Hofstadter: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”

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With Freedom Rider Rip Patton in Nashville

Over at The New Republic, Jeet Heer reminds us that “America Has Always Been Angry and Violent.”  He offers this history lesson in the wake of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others in Alexandria, Virginia last week.

Here is a taste:

The notion that Americans are particularly angry today has become a rote talking point in the political press, repeated year after year. In 2011, after Representative Gabby Giffords was shot by a mentally ill man, NBC’s Mark Murray wrote, “If one word summed up the past two years in American politics, it was this: anger.” In 2007, George Will wrote in The Washington Post, “Americans are infatuated with anger.” In 1996, in her book The Angry American, George Washington University political scientist Susan Tolchin described an epidemic of “voter rage.”

But long before any of these writers, amid Barry Goldwater’s demogogic presidential campaign, the great historian Richard Hofstadter began his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” thus: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers… But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Hofstadter was exactly right—not only about the anger in the mid-’60s, but also that it was “far from new.” We are not, as Podhoretz and Pelosi suggest, living in a especially or uniquely dangerous moment. Incendiary political speech and political violence have been pervasive in U.S. history.

“What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast without our pretensions to singular national virtue,” Hofstadter wrote in the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, the 1972 collection he co-edited with Michael Wallace. It shouldn’t surprise us that a colonial settler society that wiped out the Native American population, imported slave labor, and relied on vigilante violence to police newly incorporated territories should be prone to political violence. Reading through Hofstadter and Wallace’s book, one is reminded anew that American history has consisted of slave revolts and their violent crushing, race riots, labor clashes, and assassinations.

Read the entire piece here.

I first read Heet’s piece while traveling throughout the South on a Civil Rights bus tour where we learned a great deal about Martin Luther King’s theory of non-violence from several veterans of the movement who tried to order their lives around this principle. During a conversation with Freedom Rider Rip Patton in the Nashville Public Library, one of the participants on our tour asked Patton how to introduce the principles of non-violence to the students she teaches.  This participant, obviously moved by what she had heard and seen all week, prefaced her remarks by saying that she was convinced that King’s philosophy of non-violence best represented the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I am not a pacifist, but I was also struck by the non-violent philosophy of the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights Movement. I often wrote about it in my daily posts.  As Rip Patton spoke that day he referenced several passages from the Bible.  One of those passages was Romans 12:2:  “And do not be conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  Rip said that this verse was one of several Bible passages that motivated him to join the movement as a college student.

Romans 12:2 is one of the most counter-cultural verses in the New Testament.  I got the sense that the verse had layered meanings for Rip.  First, the “world” was no doubt the world of white supremacy that he had lived through in segregated Nashville.  He would no longer allow himself to be “conformed” to this unjust world.  This required action on his part.

But I also think Rip would say that the “world” of Romans 12:2 was defined by violence and anger.  As a Christian he could not “conform” to this world.  He would pursue a course of counter-cultural transformation–a path that was good and acceptable and the perfect will of God.  This course was defined by non-violence.

Heet and Hofstadter are correct.  American history has always been characterized by violence.  But it seems that the God of the early Civil Rights movement was calling its participants to something higher.

As I wrote this post I also thought about Martha Nussbaum’s recent National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture on the limits of anger as a political and social emotion.  Here are some of my tweets from that lecture:

Nussbaum: The ancient Greek democracy had an anger problem. Just like modern democracies. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: Ancients raged a “cultural struggle” against anger, seeing it as destructive to democratic institutions. #jefflec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: We should resist anger in our political culture. This is not easy. Many feel anger is needed for justice. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: “Killing the killer does not restore the dead to life. Pain for pain is an easy idea, but it is a false lure. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: We go wrong when we permit retributive thoughts to convince us that inflicting pain in the present corrects the past. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: Hard to get our head around complicated truths. Easier to incinerate the witch. #JeffLec17 #humanities #anger

Nussbaum: Fear feeds payback. Obliterating wrong-doers makes us feel better. Even just wars decline into payback & bloodthirst. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: King gets busy turning retributive anger into work and and hope. #jefflec17 #humanities #mlk #anger

Nussbaum: Democracy must give up empty & destructive thought of payback. Move toward a future of regal justice & human well-being #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: Malcolm X was wrong to criticize King’s rejection of retribution. #Mlk #JeffLec17 #humanities #MLK

Nussbaum: Retributive desires are like the wild beasts in writings of Lucretiius. Anger is powerful, but always gets out of hand. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: History teaches that we always destroy ourselves when we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger. #JeffLec17#humanities

 

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 9

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For previous posts in this series click here.

We began Day 9 in Middletown, Ohio and ended it back in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.   It was an amazing trip and I was blessed to have experienced it with my wife Joy and my youngest daughter Caroline.  We spent a lot of time in the car on the drive home to the Harrisburg area discussing all that we learned.

Thanks to Todd Allen and the staff of Common Ground Project for all of their work in making this tour a success.  I am also happy to report that Messiah College will be the new base of operation for the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour.  Todd will be joining us in the Fall as a professor in the Department of Communications and special assistant to the president for diversity affairs.

Our only stop on Day 9 was the historic Clearview Golf Club in Canton, Ohio.  The golf course was designed and constructed in 1946 by William “Bill” Powell. When Powell returned to Minerva, Ohio after serving in the Air Force during World War II he was banned from all-white golf courses and could not obtain a bank loan to build his own course.  (Powell learned the game as a boy from working at a golf club in Canton. He went on to captain the golf team at Wilberforce University).  He eventually found two doctors willing to help him buy a piece of farmland in East Canton and went to work on building Clearview Golf Club.  He worked on the course during the day and, in order so support his family, worked as a security guard from 3-11pm.  In 1948 Clearview opened as an integrated course–the only course in the United States designed, constructed, owned, and operated by an African American.  Here is a USGA video on Powell and Clearview:

Our host at Clearview was Powell’s daughter Renee Powell, the club professional.  Renee spent thirteen years (1967-1980) on the LPGA tour and was the second black golfer to play on the tour. (Althea Gibson was the first).  Since then she has been an ambassador for golf around the world.

Here are some more pics:

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with Renee Powell at Clearview Golf Club

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Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 8

For previous posts in this series click here.

Last night the bus pulled into the Drury Inn in Middletown, Ohio.  We have officially left the South, but it also feels like we have traveled forward in time.  Eight days ago we entered the world of the Civil Rights Movement in the years between 1954 and 1968. Time travel, of course, is impossible, but this week we have come as close as possible to the kind of historical empathy I demand of all of my students.  The world we entered eight days ago was a world of segregation, Jim Crow, and brutal violence against African Americans.  It was also a world of hope, resistance, non-violence, and Christian faith.

Yesterday afternoon our tour leaders popped Raoul Peck’s powerful James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro into the bus DVD player.  As I listened and watched I was keenly aware of the distance between the movement in Greensboro, Selma, Montgomery, Albany, and Birmingham and the more radical civil rights voices of the latter and post-King years. In some cases nonviolence  gave way to violence; hope gave way to bitterness; and Christian faith gave way to skepticism.  Historians can debate the degree to which these changes took place, but they definitely took place.  Baldwin complicates the narrative in ways that make white people uncomfortable.

On Saturday we spent most of the day in Nashville, Tennessee.  When white Americans think about Nashville they think about country music, but the Civil Rights Movement has a very rich history in the Music City.

We began the day at the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library—the only place in the city where the Civil Rights Movement is interpreted.  When we walked into this amazing room we met Rip Patton, a Nashville resident who participated in the city’s lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides during the Winter and Spring of 1960.  Patton walked us through the history of the movement as he experienced it.  He was involved in integrating lunch counters throughout the city and was jailed as part of the second wave of freedom riders in May 1960.  Here is Patton on The Oprah Winfrey Show:

The Civil Rights Movement in Nashville was split evenly between white and black activists.  The African-American part of the movement was led by a group of students and ministers associated with American Baptist Theological Seminary. As Patton described how James Lawson, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel ended up in Nashville he spoke in terms that could only be described as providential. These men came to Nashville, with a recommendation from Martin Luther King, to train for the Christian ministry.  Patton continued his providential language when he described how Diane Nash left Howard University after her freshman year and came to Fisk University.

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With Rip Patton at the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room

Training in non-violent resistance began in Nashville in 1959. Since the movement was led by clergymen and clergymen-in-training, it took on a spiritual character.  Patton said that the students were trained to ask “what would Jesus do?” when faced with difficult choices.  During severe moments of violence and discrimination they were taught to “remove” themselves from the situation through prayer and singing. Patton’s Civil Rights Movement was a spiritual movement, affirming the argument made by historian David Chappell in his excellent Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Since so many ministers were in jail during the Freedom Rides, Patton said, “we always had church.”  He added, “We read the Bible a lot and prayed.” Patton appealed to three Bible verses to explain why he participated in the movement.  They were Romans 12:2 (“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…); Isaiah 6:8 (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”); and Psalm 23.

After Patton spoke and answered questions, Kwame Lillard, another Nashville participant in the movement, led us on a walking tour of Civil Rights sites in Nashville. Lillard trained students in non-violent methods of protest and handled much of the administrative tasks for the sit-ins and freedom rides.  In recent years he has served as a Nashville city councilman.

Lillard’s civil rights journey was a little different than the one experienced by his friend Rip Patton.  Lillard was more open about discussing structural racism, telling us several times that “We took down the ‘white only sign,’ but we didn’t take down the ‘white only mind.'”  He was more willing to talk about violence and describe the battle for civil rights as a  “war.”  (At Fisk University, Lillard spoke somewhat approvingly of an incident in which African-American students dragged a member of the white administration down the stairs in order to remove him from power and secure African-American leadership at the university.  I have been trying to find this story online, but have come-up empty so far.  If anyone can point me to a source I would appreciate it).  Lillard was the first person we met on this tour to talk extensively about Black Lives Matter and mention Malcolm X.

At lunch I invited Lillard to sit with my family in a booth at Swetts, one of Nashville’s great soul food restaurants and a place often frequented by those in the movement.  Here I got to learn more about his story.  After playing his pivotal role in the Nashville movement in 1959-1960, Lillard moved to New York City to pursue graduate work at Hunter College.  While in New York he was influenced by the militant teachings of Malcolm X.  He described the shift from the non-violent approach of the Nashville movement to the more militant approach of Malcolm X as “difficult,” but he appreciated Malcolm X’s efforts at connecting his vision to similar fights for racial justice around the world.  “I learned a lot,” Lillard told me, “and realized that there was a lot going on in Africa and other places.”  Lillard even had a chance to meet Malcolm X at his New York apartment.  Though he did not say it, I imagine that Lillard returned to Nashville in the mid-1970s with a different take on how to deal with race issues in the city. It was fascinating to listen to him describe his intellectual journey.

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With Kwame Lillard at Swetts in Nashville.  He held up his fist for the picture and said “Mandela.”

During our tour Lillard took us to the Walgreen’s Drug Store on 5th Avenue North.  It was the site of student sit-ins in 1960 and is the oldest Walgreen’s store still operating in its original location.  (The lunch counter was removed).  We also visited Fisk University and Nashville National Cemetery where we saw the grave markers of the “colored troops” who fought for the Union at the Civil War Battle of Nashville.  On our final stop, Lillard took us to meet Vernon Winfrey at the barber shop he has owned for over fifty years.  Oh yeah, did I mention Vernon is Oprah’s father?

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Kwame Lillard telling us about the Nashville Walgreens sit-in

As the tour winds down I am left wondering again about usable pasts. Using the past to promote present-day agendas is always problematic, but I wonder if the Civil Rights Movement of Juanita Jones Abernathy, Rutha Mae Harris, Carol McKinstry, and Rip Patton provide the best way forward.  Or does a more militant and radical approach, like the one associated with Malcolm X, James Baldwin, or Kwame Lillard offer the best way forward as we seek to foster racial reconciliation in our communities. Perhaps a little bit of both.

As I have written before, I am taking this tour with several colleagues from Messiah College.  The Provost’s Office and Office of Diversity Affairs funded our trip as part of the college’s commitment to racial reconciliation.  At various points during the trip we were asked to appear on camera and reflect on “what we were feeling” or “describe our emotions.” The assumption, of course, is that we will be moved to make contributions to race relations on our campus.

I am not a big fan of expressing my feelings or talking about emotions as it relates to the way I approach the past, but I think it is fair to say that I am leaving this trip inspired by the Christian and non-violent approach to Civil Rights promoted by Martin Luther King, James Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, the Greensboro Four, and many, many others.  As some you know, Messiah College is a Christian college with Anabaptist roots.  Like Rip Patton, we try to approach social issues from the perspective of Christian faith.  As an Anabaptist school we privilege non-violence.  Frankly, I can’t think of a more usable past than the one provided for us by these Civil Rights leaders.  So I continue to wonder: is there is a place for a religiously skeptical, militant, and angry approach to race relations at a Christian college?  Something to think about.  I need to keep reading,

Today is our last stop.  It is in Canton, Ohio.  Stay tuned.  Here are a couple more pics:

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Another shot of the Nashville Walgreens

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When we got to Fisk University, Phyllis Brown (pictured above) told us all to kneel down and touch the “sacred ground.”  Phyllis traveled with us from Memphis to Nashville.  She is the sister of  Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

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Vernon Winfrey shares some words of wisdom with us from the floor of his barber shop in Nashville.

Memphis Cotton for Bibles

Cotton Museum

Next time I am Memphis I am going to try to visit the Cotton Museum

Earlier today I wrote about my recent visit to Memphis as part of a Civil Rights bus tour I am currently taking.  We visited sites from The Civil Rights Movement and the African American history of the city in the 1960s.

In the 19th century, Memphis was a major cotton market and, consequently, a major slave market.  This was largely due to its prime location on the Mississippi River.

The prevalence of cotton in Memphis even crossed over into the work of Bible distribution.  In my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I wrote a few sentences about the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society and the spread of cheap Bibles into the South during the Civil War:

One of the most interesting parts of the American Bible Society (ABS) distribution efforts [during the Civil War] was the sale of Bibles in exchange for cotton.  Since the Union would not accept Confederate currency as a form of donation or payment for Bibles, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society in Tennessee circumvented this problem by offering the ABS bales of cotton.  Cotton was purchased by southern philanthropists and friends of the Bible Cause with Confederate money, and the bales were shipped out to New York.  In February 1865, an anonymous donor gave the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society six bales of cotton to help defer the cost of electrotype plates used to print Bibles at the Society’s distribution depot in Nashville.  Whatever was left after the plates were paid for was used to provide boxes of Bibles and Testaments for Confederate troops.

Similarly, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society Society received a request from Monticello, Arkansas, proposing to exchange ten bales of cotton for Bibles and Testaments that would be distributed to citizens and soldiers in the surrounding region. The Memphis and Shelby County Society planned to have the cotton shipped directly to the [New York City] Bible House as soon as possible….The ABS was not prepared to receive cotton in exchange for copies of the scriptures, but the New York Board of Managers were more than willing to accept it if it meant getting Bibles past Confederate military lines.

Transporting cotton through a country torn by Civil War was difficult. The Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society needed the permission of Confederate authorities and generals. The ABS had to obtain special approval from the U.S. Treasury Department.  In some cases the cotton, once received in New York, was deposited in a U.S. government warehouse “to the credit of the American Bible Society for special purposes.”

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 7

Memphis

For previous posts in this series click here.

I cannot believe we have been on the road for a week.  We started the day in Memphis and ended it in Nashville.

The major stop of the day was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine Motel, of course, was the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  The museum is built around the motel and an additional building–the Young and Morrow Building–located just across the street.  This is the building (a rooming house in 1968) where James Earl Ray fired the shots that killed King.

Here is New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s famous speech on the evening of King’s death. He delivered it while on the presidential campaign trail in Indianapolis.

Kennedy would be assassinated two months later.  As I listen to his speech again, I wonder if it still holds-up today.  I hope it does.

After touring the museum we headed to Beale Street and a visit to the gallery of Civil Rights Movement photographer Ernest Withers.  He took some of the most iconic photos of the era.  You can see some of my favorites here and here.

The last stop in Memphis was lunch at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street where we were treated to some great soul music from recent graduates of Stax Music Academy.

We are touring Nashville today.  Stay tuned.

Lynching in America

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Each jar contains dirt from the sites where Alabama lynchings took place.

Earlier this week I was at the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama.  I am participating in a Civil Rights bus tour and this was one of our stops.  I wrote about the visit here.

The day of our visit was the day EJI went live with its new digital project on lynching in America.

USA Today took notice of the new project.  Here is a taste of Rog Walker’s article:

Visitors to the website can search a map of 4,300 lynchings in 20 states and hear how Elizabeth Lawrence, a school teacher in Alabama, was murdered in 1933 for reprimanding white schoolchildren for throwing rocks at her. Or how in 1893, 17-year-old Henry Smith, suspected of killing a white girl, was burned alive before a mob of 10,000 in Texas, his ashes and bones sold as souvenirs.

Another map shows the seismic population shift of the Great Migration as families were forced to leave to escape racial violence. A century ago nearly all African Americans lived in the South. By 1970 most lived outside of the South, many of them in industrial cities in the North and the West.

Read more here.

Song of the Day

“We Are Alive”

There is a cross up yonder up on Calvary Hill
There is a slip of blood on a silver knife
There is a graveyard kid down below
Where at night did come to life
And above the stars, they crackle in fire
A dead man’s moon throws seven rings
Well, we put our ears to the cold grave stones
This is the song they’d singWe are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand
Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham
Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert
My children left behind in San Pablo
Well they left our bodies here to rot
Oh please let them know

We are alive
Oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark
Our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend
It’s only our bodies that betray us in the endI awoke last night in a dark and dreamy deep
From my head to my feet, my body gone stone cold
There were worms crawling all around me
Fingers scratching at an earth black and six foot low
And alone in the blackness of my grave
Alone I’d been left to die
Then I heard voices calling all around me
The earth rose above me, my eyes filled with sky

We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our souls and spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
We alive

Are Students *Still* Ignorant of the History of the Civil Rights Movement?

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Back in 2011 I wrote a post titled “Are Students Ignorant of the Civil Rights Movement?” I linked to Sam Wineburg‘s criticism of a Southern Poverty Law Center study that concluded students are not familiar with the basic facts of the fight to end Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s.  Here is a taste of what Wineburg wrote in the LA Times in October 2011:

“Students’ Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated,” one headline announced. “Civil Rights Movement Education ‘Dismal’ in American Schools,” declared another.

The alarming headlines, which appeared in newspapers across the country, grew out of a report released three weeks ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching the Movement,” which claims that the civil rights movement is widely ignored in history classrooms. By not teaching it, the report claims, American education is “failing in its responsibility to educate its citizens to be agents of change.” The study included a report card for individual states, and California got slapped with a big fat F.

But is it true? Are today’s students really not learning about such an important part of U.S. history? The Southern Poverty Law Center has done groundbreaking work in combating racism and prejudice. But its new study simply doesn’t stand up.

For starters, the report did not base its conclusions on any direct testing of student knowledge. Not a single student, not a single teacher, not a single principal answered a single question about their knowledge for this report. The closest we get to a live child — and even this is a stretch — comes from Julian Bond, who wrote the report’s forward. Bond recounts that “some years ago” he gave a quiz to college students and found that none could identify George Wallace.

The report’s writers turned to a proven recipe in our crisis-addicted society. First, they gathered up standards documents from all 50 states laying out what students at each grade level should study; then they conducted a “content analysis” to determine what’s in these documents; next they landed a marquee figure to endorse the report; and finally, they invoked terms of impending doom and handed the final report to the PR department.

Had the report’s writers bothered to talk to real kids, they might have found something closer to what we found in a national survey of 2,000 high school students, reported in the March 2008 Journal of American History. We gave students a blank sheet and asked them to write down the names of figures from “Columbus to the present day” who are the “most famous Americans in history, not including presidents or first ladies.”

Surprisingly, teens rarely put down rock stars or sports idols for top picks. Instead, they listed legitimate historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart. Three names, however, dominated the lists, appearing more often than any other heroes in U.S. history. Each of these figures comes straight from the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr. (appearing on 67% of all lists), Rosa Parks (60%) and Harriet Tubman (44%).

Are American students still ignorant of the history of the Civil Rights Movement?  I have heard this over and over again from folks this week while I travel through the South as part of a Civil Rights bus tour.

If students today are ignorant of the history of the Civil Rights Movement, I am not sure it is because the Movement is not covered adequately in history textbooks or state standards.  I am not familiar with every set of state history standards, but I would imagine that all of them, or nearly all of them, cover the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, there are some exceptions, especially in certain types of private institutions.  And yes, many textbooks do not cover the Movement to a degree of depth that will satisfy everyone.  But I wonder if the lack of knowledge about the Movement is representative of student ignorance in all areas of history.

Thoughts?

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 6

Stax_Museum_Memphis_TN_01

For previous posts in this series click here.

We spent a lot of time in the bus today as we drove from Birmingham to Memphis.  For me the highlight was tearing my calf muscle while running through the pouring rain to make it back to the bus on time after lunch.

I cannot put much weight on my leg, but I was able to hobble my way through the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.  If you want to learn more about Stax Records I would encourage you to watch this documentary.  (Below is the first of 9 segments):

While poking around online I found John Schaefer‘s short post comparing Motown to Stax.  Here is a taste:

Motown and Stax. The two great labels of American soul and R&B. There is really no good way to prove that one label was better than the other – but that won’t stop us from asking the question. After all, this is the fun part of being a fan. Sports fans, I have to admit, enjoy arguing about who has the best centerfielder or middle relief pitching or defensive front line as much as we do actually watching games. So Motown vs Stax may be the musical equivalent of Mickey Mantle vs Willie Mays – an argument you can never settle – but who cares?

As for me, I love the Stax Records roster of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs. Sam and Dave can be added to that list, too, though they were part of the alliance with the major label Atlantic Records. It’s interesting to note that this legendary institution of black music was founded by white guys (actually, a guy and his sister); and the fact that they had a color-blind house band as early as the early 60s is pretty great. Also, the records had a grit and a sense of audio verite that was and is noticeably different from the slick, highly produced sound of Motown.

The Stax Museum tells the story of this historic record label through a narrative of interracial cooperation.  It is clear that the guardians of the Stax legacy believe that the cooperation between blacks and whites was representative of what the Civil Rights Movement hoped to achieve in both Memphis and the nation.  The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis was not only a national tragedy for the Civil Rights Movement, but it was also a tragedy for Stax’s vision of interracial cooperation, at least in the music industry.  Consider this line from the museum website:

Memphis’ racial tension came to a head when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after speaking to the city’s striking sanitation workers (the Lorraine had been a regular gathering place for Stax employees, both black and white).

When citizens rioted in the streets after King’s murder, Stax’s building was left untouched, but the studio’s atmosphere as a creative respite with no regards for race was forever altered.

The Stax Museum (and the website) does not elaborate on how this “creative respite was forever altered,” but it is hard not to interpret this as a critique of the Civil Rights Movement’s turn toward Black separatism and Black power.

Today we continue in Memphis and then make our way to Nashville.  Stay tuned.  I will leave you this classic Stax hit from the Staples Sisters:

And a bonus track from Booker T & the MG’s:

The Birmingham Bible-Reading Crusade of 1946

Bible Cause CoverAs our Civil Rights history tour leaves Birmingham and heads to Memphis today, I recalled the story of Birmingham’s Bible Reading Crusade of 1946.  I wrote about this crusade in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible SocietyHere is the pertinent passage:

As the ABS experimented with different ways to bring the Bible to the world and raise the necessary funds to do so, they continued more traditional means of extending the Bible Cause at home.  In several American cities, the Society held “Bible Reading Crusades.” The largest and most influential of these crusades was conducted in 1946 by the Atlanta Division of the Agency Among the Colored People of the United States (at this point it was called The Haven Agency). The crusade was focused on the African American coal miners and plant workers of Birmingham, Alabama. Daniel Stanton, the senior secretary of the Haven Agency, inspired the crusade. He wanted to meet the spiritual needs of the more than 100,000 African Americans living in the city.  Stanton had spent most of his time in Birmingham gathering informally with these laborers, mostly on weekend afternoons on 4th Avenue North between 16th and 18th streets, to share the Gospel and teach them the Bible. “These milling throngs,” he wrote, “were ‘making a living’; but the pace of the wheels of industry gave them little time to think about ‘making a life’.”

African American businessmen in the city drafted A.C. Gaston to lead the crusade and serve as its primary organizer. Gaston was the grandson of a former slave, a World War I veteran, a layman in African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a Birmingham businessman who made his money in insurance, banking, and the funeral services industry.  He was the wealthiest African American in Birmingham and was known city-wide for providing jobs for out-of-work blacks.  He also built the A.G. Gaston Hotel in 1954, an important civil rights landmark where Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and other Civil Rights Movement leaders stayed free of charge.  As racial tensions broke out in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s, Gaston became an advocate of working peacefully with the city’s white businessmen, even at times disagreeing with the approach of King.  It is not too much of a stretch to say that the significant role that Gaston played in Birmingham’s civil rights movement had roots in his leadership of the city’s Bible crusade in 1946.  Gaston was well known, but this was one of his first efforts to organize a citywide event of this scale.

One of Gaston’s first moves was to get the support of Birmingham’s Negro Business League and African American ministers.  He then set a goal of getting 50,000 people, roughly half of the African American population, to read the Bible together on May 12, 1946, the first day of the weeklong crusade.  The black community of Birmingham responded in a way that far exceeded expectations.  Stanton arranged for 40,000 copies of the Gospel of John to be distributed before the crusade so the city would be ready for the mass meeting.  The success of the first day reading prompted Gaston’s committee to change its distribution goal to 75,000.  Gaston purchased 15,000 more copies of the Gospel of John from Stanton and created a subcommittee to provide one for every high school in the city.   Local businessmen turned their stores and officers into what the ABS described as “centers for stimulating an interest in the reading of the Book.”  Volunteer workers distributed Bibles in every industrial plant in Birmingham that employed African Americans.  Others brought scripture portions into the “dark mines and into the lives made darker still by sin.”  In the end, over 101,800 copies were distributed in the city during the week.  The ABS ugranted 62,000 of those Bibles, its largest donation to an organization or denomination in the two decades following the end of World War II.

Last night I asked Carolyn Maull McKinstry if she remembered this Bible reading crusade.  She did not, but she also wasn’t born yet. When I wrote The Bible Cause I did not explore this event from the perspective of local records or from the Birmingham African Americans involved.  But this civil rights bus tour has challenged me to think about this story in new ways.  I wonder if there might be some connections between the Bible Reading Crusade and the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.

Perhaps I will return to this story one day.

More on the Civil Rights Movement and America as a “Christian Nation”

Christian NAtionLast night I got a chance to listen to Carolyn Maull McKinstry talk about what it was like to live through the September 15, 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Avenue Baptist Church.

During the course of her presentation she referred to the United States as a “Christian nation.”  If you have been following my posts about the Civil Rights bus tour on which I am currently engaged, you may recall that Juanita Jones Abernathy also described the United States a “Christian nation.”

It seems like many participants in the Civil Rights Movement accepted the idea that the United States was a Christian nation or at the very least believed that the nation needed to work harder at becoming a Christian nation.

Today most African-American preachers are not very fond of calling the United States a Christian nation.  White conservative evangelicals have hijacked the term.  I saw this first hand when I spoke at a racial reconciliation conference at Wheaton College in October 2013.   Here is what I wrote following that conference:

This weekend I was at Wheaton College (IL) for the “Inhabit” conference sponsored by Pastor Ray McMillian‘s organization Race to Unity.  I sat on a plenary panel with Mark Noll and George Marsden (moderated by Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton’s History Department) on the question: “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”  I also joined Noll and Marsden for a breakout session on race, religion and politics….

I must admit that when Pastor Ray first asked me to speak at this conference I was unsure if I would have anything to offer.  I did not fully understand why a conference on diversity wanted to devote an entire plenary session to the Christian America question.  But it did not take long to see what Pastor Ray had in mind….The evangelical African-American community is deeply offended by the notion, made popular by Christian nationalists such as David Barton, that the United States needs to somehow “return” or “go back” to its so-called Christian roots.  They view America’s founding as anything but Christian.  Many of the founding fathers owned slaves.  When the founders had the chance to choose the nation over the end of slavery (1776 and 1787) they always chose the former.  Slavery is embedded in the Constitution. Indeed, the entire debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation is a white Protestant evangelical issue.  One would be hard pressed to find an African-American evangelical who wants to return to what Christian Nationalists often describe as the golden age of American Christianity.

Read the entire post here.

The use of “Christian nation” rhetoric during the Civil Rights Movement might make for a nice little project that could take us beyond what I wrote on the subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 5

For previous posts in this series click here.

We spent half of Day 5 in Montgomery and the other half in Birmingham.  The tour is now more than half over.

Yesterday morning we spent some time at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center.  The museum interprets a memorial commemorating those who died of hate crimes during the Civil Rights Movement.  Here is a description of the monument:

A circular black granite table records the names of the martyrs and chronicles the history of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock. Water emerges from the table’s center and flows evenly across the top. On a curved black granite wall behind the table is engraved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known paraphrase of Amos 5:24 – We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Caroline at the Civil Rights Memorial

We then headed over to the Rosa Parks Museum on the campus of Troy University.  This museum tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and contains one of two original city buses.

After lunch we drove to Birmingham and visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and Kelly Ingram Park.

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Entrance to Kelly Ingram Park: King, Abernathy, and Shuttlesworth

In the evening we had a pizza party with two women associated with the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.  Carolyn Maull McKinstry was inside the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15, 1963 when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, killing four little girls.  McKinstry was fifteen years old when the bombing occurred.

Lisa McNair is the younger sister of Denise McNair, one of the girls killed during the bombing. (Lisa never met Denise. She was born sixteen months after her death).  Both McKinstry and McNair talked about the events surrounding the bombing, the aftermath, of the bombing, and what we can learn from this tragic moment as we reflect on how to be people who practice reconciliation.  (Check out McKinstry’s book While the World Watched.  She graciously signed our copy).

McKinstry remembers attending the first planning meeting of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  She recalls sitting with her friends as they listened to Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, James Bevel, and Martin Luther King teach them how to behave on the march and prepare them for what they might expect from the Birmingham police under the direction of Bull Connor.   On May 2, 1963, McKinstry and the children of Birmingham left school and marched directly toward Connor’s water hoses, white tank, and attack dogs.  (She said that the leaders of the movement had not prepared them for the hoses.  This was a complete surprise).  5000 of McKinstry’s fellow child marchers went to jail.

Birmingham 3The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church occurred about four months after the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  The bombing took place on “Youth Day” at the church, a special Sunday in which the young people ran the service.  McKinstry helped to organize the 1963 Youth Day.  The sermon (which no one got to hear that morning )came from Luke 23:34 and was titled “A Love That Forgives.”  The bomb exploded at 10:22 (they know this because the clock stopped).  There were 75 students in Sunday School that morning. Addie May Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair were killed.

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16th Avenue Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

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Monument to the 4 girls killed during the bombing of 16th Avenue Baptist Church (Kelly Ingram Park)

Lisa McNair talked openly about what it was like to grow up as the sister of Denise McNair. Lisa described her first memory: “my sister was killed by white people because they hated Black people.”  As she grew up in Birmingham she always worried that the man who killed her sister was out there somewhere.  McNair said that few of those who experienced the bombing talked much about it until the 25th anniversary in 1988 and then again at the release of Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls in 1997.  These events helped the families and the larger community begin to share their emotions.

What struck me the most about McKinstry and McNair was how their Christian faith has enabled them to deal with this tragedy.  McKinstry has spent most of her life trying to make sense of what happened when she was fourteen years old.  Today she travels the country speaking about forgiveness and reconciliation.  McNair is a photographer and speaker who attends a 6000-member white Southern Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Both women refuse to let hate and anger control their lives.  It would be natural for these men and women to respond with hate and anger, and I am sure they have had moments when they have been tempted to act and think in this way.   But they ultimately choose not to dwell in anger.  Instead they make every effort to practice what Reinhold Niebuhr once called the “spiritual discipline against resentment.” McKinstry and McNair made it clear that they have drawn heavily from the spiritual resources of their faith to provide them with the strength to move forward.

Today we are traveling to Memphis.  Stay tuned.

Historical Thinking at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama

EJI 1Yesterday I was in Montgomery, Alabama as part of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour.  We spent a couple of hours at the headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

EJI was founded by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned.  Some of you may be familiar with his best-selling book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionEJI’s offices are located in the heart of Montgomery’s 19th-century slave trading market. This is a fitting location for an organization committed to fighting the narrative of racial difference in America.

During our visit we heard a presentation from two EJI “Law Fellows,” Luke Fredericks and Evan Milligan.  Fredericks started the presentation by describing four eras in the history of race in the United States.

  1. Slavery.  This was the period when the “narrative of racial difference” was born. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but it did not erase this narrative. We are still dealing with the legacy of this narrative.
  2. Racial Terror:  This was the period between Reconstruction and the World War II when whites employed violence to keep the races separate.  EJI is particularly interested in the history of lynching in America.  It has uncovered 360 race-based lynchings in Alabama history.  In order to remember these lynchings, EJI has created an exhibit of glass jars filled with dirt and clay gathered from the sites where the lynchings took place (see picture below).  It is a powerful exhibit–perhaps one of the most moving exhibits I have ever seen.  EJI is interested in lynching because it believes this practice was the historical antecedent to the death penalty.  Fredericks argued that sometime in the 1930s southern politicians realized that the practice of lynching was giving the South a bad name in the world.  In response, they used the death penalty as a means of dealing with the race problem in a more official and sanctioned way.  This, according to Fredericks, just might explain why a disproportionate number African Americans have been executed over the last 75 years. Since EJI lawyers are in the business of helping death row prisoners, the history of lynching in American is a usable one.
  3. Segregation
  4. Mass Incarceration.  Today 2.3 million people in the United States are in prison. Most of them are people of color.  EJI wants to address some of the systemic issues behind these statistics.

Fredericks, who was a history major at the University of Maryland, kept reminding us that the pursuit of justice does not happen in a vacuum. In the process, he put his history degree to good use by challenging us to understand the problems of race and mass incarceration in America through context, change over time, and continuity.

In order to provide such context, EJI is getting into the museum and monuments business.  It just released a new website on the history of lynching in America and will soon open a permanent exhibit on the subject.  EJI also plans to create a memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery.

Everything about the work of EJI draws heavily on the skills and practices of historians. EJI’s legal activism relies on the connections between the past and the present.  Granted, history can only take us so far when it comes to changing the world (or advocating for death-row inmates), but activism is often superficial without understanding the historical context out of which social ills arise.  EJI uses archival research, oral history, and storytelling (“we use individual narratives to change the way people think and feel”) to provide the necessary context for its advocacy work on behalf of death-row inmates.

So if you want to change the world, start by reading history.

 

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Lynching exhibit at EJI

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 4

For previous posts in this series click here.

We began Day 4 in Montgomery, Alabama.  (Montgomery is the only city where we are spending two nights.  This means that we didn’t have to pack our suitcases this yesterday!).

In the morning we made quick stops at some of Montgomery’s most iconic historical sites. As we entered the area around the Alabama State Capitol I was struck by the juxtaposition between Confederate States of America sites and Civil Rights Movement sites.  I am sure historians and scholars have written about these juxtapositions, but when you see them for the first time they are quite striking.  (If you know of any good books or articles that deal with these commemorative juxtapositions in Montgomery please let me know in the comments section).

As our bus entered this part of the city we passed the First White House of the Confederacy, the home of Jefferson Davis during the brief period when Montgomery was the capital of the Confederacy. (The Confederate capital moved to Richmond, Virginia in August 1861).

As a series of massive Alabama government buildings (including the capitol building) came into sight I was immediately struck by their whiteness.  Seriously, these buildings are painted in a very bright white.  I don’t know if they were that white during the 1965 Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, but as I surveyed the landscape I tried to imagine what it was like on Sunday, March 25, 1965 to see the color of these buildings in the background as 25,000 people–many of them African Americans– arrived at the capitol to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “How Long, Not Long” speech.

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Office building in Alabama capitol area

 

I was also struck by the location of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the church that Martin Luther King Jr. served from 1954-1960.  It is only a few hundred yards from the Alabama State Capitol Building where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederate States of America and where the Constitution of the Confederate States of America was written.  Every Sunday morning King and his congregation would step out of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and into the whiteness of the built environment.  It was a material manifestation of Alabama’s historical commitment to white supremacy.

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View of the Alabama State Capitol from the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

 

As you leave Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and walk up Dexter Avenue toward the Capitol Building, you will see, on the right side of the road, a monument commemorating the path of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration parade.  It was placed at this site in 1942. Directly across the street on Dexter Avenue is a monument commemorating the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.  It looks very new.  I did my best to capture this contrast here:

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Selma to Montgomery march monument is in foreground.  Jefferson Davis inaugural parade monument is in upper right of the picture (monument with water marks behind gray car)

After our visit to the capitol area, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage, and the homes of some of the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, we headed over to the Montgomery headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).  If you are familiar with Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercyyou are familiar with the work of EJI.  I have a lot to say about EJI, so I think I will save those thoughts for another post that I hope to get up later today.

We spent the afternoon in Selma.  Our guide was Joanne Bland, a civil rights activist who, as an eleven-year-old girl, marched in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  She took us to the Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting point of the March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march.  In the back of the church is an outdoor concrete slab that served as the launching point of the march.  Bland asked us to pick up a stone from the crumbling slab (she is trying to get the slab refurbished) and hold it up as a reminder of the Selma marchers.  She challenged us to show this kind of courage in our lives whenever we encounter injustice.

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Joanne  Bland tells her story

Bland showed us some historical sites in Selma, took us to a local fruit stand so she could buy some peaches, and then told us her experience during the 1965 voting rights marches.  We then made our own march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  (Our tour guide Todd Allen asked my daughter Caroline to lead us across the bridge.  It will be an experience she will never forget.  Later in the day Todd asked Caroline what she thought about playing the role of John Lewis in our march).  It was a moving end to a very moving day.

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Caroline is about to lead us across the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Tomorrow we will spend half the day in Montgomery and the other half in Birmingham. Stay tuned.  Here are a couple more pics:

 

 

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Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage

Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour: Day 3

For previous posts in this series click here.

We began the day in Albany, GA and ended the day eating fried catfish in Montgomery, Alabama.  (More on that in the next post).

We spent most of the morning at the Albany Civil Rights Institute learning about how the Civil Rights Movement played out in this Georgia city.   African Americans in the city led the so-called “Albany Movement”–an attempt to desegregate public spaces in the city through nonviolent protests.  The Albany Movement was lead by William G. Anderson, a local medical doctor. Anderson had support from three outside activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also got involved.  King arrived for his first of several of visits to Albany on December 14, 1961.  During one visit, evangelist Billy Graham came to Albany and bailed King out of jail.  (This was not mentioned in the exhibits at the Institute.  I learned about it here).

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Albany Civil Rights Institute, Albany, GA

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Freedom Riders bus inside the Albany Civil Rights Institute

The highlight of the day was our visit to the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church.  Old Mount Zion was one of two Baptist churches where King preached during his first visit to Albany (the other one was Shiloh Baptist Church, located directly across the street). Here we met Rutha Mae Harris, an Albany native and one of the original Freedom Singers.  In 1963 the Freedom Singers traveled over 50,000 miles to over forty states under the auspices of SNCC.  They performed at the March on Washington in August and appeared on stage with the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez.  Here are a couple of videos:

At 76-years old, Rutha’s voice seemed to be just as strong as it was in the videos posted above.  She taught us several songs, including “Which Side Are You On?, “Fighting for My Rights,” “The Ballad of Medgar Evers,” and “Dogs.”  When we finished singing she dubbed us all “official Freedom Singers!”

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Rutha Mae Harris greets us at the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church

Harris firmly believes that “without the songs of the Civil Rights movement, there would have been no Civil Rights movement.”  Harris was a lot less political than Juanita Jones Abernathy the day before, but she did suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement would have been more successful if it had music.

We stayed in Albany for a soul food lunch at Carter’s Grill and Restaurant and then boarded the bus for Montgomery.

The rain put a damper on some of our plans in Montgomery, but we did make quick stops at Holt Street Baptist Church (site of the first meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association) and First Baptist Church (Ralph Abernathy‘s church during the Montgomery Bus Boycott).

We head to Selma tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 2

Read previous posts in this series here.

The Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour rolled into Atlanta yesterday.  We made three major stops.

First, we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change on Auburn Avenue, just east of downtown.  We saw King’s birth home, his tomb (where he lays with Coretta Scott King), the original Ebenezer Baptist Church (where King was baptized and served as co-pastor with his father), and the various exhibits in the King Center’s Freedom Hall.  (In Freedom Hall we got to see, among other things, King’s doctoral robe, the contents of his closet and dresser following his death, and the contents of the suitcase he carried when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968).

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With my daughter Caroline outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta

During our visit to the Ebenezer Baptist Church we sat in the sanctuary and listened to King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.  King preached this sermon in Memphis on the day before he was assassinated.  What makes this sermon so powerful today is the fact that King mentions the possibility of his untimely death:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

When I first read this sermon in graduate school as part of a course on the Civil Rights Movement, I started calling it the “If I Had Sneezed” speech.  On September 20, 1958, a mentally ill women named Izola Curry attempted to kill King at a Harlem book signing. She stabbed him in the chest with a letter-opener.   King referenced the stabbing in this speech. Here is a taste:

It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,

“Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.”

And she said,

“While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

The sneezing story and the references to some of the greatest moments of his career take on an additional layer of meaning when we know what happened to King the day after he delivered this speech

After our visit to the MLK Center we jumped on the bus for a short ride to The Varsity, Atlanta’s famous fast-food restaurant.  (I highly recommend two hot dogs, onion rings, and a frosty orange!).  We later learned The Varsity has its own story of segregation and race, but I will have to save that for another post.

We ended the day at Georgia State University where we heard a lecture from historian Glen Eskew, author of the award-winning But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle.  Eskew covered a lot of ground, but focused mainly on the role that the New Deal played in bringing a degree of wage equality, consumer choice, and economic security to many Blacks in the South.  These expanding opportunities for Blacks made the American South more “dynamic” and ultimately led them to pursue civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.  Eskew also talked about Coretta Scott King’s efforts to preserve her husband’s legacy through the King Center and the difficulty in sustaining museums related to the Civil Rights Movement.

As Eskew finished his lecture, Juanita Jones Abernathy walked into the lecture hall. This was a real treat.  Juanita and her husband Ralph Abernathy were leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956. (Ralph was the pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church).  There is so much to say about Juanita Abernathy’s remarks that I have decided to save them for a post that I will publish later today.  Stay tuned.

 

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Caroline and Juanita Jones Abernathy

Today we are in Albany, Georgia.  More to come.  In the meantime, here are a few more pics:

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The tomb of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King

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The birth home of Martin Luther King

 

The Amazing Juanita Jones Abernathy

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Abernathy at Georgia State University speaking to the travelers on the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour

The highlight of Day 2 of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour was meeting Juanita Jones Abernathy, one of the participants in, and organizers of, the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Juanita was marred to Ralph Abernathy, the pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church and a famous civil rights activist in his own right. Ralph died in 1990 at the age of 64.

Juanita talked about the important role played by pastors (and pastor’s wives) during the bus boycott. Because pastors like her husband Ralph were not paid by the state, and thus were not “part of the system,” they were free to organize on behalf of Rosa Parks without the threat of losing their jobs.

She also talked about how the Abernathy children and the King children integrated an Atlanta elementary school sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  (Her son Kwame was with her at the lecture).  I found it interesting that she always referred to the kids as “my kids” or “Coretta’s kids.”When it came to the education of the children, the mothers were in charge.

I tried to write down some of the best lines of the talk.  They are as close to verbatim as possible:

  • “My husband Ralph used to say ‘there was no color on the bullets we were dodging in Germany during World War II…We were citizens fighting to defend democracy. Why couldn’t we enjoy it at home.'”
  • Donald Trump wants to “roll back the clock. But we aren’t going back.”
  • “My Lord and savior Jesus Christ was not violent. I didn’t learn non-violence from Ghandi, I learned it from Jesus.”
  • “Aren’t you glad you’re in America?  Lord I thank you for the United States of America and that we are not victims of the destruction going on around the world today.  I am blessed to live in the United States of America.”
  • “[The Civil Rights Movement in] Alabama saved America from itself.”
  • “The right to vote is a blood ballot. People died for that right.”
  • “We are a Christian nation. That’s what America is built on.”
  • “If there’s any such thing as going through hell while still alive, we went through it.”
  • When [the Abernathy’s and the King’s] lived on the west side of Chicago in the slums, we came from ‘down South’ to ‘up South.’ But both Souths had the same problems.”
  • “I hear all this stuff about King.  I saw a documentary on Georgia Public Television called ‘America since King.’ No, it was the Civil Rights MOVEMENT. It was not associated with just one man.”
  • “Today, all you have to do is write down your name and address and you can vote.  It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, native American, or Indian.  Voting applies to everyone, but there was a price to be paid to get it.”
  • “Young people will burn America down before they let Donald Trump take us back [in time]. They don’t understand non-violence, no one is teaching the young people “non-violence.”
  • “‘Make America Great Again’ is when blacks had no rights.”
  • “We weren’t trying to get above, we were just trying to get equal.”
  • “I love America with all of the mess.  We still are the greatest nation in the free world.  When I see that flag I salute it.”

What fascinated me the most about Juanita Jones Abernathy’s talk was how much it was grounded in appeals to common and universal values.  She talked about her love of country (or at least the ideals set forth at the founding).  She drew heavily upon a shared Christian faith as a source for non-violence.

She even described the United States as a “Christian nation.”  This was not unusual during the Civil Rights movement.  As I argued in chapter three of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?the Civil Rights movement made constant appeals to the Judeo-Christian values that they believed the nation was founded upon.  The best example of this is King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he says:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Abernathy also described the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 in universal terms. Poverty affected all races–it was a universal problem and needed to be addressed this way.  She talked the same way about voting rights.

The appeal to ideals that brought together all human beings seems to be quite different from the identity politics we see today in most discussions of race in America. This morning on the bus we listened to a King sermon that referenced Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, and the Founding Fathers.  Elsewhere King referenced Augustine, Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to name a few.  King assumed that his audience–both black and white–were familiar with some of these authors.  Would such appeals be effective today? I don’t think so.  King lived before what historian Daniel Rodgers has described as the “Age of Fracture.”

The more I listen to folks like Abernathy and King the more I realize that the “past is a foreign country.”  But as we think about race relations in America today I wonder if the past of Abernathy and King is a usable one.

Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour: Day 1

As I wrote earlier this week, I am spending the next seven days on a Civil Rights bus tour. Todd Allen and his staff have been running the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour” since 2002 and they do a great job.  Messiah College, the school where I teach, sends several faculty and staff on the tour each year as part of its Christian commitment to racial reconciliation.  This year I am traveling (along with my wife and daughter) with several faculty members, admissions counselors, residential life workers, students, alumni, and even a member of the Board of Trustees!

We left Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (Todd’s base of operation and, I might add, the home of Joe Namath) early yesterday morning.  We spent most of the day on the bus, but did make a scheduled stop in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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We started the tour with some Oram’s donuts–a Beaver Falls, Pa. tradition,  Thanks Todd!

Our first major stop was North Carolina A&T University (Go Aggies!), a historically black college in Greensboro.  On February 1, 1960, four A&T freshman–David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil–staged a lunch-counter sit-in at the downtown Woolworth 5 &10.  Today, the Woolworth building serves as the home of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (ICRCM).  (The Greensboro Woolworth was open from 1939 to 1993.  A non-profit organization saved the building from destruction and turned it into a museum in 2010).

Jean, one of the docents at the museum, gave a very lively tour.  The highlight, as you might imagine, was our visit to the room where the Woolworth’s lunch counter was located.  A refurbished counter, with original signage and dumbwaiters, is part of the exhibit. The sit-in is re-enacted on video screens that provide a perspective from someone standing behind the counter.  Frankly, I wish we could have spent more time in this room.  I wanted to soak it all in and reflect on the courage of these four students.  I often wonder how many of my own students sit in their dorm rooms, ponder the life-transforming ideas that they encounter in class, and put those ideas into action in ways that bring meaningful change to their local surroundings.

If you are in Greensboro, the ICRCM is a must visit.  A lot of the original Woolworth building remains.  As we walked down the stairs into the lower level of the building, Jean informed us that the chrome railings and staircase were original.  I had flashbacks to a nearly identical set of stairs, complete with chrome railings, at the J.J. Newberry’s store on Main Street in Boonton, New Jersey.  I spent a lot of time in that store as a little kid–mostly buying candy and baseball cards.  There was no lunch counter.

The museum is small, but it packs a big punch.  The exhibits themselves invoke empathy at every turn.  For example, an exhibit room called “The Hall of Shame” is filled with graphic images of violence against civil rights activists.  The “Colored Entrance” is a maze-like exhibit that forces visitors to see the world from the perspective of African Americans during Jim Crow.  The rooms in this exhibit are small, tight, and uncomfortable, forcing the visitor to “feel the way Blacks felt everyday” during segregation.  An older African American women in our group was particularly moved by the exhibits.  She told the group that she had been part of “week one” (February 8-15, 1960) of the lunch counter sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina while she was a student at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University).

After dinner, we drove from Greensboro to Greenville, South Carolina.  We watched documentaries in the bus during the day, but on last night’s drive we watched Denzel Washington’s Fences.

We are off to a good start.  Stay tuned.  We are in Atlanta today.

A few more pics:

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The “Greensboro Four” Monument at North Carolina A&T University

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Front entrance to Greensboro Woolworths (now ICRCM

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“Colored Entrance” to Greensboro Woolworths (now ICRCM)