This photo was taken at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama created by Maya Lin (the same artist who created the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.) In the background is a scripture often quoted by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The young man is running his fingers through the layer of water flowing over the names of civil rights activists who gave their lives for the cause.
I often think of a photo like that when I contemplate the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the memorial service for the four little girls who had died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Imagine with me for a moment if he had said these words about the killing of George Floyd.
And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.When Dr. King quoted the scripture that says “Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” he was referring to something much bigger than what one police officer does. And it was something much more audacious than what happens in a court room. As his words above indicate, justice requires something from all of us...which is what we mean when we talk about the need to address systemic racism.
We have a long way to go before justice rolls down like waters in this country. The fact that Derek Chauvin has been held accountable for killing George Floyd is a step in that direction. On Wednesday, AG Garland took another step when he announced that the Justice Department will open an investigation into whether the Minneapolis Police Department "engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force, including during protests," whether it engages in "discriminatory conduct," and whether "its treatment of those with behavioral health disabilities is unlawful."
But that just begins to scratch the surface of finding justice. As Dr. King suggested, that will require all of us to be concerned about "the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers."