For the four men sitting at the end of a bar in downtown Stuart, Florida — on the day commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — Monkey Monday was the term they used to express their contempt for the holiday. And, I surmise, for black people in general.
I overheard only snippets of their conversation. But the phrase Monkey Monday — repeated often, with great emphasis — was unmistakable.
Six days later, at the conclusion of an unforgettable week in U.S. history, I find myself trapped in a moment in time.
I’m sitting at a bar in downtown Stuart, 10 feet away from these four men, debating whether I should confront their racial insensitivities and flawed assumptions.
After a lengthy, contentious internal debate, I decide to say nothing.
The words of Edmund Burke have haunted me since.
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," Burke said.
I regret my silence.
Since the founding of our nation, the path to racial equality for people of color was blocked by a host of judicial mandates and legal prohibitions. The infamous Dred Scott decision, handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, declared that all blacks — slave as well as free — were not and never could become citizens of the United States. Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation.
The latter decision provided legal justification for hundreds of Jim Crow laws throughout the South that confined blacks to the back of buses and balconies in theaters, and prevented them from entering "Whites Only" establishments.
Over time, these unjust laws were overturned or repealed. But racial inequality persisted, nonetheless. Why? Because many decent people who saw the inequities and were offended did . . . nothing.
Living in Mississippi for almost 10 years — as I did before moving to the Treasure Coast — gave me a whole new appreciation for the struggle of black Americans to achieve racial equality.
I learned firsthand the stories of Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, James Meredith and others who, at great personal cost, took courageous steps to advance the rights of minorities. I sat in a courtroom in Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1998 and watched as a jury convicted former Ku Klux Klansman Sam Bowers for his role in Dahmer’s murder — 32 years after the crime was committed.
I consider myself highly informed on issues of race. But, as I learned that Monday, there’s a big difference between being informed and acting courageously.
Gaining information is easy. Acting with courage is hard.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was many things: visionary, educated, articulate, charismatic, courageous. Yet 40 years after his death, there still are some who openly disdain King and his enormous contribution to the advancement of civil rights. They’d rather hurl racial slurs than honor an American hero.
Then there are others who know the truth but are unwilling to take a stand.
When you get right down to it, the two really aren’t that different.
(Rich Campbell writes for the Scripps Treasure Coast newspapers. E-mail rich.campbell(at)Scripps.com)