When Silence is not Golden
Carefully reading all of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society in a book study last year, I was so impressed by his understanding of group and individual dynamics that I wanted to know more. Finally, I am sitting down long enough to read his biography by June Bingham called Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961).
But, reading anything about Niebuhr leads me onward. In a paragraph on pp. 69-70, in discussing Niebuhr’s reaction to the World War II bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bingham relates first the belief in complicity of every American in that act. But what particularly drew my attention was this statement:
“Yet, Americans felt, and feel, no uneasiness about this collective act, nor do they understand why the dropping particularly of the second bomb has made us hated and feared in many of the uncommitted nations of Asia and Africa where dark-skinned people suspect that we never would have repeated so decimating an act had our enemy been of the white race (Bingham, 70).”
Involved in anti-racism, I was suddenly reminded of reading about a discussion between James Baldwin and Reinhold Niebuhr on the Protestant Council Radio following the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September, 1963 which killed four little girls who came with their families to learn about a Jesus who loved them (pp. 53-57, James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 2011). Cone notes that while there was not disagreement between Baldwin and Niebuhr about the immense tragedy of the bombing, there was a difference in level of passion. Baldwin, a member of the oppressed minority was angry at the white race, with good reason, and complained of Niebuhr’s lack of passion about the killings. Niebuhr, reflects Cone, could be dispassionate and calm as a member of the white majority. Baldwin was most angry about the silence in Birmingham. Silence can be powerful in many ways. Cone recalls the comment of “Rabbi Joachim Prinz (a refugee from Germany)” during the March on Washington much later, “‘When I was a rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime . . .the most important thing I learned . . . is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent and the most disgraceful, the most shameful, the most tragic problem is silence'” (Cone, 55).
I was devastated by the silence of which we whites were guilty, and wanting to feel better, remembered that during the Selma March, several whites had not remained silent. Checking the internet, I counted seven whites, many ministers, who gave up their lives because they did not remain silent. But instead of feeling better, I discovered how my own knowledge as a 17 year old had been caught in the very silence being discussed. Rev. Bruce Klunder was killed on April 7, 1964. He was a Presbyterian minister from Cleveland, Ohio who was killed at a construction site when he tried to block a bulldozer about to begin work at a site for a segregated school in Cleveland, Ohio (Bruce Klunder). I was a senior at John Marshall High School in Cleveland, Ohio on that date. My elementary school was segregated by neighborhood, but Carl Shuler Jr. High and John Marshall High School were integrated West Side Cleveland schools. Many East Side Cleveland schools were majority black schools because of neighborhood segregation. Apparently, there were people and power behind maintaining segregation. Two weeks after Rev. Klunder’s death a huge boycott of public schools and a demonstration by the United Freedom Movement stopped the segregation initiative. Where was I? Not boycotting. Completely unaware and silent (Cleveland Boycott).
So now, I wonder when silence is the easiest for us over 50 years later. Some whites are gathering in small groups to study our complicity in the racism of our country. One might wonder after 200 plus years why we are just now doing this? I am part of this group and we are reading and studying. We are caucusing.We are trying to learn of our complicity – how we differ in our responses from those of the minorities directly affected. Why, we must ask, might nations of Africa and Asia suspect we repeated the bomb dropping more easily because the nation was not white? Maybe because our news broadcasts must include a story in 2015 of a woman trying to have a statue of Martin Luther King in a community center removed because it is as disrespectful to whites as the Confederate flag is to blacks. I do not ever recall King being disrespectful to whites. If anything, he drew the ire of some people of color who accused him of being too willing to get along with the white majority. May our groups move from study to courage to speak up and out in the midst of continued oppression and, once again death, this time of nine, in a church in Charleston.