Writer,I seek to write stories that need to be told, such as in Rendered Invisible, which tells a buried history, about a white serial killer of blacks. No one knows seems to know this story. But it is an important story, one which can facilitate a needed discussion on race, class, and difference.
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"True peace is not the absence of tension; it is the presence of Justice"

When I think about your theme, and I think about my book, Rendered Invisible, I also ponder what is meant by Justice, today, in an age of chaos and uncertainty.    But this is not the first time, the first era or period of uncertainty.  The chaos I speak of today is not the chaos that  Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of when he wrote, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” because then, Dr. King was speaking of the racial divide, which prevented us from realizing the beloved community.  And yet, I am thinking of that divide, and I am thinking of other divides which prevent us from realizing true community.

The Beloved Community was a dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to create a world in which all persons live in peace and harmony.  Here is a quote where he discusses it:

Our goal is to create a beloved community and

this will require a qualitative change in our souls

as well as a quantitative change in our lives.

~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

According to one source:

 

“’The Beloved Community’ is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a  deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of good will all over the world.

For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal  . . . .   Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to . . . nonviolence, [reconciliation, and redemption] . . . . “

As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts.  As he said in a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s buses,

“But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding and goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.  It is this love which will bring about miracles . . . . “

Miracles.  We are living in a time when we need miracles.  Clearly, there is the need for miracles in our inner cities. In our schools.  In our communities and homes.    We need miracles in the lives of our young people.  On the streets of our cities, in the classrooms of our schools.  We need someone to be an angel, to trouble the water, so they can be healed.    Who are they?  Our kids, our families, our communities.  Please note that I say communities. Because today, while the racial divide is not as wide as it once was, there is a class divide, many would argue, even in the black community.

According to Eugene Robinson, there is not one monolithic black community, there are four. In his strident and important new book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, Robinson says the following on page five (5) of his book:

“Instead of one black America, now there are four:

1. Mainstream middle-class majority with a full ownership stake in American society

2. A large, Abandoned minority with less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction’s crushing end

3. A small, Transcendent elite with such enormous wealth, power and influence that even white folks have to genuflect

4. Two newly Emergent groups—individuals of mixed-race heritage and communities of recent black immigrants-that make us wonder what ‘black’ is even supposed to mean”

So, if what Robinson contends has any validity at all—if we are this divided, how then can we realize that “true peace” and “justice” of which your theme speaks?   How can we help to create a “just” society, one where the presence of justice is real, tangible and living?   In the lives of our young and our old, those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”

Dr. King, and so many others, black and white, gave their lives during the Civil Rights struggle, in an effort to create true community, true justice for all.   In my book, Rendered Invisible, chronicles the effect of the .22-Caliber killings on a city, our city, Buffalo, but also details how the city came together—how the black community united; and how blacks and whites came together, in an effort to apprehend the killer.  I think it is a history, a Buffalo story that needs to be shared with our young people, not because of the killing or the mass murders, but because of the tireless efforts of law enforcement, and local businesses, and private citizens, to lend themselves to the cause.   In the book, I not only chronicle the killings and the case, but I also create fictional families, one white, and one black, that are brought together, and who struggle together, against the chaos and violence of the situation.    I want to read just two passages from the book.  I use a timeline to give the chronology of the killing, and I am starting about 30 pages in, so please bear with me:

Timeline:

Monday, September 29, 1980

All four men died from bullet wounds from the same gun.  All four were shot on the left of the head.  The papers run editorials calling the apprehension of the killer the “highest priority” and an “urgent task for police.” The Buffalo Police rule out the possibility that Joseph Paul Franklin, wanted for questioning in the shooting of National Urban League president, Vernon Jordan, and other blacks in five cities, is a suspect in Buffalo.

Investigators from Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Cheektowaga, all three communities where the slayings occurred, have hit a dead end, in spite of hundreds of tips and clues. Moreover, the longer the killing spree continues, the more tense the situation will become, according the Rev. Bennett Smith, local coordinator of Operation PUSH.  Rev. Smith also expresses concern that the FBI isn’t involved yet, stating, “It would be a simple matter for a case to be made for civil rights being violated.”  PUSH begins raising reward money.

Tuesday, September 30, 1980

The reward begins to grow from different sources throughout the city, from both the black and white communities, as well as local businesses: a $1,000 reward is put up by The Buffalo News and WKBW TV for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer.

Wednesday, October 1, 1980

The FBI enters the investigation because, according to  U.S. Attorney, Richard J. Acara, the civil rights of two of the victims “may have been violated” because the killer “interfered with their right to public accommodations.”   One was shot in a restaurant and one in a supermarket parking lot.  The locales of the shootings allow the authorities to use the old Civil Rights legislation, from the sit-ins, to bring the Feds into the case.  This legislation links the Buffalo violence to the 60’s struggles when blacks in the South integrated lunch counters, soda fountains and any other facility “which serves the public and is principally engaged in selling food and beverages.”

For Buffalo blacks, walking on the street, eating a hamburger and fries, have become gestures of courage, acts against fear and paranoia which  link the  city with the struggles of the past, when young blacks sat down at lunch counters knowing they would be beaten, spat upon, jailed.    Now, we knew we might die just for being black.

According to the police, a white man in a neighborhood where one of the shootings happened said to a black woman, “You’re next” or “you’re going to get it” and then fled. But no black women have been shot, just brothers.

By this point in the investigation, the police have gotten over 200 calls and tips, including one from a man who identified himself as the killer.  And there’s another where, according to the media, a wife called the cops to say she thought her husband was the killer, but she refused to give his identity.

The reason I like to read that passage is because it hearkens back to the extraordinary, the miraculous, even, the days and times when young blacks and whites risked life and limb for a greater cause.  I work in the South, at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, and I have been blessed to meet some of the torchbearers of the Civil Rights movement, John Lewis, Jim Zwerg, Dianne Nash, and others, such as Perry Wallace, who in 1967 was the first black athlete to play in the SEC, deep in Dixie. Imagine those brave students, getting up one morning, dressed nicely, as we all are today, and then walking downtown to a restaurant where they knew they wouldn’t be served. Where they knew they would be spat upon, cursed, beaten and jailed.  Incredible.  I honor those torchbearers for doing that, for risking life and limb, and being made uncomfortable, in order to change the order of the day, in order to create justice.  And maybe it will take the same kind of courage, today, the same willingness to be made uncomfortable, to get out of your comfort zone and do something.   God knows there is so much to be done.

There is so much to be done, in all of our communities, in order to realize The Beloved Community. As an example, some of you heard me speak last year at the NAACP Banquet here.  Well, I have an update for you.  My Little Brother is lost.  According to the social worker, he’s a runaway.  Hasn’t been to school in weeks.  He’s 13 years old.  He’s my Little Brother from BBBS.  We met in a school-based program for over a year.  I thought we’d bonded.  We shot hoops.  We talked about school, his home life, or lack thereof. We bonded, or so I thought. In spite of the fact that he was suspended at the end of last school year, for cursing out a teacher; on the heels of punching a classmate in the face.  His mom’s in prison, on a drug-related conviction. His dad just got out of prison.  Since I’ve known this youngster, he’s lived in three different homes, with different family members.  Last time we talked, he said, “I would rather be in a foster home,” than with his family. Maybe to turn around his life, a miracle is needed.  And I don’t see myself as a miracle worker, but I guess I need to try.

In preparing for this talk today, I read a number of articles, some of Dr. King’s writings, and pieces on the Movement.  I talk with an artist friend who is featuring a new series of paintings in his gallery, by the artist James Pate.  The series is entitled, “KKK: Kin Killin’ Kin,” and it artistically depicts the homicide rate in the Black community.  KKK: Kin Killin Kin, black-on-black crime, which we have all become somewhat desensitized to.  But the problem is that many of the perpetrators don’t see the kinship anymore.  I will share one statement from the artist on the series: “The concept of visually comparing Black on Black terrorism to Ku Klux Klan terrorism come directly from conversations among us in the black community.  So, I was moved to use art as a means to illustrate this sentiment, complete with brothers with pointed hoods in the ‘Hood.”

In preparing this talk, I also looked at statistics such as the murder among African American; as well as the rate of incarceration among young black men, such as Michelle Alexander discusses in her work, The New Jim Crow. But I don’t have a lot of time left, so I ‘m near closing.

Next week, as part of week-long King Holiday activities in Nashville, I will be on a panel sponsored by a religious institute where the major question considered is: “Is Ours a Culture of Violence?”  Not much of a question is it, whether discussing bullying in schools, or domestic violence, or other manifestations of violent crime.

We need miracles.  Indeed, we each have to be bearers of miracles.  I believe that we are that “Beloved Community,” and if we are not, then there won’t be one.  And, as such, we are called to places of discomfort.  I want to turn to one final passage from my book, a passage in which I think we see a manifestation of The Beloved Community.

Chapter Ten

Timeline:  Sunday, October 19, 1980

An estimated 5,000 Western New Yorkers jam Niagara Square for a “Unity Day” rally.  Blacks, whites, Hispanics, and others are in attendance, with more than 200 organizations taking part.  An interracial Central City Choir sings songs, including the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”  Speakers call for love, unity, peace and an end to racial strife.

At the rally, Black leaders announce that they want Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti to take charge of the investigation. Rev. Charles Fisher, III, of BUILD, urges Civiletti to “come here to oversee this investigation and stay here until this killer is caught.”

Catholic Bishop Edward Head exhorts those in attendance to be “men and women of healing and vision.”

Rabbi Sholom Stern asks, “How many disasters do we have to endure to realize that when one group is attacked, discriminated against, and murdered, we all are potential victims?”

Labor leader, George Wessel, of the AFL-CIO, proclaims the following, “Three years ago [1977] we had a bad storm in Buffalo and the whole world knew about it.  I just hope the whole world knows about today, Unity Day in Buffalo.”

And, a day later, Ray Hill’s passionate column on Buffalo’s Unity Day Rally begins with the headline, “The City Proclaims Its Unity in Defying a Madman’s Assault.”

I want to return to our theme:  “True Peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of Justice.”  For many of you in this room, your life’s work is to mete out justice.  That’s how you earn your living. But for all of us, whether judge or law official, it’s our job, too, to strive for justice in our city, on our block, in our corners of the world. You all remember that Gospel song, “brighten the corner where you are.”   But it ain’t easy to do that nowadays, I would suggest.  It may mean moving beyond your comfort zone.  It may mean moving beyond perceived barriers, whether racial, cultural or social.  But that is what those young folks did during the Sit-ins in TN and Mississippi; that is precisely what those Marchers did, who attempted to marched across Edmund Pettus Bridge, from Selma, to Montgomery, on what became known as Bloody Sunday.  They moved out of their comfort zones.  They became creative.  I want to end with two quotations, one from Maya Angelou, and one from Dr. King:

First, Angelou:

“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal someone else.”

Now, these words from Dr. King:

“Love is creative and redemptive.  Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys.  The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community.”—MLK, 1957

I hope; indeed, I pray, that we will use this MLK holiday to recommit to the healing of someone else; indeed, that we will recommit to using our creative energy, our spiritual and mental energy, to the building of The Beloved Community, a community of peace and justice for all.  Thank you.

 

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