Parson to Person: “Sign of the Times” June 26, 2020

In the fall of 2017, Unitarian Church North installed a “Black Lives Matter” sign in front of the church. So did many other UU congregations (including my home church in Racine). It was a somewhat radical idea at the time. Although recent protests against systemic racism in policing have brought the Black Lives Matter issue to a larger audience, the BLM movement was not understood or accepted when it began. In fact, it was often misconstrued and misinterpreted.

One of the most important questions raised, of course, was: By putting up a sign that says Black Lives Matter, aren’t you saying that other lives don’t matter? Shouldn’t you be putting up a sign that says “All Lives Matter?”

But here’s where historical context made a difference. The Black Lives Matter movement was begun in response to the fact that unarmed black people had been getting killed by police in disproportionate numbers. The movement was never meant to suggest that black lives are more important than white lives, but that they are as important. (Just as “Save the Whales” was never meant to suggest that we forget all the other animals. It was meant to say that whales are in particular danger of extinction.)

So, although it might seem that “All Lives Matter” would be a more inclusive statement, a sign with “all lives” instead of “black lives” would seem to dismiss the particular issue of black people being singled out for harsher treatment than whites generally are. (Not that many unarmed white men die in police custody, in proportion to their percentage of the general population. Not to mention the much higher incarceration rate for blacks who are arrested for the same crimes as whites but generally get much harsher sentences.)

This is why many UU congregations have hung up “Black Lives Matter” banners and signs. We know, of course, that simply hanging a banner isn’t enough by itself. But it does say what we believe–not just to others but to ourselves.

A story from the American Civil War tells about an old woman who saw the armies of the North and South fighting outside her home, so she came running out with a broom over her head, waving it around and shouting. And one of the soldiers near her saw this (and chuckled a bit, I suppose) saying, “Grandma! You can’t fight a war with a broom!” And the woman answered, “Maybe not. But I can show what side I’m on!”

Black Lives Matter. They matter as much as white lives do. That’s what side we’re on.

peace and unrest,