On Jan. 10, Tyre Nichols — a 29-year old Black man — died three days after being detained and beaten by Memphis police.
Seventeen days later, video footage of the incident was released, prompting significant backlash. That same day, as part of the Civil Rights Bus Tour, I stood with 29 Taylor students and faculty in the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Two untimely deaths impacting the African-American community, in the same city, 55 years apart.
Walking into the Lorraine Motel, where MLK Jr. spent the final evening of his life, I was confronted with the question: how often do we make the mistake of believing history resides solely in the past?
I would argue: too often.
In doing so, we fail to see history repeating itself in the present.
Racial inequity, seen through strict segregation and Jim Crow laws in MLK Jr.'s lifetime, is felt by African-American communities today — who continue to face discrimination and racial biases in the workplace, housing sector, health care and from law enforcement (to name a few).
Calls for action, expressed through sit-ins, demonstrations and boycotts in the 1960s, are present today through campaigns, protests, dialogues and calls for policy change.
This is not to discount the progress that has been achieved, at great cost, by men and women throughout the years. But this is to say that the hard work of reconciliation is far from being finished.
And I wonder how much of the work left undone stems from minds that are blind to history’s impact on the present.
When considering the relationship between past and present, Assistant Professor of History Benjamin Wetzel emphasizes two considerations: continuity and change.
“If we don't wrestle with continuity — if we don't think about how events take a long time to change and there's long term impacts and legacies, both good and bad, in the past that reverberate today — then I think we are blind to the fact that we don't come into the world with zero history, but we're always impacted by the past,” Wetzel said. “And then also thinking about change over time. And that's the other side of the coin too: that the 2020s are not just like the 1960s, let alone the 1860s. And so, what's changed and what stayed the same? Those are very fundamental historical questions.”
Wetzel noted that strategies to discern patterns of continuity and change in history include going beyond surface-level explanations, engaging the sources and opportunities available to us and listening to as many different voices as possible.
The Rev. Greg Dyson, the vice president for intercultural leadership and church relations, highlights the Civil Rights Bus Trip as one way for members of Taylor’s community to engage with history.
“When we participate in the Civil Rights Experience, we can focus our attention for a concentrated period on what happened in the past,” Dyson said. “When we do this, we insert ourselves into history and raise important questions. Why did something happen? What was the impact on the people alive and present during those historical moments? How will we (I) live differently? As we learn what really happened, we can move forward with a new and different goal from our past.”
Hank Voss, assistant professor of biblical studies and co-leader of Taylor’s most recent Civil Rights Bus Trip alongside Dyson, echoes these thoughts.
Voss believes history is not only a necessity in our current cultural context, but a key component of biblical stewardship.
“Good citizenship, which includes loving our neighbors, is nearly impossible if we do not understand the history that has created our neighborhood, city or nation,” Voss said. “Whether we are talking about citizenship in the Kingdom of God or citizenship in an earthly nation, good stewardship requires us to carefully consider the stories of those who have gone before (Heb. 13:7).”
Do we know our history — the stories of those who have gone before? And do we have eyes to see how it is shaping our present?
The extent to which we engage our history will determine how effectively we move forward.