Like millions of Americans, I sat fascinated, watching the breaking television news about recent events that confirm that our nation is, in fact, moving toward real equality and justice for all our people. Stetson Kennedy’s empty chair stood as a silent reminder of his life’s work to secure those benefits for individuals and groups who had been denied the basic rights and protections of our Constitution. Emails started pouring in from Stetson’s friends and colleagues, assuring our family that his striving had not been in vain and remarking how gratified he would be to have lived to see this evolution in our nation’s social and political consciousness.
Stetson would have applauded the Supreme Court’s ruling that disparate treatment of any group of people is de facto, if unintentional, racism. The Court confirmed that legislation that provides health insurance to millions of previously uninsured Americans is constitutional. The Court prevented states from denying to any American the right of a legal life commitment to the person he or she loves.
The tragedy in Charleston quickened the consciences of Americans who had not previously understood that an emblem of valor for Confederate soldiers had been distorted into a racist terrorist symbol that promoted the denial of civil rights to African Americans in the 1960s and inspired violence against them to this very month. The American public recognized the fear and revulsion that this flag created for Americans whose families had been threatened, abused, and sometimes killed, for seeking to exercise their basic rights of citizenship.
Then our president reminded the nation that, by grace, we had been blind to the implications of various policies, but now we can see how to remedy them. Stetson often said he didn’t fault people for what they were raised to believe, but he worked as a journalist and activist to convince them to reconsider how we treat each other and the natural world of which we are stewards.
The most frequent question that people asked Stetson was how the son of a Southern family with a long pedigree through the Civil War and back to the American Revolution had dedicated his professional life to working for justice for African Americans. Stetson disliked that question and often mentioned the violence against his African-American caretakers as an influence. But many white Southerners whose caretakers had been abused did not develop the views or take the risks that he did.
Each time I heard that question and his reticent answer to it, I believed, as our president reminded us, that grace allows some among us to recognize misjudgments that others accept as the way our society should operate. Stetson would undoubtedly disagree with the theological explanation of grace. However, from the cradle roll at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville to adulthood in that congregation, he had grown up with the invocation “If you did it not unto the least of these my brothers, you did it not unto me.” Stetson took that admonition seriously.
The important question is not why Stetson Kennedy believed and acted as he did. What we should instead ask is, “What do we still fail to see to create the Beloved Community in our region, in our state, and in our country?” Now is the time for meaningful public conversation about needs of fellow citizens that we and our elected officials haven’t acknowledged or remedied.
Some are obvious:
• Contaminated drinking water from the failing septic tanks of African-American families in West Augustine and the industrial pollution of drinking water in Northwest Jacksonville
• Inadequate services for homeless people throughout Northeast Florida, including reduced funding for the Sulzbacher Center in Jacksonville
• Reluctance to include the acknowledgment of the rights of gays and lesbians in Jacksonville’s Civil Rights Ordinance
• Limited facilities throughout Northeast Florida for mental health and drug and alcohol addiction
• Denial of voting rights to felons who have served their sentences and re-entered society
• Disenfranchisement of elderly poor people by failing to provide assistance to help them to obtain the necessary voting identification
• Refusal of our governor and legislature to extend Medicaid for millions of poor Floridians
• Gerrymandering districts contrary to the intent of the Fair District Amendment, limiting the election of minorities outside minority-“packed” districts
• Maintaining a minimum wage that keeps low-income workers in poverty
• Diverting funding specified by the constitutional amendment for the protection of environmentally sensitive land to other unintended uses
• Refusal to pass legislation that assures the public the right to speak in public hearings
• Diverting millions of tax dollars to provide vouchers so that 80 percent of students receiving them may attend religious schools that re-segregate them into classrooms that teach sectarian views of science and history
• Failure to enact voting reform that reduces the unprecedented impact of private money on elections.
The list is long and resources are limited, but in this present spirit of public openness, we must affirm that policies promoting individual and corporate gain must be balanced by policies promoting the common good. Stetson believed that increasing income inequality was the greatest threat to democracy that our nation faces.
Stetson would be 100 years old next year, but his voice and vision are as timely as ever. As he demonstrated in his own life, the legacy of being a Southerner who lived with Jim Crow segregation is always to ask, “If we could be so wrong about that, what else do I not see?”
May we have the grace to keep asking.