the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer, Darren Wilson.
An Open Letter to White Clergy in the midst of protests
By Colin Cushman
The culmination of deaths of black youth at the hands of police and the decisions to not indict police officers who are responsible, communities all over from coast-to-coast are taking action through protests and voicing their sadness, anger, and distrust of law enforcement and the justice system.
Colin Cushman, a seminary student from the Pacific Northwest who is attending the Boston School of Theology passionately writes on some of the difficulties that are hindering the movement toward justice for many African-Americans who are desperately seeking it. Cushman, in particular, calls out White clergy who have a sugar-coated perspective on what it means to take part in a civil rights movement.
From “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
April 16, 1963
Dear White Clergy,
From the streets of Ferguson, we are beginning to understand what Martin Luther King, Jr. was saying in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, when he lamented that White moderate clergy, who were urging restraint, were a bigger problem than the KKK. We’ve had both in Ferguson and we could deal with the KKK. Yet, the clergy have been failing, or worse, jeopardizing the movement from day one.
At least for my generation, the problem is this: we have in our minds a sanitized version of what the Civil Rights movement looked like. All the protestors were peaceful, singing spirituals, holding hands. Nothing ever got out of hand. Everyone looked respectable. The men being beaten were in suits; the children being bitten by dogs wore their school uniforms.
However, Ferguson today does not match up with what we thought was. We have a movement that is black, queer, woman-led, with saggy-pants wearing young people, all delivering profanity that reflects the emotional honesty of a community in pain. We label it violent because that is what we white folks have been taught: Blackness equals violence. We are taught to fear blackness. That is why we clutch our handbags close and cross to the other side of the street when we pass a Black man on the sidewalk. But, this time, we do not have black leaders of the movement trying to seem “respectable.” We have young Black folks who refuse to act “White” in order to temper White anxiety of “Blackness.” These protest leaders are from the ‘hood and refuse to disguise it. They refuse to pretend to be anything but themselves.
Most clergy have let their “whiteness” trump their Christian-ness. They have not shown up. I can count on one hand the number of clergy that the protestors in Ferguson actually trust. These are the folks who actually showed up, who didn’t desert them when the tanks rolled up and the tear gas started flowing. Moreover, these are the clergy who are not trying to co-opt the movement to make it something “respectable” or to try to force a resolution.
Once when we were marching in protest, we went up an off-ramp to block traffic on the highway. When we were eventually forced back down by police, the clergy were there to greet us, wearing their obnoxious “clergy” reflective vests that only shone back at us that they never joined us. In that moment, any shred of respect that we had for the clergy vanished. The Gospel call to solidarity does not mean waiting at the bottom of the freeway, but walking side by side with the most vulnerable in society.
By our inaction, we are driving away our young black brothers and sisters from the Church. They do not trust us one bit, nor do they have a reason to. And I will not try to convince them otherwise until we have something worthwhile to offer. I will not defend the clergy until we actually fight for their liberation.