Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the senseless slaughter and lynching of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner during Freedom Summer in Mississippi. They gave their lives to insure that every person in Mississippi would have the right to vote and be a full citizen of this nation. This interracial trio believed with all their hearts that it was worth it to put their bodies on the line for racial justice and dignity, and they paid the ultimate price.
We have come a long way in the last 50 years, but the recent deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis in Florida remind us that much work remains, and that white supremacy may have taken different forms, but it is alive and well. And today, white supremacy operates most powerfully at the subconscious level. And it has to do with an innate feeling of superiority.
You see, as white people,
deep in our hearts, we do believe we are a little bit better.
deep in our hearts, we do believe we have the answers.
deep in our hearts, we do believe we have the right strategy.
deep in our hearts, we do believe we are the best leaders.
deep in our hearts, we do believe we can save the poor.
deep in our hearts, we do believe we can save the world.
And I am far from immune from this impulse. Several years ago, a group of clergy in Cincinnati came together under the leadership of Ray McMillan to address the racist heritage of our country and founding fathers. It turns out many white evangelicals blindly, or not so blindly, celebrate Washington, Jefferson, and the founding fathers as heroes. For many African-American Christ-followers, the compromises over slavery and the virulent racism and slaveholding of many founding fathers disqualifies them from Christian hero status.
We had a chance to confront none other than James Dobson of Focus on the Family on the issue. And after a grueling 4-hour meeting, we didn’t make much progress. Coming back to Cincinnati, I felt I had the best strategy for moving forward. I had this implicit bias that as a white male, I knew best. And that Ray McMillan, who is African American, would be wise to take my counsel. And my stubborn inability to follow black leadership led to broken relationships and many deep wounds.
Over the past 15 years, as I’ve grown in my awareness and in my relationship with Ray and other incredible African-American friends and leaders, I have stumbled over this impulse more often than I would like to admit. And to me, the ugly presence of racism is most real in my heart and life because of my implicit and subconscious feelings of superiority.
Thankfully, there is a path toward redemption, but not through cheap grace. No, through the amazing grace that expects and demands confession and repentance and deep, invasive open-heart surgery, I can confidently say I’m a recovering white supremacist and a recovering racist.
And this is my challenge to my white male friends. We need women and all people of color to not only have room to lead, but to have all their gifts manifested in our churches and communities and in the public arena.
For deep in my heart, I do believe that whites need to call a moratorium on leadership conferences and start attending some followership conferences.
Deep in my heart, I do believe that whites need to learn the art of submission
Deep in my heart, I do believe that whites need to practice the disciplines of confession and repentance
Deep in my heart, I do believe that whites need to learn to be mentored and led by people of color
And when this begins to happen, really happen, then I can say with Guy Carawan and the millions who have joined in the song he introduced to the Civil Rights Movement more than 40 years ago:
Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day!
Troy Jackson is Director of Ohio Prophetic Voices, and was formerly senior pastor of University Christian Church (UCC) for 19 years. He is part of Sojourners’ Emerging Voices project.