Liberty and Justice for Some

By. Rev. Anthony Everett

As a child attending the predominantly African-American St. Gabriel's Roman Catholic Elementary School (now the Petworth Campus of Center City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.), I grew up learning the pledge of allegiance. It was part of the daily classroom routine as well as all school assemblies. I would recite the pledge alongside my classmates within the purview of our teacher's directions. We would stand at attention facing the United States flag, place our right hands over our hearts, and recite what we had memorized word for word. Our education at St. Gabriel's allowed for us to become independent thinkers and that laid the groundwork for me to become a critical thinker. It was at this basic elementary education level where my ability to discern and judge the world around me was kindled while I was always in search for good in everyone and everything.

When I became an adolescent and throughout my adulthood spanning the post-civil rights era of the mid-1970s through the 1980s and beyond, I began to approach the United States Pledge of Allegiance with a hermeneutic of suspicion. I could no longer take the words to be true for my life and my community. They look great on paper and sound great when recited, but my reality of living in a racist country that consistently and systemically oppresses me and other people of African descent, regardless of our perceived citizenship status, helped me to dispel the myths of "liberty and justice for all." The words of the pledge have gone through their iterations over time, but most striking to me is a version that was never accepted that would have included the words "equality" and "fraternity." These words were excluded because they were introduced during the post-Civil War era. They would have been a challenge to the oppressive Jim Crow Laws of the day. Excluding the newly emancipated, formerly enslaved Africans and impoverished people throughout the United States, liberty and justice were only for some people.

As a child, my daughter, Akilah, began attending Brendel Elementary School in Grand Blanc, Michigan. I wanted for her to not be subjected to the lies of the pledge that I had experienced so I requested that she not participate in the ritual. Then, I became concerned with this little girl with an African-American father and an Afro-Trinidadian mother, being ostracized and excluded in a predominantly white school where she was clearly an outsider in so many ways. I decided that she could participate with the rest of the class but also understood that her real education took place at the feet of her parents and those who love her, not the Grand Blanc Public School System. Although she participated in the pledge, it did not stop a teacher, based on implicit racial bias, from attempting to place her in a regular math class instead of the high math class for which she was qualified until I intervened. It never stopped one of her classmates from explaining to Akilah that she was not invited to a birthday party because the classmate's parents "don't like her kind." Akilah is now a college graduate of Western Michigan University and gainfully employed teaching English to immigrants and refugees. Still she lives in a country where liberty and justice are for only some people.

When San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, took a stand for the lives of other people of African descent in the United States by not saluting the flag or saying the Pledge of Allegiance during the opening of a pre-season football game, he decided to take a stand against racial injustice in the form of police brutality in this country. While several other professional athletes disagreed with his protest, Kaepernick's actions driven by the Black Lives Matter Movement has stirred the activism of other athletes across sports to question the validity of a pledge that sounds good but does not fulfill its promise of liberty and justice for all but only some people.

On Wednesday, September 7, 2016 at approximately 11:00 pm, while walking her dog, 22 year old Maryiah Coleman, an 8 month pregnant African American woman was found shot outside the Matador Apartments in the Winburn neighborhood of Lexington, Kentucky. Her body was found in the 1000 block of Winburn Drive, a short walk across the street from Winburn Middle School and half mile away from Wesley United Methodist Church, where I serve as pastor. She died at the University of Kentucky Hospital at 2:30 am the next morning. The doctors were unable to save her unborn child she had already named Jakobe. While there is a noticeable rise in neo-Nazi activity and recruitment in a few local Lexington bars undeniably instigated by the racially charged 2016 U. S. presidential campaign of Republican candidate, Donald Trump, and the recent calls of violence by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin against anyone who does not believe in conservative, Christian values if Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton, wins, there is no direct evidence of a racially motivated hate crime. The Winburn neighborhood, which is nearly 60% African American and 37% Latin@ with a significant number of Congolese refugees, is no stranger to the gun violence that currently plagues the country along with drug abuse and criminal activity, symptoms of racially-born economic injustice.

Upon hearing the news of Maryiah's senseless death and the loss of her unborn child, hundreds of community members, local activists, and ministers took to the streets that evening at 8:00 pm at the parking lot of the Community Action Council, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to prevent, reduce, and eliminate poverty among individuals, families, and communities. The crowd marched to the location of her killing where a prayer vigil was held along with a call out to take back the community. Although the police have stepped up patrols in the community, no concrete plans have been developed to "take back" the community. Still, there was no liberty and justice for Maryiah and Jakobe.

Then, I heard from a friend about another killing of an unarmed African-American man named Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after the man called for help for his stalled vehicle. Crutcher, a father, a church choir member, while coming home from his community college class was stranded on the highway, called for help, but received a bullet to his heart from a white -female recovering drug addict named Betty Shelby, now police Officer Shelby, for no apparent reason. He called for help, but received a bullet. All of the video tapes and voice recordings tell the story. Liberty and justice clearly were not in the cards for Terence Crutcher.

Only a few hours later, an African-American male police officer named Brentley Vinson shot and killed another African-American man, named Keith Lamont Scott, while Scott was waiting in his car with a book in his hand. Scott reads everyday while waiting for his son to get off of the school bus. Police were attempting to arrest another man who had an outstanding warrant but they spotted Scott and to his detriment they took his life. There was no liberty and justice for Scott.

The list continues to grow on a daily basis, yet no one seems to be able to do anything about the evils of racism and its effective nullification of liberty and justice for African Americans. No one is stopping the deaths. Yet, we must move from this place of violence against black and brown bodies to a place where the love of God is first seen, felt, and expressed when we encounter someone else. There must be what Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as "somebodiness," where all people see the imago Dei, moral of image of God in everyone. We cannot afford implicit biases that ruin educational foundations for life or take lives through senseless deaths. Destruction of the promise of life is unacceptable! Another death is unacceptable! Implicit racial bias must surrender to sombodiness that celebrates the humanity of everyone, that is everybody has moral worth in the eyes of God. Then, liberty and justice will truly be for all, not just some!

"Danny" Anthony Everett is the lead pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Lexington, Kentucky.  As a preacher, pastor, public servant, lecturer, and social activist, Everett is a passionate advocate for human rights and issues of social justice. He is a Doctor of Ministry student at United Theological Seminary in the Prophetic Preaching and Praxis focus group. For more information, visit https:goo.gl/g8KNkK.

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