As Longfellow translated from the German poem, “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small.” History would seem to endorse that.
Looking at our country, when great change needed to happen, it rarely came about with rapidity. The founding fathers went to extreme lengths to avoid addressing slavery. To have done so would have prevented the formation of the United States. They knew it had to be done “. . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Even with those stirring words that every school child learns, it was three-quarters of a century before the issue of slavery in America was seriously addressed. Even after the bloodiest war in our history, much was left to be improved. It was another century before real progress was made.
Not until the 1960s did the government redress the wrongs of segregation, almost two hundred years after Thomas Jefferson. That may be an eye blink in the scale of history but for those who suffered under Jim Crow, it was many lifetimes.
This week there has been much written about Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite his human failings (who doesn’t have those?) I suspect his place in history will, as centuries pass, stand alongside the Founding Fathers. While much has been achieved in our lifetime, there should be no cause for complacency. It has been too slow in coming and all should be concerned that progress continues to be made.
In watching documentaries about the turbulent times of the civil rights struggle several things strike me. We were all aware monumental changes were taking place. It amazes me that they were initiated by Lyndon Johnson, a southerner. Had John Kennedy lived, would it have come about as quickly? Who knows, but Johnson was correct when he said he had lost the South to the Republican Party for the next century. He did what was right, not the politically expedient thing that marks much of governing today.
A second thing comes to mind: While we were aware that segregation was rightfully coming to an end and we approved of the change, most were strangely silent about it. The freedom riders, those who anonymously marched in Selma, the thousands who courageously spoke out were in the minority. I, for one, was too wrapped up in my own life to be an active participant; I regret that now.
Third, looking back at the riots, the killings, the burning cities, the venomous speech from elected leaders in the South, I am appalled that the public sense of outrage, mine included, was muted. In retrospect, the horror of it all assumes a proportion that seems much worse now. Had I been a young African-American in those years, I wonder what my reaction would have been? Would I have been a follower of the Black Panthers or would I have passively stood by, as I did as a white, and let Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown fight the battles?
It was in this context that Martin Luther King, Jr. made his greatest contribution. Rather than allow the militant forces to gain control of the nation, his message of non-violence, patience, and peacefulness changed the tide.
Much remains to be done. There are other areas of equal injustice and African-Americans still are on the road to full enfranchisement. Discarding that hyphenated citizenship would be a start. It will, unfortunately, take decades to address and remediate some of these problems. The important message is that progress must not be impeded by an excess of patience. While the latter is important, as Dr. King demonstrated, it cannot be an excuse to avoid the former.
If it is true about the mills of God, then each of us must make sure the grinding continues.