We gather tonight, first and foremost, to remember and grieve nine American citizens who were slain because they were black. They will now live only in our memories. Their families and friends will never forget. Hopefully, we will not forget. But they will never again enjoy life and give service to others, as their friends said each one did so well.
I heard a Jewish rabbi say that the same culture that killed these nine citizens also murdered four little black girls in Birmingham in 1963 — 52 years ago. She's right, of course — it is the same hate, the same fear, the same inability of this terrorist to extricate himself from that cancerous culture and grow into a caring and loving human being.
The caring and loving human beings who spoke first and loudest were black Americans — the families of those whose lives were taken — and we must marvel at how they spoke to this killer by calling down God's forgiveness on him that he may change his thinking and his life.
It was an amazing act on the part of people in such grief for their nine family members.
But, my fellow Chattanoogans, this racism and this terrorism must stop.
The families of the fallen have forgiven. But friends — of all colors, of all ages — while it is magnanimous for them to forgive — these criminal, racist, terrorists actions must cease. And I propose that it is up to those of us who carry the most burden — Southern white citizens — to stop them.
In case you have not noticed, I am a 75-year-old, white, Southern-speaking male. I was born and raised in Chattanooga at a time when we were — and still are — refighting the Civil War. During my first 20 years, I held a strong allegiance to the Confederate flag, to Robert E. Lee and to Stonewall Jackson. I held an equally strong aversion to those "damn Yankees." I was taught by everything I heard and read and witnessed — it was in the air around me; it was in the water I drank. I absorbed a culture which had encouraged Southern white men of another era to fight a catastrophic war to maintain the slavery of black folks. I did not want slavery back, but my racism and my white privilege allowed me to ignore and disrespect black citizens in my childhood and teenage years of the 1940s and '50s.
Some old whites who look like me would have us believe that the Civil War was not fought over slavery and that the culture flamed by the KKK and the Confederate flag has nothing to do with white fear and hatred of black people, rather "it's just reverence for a history that we whites cherish and respect." They're right about some whites cherishing and respecting the past. Some — too many — are still living there. They ignore, disrespect and abuse black citizens today. And some murder. And we witness, from the recent horrendous act, that the murderers are not all old.
For the vast majority of Americans, the Confederate flag and the old South over which it waved represent an unacceptable state of affairs, a white racial dominance that stands in strong contrast to our American ideals.
Just yesterday, some of the minority of Americans who are uncomfortable with the present movement to completely and finally rid the South of racism complained to us: "You are denying us the flag!" And then they taunted us: "Should we just forget the Civil War and deny history?" My answer is: No! Never! That war should be remembered — as our nation's greatest sorrow and our greatest shame.
The Confederate flag should rest in a museum dedicated to the study of the full brutality of slavery and the disastrous war amongst Americans that should never have been fought. Slavery should have been wiped off the map with one stroke of the legislative pen, and it could have been done. But racist white men would not allow it. We must never forget that their refusal to accept black human beings as human beings cost hundreds of thousands of Americans to perish in American fields. I see no indication there for honor and glory. That was the defense of the slavery of one group of human beings over another. And for those who never dreamed of holding slaves or murdering black people, we should study how they were enticed to defend those who did.
When Muslim terrorists murder innocent people, the vast majority of Americans — liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians, Tea Party — all cry out: "Why don't the moderate, peace loving Muslims handle their own?"
But when white American terrorists murder black Americans, some in those same political groups shout: "That wasn't racism! That was merely a deranged mind!" Certainly it's a deranged mind! Deranged first with a culture that injects white people with mind-corroding views against black citizens!
Right-thinking, white Americans must step up to challenge a system that keeps black people poor, that closes the door to a good education and to jobs, and that sends disproportionate numbers of black men to prison. And "nice," even well-intentioned, white people who do nothing to help fix this problem help to sustain this racist culture.
Each time racism is expressed in our newspapers — in a letter-to-the-editor or an editorial — white people must answer. Not one or two, but 10 or 20. Indeed, we must call on hundreds who care. We must desire to eradicate white terrorism against black citizens as much as we want to eradicate the terrorism of Al-Qaeda and ISIS jihadists.
Martin Luther King Jr. called on the white people of this nation to live up to the highest standards of two of the greatest documents that the world has ever seen — the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution — documents that white men themselves had written!
Dr. King showed great love, great compassion — and we must also. Right now, white citizens must be willing to demonstrate that we stand united with our black brothers and sisters in Charleston, and in Chattanooga, and throughout our nation.
Possibly, however, our simplest, but most effective task, may also be our most difficult endeavor — to speak with love and compassion but with total honesty to friends, family, work associates and others who continue to support by their actions — or by their inactions — a despicable, racist culture that brought about the vicious deaths of these nine noble human beings who died on June 17, 2015.
White friends, do not say: "It's too tough. It's not my responsibility. Maybe next year I'll speak up."
Dr. King called on us 50 years ago, when he answered his own question:
"How long? Too long!"