In our mo­ment of divi­sion, who will lead?

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— On April 4, 1968 — the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by a sniper — Robert Kennedy gave (ar­guably) one of the great­est Amer­i­can speeches not given by a pres­i­dent. Speak­ing in a tough sec­tion of In­di­anapo­lis, Kennedy informed the shocked crowd that King was dead, quoted Aeschy­lus on the wis­dom that comes “drop by drop” from pain, and set out the ideal of a pol­i­tics that could “make gen­tle the life of this world.” Kennedy urged Amer­i­cans “to make an ef­fort to un­der­stand” — of­fer­ing em­pa­thy as the best hope in “rather dif­fi­cult times.”

In­di­anapo­lis was calm that night, but there were soon ri­ots in 110 other Amer­i­can cities. So, on April 5, 1968, Kennedy spoke in Cleve­land, giv­ing a brief speech, un­de­servedly ne­glected. “No wrongs have ever been righted by ri­ots and civil dis­or­ders,” he said. “A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an un­con­trolled, un­con­trol­lable mob is only the voice of mad­ness, not the voice of the peo­ple.”

This bal­ance be­tween em­pa­thy and a con­cern for or­der is what many lead­ers strive for today. Our coun­try is less riven than in 1968, but our lead­ers are not as skilled, at least when it comes to rhetoric. We are not ask­ing for Aeschy­lus, and would prob­a­bly mock his ap­pear­ance in a speech today, but it would be nice if politi­cians did not im­me­di­ately fall into par­ti­san ruts, or post Face­book ba­nal­i­ties.

What Amer­i­can leader is equal to ex­plain­ing this mo­ment and mov­ing us for­ward? The ques­tion just echoes.

Pres­i­dent Obama, as he demon­strated in a fine speech on the 50th an­niver­sary of Selma, can some­times find the words. But he has be­come sym­bolic of the lim­its of sym­bol­ism. Many thought his elec­tion was a fun­da­men­tal turn­ing point on is­sues of race. But just 15 per­cent of Amer­i­cans now be­lieve his pres­i­dency has brought blacks and whites to­gether. It is a fail­ure not en­tirely his fault, but it con­trib­utes to an at­mos­phere of cyn­i­cism.

Hil­lary Clin­ton ar­gues that we are “stronger to­gether,” but she re­mains one of the most di­vi­sive and dis­trusted politi­cians in America. Speaker Paul Ryan spoke mov­ingly on the floor of the House in re­ac­tion to Dal­las, urg­ing Amer­i­cans to defy the pre­dic­tions of divi­sion — but he is at least par­tially dis­cred­ited by his en­dorse­ment of a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who thrives on discord.

WASH­ING­TON

Chuck Todd of NBC News won­ders if sup­port for Trump will be a “stain” or a “tat­too.” I would bet a tat­too, leav­ing only a hand­ful of Repub­li­cans un­marked by ex­clu­sion.

Trump is the en­tre­pre­neur of en­mity, em­ploy­ing eth­nic stereo­types on the first day of his cam­paign, and break­ing through imag­ined “ceil­ings” of GOP sup­port by en­cour­ag­ing fear of Mus­lims after the San Bernardino at­tack. Some in the con­ser­va­tive me­dia are ac­tively prac­tic­ing a white iden­tity pol­i­tics — wit­ness the Drudge Re­port’s head­line “Black Lives Kill.” The whole po­lit­i­cal en­ter­prise of turn­ing out the white vote — the only real hope of the Trump cam­paign — is morally prob­lem­atic and dan­ger­ous.

In fact, there are peo­ple on the left and right who ben­e­fit from en­cour­ag­ing just enough divi­sion, just enough fear, to mo­ti­vate their sup­port­ers, with­out tip­ping them over into vi­o­lence. They are play­ing with fire in a parched and with­ered land.

Even as an out­sider to the world of lib­eral ad­vo­cacy, I think it is pos­si­ble to see some trou­bling trends. Civil rights move­ment-era fig­ures thought they could im­prove so­ci­ety by chang­ing in­sti­tu­tions — pass­ing leg­is­la­tion or win­ning ju­di­cial bat­tles. And the as­pi­ra­tions of the move­ment were car­ried in the durable in­sti­tu­tion of the AfricanAmer­i­can church. But younger ac­tivists seem to have less faith in in­sti­tu­tional re­form be­cause they have less faith in in­sti­tu­tions — in­clud­ing re­li­gious ones. But with­out a be­lief in re­form, how is jus­ti­fied anger chan­neled into con­struc­tive pur­poses? “Maybe it just sags/like a heavy load,” of­fered Langston Hughes. ”Or does it ex­plode?”

Even if we can­not, as in­di­vid­u­als, hope to change sys­temic racism, most of us have the abil­ity to defy our times and reach out across lines of race and re­li­gion. And re­li­gious peo­ple have a par­tic­u­lar call­ing in this area. A pas­tor friend who runs a re­treat cen­ter in ru­ral Virginia found an aban­doned slave cemetery on the prop­erty. His re­li­gious com­mu­nity reached out to African-Amer­i­can lead­ers and to­gether they reded­i­cated the cemetery, ask­ing for for­give­ness and pray­ing for heal­ing. None who par­tic­i­pated came away un­changed.

While wait­ing for lead­ers, per­haps the most prac­ti­cal and hope­ful path is to be­come them.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post.com.

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