The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often misrepresented.
For a man so poignant with his words and so powerful in his convictions, his message seems to have been watered down and made easy real estate for anyone with even a flicker of passion for social justice to snatch at it and use it as a banner over their own crusade.
But what makes King a phenomenal and unique force in the history of social change is not in what he advocated but in how he advocated for it.
Yes, he demanded change. Yes, he led demonstrations and marches. Yes, he went to prison. But he remained a lover of humankind through it all. He strength was echoed in his gentleness, his wisdom in his forgiveness and his courage in his love for people – all people.
King had hope that all men could be good.
“There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us,” he said. “When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
The necessity to take on that mantle of empathy has never been more evident in recent history than this weekend.
In the off chance that you have missed the headlines that flared with righteous indignation all through Saturday and Sunday, I will recap the story for you.
The story as it originally appeared showed a thirty-some second clip of a large group of white high school-age boys wearing the emblematic “Make America Great Again” hats surrounding a Native American, later identified as Nathan Phillips, a man who claimed to be a Vietnam War veteran, who was pounding a tribal drum just below the Lincoln Memorial on Friday following the March for Life. The smirking boy in the center of the action stood inches away from Phillip’s face while his classmates can be seen laughing and filming in the background. And all this at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.
Immediately, both the right and the left decried the boys’ actions as disrespectful, even racist and headlines claimed that these boys had “harassed” and elderly veteran during a Native American march.
Phillips, whose deployment during the Vietnam War has been called into question by the National Review, was contacted by the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press where he gave somewhat differing accounts of what happened, but both centered around the idea that these boys had gotten out of hand and he wanted to diffuse the situation using the only method he knew how: his heritage of song and drum.
Someone claimed that the students had been shouting “build the wall,” which spurred a conversation on what “the wall” actually represents in American political ideology and dozens of Facebook memes emerged overnight showing a stoic Phillips with attributed quotes admonishing Americans for wanting walls, for not taking care of their elders, for having prisons, for not protecting their own people, and claiming that the student in front of him had not let him pass peacefully by.
It was a firestorm that nearly every journalist and Facebook user I know got sucked into, with hate and vitriol spewing from every corner. The student in the standoff with Phillips, Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic High School, has received death threats, as has his family. Someone made a fake Twitter account in his mom’s name and began posting racist Tweets under her identity, further muddying the family’s reputation and the issue at hand. Several Covington students were wrongly identified as Sandmann and were subject to similar forms of harassment, and internet users looked up what colleges these students had been accepted to and suggested they be contacted and urged to deny entry to the Covington students.
On Monday morning, however, another video surfaced. An hour and a half-long feed from a member of a black Hebrew Israelite group was posted, showing the altercation from start to finish.
The first hour of the video consists of the Hebrew Israelite group harassing pretty much everyone in front of the Lincoln Memorial, including several people involved in the Native American demonstration several yards away. The Hebrew Israelites were, in a few words, not well-behaved.
Eventually, a group of students from Covington Catholic, who had been in D.C. for the March for Life demonstration, accumulated by the memorial to wait for their bus to pick them up.
The group starts out with a few dozen, but grows substantially as more students arrive to wait on the steps. For the most part, they keep to themselves.
The Hebrew Israelites, four or five present, shout at the boys for nearly 20 minutes, calling them racists, bigots, children of incest and, at one point, singling out one of the black students in the crowd and telling him that his classmates were going to harvest his organs.
The video is ridiculous and uncomfortable to watch. It also sets a necessary context for what follows. The boys begin their school chant, which in later interviews students admitted was mostly to drown out the horrific things being said about them and their classmates and that they only began the chants with a chaperone’s permission.
The chants get louder and the boys are clearly having fun. It looks to be freezing cold, so the fact that they are jumping around can be as much attributed to the frigid weather as to the fact that they are bored teens waiting for a bus. But they do not leave the stair area. They do not approach the Hebrew Israelites. They do not engage.
Eventually, Phillips and several others come over playing their drums. The students, already clapping and chanting, begin cheering and joining in the rhythm.
Truthfully, their chanting does not look decorous. The students look silly and ridiculous and confused, and even with the grander context of the situation, they were arguably still pretty rowdy – not aggressively, but definitely not aware of what a disruption their presence must have come as to everyone else. A group that large – around a hundred students – and that loud definitely makes a scene, just by being there.
Notably, Sandmann takes center stage when Phillips singles him out, walking toward him and beating his drum inches from his face, singing in a language Sandmann does not understand.
The picture that has circled the web a million times shows Sandmann smiling smugly, but it is a still shot – a single frame in a real of video footage that shows his expression changing from placid to nervous to overwhelmed and unsure to the smiling face the nation condemned.
In a statement later, Sandmann said he was trying to be respectful, not make a scene or be goaded into acting out. He said he thought standing still and remaining calm would diffuse the situation.
“I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation,” Sandmann said later.
Let that sink in. Both Phillips and Sandmann said they intended to deescalate the altercation by their actions.
Tuesday rolled in with accusations from both sides and not a lot of solid evidence for any of it. Did the Covington Catholic boys dress up in blackface at a school basketball game in 2015? Did Phillips actually serve in Vietnam? Is Sandmann a racist for wearing a MAGA hat? Did he and his classmates harass girls at the march? Did Phillips become verbally aggressive with the students in the group?
Some of this, we just will not ever know. If this case were being tried in a court of law, I have no doubt it would be a hung jury on account of a lack of convincing evidence. Remember, in America, we are still supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
So what is the lesson here? There are a lot of hot takes: Social media will bring the reckoning of modern democracy. Fake news is more of a danger than we originally thought. The MAGA hat is the new Klan hood. You name it, it has been written about.
Why duplicate efforts, then? Because I feel very strongly about this issue, as a journalist and as a citizen. Because I think it is relevant to our community here in East County as we are privileged to count among our friends and neighbors Native Americans and we certainly all know young boys who probably own and wear MAGA hats. And because the way this situation has been treated does not reflect the attitude of justice and equality I have always hoped to see in America. As King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
So here is what I saw.
A young man from a small school found himself face to face, maybe for the first time, in a real life conflict where he understood that his actions were being watched (though clearly not to the national and even global scale that it grew to be) and how he responded would have an impact on those around him – he is inexperienced and visibly trying to do the right thing, though whether he and his classmates ultimately did is up for debate. He stands across from a man who lives with a heritage of generational abuse, a man who takes pride in this land and the freedom that blows across its starry skies, a man who has seen the people and things he cherishes tossed aside as if they are nothing, including his own voice (and if that does not sound at least somewhat relatable to the average American Joe who is frustrated the Wednesday after every election, I do not know what will).
Sandmann and Phillips were not standing against each other, they were standing against societal expectations and prejudices – they just happened to be facing each other when it happened.
Both claimed they were trying to diffuse the situation, however, neither one said a word. Phillips did not say, “I feel like you are being disrespectful to the religious men below these stairs – there are more of you than of them.” He did not say, “I would like to move past you to continue my march.” He just stood there and sang, beating his drum in the face of a boy not even half his age.
Sandmann could have said, “Can I help you, sir?” He could have said, “Is there a way we can participate that is respectful? What can we do?”
Neither side attempted to communicate and so there was a mass, national miscommunication.
In the vacuum of facts, misinformation will take the lead.
And as the internet hurried to play judge, jury and executioner, the resounding theme repeated itself: how can that smirking boy with a MAGA hat not be a racist? Religious studies scholar and television host Reza Aslan asked on Twitter, “Honestly, have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”
The world feels almost Orwellian. In his mandated-high-school-reading classic 1984, George Orwell depicts a society where a “punchable face” is the kind of punishable crime it sounds like much of the internet wishes it were: “A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety…To wear an improper expression on your face…was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.”
We have spent so much of the last four days asking if those boys were racist, nobody stopped to ask if maybe we are the ones who are acting out of prejudice.
Those MAGA hat-wearing boys (most of them, I’m willing to wager) are not the bigots the internet is claiming them to be. And if you were to have taken them out of the context of an aggressive black Hebrew Israelite demonstration and a Native American protest, their behavior would have looked like any other kind of high school group of boys who are bored, freezing cold and waiting for a bus. If it had been white dudes calling them incest kids, or if those students had been a different race, or if they had not been wearing MAGA hats, we would not have immediately painted them as the bad guys.
But we did. We did because it is the narrative our nation wants and has been trained to see, because so many hurting and frustrated citizens want the rest of the world to see that some of the mindsets of the Trump administration and of racist individuals acting in his name are actually doing a lot of damage in our country. But pinning all that on these boys is wrong. It was irresponsible journalism. And it was a sloppy, negligent condemnation from a society that should know better.
It would be equally irresponsible of me, however, not to point out that by the same hand with which we have sought to redeem Sandmann, justify his actions or give him an opportunity to explain himself in these later days, we also deny that opportunity to many young black Americans.
Young black boys who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time do not often find themselves in the center of a Twitter storm, they rather find themselves at the end a gun. There are no follow-up interviews afforded to them. The initial verdict of “guilty” is one that cannot be walked back from.
Both sides of the spectrum here are waging a war of hatred and America’s youth – black and white alike – are getting caught in the crossfire, sometimes literally. Our nation’s children are by no means perfect, but they should all be given the chance to grow up and learn from their mistakes, regardless of creed or color.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” said King. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
There are problems in our society – the actions of the Covington Catholic boys, Nathan Phillips and the Hebrew Israelites only served as a catalyst to show us what those problems really are. Racism? Sure. A severe lack of empathy and understanding for our fellow man, based on a severe lack of communication. Definitely.
As King said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
We will always be quick to assume the worst of people if we do not take the time to get to know them, to understand the source of their pain, frustration, joy and pride. But to do this, we have to talk. It will do no one any good to simply stand on the steps and silently beat drums at each other.
How do we fix this? How do we possibly begin to heal this festering wound in our nation, or hold back the deluge of grief and frustration built up by years of abuse, misunderstanding and malice. How do we strive, as King said, “to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”
I have three suggestions.
Firstly, our journalists need to be held accountable. Original stories went out with only one side of the story told – Phillips’. Both the Covington students and the Hebrew Israelites were not voiced in the account. At best, this is sloppy journalism. Major names in media, including the New York Times, CNN and Reuters ran a half-told story. Facts that later emerged about the conflicting nature of Phillips’ testimony and war service should have immediately spawned further research, but it was not until the longer video surfaced that the story was revisited for accuracy, and by that point the damage was done.
Journalists have a huge responsibility – we are the voice of a free people. And if the tide of news is surging toward this reckless abandon of ethical, journalistic procedure – like a good faith effort to dig up perspectives from both sides – our country can say its final prayers.
But the responsibility to keep our media accountable lies largely with the public, unfair as that may sound, and that is where my second suggestion enters: holding ourselves to account.
No longer do we look for names we trust in print to give us the facts – no, we look for news that confirms our bias, regardless of where it comes from or how accurate it is.
We must hold ourselves to the standards of a jury. Our countrymen are innocent until proven guilty, and any evidence admitted into court must meet a certain standard. It behooves us as members of the social media jury, to do our due diligence in checking our own facts.
And we cannot be selfish with the news we choose to accept. Already, conservatives are taking this fiasco as proof that the media is broken, that Trump was right all along, that everything ever uttered from the mouth of the GOP is factually accurate. And, of course, they are doing it with a gleeful lack of tact, sobriety and compassion.
Let me be clear: this weekend’s story was not a victory for anyone. Not for the Left. Not for the Right. Not for any part involved. This was a lesson for our entire country, and a sobering one at that.
Finally, it is incumbent upon us to love our fellow man.
Hatred has stripped our beloved land of its kindness, its courage and its reason. It has divided us on all sides. We must recognize this fault in ourselves, and then strive to overcome it. We can begin that by making an effort to see even those we disagree with, even those we believe to be clearly in the wrong, through generous eyes. This is not to say we should not fight the good fight. But let us fight it like King did: “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
Ironically, Friday’s debacle took place where King delivered his most famous address, calling for an end to racism and hatred in this country. How appropriate that he should say those words at the feet of Abraham Lincoln.
It was Lincoln who first urged the nation to bind up its wounds with love.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
This is a mighty task, one which we have not fully accomplished more than a century later. But But we must try. I, personally, will try, because I agree with King that “hate is too great a burden to bear.”