Who is to blame for racially-tense, politically-charged reactions to a confrontation that occurred outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.?
We all are. We should all dream of better.
We watched and reacted along with the rest of the country as a video circulated across the internet at the speed of light on Jan. 19. The video shows what appears to be a confrontation between a high school boy named Nick Sandmann from Kentucky and 64-year-old Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam War veteran and Native American rights activist from Michigan.
We saw a few seconds of the incident from the video, initially. We see a Native American elder playing a drum and singing, and we see a boy in a baseball cap smiling. We don’t see much space between them.
In the background, we see onlookers, mostly teenage boys, most of them smiling and laughing, as they watch the scene before them. While their actions may have been thoughtless and lacking malice, they certainly didn’t appear to do anything to diffuse the tension.
Sandmann has since spoken out in the form of a letter which is well-articulated, suggesting he is probably a good communicator or knows a good editor.
Sandmann’s account of the Lincoln Memorial incident describes tense communication between his group of Kentucky students and a group of African American protestors affiliated with the Hebrew Israelites, which included the use of racial epithets and slurs directed toward the boys. Sandmann’s writing points to the African American group as the instigators, while Phillips’ accounts of the incident seem to give equal responsibility to the black adults and the white teens.
The entire situation turned into an aftermath full of finger-pointing, and while finger-pointing can be good for assigning blame, it does little to offer us hope for a better future.
We also saw follow-up interviews with Phillips, who explained that a small group of Native Americans passed between the group of high school students and a group of African American protestors. Phillips told the Detroit Free Press that he hoped the situation would be diffused, not magnified.
“I wish I could see that energy of the young men—to put that energy into making our country really great,” Phillips said.
The fact that our country is talking about race relations in this manner on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not lost. More than 50 years after Dr. King was assassinated, we still have undeniable moments of racial tension in this country. We still have lessons to learn. We still have a dream of a better future, just as Dr. King expressed in his most famous speech in 1963.
The “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in Washington D.C. during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice,” King said. “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
We have made great progress as a nation and as people in solving the problems King fought so hard to solve before he was gunned down in Memphis, but more trouble remains.
In the aftermath, we went on the internet and got lost in the arguments over who started the whole thing, who fired off the first verbal attack, who had the most “punchable face,” who called for violence first. Whether we intended to or not, we watched the videos, read the stories and tried to draw conclusions as to who was right and wrong.
What if no one in this situation was right? What if we all took some of the blame, and even if we didn’t agree on possible solutions, we at least agreed that we hope for better.
We should dream for better.