Yesterday, voters in Kansas City, Missouri voted to re-name Martin Luther King Boulevard back to its former name, The Paseo. The new name was in effect for just 9 months before the vote to restore the name happened.
The whole thing’s been a bit of a mess. The Paseo is a historic street with significant historical value, so a change to its name is meaningful to a variety of stakeholders. It also cuts through the majority-black parts of the city. Kansas City is also one of the only major cities not to honor King in some way. The irregularities in the process–including the City Commission’s refusal to enforce a (seldom enforced) rule requiring approval of 75% of residents for a name change–perhaps covered over the amount of opposition. Throughout the re-naming (and now repealing the name) process, there was a call to honor King in some other way, but the authenticity of that push is hard to believe given that the city had done nothing to honor him before The Paseo’s name was threatened. Those active in the Save The Paseo effort resented being accused of racism because they wanted to restore the thoroughfare’s previous name.
I felt ambivalent about it, until Monday.
On Monday, members of Save The Paseo entered Paseo Baptist Church and disrupted a rally in support of maintaining King’s name on the street signs. They lined the aisles and stood in silence, refusing to sit down and thus interrupting people’s ability to see the speakers or performers. Children who had practiced dances and songs left, fearful because of the tension.
Save The Paseo leader Tim Smith said that the point was to force the black pastors and other Christians who had seen racism in the Save The Paseo to “say it to our faces.”
Smith’s point is that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was cowardly–willing to call Smith and others racists in public venues but not directly to them.
But it’s those who interrupted the rally in a black church that are cowards.
Above, every single white person who protested in a black church acted on white privilege created by a history of violence against black Christians. No black pastor needed to call them racist–they showed themselves to be.
Please understand–I think there are times when interrupting a church service with protest is valid. A fight over a street name isn’t one of them.
What’s never valid is white people entering a black church with hostility.
Save The Paseo includes black participants. I am not speaking to or about them. I can’t explain why they would do what they did.
But white people–I know a lot about them.
They’ve bombed churches. They’ve burnt them down. They shot them up. They’ve opened fire and massacred old women who had only offered them prayers. White people in black churches has often been a dangerous experience for African Americans.
When you are white, you come to a black church only when you are welcomed. You come only with humility and good intentions. You are not entitled to take a sanctuary for African Americans and turn it into your theatrical stage.
White protests in black churches “work” because they reference the damage that white people could do to people of color. They are the abusive father who doesn’t need to hit his children any more because just the sound of his raised voice reminds them of what they could face if they don’t comply with his demands.
They are inherently violent, whether they are silent or not. They cannot be otherwise in this country.