The Dividing Wall in America
Civil Rights Movement
We used to sing this song in Sunday School, as far back as I can remember, way back when I was learning to use a big-boy potty and tie my shoes. The little light was our faith in Jesus, and letting it shine was sharing it with others, who didn't know him. Jesus loved the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they were precious in his sight, Jesus loved the little children of the world. He would make us FISHERS! of men, FISHERS! of men, FISHERS! of men, if we followed him, if we followed him, if we FAW! LOWED! HIM! I should dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known. Even if they fed me to the lions.
It took almost 30 years for me to really see "This Little Light" in action. Before that, it was mostly an ideal standard that made me feel guilty for not living up to it, a measuring stick that set me in competition with all the other little lights around me; if I shined a little brighter, you'd try too. But two years before Occupy Wall Street demanded economic reform at the national level, the candles lit in Charlotte, N.C., as hundreds of protestors marched on Bank of America and Wachovia in the fall of 2009. In the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis, with people facing ballooning interest rates and foreclosures on their homes, organizers delivered a theological statement against what they called "usury" — the Old Testament sin of collecting interest from the poor.
They were among the youngest martyrs of the civil rights movement, four young black girls — three 14-year-olds and one 11-year-old — whose deaths in a church basement horrified a nation already torn apart by segregation.
This week, 50 years after the Ku Klux Klan bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., shook hopes for a colorblind country, the four girls are getting their due.
Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Tuesday (Sept. 10), a day after a piece of shattered stained glass from the church was donated to the Smithsonian.
WASHINGTON — Fifty years to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., knocked on the nation’s conscience with his dream, religious leaders gathered in a historic church to remind the nation that he was fueled by faith.
Later, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial where King thundered about America’s unmet promises, King’s children joined the likes of President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey to rekindle what Obama called a “coalition of conscience.”
At Shiloh Baptist Church, where King preached three years before his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh clergy summoned King’s prophetic spirit to help reignite the religious fires of the civil rights movement.
King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice A. King, said at the service that her father was a freedom fighter and a civil rights leader, but his essence was something else.
“He was a pastor,” said King, who was 5 when her father electrified the nation in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “He was a prophet. He was a faith leader.”
I will march on Saturday because I refuse to allow my two sons to be treated as statistics or a stereotypes rather than as children of God. I will march because overly aggressive policing tactics that overly rely upon racial profiling make a mockery of Dr. King’s dream that every child will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
I will march because the recent repeal of section four of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court jeopardizes the voting rights of millions of Americans across the country, particularly in southern states where new barriers to this sacred right are already being erected.
I will march because based on national statistics, my two black boys face a one in three chance of spending some time of their lives behind bars, a disturbing and destructive reality that has been made possible in part by mandatory drug sentencing laws that must be reevaluated and changed.
As people stepped on our toes and stood anxiously in front of us, waiting to exit the crowded theater, three of us sat weeping at the close of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Even now, as I recall that moment, it brings tears to my eyes.
How do I describe the movie? Utterly intense. Remarkable. Heartbreaking. Inspiring. A genius capturing of the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement, of the history of race in America in the 20th and early 21st centuries, of presidential decision making, and of family.
I sat next to my colleague, Lisa Sharon Harper, who sobbed at the violence, tragedy, and passionate courage displayed on screen. It was a challenge. To be a white woman sitting next to an African-American woman as she wept over the suffering of her people — often at the hands of my people. It was neither her nor I who had perpetrated these specific acts, but we are certainly still caught in the tangled web of systemic racism and the histories that our ancestors have wrought us.
Even as we had waited in the theater prior to the movie's start, we spoke of serious subjects. She shared some of her lineage and the challenges of legal records that simply do not exist when ancestors are slaves or perhaps a Cherokee Indian who escaped the Trail of Tears in Kentucky and suddenly appears on the U.S. Census in 1850 as an adult. We spoke of her leadership in the church, and I encouraged her to continue speaking even though she is one of the lone women who graces the stages in front of national audiences. I told her, "You must do this so that other women who come after you can do this. You must do this for women right now. You must do this so that I can do this." We bonded over being women in ministry.
And then the separation came. I do not know Lisa's shoes — the road that she walks due to the color of her skin. I see her in all of her glory — passion, intelligence, creativity — and not in all of her blackness. Our world sees her with racial eyes.
It may have taken a little bit of prodding — a little ‘you-want-me-to-do-what?’ and a lot of faith — but in the end, Congressman John Lewis agreed to go along with staffer Andrew Aydin’s out-of-the-box idea. The result: March (Book 1) — the first of a three-part graphic novel autobiography chronicling Lewis’ life and the Civil Rights Movement.
“The story of the movement that we tell is very much John Lewis’ story in this first book,” Aydin said. “It is a story of him growing up poor, on a farm, and it builds to a climax of the national sit-in movement.”
Lewis certainly has a lot to tell. He and other activists famously were beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 during an attempted march for voting rights — an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” He served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the height of the movement, spoke at the historic March on Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Aydin, who co-wrote the book with Congressman Lewis, and illustrator Nate Powell sat down with Sojourners to explain how the series came about and why it is such an important story these 50 years later.
This August will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and there will rightly be much remembrance and celebration of its place in American history. But there is another anniversary that our nation, and especially its Christians, would do well to acknowledge, investigate, and ruminate.
Forty-five years ago yesterday, Dr. King arrived in Memphis, Tenn., to support a sanitation workers’ strike seeking to unionize. He was assassinated the next day — the anniversary we today remember — and in a sad irony our nation began the sanitation of his legacy. Indeed, King’s decision to join the Memphis struggle was just one of many acts that clash with what David Sirota calls the “Santa Clausified” image of King that we pass to our youth.
Fifty years ago, not long after his graduation from Brandeis University, Rabbi Allen Secher became a Freedom Rider, joining Dr. Martin Luther King's historic fight for equality in the South. In Albany, Georgia, Secher, who served congregations in Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago before relocating to Whitefish, Mont., several years ago (where he was, for a time, the only resident rabbi in the entire state), was jailed for a week along with a number of other Freedom Riders.
Inside, watch Secher, aka "The Naked Rabbi," tell the story of the Freedom Rides and his encounter with King.
If justice is only an implication, it can easily become optional and, especially in privileged churches, non-existent. In the New Testament, conversion happens in two movements: Repentance and following. Belief and obedience. Salvation and justice. Faith and discipleship.
Atonement-only theology and its churches are in most serious jeopardy of missing the vision of justice at the heart of the kingdom of God. The atonement-only gospel is simply too small, too narrow, too bifurcated, and ultimately too private.