By the time Charles and Nadine Lopez arrived at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge on Monday morning, the racist graffiti they had come to see – and, if necessary, remove – had already been scrubbed from view.
That was unfortunate, in one sense, because the anonymous scribblings discovered Sunday provided ironic if unintended validation of the principles of non-violence that defined his life and validated his death.
Just a few feet from a bench that had been scrawled with “Death to race mixers” was one of several plaques containing King quotes that use moral authority to overpower the messages of hate that were applied by faceless vandals under the cover of darkness:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (1963)
“Every race has people who do this kind of thing,” sighed Charles Lopez as he and his wife searched in vain for the graffiti they had seen on the TV news. “We were going to clean it ourselves, and I commend the city for removing it quickly.”
“It was a hate crime,” Nadine Lopez insisted.
Certainly that argument is supported by a second and perhaps even more chilling message left on another bench: “White women do not need to mix with n------. Keep the white race pure. Remember Joseph Paul Franklin. A warrior for the white race.”
I remember Franklin vividly – though hardly with the vandal’s veneration. The Franklin I recall was a cowardly, evil little man who spoke openly of his hatred for interracial couples, but, when putting that creed into deadly action, did so only from the relative safety of the shadows. By the time he was finally executed in Missouri last year for a 1977 murder, he was suspected of having killed nearly two dozen people – many of them involved in interracial relationships.
One of his victims was former National Urban League President Vernon Jordan, whom Franklin shot outside a Fort Wayne motel in 1980 while in the company of a white woman. Franklin was charged with the crime in 1982 and eventually acquitted, but later confessed to shooting Jordan, who recovered.
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” (MLK, 1964)
But “hate” is not always so easy to identify or define. Although Charles Lopez clearly despises what was done to the bridge and why, he, too, has reservations about interracial relationships.
As the son of a Hispanic father and a black mother, Lopez no doubt has reasons for believing as he does. I didn’t ask him to explain because his opinions on the subject are nobody’s business but his – just as Franklin’s were his business until he externalized them in ways that were not only immoral but illegal. Hatred may have been his burden and motivation, but violence and murder were his crimes.
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” (MLK 1965)
One can only pity anyone who considers Franklin some kind of role model. But even that sentiment, if kept to itself, would be no one else’s business. Similarly, what happened to the bridge was a crime not because of the motivation involved but because the vandal was unconstrained by shame, common decency, fear of the law or respect for public property.
Charles Lopez knows that some will consider his position on interracial relationships racist, too. “And I’ll have to answer for that,” he said.
But, sadly, the kind of anonymous venom again spewed all over Fort Wayne's most glorious bridge (a yellow happy face was painted over King's image last month) is only becoming more common, not less. In an age in which millions of people believe every thought must be expressed, no matter how hateful or banal, the Internet allows anybody with a computer to say anything about anybody while safely hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.
America would be better off if it were more willing to tolerate honest disagreements, even about subjects as sensitive as race. The resulting dialogue wouldn't stop vandalism and violence – people who do such things don’t really care about anyone but themselves – but it might at least curb our growing national impulse to see sinister motives in every disagreement.
In the meantime, city spokesman John Perlich said, the city will do all it can to patrol the area to prevent further damage. Nadine Lopez believes cameras might help, too, because vandals – like cockroaches – prefer shadow to light.
King understood that, which is why 51 years ago he said this: “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.
"Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”