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Confronting the prejudice that lingers

ON the day before the federal holiday honoring the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Sunday worship service at the church where I am a member included a prayer for racial peace and harmony in the United States. As I listened to this eloquent evocation of Dr. King's mission, I silently waited for his name to be specifically mentioned. Inexplicably, it was not.

On the way out of church, I gently chided our pastor for this curious omission. He agreed that he would have preferred to refer to Dr. King directly, but was concerned that doing so might offend some of his parishioners.

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Perhaps he was right, and sadly so. If offense is to be given or taken, however, shouldn't prejudice be offended, rather than right? Still, casting stones ultimately accomplishes little and may be hypocritical.

Racial bigotry is insidious, often so subtle that we are unaware of our own unspoken prejudice. When we are not directly confronted by its unjust, sometimes brutal results in our daily lives, complacency allows us to take refuge in the all too comforting lie that racial harmony has virtually been achieved.

I am personally only too aware of this phenomenon in my own life.

At an intellectual level, I abhor prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and intolerance of any kind for any reason. If studying history has taught me nothing else, it has shown me that racial prejudice is, without exception, irrational and destructive.

And yet, I too often find myself woefully unable to carry that belief out of the comfortable ivory-tower seclusion of my study into the hard reality of daily life.

I am deeply disturbed by my own lingering prejudice, and I know that I need all the help I can get to confront and deal with it. For this reason, I look to the religious leaders whom I respect for guidance and counsel in my daily struggle to internalize the theoretical concepts of racial harmony and peace.

That kind of leadership is what Dr. King provided in his tragically short life, and so much more.

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Behind the magnificent words, ``I have a dream,'' was his understanding that prejudice and bigotry linger in the irrational, dark recesses of the human mind and cannot be exorcised immediately or easily.

Racial intolerance and its effects must, rather, be confronted every day in a thousand small ways before the final victory of justice and equality is, as it must be, ultimately won.

This cannot, however, excuse complacency, inaction, and silence. Sins of omission are just as harmful as sins of commission.

The omission of Dr. King's name from that Sunday prayer shows that we all have a long way to travel to achieve the racial harmony and peace for which my congregation prayed and Dr. King lived.

It also shows that our words, as well as our silence, and our actions often don't quite match our noble, abstract intentions.

Almost two decades after his brutal assassination, Dr. King's legacy still challenges us to keep faith with our God and our own better nature. As hard as that may be to do, not one of us has a legitimate excuse to do less.

Perhaps the example of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace gives us some hope that hearts and minds can be changed.

Joe Patrick Bean is assistant professor of history at Concordia Lutheran College in Austin, Texas.

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