Unmaking war. Idealistic? Utopian? Fantasy? Yes. Genuine change begins with envisioning a different kind of world, one that is governed through a politics of empathy. We are taking a long view to a world that barely seems possible in the present. That is the kind of view abolitionists took early in the nineteenth century when they refused to accept the belief that slavery was so integral to the U.S. economy, so deeply ingrained in the American way of life that it could not be dislodged. That kind of idealism fueled decades of struggle for the liberation of blacks from South African apartheid.
Co-founding pastors of Fellowship Church, Dr. Howard Thurman and Dr. Alfred Fisk, were pacificists and dedicated members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. They believed that Fellowship Church could be a sanctuary against the assaults of the outer world and more importantly an invitation to a new one. Enriched by diversity, its world would be one that transcended the separateness of that outer world.
Discussing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Vincent writes:
For we develop our best selves as citizens, as a nation, we catch up and follow, only when we take seriously again King’s call for “a radical reconstruction” of America, relentlessly turning the nation toward the needs of our poorest, most vulnerable people. We go ahead when we refuse to believe that this politico-economic system is self-correcting for the weak and impoverished. We go ahead when we position ourselves with King on the uncharted way toward the re-creation of America’s institutions, and then confer, experiment, pray, and struggle with other fellow travelers to envision and sketch out the lineaments of a new, compassionate system. As King knew so well, the question is not a search for Utopia. Rather, it is humanity, in every age, seeking to become its best self, to manifest the image of God. Not Utopia, it is us, Americans of every kind, seeking again, in this generation, “to create a more perfect union.”
So we must keep going. For how else shall we mount up on wings like eagles? We must keep going, for how else shall we discover and explore the harsh and dreadful beauty of that radiant darkness where the wilderness and the promised land become one, where our way and the way of our brother converge? We must keep going. The whole future of America depends on it. – Vincent Harding