Watching John Lewis’ casket being taken across the William Pettus bridge brought back so many difficult memories from my youth. The struggle for unfettered voting rights for Black Americans was a hard fought cause and John Lewis was in the middle of it. When he crossed that same bridge as a young man he almost died from a crushed skull, the result of being beaten by law officers. He survived to become a conscience for the nation and an unswerving warrior for civil rights. Somehow he always managed to deliver his points without violence and often with a forgiving heart. When a man who had brutally beaten him asked for forgiveness John Lewis humbly and graciously accepted. Congressman Lewis was always willing to make good trouble but he did so with love and a clear purpose.
I have been struggling with the scenes in Portland and other parts of the country and I find myself remembering another time from my early twenties. I became involved in a seemingly unending struggle with someone who was quite dear to me. We were both had good intentions but our ways of doing things were at odds. As we quibbled back and forth bad feelings arose and seemed to escalate each time we communicated. I truly cared about this person and I was gravely saddened by the realization that we were headed for a break up simply because we disagreed on how to resolve a particular situation. I finally consulted a priest for advice and he told me that in such cases someone has to agree to be the adult in the room. Sometimes that means just stepping aside so that the other person has time to cool down. He suggested that I needed to decide if the relationship was important enough that I would be willing to be the one who backed down.
I stewed over the priest’s idea for days but I still was not certain that I felt comfortable with an idea that felt like giving up, losing my principles. I consulted my mother who was the ultimate diplomat and lover of all people. Like John Lewis she was an incredibly forgiving person so it did not really surprise me when she counseled me to follow the wisdom of the priest. Happily I did exactly as suggested and things became calm once again. My friend and I continued to love and care for one another for decades.
I believe that there would be no better way to make an astounding point and also honor the great life of John Lewis than for every single protester to just go home and not return to the streets. They have made their message clear and now it is time to work within the system of laws to bring about change. Think of how stunning it would be if those embattled streets became quiet once again. It would be a more powerful message than partaking in a daily back and forth that will ultimately only be resolved in violence, destruction and maybe even death.
John Lewis and my priest understood the value of being strategic. Sometimes we get more things done by knowing when it is time to just let things simmer down. If the two sides of a disagreement stay at it for too long we end up with a Kent State or a Waco or a bombing in Oklahoma. It’s time for the protestors to be the adults in the room. It’s time for them to get back to the heart of their message which has been lost in the chaos. When there is too much noise or too many words people get confused and lose interest.
As a teacher I knew that I would never get the attention of my students by being brutal or unfair to them. They might toe the line for me but inside they would be seething and my words to them would be little more than babble. I had to first win their hearts before I was able to influence their minds. It took time and patience to get where we all needed to be.
I am greatly troubled because I know that the current state of the protests will ultimately end badly for everyone. I see no desire from our president to take the time to win hearts and minds. He is a believer in a stern approach rather than one that would involve making an attempt to hear and learn. I also think that the ranks of the peaceful protesters are being invaded by both forces intent on destroying their efforts and forces intent on anarchy. In other words it no longer appears to be about Black lives.
When the garbage strike was roiling in Memphis Dr. Martin Luther King went to support the workers. They planned a peaceful march through downtown. At some point their protest was overtaken by people intent on causing mischief. As violence broke out Dr. King insisted that the peaceful marchers disperse because he did not want the cause to be associated with brutality. I believe that his insistence on maintaining peace more loudly proclaimed the injustice than fighting back would have done.
My advice to anyone in any city who supports justice and equity for Black Americans is to go home. Undercut the racists who are using the unrest as a reason to defile the cause. The message has been heard but it will be defiled and forgotten if the unrest continues for too long. Be the adults in the room.