It stirred my soul as a child and is one of the reasons I wanted to try to be a writer — I wanted to be able to say something like that some day. The resolve in that speech is what has sustained my years of effort in the pro-life movement. And one of the most endearing memories I have of my late mother is watching her tearing up as my 10-year-old daughter delivered, loud and proud, a lengthy excerpt.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
I know that Martin Luther King’s dream was so powerful that we retreat into the dream against all evidence to the contrary sometimes. I know that this longing we have for racial equality and the guilt we have for slavery makes us overlook some things and exaggerate others, and that America’s racial history has twisted us in ways that we have barely begun to unravel.
But I also know that there was something pure and true and quintessentially American about King’s speech, and I know that the narrative that race is intractable and that America is a racial powder-keg waiting to blow is also untrue.
So, as the Drudge Report pounds out “the dream is gone” links, I wanted to share some recent black heroes lest we overlook this aspect of the race story in America.
Faith vs. the Gunman
“It was scary because I knew at that moment that he was ready to take my life along with his, and if I didn’t say the right thing we all would be dead.”
That’s what Antoinette Tuff told a local news station in Decatur, Ga., about her hour-long conversation with Michael Brandon Hill, suspected would-be school gunman, on Aug. 20.
Tuff was working in the front office at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy when the gunman came in. “He had a look on him that he was ready to kill,” she said. He told her that he was going to die that day.
“I realized at that time it was bigger than me. He was really a hurting young man. So I just started praying for him,” she told a reporter. “And then I just started talking to him and telling him some of my life story and what was going on with me and that it was going to be okay.”
“I just explained to him I loved him,” said Tuff. “I didn’t know his name, I didn’t know much about him but I did love him,” she said.
One of my favorite parts of the 911 tape that overheard part of what she said is when he had finally agreed to give up but seemed to be having second thoughts.
“It’s going to be all right, sweetie,” she tells the gunman. “I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”
And of course she does not consider herself a hero: “I give it all to God. I’m not the hero. I was terrified,” she said.
“But you kept it together,” the interviewer points out.
“Through his grace and mercy I did,” she corrects her.
Did you hear about Lancaster, Pa., teen Temar Boggs?
It was July 11. Boggs, 15, was helping a neighbor move her couch when he heard that a 5-year-old girl had been abducted from their neighborhood.
The story that he tells in an interview with the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era shows just how heroic he and his friends were.
“We went out there and made a little search party of all of our friends,” he said.
It didn’t take long. “We saw a suspicious car, we looked in the passenger seat: the little girl was in the car. We chased it for about 10 to 15 minutes and I guess he got scared and let her out in the corner.”
The details of how he brought the girl home while following bike safety rules are classic.
“I picked her up—well, no, I didn’t pick her up, she ran to me and said she needed her mommy, and I rode her back home,” he said. “Well, halfway, ’cause the way I had her was dangerous so then I carried her back halfway home.”
Why did he chase down a kidnapper to save a little girl?
“It was just out of heart. It wasn’t to get attention or anything. It was just to help somebody in the community, help make sure another little life was okay and make sure her future could be possible.”
Another recent black hero is a little more ambiguous in his heroism.
Charles Ramsey, the neighbor who helped Ariel Castro’s victims to safety, is a hero at once representative of what is amiss and what is right with the black underclass. He has been arrested for domestic violence. His recounting of the afternoon rescue of Amanda Berry and the other kidnap victims has been partially (though not substantially) disputed. His refusal to take reward money was a noble decision on the spur of the moment; a decision that has evolved a bit, it seems.
But his essential humility and basic decency shine through, I think. I love the moment in his interview with Anderson Cooper when Cooper has a hard time getting him to focus on matter at hand instead of his own self-effacing assessment of himself.
RAMSEY: Mm-hmm. And I took her to my house. Now I’m nervous as hell so I’m fumbling with my phone, so I finally get it right. She can’t wait and I don’t blame her. So what I do was tell her go across the street and use their phone. Now we’re both calling 911. Now she gets through and I get through. She deal with a moron, me, too.
COOPER: You said there — what do you mean, a moron?
COOPER: I heard the 911 call for her –
COOPER: And the woman kept –
RAMSEY: Shouldn’t have a damn job.
His good humor, willingness to do the right thing and desire to help the girls even after the initial rescue are to his credit.
“They keep saying I’m a hero,” Ramsey has said. “Let me tell you something, I’m an American, and I’m a human being. I’m just like you. I work for a living. There was a woman in distress, so why turn your back on that?”
Justice Clarence Thomas is my next hero. He is a hero for two reasons: For being a reliable vote for right reason on the Supreme Court when we desperately need one, and for doing so despite the scorn and patronizing comments of his many vociferous critics. Not many people on earth could do what he does. Thank God he is doing it.
If there were more justices like him, “marriage” would still mean in America what it has for the rest of history in the rest of the world. It would still mean in America what it does in every major religion. But we don’t, so it doesn’t.
But it was the decision he wrote in the Association for Molecular Pathology et al v. Myriad Genetics Inc. that really showed off his abilities this year.
In Clarence Thomas Shows How It’s Done at National Review, Wesley Smith wrote:
“That’s how a Supreme Court decision should be written: Precise. Limited in scope. No bloviating. To the point. Applying, not creating law. Bravo Justice Thomas. Would your colleagues knew how to do it as well.”
Emily Bazelon at Slate said much the same thing, albeit in a more backhanded way:
“I’m trying to remember if I have ever read a Supreme Court opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas with the pleasure I read the one he wrote this morning.”
I love what Thomas had to say at the Manhattan Institute in 2008:
“There are really only two ways to interpret the Constitution — try to discern as best we can what the framers intended or make it up.”
Thomas isn’t one of the justices who makes it up.
I also like that Clarence Thomas is Catholic, of course. The Catholic Church has been ahead of the curve on racial equality in America at least since the Knights of Columbus started to integrate in the 19th century.
And we Catholics understand what’s at the basis of MLK’s dream.
“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
We pray for the increase in faith in God that will be necessary for King’s 50-year-old dream to come true.