Black Lives Matter

I have been reluctant to comment on the Black Lives Matter movement in my blog for several reasons. First of all, it is, rightly, a movement led and promoted by people who do not need my “assistance” or “endorsement.” Those who are promoting freedom and justice for all black lives have been articulate and effective in their engagement in the American public life. There are too many occasions where liberal whites have jumped on others’ bandwagons and diluted their causes by claiming as their own a struggle that does not belong to them.

To put it bluntly, I am a person who has benefitted from white privilege for all of my life. I don’t live in fear of being mistaken for someone else by law enforcement officers. I don’t worry about my children going out in public knowing that they might be profiled and viewed as criminal even though they have done nothing wrong. I know that a simple traffic stop or other encounter with law enforcement is unlikely to escalate beyond a conversation or the writing of a ticket.

Additionally, although I have watched some of the video posted on social media, I don’t have the perspective to make judgment about the specifics in individual cases.

I don’t deny that there is systemic racism in our criminal justice system. I know the statistics about incarceration of Blacks and other people of color. I understand how the courts have been used as a contemporary replacement for Jim Crow laws that have disproportionately punished people based on their race and ethnic background.

I also know that blaming the officers on the street for problems that are much bigger than they does not result in solving systemic problems. I know too many law enforcement officers who are people of integrity seeking to protect and serve the people of our communities to believe that they are the source of the ills of our society.

However, an experience I had yesterday is worth at least a comment. Along with many other religious and civic leaders of our community I attended the funeral of a prominent and distinguished fellow pastor who has faithfully served our community in many different ways. Bishop Kelly was deeply respected not only in our community, but also across the nation, most notably in his denomination, The Worldwide Church of God in Christ. Because of that respect, African-American church leaders came from across the country to participate in the service. The room was packed with leaders from California and Maryland and Tennessee and Minnesota and Michigan and Illinois, and a dozen other states. The congregation that Bishop Kelly served in our community is widely multiracial and multicultural, but in a community that is predominantly Euro-American a Black majority congregation is unique. The funeral crowd gathered yesterday was equally mixed, but predominantly Black.

Being a Sheriff’s Chaplain who works with the staff at the Pennington County Jail, it was natural for me to sit with officers from the jail whom I know and who attended in uniform. Along with other members of our community, they had been touched by the ministry of Bishop Kelly, who for many years was a prominent and faithful jail chaplain. Flanked by the jail commander on my right and three uniformed corrections officers on my left, our row of white faces and uniforms stood out in the crowd.

As one would expect, we were greeted warmly by other worshipers and treated with the same respect and care as were all who attended the event. There was no overt racial tension anywhere in a funeral that was well organized and planned to celebrate the life of a community leader, a church leader and a man who was beloved not only in our community, but all across this country. Still, I couldn’t help but reflect on the tensions that have existed between predominantly White law enforcement agencies and African-American protestors that have made the headlines in recent months. I couldn’t help but be aware of the tragic shootings of black men by police officers that have sparked outrage and protest. It was impossible for me to ignore the grief of other funerals for Black men that have been a part of our national story.

As we seek to make necessary changes in our civic life it is important that we take seriously what is being said by our neighbors. While it is intrinsically true that all lives matter, there is no need to use that as a slogan in contrast with the simple assertion that Black Lives Matter. For it is true that Black Lives Matter. Bishop Kelly’s life matters. So do the lives of those whose names don’t become familiar to us. Justice for African Americans is inherently linked with the lives of all Americans. When one group of people suffers from racism and injustice, all are affected.

Living where we do, we need to also understand that Indigenous lives matter. I know the statistics of the jail population in our community and prison population in our state. Because of my work with the Sheriff’s Office I know many of the individual people who are involved. I know that there is systemic racism in our community. I also know that there are people of integrity and good faith who go to work every day to defend the rights of all people and to stand for justice that reaches beyond racism and who work for fairness and respect for every individual.

It was an honor to attend the funeral of Bishop Kelly, to pay tribute to this remarkable religious and civic leader, to offer support and care to his family, and to thank God for the gift of his life. It was an honor to sit with the men and women who serve as corrections officers in our community and to be identified with those who genuinely care about justice and fairness for all. It was equally good to have my conscience stirred and my awareness raised by the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

We can best honor the memory of those who have died by working for a more just community and fairness for all.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!