I grew up in a civil rights home. My father fought for human rights and dignity through the judicial system as an attorney and advocate for the poor and legally oppressed. It was never just about black people for my dad and our family; we were simply seeking for America to be true to what it said on paper–for all her citizens. His work was in many ways a second wave of advocacy and activism that followed the watershed decades of the civil rights movement. Those younger Baby Boomers like my dad became the first beneficiaries of integration but chose not to rest until freedom fully manifested itself, not just for them, but for their children and children’s children.
But I long perceived a failure of the movement, both the nadir of the 1950s and ‘60s and the second (and third) wave(s) that followed. I have had the privilege of sitting in rooms with some of the most valorized leaders of justice movements past and present—preachers and politicians who have dedicated their life’s work to repairing the world. And I appreciate them for it because though we in this country are not where we need to be, we are so much farther from where we used to be because they sacrificed and suffered for us.
Yet while we were indeed fighting for everybody’s freedom in principle, we didn’t always practice what we preached. What we don’t like to talk about is how many civil rights soldiers abused their wives or lovers. Many times women and children were shut up and shut out, silenced and stagnated. Sure, there was trauma and transference and systemic white supremacy that made brothers beat their wives and seek sexual healing outside their marriages. I understand that. Not only that, anger and a contentious spirit has consumed many who have been on the battlefield, making them seemingly immune to love. They have medicated their wounds with alcohol and drugs by other names. And many of them today deploy the same oppressive politics of leadership they fought against years ago but make sense to them now that they are the black faces in high places. But understanding isn’t approval. We must understand the extreme pressures they were under living and fighting in the valley of the shadow of death. But while we understand them, we must also seek to understand those wounded at the hands of people who look like them. Our stride toward freedom may have brought us respective political freedom and economic mobility, but we lost some precious virtues along the way to the Promised Land.
I think this angle of vision is why I’m committed not only to liberation in its sociopolitical sense, but also in its spiritual and psychological senses. Freedom, my friends, isn’t just political and economic liberation from oppression, though it certainly includes those things. But it’s more deeply that strange freedom of soul and mind that I believe we’ve failed to address as a community with radical intensity over the last fifty years.
I contend that we aren’t totally free until we are free to think and love as free persons. Liberation definitely includes the political dimensions we’ve worked so hard to secure, but politics and economic access don’t fully encapsulate and incarnate freedom. Folks who have gained political and economic freedom, who live in nice houses and now work and play in places from which they were once restricted, doesn’t make them free indeed.
America must continue to live out the true meaning of its creed and liberty and justice must be for all. Politics are important. But justice also means we end domestic violence, addictions to decadence and its idols, allow all people to be who they were created to be. We must tell the truth about how hurt people hurt people, about how the oppressed can become the oppressor when healing has not occurred. We must be free to testify, to tell our stories in all their tragicomic and grotesque beauty. Freedom is gained without but is most deeply secured from within. Freedom and justice are bone, soul, spirit deep.