By Rev. Reginald W. Williams, Jr.,
In 1949, Rev. Vernon Johns, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, (and predecessor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) put on the marquis in front of Dexter Avenue, “It is Safe to Kill Negroes In Montgomery”. He did this after a Black man was shot by a White man and received no punishment for the crime of murder. He placed this message on his marquis to call attention to what many Black people felt during that time—that in America the lives of Black people are treated with short worth by the dominant culture, systems and institutions. It is interesting, yet unfortunate, that 64 years later, many Black people feel the exact same—In America, the lives of Black people are treated with short worth by the dominant culture, systems and institutions. In no uncertain terms, Black life is undervalued in our society!
It is this feeling that has resonated through African American communities for years, but especially over the past weekend when the verdict came down in the case involving the murder of Trayvon Martin. It is this feeling and recognition of this reality that informed the placement of the message on the marquis of First Baptist Church of University Park.
The initial sign, which has caused such a furor, stated, “It is safe to kill Black People in the United States of Amerikkka.” Much focus was placed on the intentional misspelling of America. The use of “kkk”, was done to call attention to the fact that, just as in the “glory days” of the KKK, it appears far too often that the murder of African Americans is permitted, and the mistreatment of African Americans, historically and currently, is far too cavalierly considered. Issues such as the prison industrial complex, heath disparities, underfunded and under-resourced educational systems, and voter protection are just a few of the concerns faced daily by African Americans. Add to this the fact that an unarmed teenager in Sanford, FL, can be murdered in cold blood for simply walking home, and you will know the deep sense of concern that African Americans live with daily. Upon hearing the verdict, my own daughter of 7 years old now fears that she can be killed simply for being Black.
It is interesting the amount of energy that people have put into attacking the church and the Pastor. I wonder how much change would occur if that same energy was employed to fight for the restoration of sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act. I wonder how much change would occur if that same energy was employed to fight for common sense gun laws, and stopping laws like “Stand Your Ground.” At the town hall meeting that our church hosted last night, we had a great turnout. And at that meeting, persons committed to working on issues that affect our community, not the least of which was voting rights, and voter protection. While we were meeting, the trustees of University Park were meeting about the best ways to protect our children and our community, given the new concealed carry laws in Illinois. In these two meetings, energy was given into finding solutions, and not perpetuating divisions. We also invite you to utilize those same passions to offer commentary toward solutions, and not divisions. This will give us the space and opportunity to dialogue and act around the ills which plague all of our communities, and help to heal the same!
The sign has since been changed, though not much, to now asking a question: “Is it safe to Kill Black People in America?” The message on the sign is not a message of hate. It is a message of awakening and call to action. It is a message not intended to divide, but to cause honest reflection in order to make this country a better place for ALL. The intent is to cause ALL people to look inside themselves and honestly ask that question. For many African Americans, the answer will come back yes, because, in spite of from whence we have come, this is STILL a country that marginalizes many and outcasts others! It is a country that has yet to have an honest dialogue about the reality of race in America.
At First Baptist Church we welcome ALL, regardless of where you are on your journey of life. We affirm that all human life is sacred. No one should be treated sub-humanly because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or different ability. We denounce senseless murders happening in Chicago and communities around this country! We condemn injustice wherever it rears its ugly head! In fact, our Mission Statement declares that we are seriously seeking to live the Love of Christ. We hold fast to the fact that God loves all of God’s children equally, regardless of race, creed, or color. The Love of Christ not only seeks salvation, but liberation. The Love of Christ speaks truth no matter who opposes it. The Love of Christ is love in action, not articulation. Living the Love of Christ sometimes means telling the truth in love. And the truth of the matter is, because of institutional racism that is inherent in the fabric of this country, too many Black, Brown and poor people’s lives are not valued.
At First Baptist Church of University Park, we will continue to live the Love of Christ in a context that opposes systems, institutions and people that have caused some to feel un-loveable. We will continue to worship the God who loves all of God’s children. It is my sincere prayer that the same energy, that people have put into attacking the First Baptist Church of University Park and its Pastor because of sign, can be used instead to attack the cycle of institutional racism in this country by fighting for the restoration of sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, fighting for common sense gun laws, fighting for safe neighborhoods for children. Let us seek to live the Love of Christ, TOGETHER!