Civil Rights

Deep In My Heart

By Federal Bureau of Investigation Workers (Federal Bureau of Investigation) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Vincent Harding: In Our Cloud of Witnesses

Vincent Harding died on Monday. One of my most important and dearest mentors is gone; there are countless other people across America — indeed, around the world — who are feeling the same as me.

But he really hasn’t gone; his memory and presence will continue on with us in a “cloud of witnesses,” which is the most important thing Vincent ever taught me.

At the Illiff School of Theology in Denver — the last place he worked and taught — Vincent’s title was “Professor of Religion and Social Transformation.” That was apt for someone who spent his life teaching and showing how faith was meant to transform the world, beginning with our own lives.

The first time I met Vincent Harding was at a talk he gave at Eastern Mennonite University titled something like “The People Around Martin Luther King Jr.” We expected to hear about all the famous civil right leaders from the movement. Instead, he spoke of those who had gone before, often many years before King, who had shaped, inspired, and sustained him like a family tree, a community of faith, or “a cloud of witnesses.”

In Remembrance of Dr. Vincent G. Harding

Vincent Harding with Sojourners Senior Associate Editor Rose Marie Berger

It is with deep sadness that we mourn the passing of well-known historian and scholar Dr. Vincent Gordon Harding, who died earlier this week at the age of 82. Harding, author of many books including Hope and History and There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, was a contributing editor for Sojourners magazine and a dear friend to the Sojourners community.

“This is a great loss for our movement and the world and for all of us here at Sojourners,” says Sojourners President Jim Wallis. “We are poorer for his passing and richer for having known him.”

A leading figure in the civil rights movement, Harding served as a speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and helped write, among others, the seminal speech “Beyond Vietnam.” Harding was the first director of the Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Atlanta, and cofounder and chair of The Veterans of Hope Project—which documents and promotes democracy, reconciliation, and nonviolence—at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, where Harding taught for more than 20 years and served as Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Transformation.

Since the early 1980s, Sojourners has worked with Harding to encourage and equip leaders in the faith-based movement for social justice. From his earliest writings about democracy and racial justice to his last Sojourners magazine article “To Redeem the Soul of America” (April 2013), Harding remained a steadfast activist and ally in the struggle for freedom.

In remembrance of Harding’s legacy, we offer this roundup of his writings.

‘Do Not Grow Weary of Lose Heart’ (Sojourners, March 2012)
What does it take to sustain the struggle for justice over the long haul?

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Moses Rising

Illustration of Moses parting the Red Sea, Ron and Joe / Shutterstock.com
Illustration of Moses parting the Red Sea, Ron and Joe / Shutterstock.com

In one of the screen-saved memories cataloged from my childhood, I sit in the living room, cross-legged, chin supported by two fists, staring up at moving pictures flashing across a small screen. On network television — because we didn’t have cable back then — Moses (aka Charlton Heston) led thousands of his people out of captivity. They just walked out of Egypt — streams of them. And then they reached the Red Sea.

The Egyptian army was at their back, pressing in. In that moment, though they had left captivity, freedom was not a done deal. They still had to cross over. They were still at war. They still had to outrun an army trained to kill or enslave them again.

Heston — I mean Moses — stood straight-backed on the bank of the Red Sea. He lifted his staff and put it down at the edge of the water, and a miracle took place in living rooms across America. The sea parted. I’ll never forget that moment. This moment was crafted before the digital era — before Disney’s Prince of Egypt, even before Star Wars, and yet it was still awe-inspiring. My eyes focused like lasers watching whole families cross a sea on foot.

Moses led. He was not a king. He was a foster child. He was not from the dominant culture. He was from an enslaved people. He was not a great orator. He stuttered, but he led anyway. He said “Yes” to God’s call and leaned into it. And because he did, the people were set free.

Immigration, Resurrection, And The Battle For The American Soul

In 1853, no one could have imagined that the end of slavery in the United States was just 10 years away. Since the 1660s, race-based slavery had upheld the economic base of both the northern and southern colonies and subsequently the United States. The South's agricultural way of life had been made possible and sustained through the backbreaking labor of millions of people who worked in their fields for free.

'Don't Be Left Behind Now'

On Feb. 8, tens of thousands of people gathered in the North Carolina capital city, Raleigh, for what organizers called the Moral March. It was a follow-up to last year’s “Moral Monday” movement that started in April 2013 when Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and 16 others were arrested inside the North Carolina legislature for protesting sweeping voting restrictions proposed by the Republican-controlled state government.

I ALMOST DIDN’T go to the Moral March. I kept looking for excuses. There was all that work to be done for next week. I told my professor I’d miss Friday’s preaching class. I hoped she’d chide me and I’d feel guilty enough to stay. Instead she said, “Great, go with my blessing.” I told my tutor I’d miss tutorial. She said, “I’m so glad you’re going to the march.”

Why couldn’t I go to a normal graduate school where no one left their rooms? But instead I went to seminary, and to Union, of all places!

I said, God, I’m crazy to go. Mild laughter was the only response. I glared at my reflection in the dark window. The reflection raised her eyebrow and said, don’t be left behind now.

The little voice in the window stayed with me as I put an extra pair of thick socks in my bag. Don’t be left behind, reading books about other people’s marches and other people’s spiritual revelations and other people’s religions. This march is historic, my reflection informed me. Go and be part of history. This is your history.

This is your time.

But a “this is someone else’s march” voice also lingered as I boarded the bus. I’m from California, and we’ve got a whole ’nother set of complications that seem pretty distant from North Carolina.

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VIDEO: A Tribute to Pete Seeger

In "Singing in Pete Seeger's Choir" (Sojourners, April 2014), Danny Duncan Collum pays tribute to the radical American singer-songwriter Pete Seeger. Well known for popularizing the famous civil rights song "We Shall Overcome" and for the war protest song "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?,"  Seeger "never renounced his radical vision of what America could be."

Following Seeger's death, the ABC news network compiled a short tribute that captures the music and ideological vision that made Seeger one of the most influential songwriters in U.S. history. 

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A New Way of Being 'Pro-Choice'

Naypong/Shutterstock
To be “pro-choice” is to make decisions beyond the horizon — to act for the beloved community. Naypong/Shutterstock

“I knew from the beginning that as a woman, an older woman, in a group of ministers who are accustomed to having women largely as supporters, there was no place for me to come into a leadership role. The competition wasn’t worth it.”

These are the words Ella Baker spoke regarding her decision to leave the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, in 1958. Baker was one of the core founders of this organization. Yet, her male colleagues only recognized her competence and expertise to a limit. The “preacher’s club” selected Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker to replace Baker at the helm. Due to this prevailing patriarchy and what she deemed a focus on “mass rallies and grand exhortations by ministers without follow-up,” Baker left the SCLC. She chose to go her own womanly way.

We make decisions every day. Life’s twenty-four-hour cycle is filled with choices. We contemplate what we will wear. We ponder breakfast selections. Will it be the bagel with cream cheese or a caramel macchiato with soy? Should I watch Mad Men, Scandal, or go to bed early? Do I call or just send a text or email? Our daily lives are replete with routine choices.

However, beyond these commonplace decisions are those personal, communal, and national selections that will have an impact on our lives years from now.

Birmingham Before the Dream

AS AN EVANGELICAL pastor of a multiethnic church in New York City, I often find myself at the intersection of lively discussions about race. These conversations almost inevitably lead to a familiar question: What does the church do now? Maybe stated another way, “How do we work toward the dream of the beloved community?” This is why I find Edward Gilbreath’s Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church to be a timely and necessary read.

While many books have been written on Dr. King and civil rights, Birmingham Revolution places King’s faith at the foreground of the writing. This is an important distinctive as King has often been co-opted, by conservative and liberal agendas alike. Yet history cannot deny that prayerful action, and a gospel that took seriously the social dimensions of human life, were at the very heart of King’s theology.

Birmingham Revolution hones in on the year 1963—a time when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took the civil rights efforts into the bowels of structural racism. Brown vs. Board of Education had provided an important Supreme Court victory in 1954, but many forms of local resistance to desegregation prevailed in the South.

To compound the drama, many advocates in Alabama, both black and white, believed further progress should happen through legal means. They had a misplaced confidence that local structures would uphold federal law, despite the continued presence of the KKK and other such groups. Gilbreath explains Birmingham’s defining moment not only in confronting segregation, but also in challenging the subtler, unwittingly complicit voice of the moderate.

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