I had just finished reading an article about the death of John Salter Jr. (aka John Hunter Gray), when I was confronted with the video of white Catholic high school boys taunting an elder Native American Vietnam Veteran at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in our nation’s capital.
I was outraged by the despicable display of white privilege looking down its nose at a man who put his life on the line in Vietnam and seeing him as less than human. The Omaha elder was in Washington D.C. for the Indigenous Peoples March when he encountered the group of Kentucky high school boys, wearing “Make America Great Again” caps, who had just participated in the March for Life.
The incident illustrates how white privilege empowers people to behave in the most inhumane, disgraceful, reprehensible, and hateful ways. It enabled white kids to mock the Little Rock Nine at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 in Arkansas. It empowered young white people to douse Salter, Anne Moody, and Joan Trumpauer with sugar, mustard, and ketchup at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi and to burn Salter with cigarettes, throw pepper in his eyes and attack him with brass knuckles and broken glass.
(Sidebar: I am compelled to ask if those were the days when America was great? Is that what the “Make America Great Again” message means?)
Maybe it wasn’t commonly called white privilege in 1963 and 1957, but the phenomenon was alive and well – the privilege to move through the world without your race defining your interactions, the power to remain silent in the face of racial inequity, the privilege to choose when and where you want to take a stand, the power of knowing that you and your humanity are safe.
Even in the face of the ugliness that was shown in the video (including the image of a high school boy with an arrogant smirk on his face, staring down the Omaha elder), there are some trying to discount or justify the actions of these boys and explain away the inhumane treatment of the Vietnam Veteran – at least two parents reportedly blamed a group of “Black Muslims” and the Omaha elder himself; others blamed his chaperones and parents. (Note: the “Black Muslims” referred to by the parent were actually identified as Black Hebrew Israelites).
But today – the day that we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. – I would like to highlight those voices that condemned the actions of the boys who mocked the elder: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington, Covington Catholic High School and Covington Mayor Joe Meyer (who technically isn’t the mayor of the municipality, Park Hills, where the boys’ high school is located). The people behind these voices chose to stand for what is right, when they could have chosen to be silent.
“… because of the actions of people who live in Northern Kentucky, our region is being challenged again to examine our core identities, values, and beliefs. Regardless of what exact town we live in, we need to ask ourselves whether behavior like this DOES represent who we are and strive to be. Is this what our schools teach? Are these the beliefs that we as parents model and condone?” Meyer wrote in an op-ed.
For me, the voices of those who had the courage to speak out against injustice, remind me of the wise words of Rev. King: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
The question today is: Where do you stand in this climate of hatred and incivility?
“However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make your nation a better nation in which to live. You have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody. And so you must be involved in the struggle of freedom and justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr. (“What is Your Life’s Blueprint?”, October 26, 1967, Philadelphia)