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 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.
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.
“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.
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.
IN THE LAST YEAR of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. struggled with what are best understood as existential challenges as he began to move toward an ever-more-profound and radical understanding of what would be required to deal with the nation’s domestic and international problems.
The direction he was exploring, I believe, is far more relevant to the realities we now face than many have realized—or have wanted to realize.
I first met King in 1964 at the Democratic Party’s national convention held that year in Atlantic City—the occasion of an historic challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to the racially segregated and reactionary Mississippi Democratic Party. I was then a very young aide working for Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Sen. Nelson authorized me to help out in any way I could despite President Lyndon Johnson’s effort to clamp down on the fight for representation in the interest of a “dignified” convention that would nominate him in his own right after his rise to the presidency following President Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson didn’t want a bunch of civil rights activists muddying the waters and, not incidentally, causing him problems in the conservative, race-based Democratic South.
After much back and forth, the Johnson administration offered a “compromise” proposal that the old guard be seated (provided they pledged to support him) and that two at-large representatives of the MFDP also be seated.
The Sikh Coalition is updating a mobile app that allows travelers to report complaints about the Transportation Security Administration from the airport.
The coalition created the FlyRights app in April 2012 because of concerns that TSA officers profiled travelers for their appearance — and Sikhs in particular because of their turbans.
The TSA insists it doesn’t profile travelers. Civil rights complaints are investigated and “immediate action” is taken if substantiated, the agency said.
The original FlyRights app, created in coordination with the TSA, allowed a traveler to submit a complaint at the same time to the coalition and to the TSA for investigation.
A coalition of 125 religious, civil rights, and community-based organizations sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice Thursday urging a civil rights investigation into a New York City Police Department program that spies on Muslims.
Groups from several faith traditions signed the letter including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the National Council of Jewish Women, the Hindu American Foundation, and the Sikh Coalition. Civil rights groups include the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, South Asian Americans Leading Together, and the National Network for Arab American Communities.
The NYPD program is already the target of two federal lawsuits, one filed in June by the ACLU and the City University of New York Law School’s Center for Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility, and the other filed in June 2012, by several Muslim plaintiffs represented by Muslim Advocates and the law firm Bhalla and Cho.
Cleats and Dignity
The civil rights struggle for African Americans happened in every sphere of life. Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, by Samuel G. Freedman, tells of two great black coaches in the tense year of 1967. Simon & Schuster
One project of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture is the Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative, which funded research in more than 20 countries. PCRI resources include the informative recent report, “Moved by the Spirit: Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in the Global South.” crcc.usc.edu/pcri
Looking back over five decades, the evidence is clear that everything has changed. We elected black mayors in the South and fought to end apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years and became president of South Africa. Segregation was outlawed and black people began to enjoy better lives.
But new challenges, including HIV/AIDS, drugs and gun violence, undermine our progress. We’ve come a long, long way, but we still have a long, long way to go. For too many young people, the “movement” is distant history. But we see a new birth of energy around the criminal justice system and voting rights. We take great pride in the fact that black youth overwhelmingly helped elect the first black president. We have come to the end of our tolerance of the killing and demonization of young black men — it is the most pernicious holdover from an ugly past.
It may be the most famous speech of the 20th century.
Millions of American schoolchildren who never experienced Jim Crow or whites-only water fountains know the phrase “I have a dream.”
And many American adults can recite from memory certain phrases: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of the prophet Amos’ vision of justice rolling down “like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” or the line about children being judged not by “the color of their skin but the content of their character.”
To many in this country, “I have a dream” has a place of honor next to the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. It celebrates the lofty ideals of freedom.
But scholars say it would be a mistake to celebrate the speech without also acknowledging its profound critique of American values.
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.
If there was ever a fear that the church is splintered, apathetic or dull, the passion and unity on display at the “Why We Can’t Wait” May Revival on Pentecost Sunday earlier this month proved a direct contradiction to that assertion.
The second of five events of Washington DC’s Church-Wide Response to the New Jim Crow brought a diverse group of 50 faithful people to Capitol Hill’s Lutheran Church of the Reformation for an afternoon of song, prayer, worship, education on nonviolence and mass incarceration, and call-to-action to work and pray for a better church and a better world.
The Rev. Will D. Campbell, a Baptist minister and early white civil rights activist, as well as best-selling writer and folksy raconteur, died Monday in Nashville, Tenn. He was 88.
With a fiercely independent streak and sometimes prickly personality, Campbell used his powerful way with words to explore American racism, especially the contradiction inherent in Christian support for segregation across the South.
And he had his own contradictions, as well. A Southern Baptist who drank moonshine with the Catholic nuns he counted as his friends, Campbell was an equal-opportunity critic, castigating liberals as well as conservatives in his writing and preaching and storytelling.
[Will Campbell] confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere.
Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical Gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self.
BERNICE KING watched as, one by one, the heads of denominations from across the nation bent down to sign the Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. “Response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’” Transfixed, King—Martin King’s daughter—sat in the first row of a church one block from Kelly Ingram Park, where 50 years before children had run scared, ravaged by German shepherds and fire hoses.
As they signed, the presidents of CCT’s five church “families” stepped to the podium. Each read his or her church family’s confession of complicity with the demons of racism and injustice during and since the civil rights era.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. sat behind bars in the Birmingham city jail and responded to criticism from eight local white clergy’s “Call for Unity” against outside agitators. King penned prophetic words in the margins of the newspaper that carried the white clergy’s call for “law and order and common sense.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King explained. He recounted the failed attempts to negotiate with city officials hell-bent on living a “monologue rather than dialogue.” He clarified: “The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
I’VE WINCED often at the portrayal of religion in recent documentaries—partly out of embarrassed identification with some of the apparently crazy things I’ve witnessed in real life, and partly because some documentarians seem to think that there’s nothing to religion other than those crazy things. God Loves Uganda, a new documentary about the role played by U.S. missionaries in nurturing that country’s homophobic culture and legislation, manages to avoid the mistake of confusing bad religion with all religion.
The concern for the Ugandan people manifested by fundamentalist charismatic Christians is suggested to be far less than the sum of its parts as they become participants in the nurturing of a social structure that aims to eradicate gay people. But the film avoids easy stereotyping of Christian mission work, particularly in the person of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a smiling radical in the mold of Desmond Tutu. His is a face of Ugandan Christianity that is open, generous, alive, courageous, and kind—a prophetic African voice for human rights.
Wendell Berry recently suggested that the expression of anti-LGBTQ sentiment may evoke a kind of subconscious reaction in the proponent akin to autoerotic pleasure. Delighting in the pain of others is a kind of sadism rooted in the insecurities harbored by the person who has decided it’s their job to be the moral police, despite how kind they may think they are being. The fear stirred by psuedo-Dominionist movements may have given the U.S. missionaries in God Loves Uganda a sincere desire to change the world. But their lack of self-reflection leads them to export some of the worst of American cultural imperialism: prejudice, the conflation of sentimentality and cultural ignorance with love, the denial of the gift that the other has for us.