Our Week from Hell
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and Contributing Editor of HNN. For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here.
This is a time of shame and sorrow. . . . This mindless menace of violence in America . . . again stains our land and every one of our lives.
. . . The victims of the violence are black and white. . . . And yet it goes on and on.
Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? . . .
. . . A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of the people.
Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily— whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law . . . the whole nation is degraded. . . .
Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire.
Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force. . . .
Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.
For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.
This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. . . .
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. . . .
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.
Were these words written or spoken in July 2016 after what New York Times columnist Charles Blow described as “A Week from Hell,” a week that saw shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas—the first two each by police taking the life of a black man and the third by a black man who killed five police officers because he “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers”? A week that also led the New York Times to report that “people in interviews across the United States said the nation increasingly felt mired in bloodshed and blame, and was fracturing along racial and ideological lines.”
The long quote above certainly seems appropriate after our “Week from Hell,” but it actually comes from the words of Robert Kennedy to the Cleveland City Club. They came less than twenty-four hours after his more famous remarks at an Indianapolis campaign event soon after he heard of Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968
RFK’s words on these two occasions had some effect. One account declares that “Indianapolis, virtually alone among the nation's major cities, did avoid even the mildest of violence in the following days. It is hard to image that things would have been as peaceful had a white presidential candidate not given the city's black community the news.” But this same source notes that some people feared a race war, and that in more than a hundred other cities riots occurred, 39 people were killed [mostly black], more than 2,600 injured, and 21,000 arrested. Federal troops occupied Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago, and the National Guardsmen were called into more than a dozen other cities.
In April 1968 and again in July 2016 people have reacted in different ways to what Kennedy called the “mindless menace of violence.” We can, as the New York Times suggests continue to fracture “along racial and ideological lines”; or we can redouble our efforts to do as RFK urged and “make an effort, as . . . King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with . . . compassion, and love. . . . to make an effort to understand, to get beyond . . . these rather difficult times.”
After King’s assassination people went in both directions. Besides the riots and their suppression, RFK himself fell victim to violence when he was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian by birth who resented Kennedy’s support for Israel. Later that year violence erupted at the Democratic National Convention as Chicago police gassed and clubbed demonstrators.
But many other people tried to follow the King-RFK advice and reduce violence and increase racial understanding. (I experienced this myself in April 1968 when many of us in Wheeling, WVA, a city with a racist reputation, formed a human rights group called “WE.” In the two succeeding years that my wife and I remained in Wheeling we never worked with a finer group of people, black and white, in attempting to follow the King-RFK example.)
Today, as in April 1968, our country is divided between those who worsen racial relations and block taking constructive measures against violence and those, in the King-Kennedy mold, who encourage more racial understanding and nonviolence.
In the first group we have individuals like former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani bringing, as the New York Times editorializes, “his trademark brew of poisonous disinformation to the discussion. In his view, the problem is black gangs, murderous black children, the refusal of black protesters to look in the mirror at their ‘racist’ selves, and black parents’ failure to teach their children to respect the police.” And we have the National Rifle Association (NRA), which continues to pressure members of Congress to reject meaningful gun legislation.
In the second group we have people like President Obama and millions of other Americans who wish to foster better race relations and nonviolence.
Rereading RFK’s words in 1968 we may be tempted to think we have not advanced very far since then when it comes to race relations and violence. But in Obama’s speech at the Dallas memorial service for the five slain police officers, he rejected such thinking, saying, “Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime. Those who deny it are dishonoring the struggles that helped us achieve that progress. . . . I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds. I know we’ll make it because of what I’ve experienced in my own life.”
What we have all experienced is that police forces have become much more integrated since 1968, as the leadership of Dallas police chief David Brown reminds us, and that political opportunities for black leaders have increased, as the election to two presidential terms of Obama has reminded us. And it is not just in police departments and politics that blacks, and other minorities, have made gains. We have witnessed advances in all sorts of other areas as well.
This does not mean that bias has disappeared. As Obama also said in Dallas, “We know that bias remains. . . . that whites and people of color experience the criminal justice system differently, so that if you’re black you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested, more likely to get longer sentences, more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime.”
He also noted the structural violence that RFK had mentioned (“the violence of institutions. . . . the violence that afflicts the poor . . . . a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books”), a violence that afflicts a larger percentage of blacks than whites. “As a society,” Obama commented “we choose to underinvest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs. We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.”
And just because significant gains have been made does not mean that nonviolent protests (like those of the Black-Lives-Matter movement) against continued bias should cease. Obama appreciates King’s legacy too much to fail to realize that advances in social and racial justice and economic equality are often propelled by just such protests. In Dallas, he warned us not to “simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid.”
Instead the president recommended what he often has in the past, empathy, one of our most needed political virtues. Only this time he did not use the word “empathy” but instead the phrase an “an open heart.”
Such a heart would enable us “to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes.” Such a heart would help us to “abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.” Such a heart would help protestors “guard against reckless language [and] . . . acknowledge the progress brought about by the sincere efforts of police departments like this one in Dallas, and embark on the hard but necessary work of negotiation, the pursuit of reconciliation.” Such a heart would also help “police departments . . . acknowledge that, just like the rest of us, they are not perfect; that insisting we do better to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals.”
And it is not just the president who pursues reconciliation and living “up to our highest ideals,” but millions of others also. In his speech Obama mentioned that during and after the Dallas shootings police, “helped in some cases by protesters . . . evacuated the injured, isolated the shooter, and saved more lives than we will ever know. . . . One witness recalled that “everyone was helping each other . . . . It wasn’t about black or white. Everyone was picking each other up and moving them away.”
As in 1968, so too today, we can in our personal lives and in all types of media witness individual and group efforts to increase racial understanding and reduce violence. Three years before his death King had proclaimed, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” At the Democratic National Convention in 1968, candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had worked with King, ended his speech by telling delegates, “Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!” The words of King and Jackson are still important today, especially after our “week from Hell.” So too are the words from a civil rights song of King’s day, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. Hold on.”
Near the end of his Dallas speech Obama said, “I believe our sorrow can make us a better country. I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace.” He is surely right to suggest that our sorrow can motivate us to rekindle our efforts to increase racial understanding and justice and reduce violence. King and RFK attempted to pursue such a path, and we can best honor their memoires by doing likewise.