The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a time of special significance for me, perhaps because I have worked with and studied communities devastated by unbridled ethnic hatred. Having witnessed up close the ruin that neighbor can inflict upon neighbor, I thank God that the people of Birmingham were able to hear the voice of reason over the ranting of racists in the dark days of the 1960s. But it is not enough to be thankful; we must be vigilant, because the seeds of prejudice lie within each of us.
The recent Ku Klux Klan rally in Birmingham brought back to me stark memories of Sarajevo, a sad land I have visited several times in the past five years in aid of overburdened urban planners there. The same press credential that got me into Sarajevo during the siege in 1994--a relic of my days as publisher of a community newspaper on the Southside--provided me close access to the rally here. What I saw on faces either side of the police lines gave me cause for reflection.
When I arrived in Sarajevo it took only minutes to recognize the seriousness of what I was witnessing. The destruction evident in the neighborhood around the airport and within other quarters I visited throughout the city told a story of savagery and madness that was stunning in its scale. But it was the expressions of the survivors' fear and pain that stays with me.
When a demonstrator started screaming and cursing at the KKK marchers, I was momentarily elated at the opportunity to capture such emotion on camera. But as I panned the crowd, the realization set in that the angry and enraged faces in my lens were testament to the success of the Klan's mission that day--to manipulate us in such a way as to cause hatred and fear.
Whether in Bosnia or in Birmingham separatists seek to insult and demonize their targets. They want to dominate, and in order dominate they must separate. They employ a cycle of aggression that begets anger that begets unforgiveness, in order to defeat rationality and divide peoples who would be happier and more prosperous as friends.
A woman KKK speaker complained about the races living together. My sadness turned to joy, since that gave me the opportunity to yell, "We like living together!" She pointed me out as "a traitor to my race." But I was proud to be recognized as someone loyal to the human race, because we are all better off as members of one family.
The number of extremists that turned out in Birmingham was small but the issues are the same here as they are in Bosnia, or between the Hutu and Tutsi. Either we respect and accept our diversity or we perish as a nation. There is no middle ground.
The Klan rally and the anger it spawned caused me to question how far we have come, and how far we have to go before the races can live in true harmony in America. For all the tough progress we have made, the ghosts of old battles won and lost should inform us with the same power as they haunt us-especially here where we dwell on hallowed ground.
My ghost is almost forty years old--Mother's Day, 1959--etched in my mind as though I saw it yesterday. The family, driving home from my grandmother's house, stopped at a red light by a downtown bus station. Suddenly, men with clubs were pulling people from a bus and beating them. The violence spread like a rainstorm toward us, until a photographer was there being beaten on the hood of our family car.
All of us desire peace and prosperity for our families. But community is an organic thing that must be nurtured. When it becomes sick, it becomes dangerous. The results can be deadly, as in Sarajevo. As in Birmingham, one bloody Sunday nearly forty years ago.
I attended a meeting of neighborhood leaders after the Klan rally. Through strategies developed by the Global Network for Rebuilding, we are planning new ways to unite and improve communities. The foundation of our community plan is unity and the oneness of humanity.
Our plans align with individual goals and objectives so that when the community is healthy all its members benefit. Our goal is social and economic development that will produce peace and prosperity, issues all of us care about.
Our community is reaching out to others, in Sarajevo, in Afghanistan, even to a rain forest in Peru, to form a Global Network. The technology of the Internet and the needs of organizations that empower communities from the bottom up will be necessary to produce a global economy that does not destroy the community and the individual.
We are excited about what is happening in Birmingham and hope that we will fulfill one of Martin Luther King's dreams. In his book about the struggle in Birmingham, Why We Can't Wait, Dr. King wrote, "I believe that one day Birmingham will become a model city in race relations. Out of the negative extremes of its past will blossom a positive utopia for the future. I believe this will happen because Birmingham has discovered its conscience."
(James Craig is director of the Global Network for Rebuilding and can be reached at email@example.com or 1-205-933-2159. He wrote this for The News.)