Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Being at Table and Respect

I brought you into a plentiful land 
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered
you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination

~Jeremiah 2:7

Sermon, Sunday, August 29, 2010
by Katie Mulligan

Yesterday was the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s address at the 1963 March on Washington: “I Have a Dream”.  Nearly five years after that address, Dr. King was dead, assassinated on April 4, 1968 while standing on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. He was planning to lead a protest march with striking garbage workers. (A brief bio here)

As a black man pushing against injustice, even in non-violent ways, Dr. King was subject to arrest and assault, endless attacks on his character, and his home was bombed. And yet he persevered, daring to speak publicly, openly, loudly, what so many cried out in their hearts. He pulled together a broad coalition of people, men and women, straight and gay, black and not black, rich and poor. At the age of 35 he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest man ever to do so.

On August 28, 1963, Dr. King went to Washington DC, to the Lincoln Memorial. He stood on the steps and addressed a crowd of 250,000 people; 200,000 black folk and 50,000 white folk. Clergy of every faith, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez.  He spoke in the same place where Marian Anderson had sung in 1939. Marian Anderson, a contralto singer, celebrated throughout the world. Marian Anderson, a black woman, refused permission to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution. So with the help of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she sang at the Lincoln Memorial to 75,000 people on Easter Sunday in 1939. It was here that Martin Luther King said “I have a dream.”
Dr. King spoke on the 8th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black child who supposedly whistled at a white woman. The suspects in the case were acquitted by an all white jury, and even though the murder case was reopened in 2004, nearly 50 years after Emmett Till’s murder, the perpetrators were long since dead. Neither of their obituaries mentioned Emmett Till.  He died in Mississippi, and his mother brought his body back to Illinois where she insisted on an open casket, even though his body was badly mangled. She wanted the world to see what had been done to her boy—her boy child who was only 3 years older than my own son. He had been beaten, his eye gouged out while he was still alive. And then he was shot through the head and thrown in the river with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck.  She wanted people to know. Emmett Louis Till, born July 25, 1941 and murdered on August 28, 1955 at the age of 14 by white men who thought a young black man should not be allowed to whistle, or look at a white woman, this child’s death was not to be forgotten, his story was not to be silenced. On the 8th anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, Dr. King spoke of a dream.

After all the brutalities of centuries of slavery. After 100 years of segregation and disillusionment, broken promises, and backbreaking, endless labor exchanged for poverty and early death, Dr. King stood on the steps of Lincoln Memorial, where Marian Anderson had refused to be silenced. On the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, Dr. King pulled together his 250,000 people marching for jobs and fair treatment—things they had no reason to hope white folk would ever grant. And despite the pain and anguish of a people long denied justice, Dr. King spoke these words: 

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
And then Dr. King issued an invitation. Despite all he had reason to fear and suspect about white folk—and despite having an endless stream of examples proving his fears correct, Dr. King offered these words.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
Friends, we were invited to the table by people who had no reason to invite us. We were invited to the table by people we actively discriminate(d) against. We were invited to the table by friends and relatives of those who died at the hands of white folk.  And the invitation was offered with heartfelt joy and hope, with the certain knowledge that if we could all join together around justice for all that we might come to love one another fully, to walk beside one another in all things. Dr. King offered up his dream that Emmett Till did not die in vain, that Marian Anderson’s boldness and courage would be honored. He offered to white folk everywhere a chance to regain our humanity and humility—not to wipe the slate clean, but a chance to build toward the future together, grieving together at the past and celebrating the love we might share as people of all races and creeds.

And so I was flabbergasted when I came back from school on Friday and paid attention to the news, and heard that a white man was going to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, August 28, 2010 and address a mostly white crowd, with the message that it is time for us white folk to reclaim the civil rights movement.  (Google it if you want, I refuse to give links).  Politics aside—because I know we come from all different political leanings here in this room—this was a sharp act of disrespect. We have been invited to the table, but we keep showing up as white folks and sitting ourselves down in a place of honor. We have yet to learn to take a seat at the back and just listen. It takes time and intent listening to understand this festering wound of racism in our world. But we keep wanting to jump ahead, to wipe the slate clean, to start over the clock. “Don’t blame me for what my ancestors did. I never owned slaves. I have never murdered anyone. I work hard for my money—we all have an equal chance.” This is what we tell ourselves, buried in our white privilege, and why we think it might be okay for a white man to stand on the steps of Lincoln Memorial on this of all days and talk about taking back the civil rights movement. But take it back from whom? There is only one answer to that, isn’t there?

We have been invited to the banquet, but Jesus told us to take the lower seat—he said don’t be a jerk and sit in the place of honor. You’re an invited guest. Sit down at the end of the table and be quiet and wait.  Jesus told those who would give a banquet to not invite their neighbors, but the poor, the lame, the crippled—those who could not repay the favor in this life because they did not have the means to do so. And I suggest to you that we do not have the means to repay the favor of being invited to the table with black folk in America.  We are not the guests of honor at this table; we are people not wanted at this table, and yet we have been invited. It is time to set aside our privilege and our air of superiority. We have been invited to dinner, folks. And we are guests.

What does white privilege look like? Aside from ugly? Peggy McIntosh wrote an excellent article called "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" (paste this link into your browser  As a white woman she writes:
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.
A few of the things she lists in her knapsack--things she can count on most of the time that people of color cannot:
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
And the list goes on. Go read it. Absorb it. Let it sink in that we walk around with a bag of invisible privileges that we barely notice--that we take for granted as civil rights.

And then think about how we have been invited as guests to the table with others who have suffered grievously because we have held tightly to these privileges. And then let us take our place at the lowest place at the table and listen carefully to the conversation going on all around us. Let us remember Emmett Louis Till and Marian Anderson and Dr. King. And let us have some respect at the table please.


  1. So well preached! Would that all who listen to Beck could have heard your sermon. I read Peggy McIntosh's piece some years ago in a workshop on racism at the University. The other day I was thinking I wanted to look it up again but couldn't remember her name exactly. So many thanks for the citation and link to the pdf.

  2. May we all have a place at the table, not because of some alleged entitlement based upon what color we are or what family we happened to be born into, but because we are all God's Children.

  3. A little bit of a de-rail, I think, in that while we are all welcome at God's table, I was speaking specifically about white folks being invited into spaces where they have historically oppressed people of color. The scripture passage referenced insists that when we are guests, we ought to have a seat at the foot. There are habits of respect which are helpful when attempting reconciliation, and habits of disrespect which can wreck years of careful work.