Today we celebrate the birth and life of an incredible man, a man who changed the course of our nation. A man who brought a message of freedom to a group of people who grew up in a world that told them they were less than, they were nobody because of the color of their skin.
This weekend, I heard the story of two women visiting a black history museum. The museum had an exhibit dedicated to the thousands of men, women and children who were casualties of a lynching. At the end of the exhibit, a map documented the location and the names of victims of every documented lynching in the United States.
It was interesting to hear the different reactions of the black and the white students. Black students searched the names, hoping they would not find evidence of a family member on the gruesome map. The white students looked at their states, hoping to find it empty of any history of this atrocity. Like most of us, the white students were hoping to distance themselves from these murders.
Far too often we do anything we can to divorce ourselves from the horrors of the past. “It’s not my fault.” We say. “I didn’t kidnap and murder your ancestors. I never bought or sold a human being.” We try to distance ourselves from our ugly, ugly past.
But we miss something. We cannot be separated from our past. We are our fathers’ and mothers’ children. We are a part of a larger community that reaches out through time and space. In ways I can’t begin to understand, I am connected to my mothers and fathers from France, Germany and Ireland. I am who I am in part because of who they were, what they believed and what they did. We are connected, and as much as I may like to at times, I cannot break that connection.This is something I need to be aware of when I respond to the gruesome stories of our past.
I am not going to get bogged down in details. I don’t know if anyone in my family was ever involved in a lynching. I don’t know if anyone in my family ever owned a slave or discriminated against someone because of his or her race. But I know, because of the unbreakable connection to my ancestors, that I bear some amount of responsibility for the atrocities of this nation’s past. Because of this connection, I must apologize for the terrible acts of my ancestors.
I am sorry. I am sorry that my ancestors bought and sold human beings as if they were livestock. I am sorry that my ancestors attacked, beat and murdered others because they looked different. I am sorry that my ancestors refused to let people vote, visit a restaurant, use a clean bathroom or go to school because of the color of their skin.
I can’t change the past, but I can change the future. Apologizing for the past will not change it, but taking responsibility for my ancestor’s past is a necessary step in continuing the healing begun by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.