Admitting Failure to Lead
I stand condemned by the killings of so many African Americans at the hands of police in this year alone. Our whole nation stands in the same condemnation. The continuing immiseration and inequality of African Americans, which dates back to the earliest English settlements in our country, persists to this date, and the suffering of Native Americans continues as always. Today our focus has centered on African Americans, but we have a serious systemic injustice problem.
Struggling for the abolition of slavery led to fighting a Civil War to end slavery, and sacrificing a half-million lives did not end the crippling prejudice and racial oppression. The Civil Rights Movement saw leaders cut down in sacrifice to achieve equal standing under law, though it did not achieve equality in its administration. Neither the integration of schools in the Brown v. Board of Education decision and its reforms, the Voting Rights Act, the Great Society welfare programs, affirmative action, billions of dollars invested in access to higher education, a Rainbow Coalition, a Black President promising Hope and Change, the Black Lives Matter protests, African-American mayors and police chiefs and officers, nor many other efforts and changes put an end to the pain. We seem to be ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth.
Today, with determination unbent but heart thoroughly broken, I call on my people to do better. No. To achieve the best. When we founded our current government in 1789, We the People committed ourselves “to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” We declared those imperatives as the essential purposes of our government. In as much as we have failed to accomplish those things for every race and class of Americans, our government has failed. We have little unity, and less every day. We have not established justice but have tolerated established injustice. Domestic tranquility has fled before rioting. Defense forces stand disarmed and helpless to stop looting. The blessings of liberty do not accrue equally to children of every race and ethnicity and class. We have failed.
Today, we must demand that our government, and our people, do better. We must call on government at every level from municipality to the federal level—all branches of government and all political parties—to come together to focus our efforts on ending the immiseration of African Americans and Native Americans and any other group that suffers systemic injustice. We must reform our policing policies. We must bring to an end the mass incarceration of Americans, especially African Americans, and we must ensure the equal administration of justice under law for every American.
It is time to admit our failure—all of us, Republicans, Democrats, and others—to work together to address and resolve America’s original sins. Celebrating partial successes only fills us with an illegitimate pride that masks our shameful failure.
Further, we must marshal all the instruments of civil society—especially our churches and other communities of worship—to bring about the cultural changes that will lead to equal justice. Government has failed, but government alone cannot succeed. Every institution in American society must take this moment as an opportunity to act. Hundreds of millions of acts of grace must occur each day.
Leaders cannot succeed if they keep doing the things that have failed. We need the emergence of political leaders who will transcend our paralysis and come together to act. The time has come for this issue to become a central focus of America’s government. If today’s leaders won’t lead, let others rise to take their place. Enough partisan division. Enough extremism. Enough refusal to compromise to achieve good. Enough insistence on total victory for any side.
The ship is sinking. We still have time to save it. As for me, “I will not cease from mental fight . . till we have built” a community of justice in America.