Redemption and Forgiveness: Reflections on MLK Day

mlk.jpgMartin Luther King Day is a holy day of sorts for those who are believers and fighters for social justice.  For me, for whatever reason, it is also a time for personal reflection.  My life in most respects has drastically changed in the last six years, in ways I never would have anticipated.

The path that I am on is not the path that I had chosen.  That is fine, I would not change anything for the world.

On Friday, I sat in a courtroom watching the sentencing of Christopher Smith as I trained a new intern.  I wrote on this case a month ago, he is the red-headed individual who shot and killed another young man, Gidd Robinson.  It was a tragic killing.

Mr. Smith had contended that he killed Mr. Robinson in self-defense, but there were just some huge judgment errors on his part that led to the shooting and the demise of Mr. Robinson.

I have sat through hundreds of trials at this point, and to this day, I remain completely torn on this case.  On Friday, that ambivalence showed.  I listened to the fiancé of Mr. Robinson who has the job of raising several kids without their father, I listened to the mother of Mr. Robinson who is forced to carry on without her son, and my heart goes out to them.

But then I listened to the sister of Mr. Smith, who described what the children of Mr. Smith are going through, and it was horrible.

For the Smith family, Mr. Smith was acting to protect himself and his son.  For the Robinson family, Mr. Smith is the monster who took their loved one.

On Sunday, I went to the Quaker’s Church where Ellen Eggers, who is a Public Defender with the State Public Defender’s Office, and who only works on death penalty cases, came to speak out against the death penalty.

She told the story of “Sammy” who was convicted of murdering two young college students who were on a date.  He was in a group of guys who felt they needed to steal a car, and ended up taking a car with two kids in it.  They ended up killing both of the kids in execution style.

Ms. Eggers described that about six years into representing this guy, he mentioned he got a card from the victim’s family.

It was a card from the boy’s parents, it was a Christmas Card and it said, “We think about you, we love you, we pray for you, we forgive you.”

Eventually, she met with the family in Los Angeles, a well-to-do family.  They still had his room set up as a shrine.

Ellen Eggers said that she wanted to understand how the family could come to forgive the man who killed their oldest son.  The mother told her, “I didn’t do it for him, I did it for me.”

She said their son was killed, they went to victim’s support groups and tried to feel better, but it never made them feel better.  People were just angry and “there was so much rage and venom in those groups” and “they couldn’t let go of it” and “they were just proposing tougher legislation and more death penalty.”

The lady told Ms. Eggers, “We would leave those meetings just shaking and not calm at all.”  She said, “We wanted to find another way and that is what I chose to do.”

The father said that he dealt with his grief by becoming a volunteer at a youth detention center for seven years, to help troubled youths.  He said, “Ellen, I didn’t want any other family to have to go through what we went through.”

For me, listening to this powerful story of forgiveness was a moment of clarity.  For all that I have seen in courtrooms, I was not prepared for the weight of ambivalence as I sympathized with the plight of both sides.  It was a tragedy that will destroy the lives of two families.

Mr. Smith will spend 45 years minimum in prison.  His boys will grow up without a father.  One of them, apparently, has some infirmity and does not understand why his father is gone.

Mr. Robinson’s girls will grow up without their father, his fiancé without her partner, his mother without her son.

As I listened to the story that Ellen Eggers told, it was a reminder of how powerful forgiveness and redemption are.

That brings me back to Martin Luther King’s legacy, the lessons that we learns about the most powerful weapons that Dr. King used: love, forgiveness and redemption.

A lot of secular people want to remove Dr. King’s Christianity from his legacy, and that is a mistake because that is the engine that drove his conviction.

David Halberstam’s book, “The Children,” chronicles now-Congressman John Lewis, among other civil rights leaders.

One of the most powerful moments came when one of Lewis’ chief tormentors in Selma came for a visit to Lewis’ congressional office to apologize for his actions from 20 years prior. His heart had been turned, not through violence, not through hate, but through the love and convictions of the civil rights movement.

In my own life, last year I attended my first MLK event in a long time.  It was the first event I had attended since the disbanding of the Human Relations Commission in 2006.

While the event was both well-done and well-attended, something clearly was missing from perspective.  In previous years and events, there was a large contingency from the minority community, and that was largely gone last year.

One of the things that I observed is that we continue to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement as though it were 1981.  There are people who believe that the struggle is over, that we elected a black President and we live in a post-racial society.

I heard a great line yesterday in response to that.  We will not be in a post-racial society until we stop talking about being in a post-racial society.  No one talks about being in a post-sabre-tooth tiger world.

One of the things I wanted to see was a more contemporary message and I believe that will be delivered by Lecia Brooks, the Director of Outreach at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, as the Keynote Speaker.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society.

Ms. Brooks leads the Center’s outreach efforts on key initiatives and social justice issues. As outreach director, she frequently gives presentations around the country to promote tolerance and diversity. She also serves as director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery. Ms. Brooks will be sharing her expertise about current racial issues across the country.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg.  I really wanted to start having a community discussion on race.  I think people are afraid to have this discussion.  So I advocated for and helped to create a panel of prominent community members, who will be sharing their thoughts about race and racial issues in Davis.

In addition to Lecia Brooks who will be able to give us a national perspective, she will be joined by: Tilahun Yilma, a distinguished scholar at UC Davis in the field of Virology, who has been in our community since 1968; Desmond Jolly, a longtime and distinguished professor in Agriculture and a prominent community member who has been in our community over 40 years; Superintendent Winfred Roberson, who has been DJUSD Superintendent for about a year and a half and came to our community as a Davis High School principal; and  Osahon Ekhator, a former ASUCD Senator who served as Vice Chair of Ethnic and Cultural Affairs and has been in Davis since 2008.

I can now announce that Mayor Pro Tem Rochelle Swanson will chair this panel.

The event will be on Monday, January 16, from 11:30am to 1:00pm at the Varsity Theatre.  The Panel Discussion will begin about 12:30 pm.

I really encourage people to attend this very important community event.

There are so many issues that still remain in this community, from the achievement gap in our schools to concerns about differential treatment and discrimination, and hopefully this panel can touch on those issues plus give us a sense for how things have improved and what things we still need to work on.

It is my hope that with this exciting and different program we will reengage many in our community who have dropped out of the process in the last five years.  Obviously, not everything is going to change overnight. I can only hope this is the first step among many to have an honest and frank, but civil, discussion on issues that have in the past so divided us all.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. E Roberts Musser

    As far as forgiveness, I think that is a very personal journey one has to take on their own. Everyone sees things differently. What gives one person peace may not give another person any peace whatever. We all have to find what works for each of us as individuals. Some never find what works. In essence, as trite as it sounds, when life deals you lemons, make lemonade, however you choose to make it…

    In so far as race issues go, this country has come a long way since my childhood. I can remember “whites only” signs posted at grocery stores. Or my childhood first grade friend humiliated and chastised for kissing me on the playground – just because he was African-American and I was white. However, when I came to “liberal” California in 1987 thinking I had left that nonsense behind, I was shocked when I walked into a McDonald’s restaurant at Arden Fair Mall, and heard an ignorant redneck telling his little 5 year old how awful African-Americans were (I’m cleaning up what he actually said) – as an African-American family with young children walked by.

    My hope is that with more and more intermarriage, that the race issue will eventually become a thing of the past. Ultimately, it boils down to another trite expression: treat others as you would want to be treated…

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