It’s almost too big a task to write about Martin Luther King Jr. Especially as a privileged white woman. And I don’t get points for recognizing that. Because I’ve gotten enough points in my upper-middle-class white life already.
But I still lament the way the world is.
As Thomas Merton wrote to Coretta Scott King the morning after King’s assassination 50 years ago, “Some events are too big and too terrible to talk about. … In imitation of his Master he has laid down his life for his friends and enemies.”
And so as a nation this week we remembered King’s sacrifice on that April 4, 1968, day on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. At the time, Utah was 97 percent white, but many still felt the “deep shock and sorrow,” as Hugh B. Brown mourned.
I’ve written about race before. The words of Frederick Douglass speak to me. Douglass, who grew up as a slave in Maryland, taught himself to read and escaped to New York, once said about this nation’s Fourth of July celebrations:
To [the American slave], your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
The work of Bryan Stevenson depresses me only a little more than it inspires. Stevenson is executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Ala. His book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” chronicles the successes, and failures, he has encountered as an advocate for men and women, mostly black or Latino, too poor to afford their own legal counsel.
Stevenson’s work has shown me that in our criminal justice system, defendants aren’t innocent until proven guilty; they are guilty unless they are lucky enough to have adequate counsel.
But as the nation celebrated King’s life, on the day that marked 50 years from his assassination, I am again inspired.
Teens marched this week from northern Mississippi to Memphis — 50 miles — to commemorate King and remind the world that nonviolent protest — marching — started with his example. Five of the teens are black; one is white.
Youth in Salt Lake City are also part of the growing movement to recognize and claim the contribution of black people. Students at Andrew Jackson Elementary were brave enough and strong enough to stand up and demand that their school be named after someone who did not succeed on the backs of slaves. They chose to name the school after Mary W. Jackson, the first black, female NASA engineer.
Sixth-grader Olivia Egbert said of the new name, “It really suits the school better for our diversity. The old name didn’t suit us at all.”
These youth are improving race relations in our nation. We should be helping them.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has begun an effort to educate Utahns about the importance of choosing good prosecutors. In fact, prosecutors are the key to ending mass incarceration of our minority brothers and sisters.
There is no question that racial disparity exists within the criminal justice system. Black and Latino people are overrepresented in prisons across America.
Prosecutors play a part in that. Prosecutors decide which charges to file, which plea deals to offer and what sentences to recommend. Courts give prosecutors deference on these decisions, oftentimes too much deference.
It is the prosecutor’s obligation to make sure she gets it right.
Prosecutors can take implicit bias training to better understand how their decisions are affected by race even when they don’t realize it. Prosecutors can pause and imagine new alternatives when routine charging and/or sentencing scenarios for minority defendants arise.
And prosecutors can help encourage and recruit minority prosecutors to stand beside them and even lead the way.
Improving race relations in this country often feels like a slog. There is so much divisiveness, so little progress.
But I think it’s getting better. And I take hope in the realization that the youth of the nation will make sure of it.
Michelle Quist is an editorial writer for The Salt Lake Tribune who always wanted to be a prosecutor but who ended up writing about them instead.