On August 6, 1945 at 8:15:15 AM, the United States released the first atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. The bomb fell for forty-three seconds before exploding. 0.15 seconds later, “A woman sitting on steps on the bank of the Ota river, a half a mile away from ground zero, instantly vaporizes” (Atomic Heritage Foundation). Three days later, the United States drops a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, Japan. Martin Luther King Jr. was sixteen years old.
The future civil rights leader was born in 1929, months before the stock market crash that would signal the start of the Great Depression. Underpaid Black workers almost immediately suffered the repercussions of “last hired, first fired,” policies and Jim Crow segregation laws. Unemployment rates for Black people living in the south were two to three times higher than unemployment for whites (Klein). And “White agitation for work led to the increased incidence of racial violence, specifically lynchings. As Hilton Butler wrote in The Nation, “’Dust had been blown from the shotgun, the whip and the noose, and Ku Klux practices were being resumed…’” (Cox). Ten years later, the start of a second world war signaled the end of the economic crisis that had framed Dr. King’s early world view.
Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. understood the “urgency of the moment.” He knew that the gossamer between life and death takes less than a moment to be torn in two. Dr. King grew up not only surrounded by the reality of atomic warfare that could reduce hundreds of thousands of lives to nuclear shadows in the blink of an eye, but the very close and tangible reality of starvation, ongoing white aggression, and Klan lynching.
Perhaps one of the most successful aggressions of white supremacists in the last fifty-nine years is to convince subsequent (vastly white) generations that the violence endured by BIPOC communities are distant history. If we can convince ourselves that the social issues that King marched for are either successfully resolved or that some imagined statute of limitations has passed on inequality and injustice in this country, then we become complacent and content that any “minor” occurrences are isolated events, or non-events that will eventually work themselves out with some minor legislative tweaking, or, better yet, BIPOC assimilation.
This narrative is profoundly lethal. The space created by dissociation and ignorance is in no way a space for healing, but a pit for gangrenous mythologies to fester.
A nation that silences stories, ignores, obscures, and criminalizes history; a country that continues to capitalize on the exploitation, exclusion, and expulsion of the most vulnerable through indoctrination, manipulation, and abuse is playing a deadly game of roulette on the edge of its own sword.
When proponents of white and Christian nationalism no longer feel the need to mask their aggression; when lawmakers openly pass legislation that elevates violence and exclusion, when pastors peddle hate and hostility instead of the gospel, a country is teetering on the edge of a moment.
In his religious satire, C.S. Lewis writes, “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…” In many ways, this has been the road peddled by white Christian evangelical nationalists for the last 54 years—following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 and the rise of the Pan African intellectual movement. In the last few years, it would seem that the road has significantly changed: signposts are marked with crater sized pot holes, felled trees, and a significant number of legislative landmines— the road is all but paved with fire and brimstone— and no one remembered to bring a handbasket. It would seem like such reckless shift in approach should be noted.
In recent years, trauma informed training has told us that all “Behaviour (sp) is a means of communication, and all behaviour (sp) has a functional element. ‘Challenging’ behaviour (sp) is often described as communicating unmet needs (Complex Needs Capable). Few people who have been paying attention the last few years would need much convincing that we have seen some “challenging behavior.” If challenging behavior is communicating a need, might that perceived need be to retain (at least the illusion of) power and control?
Unfortunately, the longer a person or a group has believed that they have power and control, the more reckless and violent they will become in their efforts to maintain that perception. Anything and/or anyone that is perceived to challenge the narrative that the person or group has come to believe is viewed as a threat.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew the urgency of the moment. He understood that a moment is the distinction between life and death. The temptation to pause, to compromise, to ease the pressure, to give way to gradualism arrives when we are most tired and battle weary. For the sake of our mutual liberation and the realization of the “beloved community,” we cannot afford to pause again. We must carry one another, we must persist with kindness, with compassion, and with determination until we reach the mountaintop and justice flows down like a mighty river.
By Naphtalie Renshaw
Atomic Heritage Foundation. “Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombing Timeline.” 26 April 2016. Atomic Heritage Foundation: In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History . August 2022. <https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/hiroshima-and-nagasaki-bombing-timeline>.
Complex Needs Capable. “Understanding behaviour as communication.” 2013. Complex Needs Capable. August 2022. <https://www.complexneedscapable.org.au/understanding-behaviour.html#:~:text=Behaviour%20is%20a%20means%20of%20communication%2C%20and%20all,a%20person%20being%20perceived%20as%20having%20challenging%20behaviour.>.
Cox, Savannah. “Photos Of The Great Depression’s Forgotten Black Victims.” 7 September 2016. All That’s Interesting. August 2022. <https://allthatsinteresting.com/great-depression-photos-african-americans#46>.
History.com Editors. “Four Black schoolgirls killed in Birmingham church bombing.” 14 September 2020. History. A&E Television Networks. August 2022. <https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/four-black-schoolgirls-killed-in-birmingham>.
Klein, Christopher. “Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African American Workers.” 31 August 2018. History. 08 2022. <https://www.history.com/news/last-hired-first-fired-how-the-great-depression-affected-african-americans>.
Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. United Kingdom: Geoffrey Bles, 1942.
Washington Times. “Jury sees girls’ autopsy photos.” 16 May 2002. Washington Times. August 2022. <https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2002/may/16/20020516-024819-2302r/>.