50 years after King’s death, ‘And We Are Not Saved’

In 1979, professor Derrick Bell wrote a book titled, “And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice.” A teacher of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, Bell deftly illustrates several ways the Constitution of the United States comes short of assuring the full and equal citizenship of descendants of formerly enslaved Africans.

Shortly after the turn of the century, professor Joy DeGrury wrote a book called “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” Utilizing her skills as a psychologist, DeGrury powerfully revealed that many of the traumatic psycho-emotional impacts of over 300 years of enslavement on Africans in North America persist into the 21st century.

In 2006, journalist Harriet A. Washington, who has served as a fellow at both Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.”

Michelle Alexander, professor of law at Ohio State Law School, shocked the nation with the publication of her book “The New Jim Crow.” Alexander’s research documented persisting inequities between the treatment of blacks and whites in the American criminal justice system.

The voices of this roll call of some of America’s most accomplished scholars join those of print, television and radio journalists as well as ordinary citizens armed with nothing more than cell phones who chronicle the fragility of Black Life in America on a daily basis.

As public schools are resegregated and state departments of education shift funding and teaching talent from majority black, brown and urban schools to white and suburban ones; as we watch one young black life after another summarily snuffed out by police officers who see skin color as emblematic of danger; as the hallways of city and county jails are filled with mattresses bearing black, brown and impoverished bodies as signs of an overcrowded and woefully unjust and inefficient criminal justice system; as double-digit unemployment persists in black and brown communities and income disparity between black and white people continues to signal systemic and structural racism in the “high places” of corporate board rooms – “We Are Not Saved.”

The biblical notion of salvation – in both testaments – is more than a personal relationship with God through the Christ. The Hebrew and Greek words rendered “saved,” “save” or “salvation” in the English Bible is closely related to the Hebrew word “Shalom” which means “peace.”

The underlying meaning of the word “peace” in both Hebrew and Greek is “well-being” or “wholeness.” We are not truly saved if all we possess is a personal relationship with God. We are truly saved when conditions of safety and security exist in the environments where we find ourselves.

Fifty years after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ‘We the people’ must continue the struggle for full liberation from the strictures of an unjust society. We are not powerless. There are steps we can and must take to assure a more secure and safer future for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.

We can and we must spend our money where we live. Unlike every other ethnic group in America, African Americans do not spend their first dollars in their own communities. In fact, our dollar doesn’t even circulate in our community for one day. Compare that to other ethnic communities where the dollar circulates anywhere between nine and 26 days. We can only build collective wealth and assure ourselves, our children, and small business owners financial security if we spend our money in our communities.

We can and we must actively participate in the education of our children. Atlanta’s traffic issues make parental participation in the PTSA extremely difficult. Yet, if our children are to receive the best possible education, parents and grandparents must play an integral role in instructing them and in assuring that all of the resources they need are available to them. Just as our fore-parents had to make sacrifices for the sake of succeeding generations, so must we.

We can and we must come to love ourselves and one another enough to actively participate in civic life through voting, attending public meetings, advocating in the interests of the communities where we reside, and holding our elected officials accountable between election cycles.

We can and we must return to the faith of our mothers and fathers. Prayer doesn’t just change things, it changes us. We must remember that we are engaged in a common struggle that unites us as sisters and brothers and that we need each other for moral and emotional support. The church, the mosque and the temple are good places to go to recover a sense of mutual concern insofar as those institutions are interested in the moral, spiritual, financial and physical welfare of those whom they exist to serve.

Finally, we can and we must take care of the places and spaces where we reside. Each and every one of us can and should work to assure the cleanliness and safety of public and private spaces. Our fore-parents gave us a dictum that is almost scriptural: “cleanliness is next to godliness.”

The burden of our common life is ours to bear. We will only be saved, whether or not we are religious, when we collectively decide that moral, intellectual, political, judicial and financial failure is not an option for those who would be free.

The Rev. Dr. Mark A. Ogunwale Lomax is pastor of First Afrikan Church in Lithonia, and Associate Professor of Homiletics at Interdenominational Theological Center.