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“Where Is the White Church?”

In 1961, there were Freedom Riders, the most famous being the former Congressman John Lewis. However, the Freedom Rider who changed the national narrative on the race protest was John Zwerg, a 21-year Beloit College student from Appleton, Wisconsin. Witnessing the discrimination his roommate had to endure on campus and in the town awoke his consciousness to racism, and he eventually studied non-violent resistance at Fisk College, a Historical Black College as an exchange student.

When the first of Freedom Riders were met with violence in Anniston, Alabama, on May 20, 1961, it did not capture the national attention. However, when Zwerg heard the news, he joined 12 other students from the Nashville area as reinforcements. His response changed history.

When their bus arrived in Birmingham, the KKK was waiting for them at the bus terminal. John Zwerg was the only white person on the bus, and he insisted that as the white man, he should be the first person to face the crowds. He knew he would take the brunt of their insane rage. He was beaten unconscious and pictures of him bloodied and in the hospital woke up the northern whites. Seeing a wholesome midwestern white boy beaten to within inches of his life showed the white northerners that racism was not a black problem, but it was a white problem.

History shows that as long as only protesters are the ones who will benefit from the change, the larger society will frame it as actions of a disenchanted few and ignore it. However, when their allies put their lives on the line with the protesters, it brings about real change.

In Korea, young people had protested corruption and dictatorships since 1949, but nothing changed until 1989 when a tank crushed a college student. Then the mothers joined the protest to protect the young people, and within months the military junta fell. The same happened in Central and South America in the 1980’s when mothers hit the streets, and police could not run over the older women as they were doing to young people. The easy narrative of young thugs causing trouble did not fit.

Last week here in LA, there was another police killing of a black man. Dijon Kizzie, a bicyclist who was killed by County Sheriffs for violating “unspecified bicycle codes.” Following the protests, I was distressed to see that protesters were all black. The killing of a black bicyclist is a LA issue, not a black issue, but there were no white protesters. As long as only the black community protests, nothing will change. One hopeful sign was older black clergy, deacons, and elders stood as a buffer between police and young protesters to shield them from police violence.

But where was the white church? As long as the Black Lives Matter protests are portrayed as a black issue, we will continue to live with racism and the police killing of black men and women. It requires white churches to have the courage of John Zwerg and stand up against their neighbors and friends and speak up against structural racism in the U.S.

If white churches believe that the words of Jesus are applicable for today, then they must stand between police and young protesters. If white churches believe that the warnings of prophets are for today, then they better be leading the fight for dismantling structural racism.

Wake up, white church. You will either be remembered as hypocrites for your silence or as faithful for your fight for justice. You can’t be faithful and silent. John Zwerg was not.

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