An Exploration Of Belonging And Othering In Alabama

“We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

I hadn’t read these words in a long time. 

However, I developed a new and urgent relationship to this statement after four days in Alabama. I was in the Yellowhammer State on an immersive Civil Rights learning experience led by Ben McBride and his team at the Empower Initiative. Mr. McBride, Empower’s CEO and the author of Troubling the Water: The Urgent Work of Radical Belonging, centered our discussion around the following: 

“The wrong question is, ‘What do we do?’ The right question is, ‘Who are we becoming?’”

And, “What purpose are we called to with our gifts, skills, and station?”

Although 61 years separates Dr. King’s meditation on the relationship between time and justice from Mr. McBride’s questions on becoming, they are linked in lived experiences of Black, Brown, and other marginalized people in the United States.

As a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholar at New York University, I was encouraged and expected to become familiar with Dr. King’s writings, ministry, and advocacy. By the time my undergraduate studies concluded in the mid 90s, his words and the civil rights movement faded in my memory like the black-and-white images I had seen in books and documentaries, as many believed that we were finally beginning to realize some of the gains promised by the movement. However, we realize that our post-George Floyd nation continues to experience racial violence and unrest and aggressive attacks on the advances of civil rights efforts.

King’s exhortation to become “tireless… coworkers with God” is as relevant today as when he wrote those words in a Birmingham cell in 1963. I meditated on the Letter from Birmingham Jail as part of a pre-work exercise assigned to participants of the Alabama Learning Lab this past April. The Alabama Learning Lab is a four-day exploration into the meaning of othering and belonging, examined through the stories of the Civil Rights Movements in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham. More than just a documentary review of civil rights activity in Alabama, the Lab was an opportunity to peer into the deeper stories of the movement, in some of the actual places where it happened. 

As a representative of the Glean Network, I was invited to join over 30 faith, nonprofit, and business leaders from around the country on this journey. Among others, I broke bread and got to know ministers from California, a nonprofit ED from Minnesota, a foundation leader from San Antonio, and a management consultant from New York City. Each person with a unique perspective on belonging, but all being invited to process belonging through the stories of the freedom movements in Alabama and the spaces that have been built to commemorate them. Each of the sites and markers we visited were meaningful to me, but three stops in Montgomery and Birmingham resonated deeply.

In Montgomery, as we moved through the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we were asked to reflect on how extreme othering was taking place at the institutional level. How were the inhumane practices of enslavement, lynching, and segregation justified and condoned by the political, social, religious, and educational systems of the day? 

It was initially difficult to think about these questions in a detached and academic way. The Legacy Museum immediately and viscerally walked me through dramatic reimaginations of the slave trade, Jim Crow segregation, and other aspects of white society’s brutality against Black people. But its purpose wasn’t simply to shock. It was to shake any complacency I might have had because of time and distance.

It’s one thing to intellectually know that Northern states were complicit in the slave trade. It’s another to see my two home states of New York and Rhode Island thoroughly indicted as two of the economic engines that fueled this horrible practice for hundreds of years. It forced me to rethink my strolls through downtown Manhattan or a sunny afternoon in Newport. Who built these cities? Whose narratives are included in the story of their development and whose are left out? These sites are potent and necessary markers for the important history that is left out of school curricula and performative Black History Month observations. As an educator who longs for a more complex treatment of the American story in schools, I’m deeply grateful for the clarity and creativity with which this history was presented.

In Birmingham, we visited Kelly Ingram Park. This was the site where the infamous use of water hoses and police dogs against young demonstrators shocked the conscience of the nation. The park is also across the street from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls lost their lives in a reactionary bombing by white supremacists. I’ve seen these images of children being attacked with hoses and dogs in numerous documentaries and books, but while walking through the park, I was struck by two things. 

First, the relatively small size of the location. Kelly Ingram Park is only about four acres and the thought of waves of children flooding this park and being attacked by police with few places to hide is chilling. Second, and more importantly, could I have done it? Every teenager wants to be involved in something important as they grow into adulthood and many even go through that well-known rebellious phase. I was always eager to be a part of something significant. However, as someone who grew up in the shade of hard-won Civil Rights battles, I’ve never had to experience the blatant racial animus that the youth of Birmingham endured.

Would I have submitted to the rigors of nonviolence training, risked physical harm, and spent days in jail without knowing my fate? I think about young people who are making similar choices today in our nation’s ongoing racial reckoning moment. I pray not only for their safety and success, but for the manifestation of justice that will make ongoing protests unnecessary.

Four days of sitting with this history naturally led us to ask about how we and the institutions that we’re a part of are responding to the challenges in our communities. Our discussion rooms were filled with both deep reflection and inspired discussion about future possibilities. 

It is easy for those of us called to service and ministry to be focused on solving the problems of the world around us. What I appreciated about this trip was the reminder that our service is most effective when it flows from the deeper well of purpose. When I’m consistently wrestling with Mr. McBride’s question of “Who am I becoming?” Our becoming invites others to become the best versions of themselves and in so doing, can create the possibility of greater belonging. I see this as part of the “persistent work” that Dr. King called us to do.

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