Speech: Turning darkness into light
By James Coffin
The theme I’ve been invited to address tonight is “Turning Darkness into Light.” Those words come from a sermon of the early 1960s by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the man whose legacy we’ve come to celebrate.
The United States of America is a different place, a better place, a place of more light and less darkness because of Dr. King’s vision, his wisdom, his example and his tenacity.
Although huge strides have been made in the right direction, darkness still exists, greater light is still needed, and we must forever remain vigilant, for darkness ever seeks to reassert itself.
It can happen at any time. It can happen in any context. And it can happen in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
But first, a little history so we fully appreciate just how needed Dr. King’s civil-rights activism was.
Scarcely had the New World been discovered than it became blighted by forced servitude. “Forced servitude” is simply a softer, less unsettling, more genteel way of saying slavery.
The grim reality is that during a period of some 300 years, an estimated 12 million Africans were captured, put in chains, thrown into the hold of some ship and transported across the Atlantic against their will. Those who actually survived the trans-Atlantic voyage–and many didn’t–were sold as slaves.
Some human master in North America, South America, Inter-America or the Caribbean took total control of their lives once these human commodities arrived in the New World. And once here, most of them would remain in slavery for the rest of their lives.
Why did this happen? Greed. Greed on the part of the slave-ship captains. Greed on the part of the African raiders who captured and sold their fellow Africans. Greed on the part of those who saw slave labor as the easiest way to ensure low prices and thus a ready market for slave-produced materials.
Fortunately, there has always been at least a small cadre of people deeply committed to turning darkness into light. During the first few decades of the 19th century, an unlikely assortment of activists stood up and were counted. They had the courage to point their finger at slavery and call it the social and moral evil that it indeed was.
Some went even further, poking their finger in the eye of this vile institution through acts of civil disobedience. The Underground Railroad helped thousands of slaves escape to Canada. Other activists boldly spoke up in churches, in town halls, in legislative assemblies.
Finally, in the midst of a war that had at its core the issue of slavery, President Abraham Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. And in December 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery once and for all as an institution in the United States.
Darkness was being turned into light. But when darkness is so all-pervasive, it doesn’t instantly morph into the brightness of mid-day. The ripples emanating from more than three centuries of slavery didn’t magically smooth out just because the gates of slavery’s prison were suddenly thrown open.
Turning darkness into light didn’t happen overnight–nor does it ever. When for generation after generation a group has lived as slaves, have been treated as slaves, have viewed themselves as slaves, their image doesn’t transform instantly just because of a Presidential decree or a Constitutional Amendment.
To a great degree the self-image of these recently freed people didn’t change. Why? Because the view of onlookers didn’t change. True, they were now ex-slaves–but slave was still the prime component of their new title.
Turning darkness into light is a slow and often painful process.
The change of title didn’t change many of the realities they faced. So began decades of struggle that included lynchings and Jim Crow laws, benign neglect and overt hostility.
As darkness slowly continued to turn into light, some of the most abhorrent abuses slipped from center stage. But vestiges of evil still lurked in the shadows. “Separate but equal” became the euphemism of the day. But it was lie. The races were indeed separate–that was undebatable; but they were anything but equal.
It was into this social milieu that I was born in Central Missouri at the beginning of the 1950s. Of course, I was only an observer. I wasn’t directly affected by all that had gone on and all that was still a reality for those who were directly affected.
I retain two vivid racial memories from my early years. I remember being at the county fair and badly needing the benefit of a restroom. Despite the urgency of my situation, I was told I couldn’t go into the restroom we were walking past because it was for “colored people.” A few minutes later I was told I couldn’t drink from a perfectly good drinking fountain because it too was for colored people.
Even though I was only four at the time, I was a quick learner. Based on my vast experience, it was quite clear: Colored people got all the breaks!
Tragically, many of us who are essentially unaffected by social injustice base our opinions on reasoning as flimsy as my assumption that colored people got all the breaks!
A couple of years later, I remember overhearing deeply concerned adult conversations about the local school’s decision to “integrate.” I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was witnessing the outgrowth of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
That decision was another major step in turning darkness into light.
For years after our town’s schools integrated, we regularly drove past the boarded-up school that had once served the region’s black children. The abandoned school sat grimly next to the railroad track, where it always had been, in the shadow and dust of a concrete-mixing plant.
Many of our white neighbors considered my family’s level of interaction with people of color to be rather scandalous. We were trailblazers. My father frequently employed “Negroes,” as we often referred to those of African heritage.
Farm-worker etiquette called for field laborers to be given the noon meal. To the discomfort of some onlookers, we always invited any black who happened to be working for us to eat at our table with us.
We also allowed blacks to hunt on our farm. And they turned up in large numbers. Many drove all the way from St. Louis, 120 miles away, because it was that difficult for black hunters to find farms where they were welcome to hunt.
But our moral enlightenment went only so far–because darkness is pervasive; because darkness isn’t easily turned into light; because old patterns of behavior are hard to break even when the mind is starting to move forward.
Despite the fact that we considered ourselves more enlightened than many of our openly bigoted neighbors, we had a lot to learn. We had a lot of growing to do. You see, we still laughed uproariously at racist jokes. Our conversations were still laced with racist epithets. And, to be honest, it wasn’t all done in ignorance. We knew better. Why else would we try to rein in such talk when actually in the presence of those being thus labeled?
Over the years I’ve had to eliminate a lot of derogatory vocabulary and refrain from repeating a lot of demeaning jokes. And not just about race. But about ethnic groups that are low on the pecking order. About women. About any who are easy to make fun of because they’re different from the majority or the powerful.
I’ve made a lot of progress. Light has slowly displaced darkness. But I have no doubt that the process of true openness, of true understanding, of true sensitivity, still isn’t complete in me. And I doubt that I’m alone. Darkness doesn’t easily give way to light. It seeks shelter in any nook or cranny of our being that appears willing to tolerate its presence.
I remember the whispered concerns when, after passage of the Lyndon Johnson-inspired Civil Rights Acts of 1964, the first black student was admitted to the private high school I later attended. I remember the race riots of the 1960s. I remember Martin Luther King’s call for non-violent civil disobedience in the struggle for basic racial fairness. I remember his “I Have a Dream” speech. I remember the impact of his assassination.
In fact, I could cite a long list of national milestones, Martin Luther King actions and my own personal experiences that have left indelible impressions on me. And I repeat: I was just an observer. It didn’t have the same significance to me that it had for those whose lives were daily controlled by these injustices.
It was through these lenses of experience that three years ago I watched our current U.S. President acknowledge not only that he’d won a hard-fought political contest, but that our nation had indeed achieved a major milestone.
Much of the progress we’ve made in the past came about only because a relative handful of far-sighted legislators or judges told us that, like it or not, we had to clean up our act in certain areas––or else. But never in the course of our nation’s civil-rights struggle has such a large segment of the white population made such an emphatic statement that they’re willing to look at something other than a person’s skin color.
Oh, not for moment am i suggesting that we’ve arrived. Bigotry of all sorts still exists. And it can run in many directions. And whatever direction it runs, it needs to be made to feel unwelcome.
To his great credit, Martin Luther King fought injustice wherever he encountered it. Certainly he understood the glaring needs of his black brothers and sister, and he worked doggedly on their behalf. But he likewise recognized the plight–and sought to correct it–of others who were downtrodden and disadvantaged.
Martin Luther King saw the plight of the white poor as well as the black poor. He saw the second-class status of white women as well as black women. He saw the havoc wreaked by the Vietnam War–not only on black soldiers but on white soldiers as well.
One of the things that made Dr. King such a great man and such a great leader was that he refused to leave any in the darkness of discrimination and disdain if he had the even the slightest chance of bringing to them the light of hope.
I highlight these admirable characteristics not to in any way detract from Dr. King’s fight on behalf of those who shared his heritage, but to show the breadth of the man–a man who wasn’t willing to have any suffer unnecessarily. A man who wanted liberty and justice for all.
Not only did Dr. King see the far-reaching, all-pervasive nature of the darkness of discrimination, he also saw that violence–though the most natural reaction to such injustice and oppression–wasn’t the most effective way to fight evil in the long run. It was the wrong approach at a moral level. And it was the wrong approach at a practical level.
In his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” printed in his 1963 book, Strength to Love, Dr. King says in his inimitable style:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate:
only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction . . . .”
Were Dr. King alive today, I think he’d be heartened by the progress made–and I think he’d be appalled at the ground still to be covered on a variety of fronts.
The disparity between rich and poor is no less pronounced today than it was in his day.
We’re just as willing to resort to war as when he was alive.
Many minorities still face prejudice and disadvantage–be they racial, or ethnic, or religious.
We still have a pecking order, whether we’re students in school or adults in the workforce.
In other words, we still have a lot of ground to cover before darkness will have been dispelled by light and before Martin Luther King’s dream of a just society will truly be a reality.
Dr. King had a dream–a dream he didn’t just talk about, but a dream he sought to actually do something about. Our challenge today is to keep the dream alive–not just in our minds but in our actions. Our challenge is ensure that darkness continues to be turned into light.
James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.