When Jack was born, Booker T. Washington was still the principal at Tuskegee Institute. Bernice & Corrine came along later; by the time of their births, Lyndon B. Johnson had already been elected to the House of Representatives. Carrie is the youngster of the group: she was born just as Rosa Parks became active in the NAACP.
None of these senior adults grew up around people who looked much different than they did. And, even if Bernice & Corrine had lived closed together, it’s unlikely that they would have become lifelong friends. There were too many obstacles, too many barriers. Well. It just wasn’t done.
But today things are a little different. Every Thursday at the Senior Opportunity Center in Asheville these folk and others join my exercise class: Jack, a 97 year old white guy who walks with two canes; Bernice and Carrie, African American grandmothers; and Corrine, a cheerful white lady who lives with her kids.
Really, they should not get along. They should not be friends. Their not-so-shared histories should demand a certain distance.
And believe me: it wasn’t easy at first. A senior center in West Asheville closed. Participants who chose to continue in the program had to go to the downtown location, taking the bus further than they had travelled previously. These West Asheville members, almost to a person, are white. Downtown participants come from lots of different backgrounds; many are African American. In the beginning, when I would come to teach fitness, the West Asheville folk would sit on one side of the semi-circle and the downtown folk on the other: divided by a visible color line that would have made Jim Crow proud.
But then one day Carrie happened to be sitting beside a white woman named Mae, each on their own side of course, but right next to each other. Carrie said something funny and Mae laughed. Or was it the other way around? I forget. But they laughed. Together. So the next week, they made a point to sit beside each other again.
And the line began to fade.
They’ve been together three years now, those two groups. In a recent class, Jack sat beside Bernice who sat beside Carrie. Yao—a Chinese lady who speaks only scant English—sat on his other side, next to Corrine. No one seemed to realize that they weren’t supposed to be friends, these relics from a different time. No one seemed to remember that they had once been on opposite sides—and not just in my class either. In fact, no one seemed to notice race, creed, or heritage at all.
“Arms up reaching side to side,” I instructed the class. “Now reach over and give your neighbor a pat on the back.”
And they did. Without hesitation.
May God Almighty bless you . . .
until you become a community of peoples.
(One of my favorite posts of all time, this one was first published in 2011.)
Dr. Sheri Adams led a class on Civil Rights and Religion in May 2009 which included a tour of key historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement. One of the places we visited was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage where Martin and Coretta King lived during their ministry there. This story comes from that experience.
I am standing in my Grandmother Martin’s kitchen. It’s true: Grandmama died nearly 14 years ago and her kitchen was dismantled long before that, but I’m telling you, this is her kitchen.
Her resin dishes are laid out on the Formica table ready for supper—though I remember them being a pale pink, not this mint green. The table setting includes a bowl of pecans. Granddaddy often collected pecans from the yard to be cracked after supper; and for the record, he and Grandmama called them “pea ca’ns,” giving equal emphasis to the first two syllables and letting the third one slip in for free. (Only those uppity carpet-baggers from the North used the term “puhcahns,” spitting out the “puh” just to get to the “cahns.”)
The ceramic napkin holder is new to me. I’m not surprised it’s in her kitchen though since it has strawberries on it; Grandmama did love her strawberries. Her oven, probably still hot from cooking biscuits, looks like it always did and her Frigidaire does too. The coffee pot—a percolator—has not changed at all. The kitchen shelves hold the usual, everything from Jewel® shortening to HotShot® bug killer in the pump and shoot tin can. Granddaddy murdered many a 6-legged intruder with that beastly weapon.
“’Get out of town within three days,’ the caller threatened, ‘or you’ll be sorry,’” The docent’s words drew me out of my reverie. “Martin knew this threat was different.”
“The call had awakened him and he could not get back to sleep, so he left Coretta and newborn Yolanda asleep, and came in here to the kitchen.”
This kitchen: this kitchen that looked so much like my Grandmama’s.
“He made himself a cup of coffee, but says he never even took a sip. And he sat down at his kitchen table. By the way, most everything in the parsonage here is authentic; however, this table is not the one that was here at that time, but it is very much like the one Martin sat at that night.”
(And it’s very much like the one my Grandparents sat at in their kitchen in Georgia during those very same years.)
My divinity school colleagues—19 of us counting students and professors—crowded into the parsonage's tiny kitchen and stood around the little table. Studying civil rights and religion, we were travelling to significant sites in the South, learning more about faith’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Coming to the end of this tour of the Birmingham parsonage of Martin Luther King, Jr., we found ourselves spellbound by our guide’s retelling of the famous “kitchen table epiphany.”
“Martin sat here, full of despair. He thought of Coretta, and baby Yolanda. He thought of all the threatening phone calls. He thought of all he had to lose. He sat here in the wee hours of that morning and cried out to God, confessing his own doubts, his own weaknesses.
“When Martin recalled the story, he said it was at that moment of confession that he heard the voice of Jesus say to him, ‘Martin Luther stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ He heard Jesus tell him he would never be alone, no matter what.” The docent looked up to heaven, lifting her hands as if in thanksgiving. Then looking down, she shook her head slowly.
“And he didn’t give up. Not even three days later when his house, this house, was bombed. You see Martin was right: the call he got that night was more than just a prank. It was a real threat. What a blessing that Martin had just reaffirmed his calling and his faith right here in this kitchen.”
This Montgomery, Alabama kitchen that belonged to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American Baptist preacher and the leader of the Civil Rights movement. This kitchen:so familiar to me that it could have been in the Albany, Georgia home of Mrs. Mabel Louise Martin, my white, Southern Baptist grandmama.
The scene is not in the least extraordinary. Just a couple of ladies, about the same age, having coffee. They are dressed similarly: dangly silver earrings, stylish jackets, Danskos™. One has an iced drink, the other a hot one. One has her handbag by her feet; the other’s hangs from the back of her chair.
They are so similar in manner and style that if I were to guess, I’d say they are colleagues. But they are more than co-workers. They are friends too. They lean in as they talk, familiar and comfortable with each other.
Soon they are joined by a third. They stand in turn and welcome her with hugs and greetings. They share inside jokes and “remember whens” that make the three of them laugh as they settle back around their table.
They catch up. They talk shop. And they laugh. They laugh so much that they turn to apologize to me for the racket they are making.
But indeed, it is my pleasure to be interrupted by the sounds of their fellowship. You see, the friendship of these women, one Caucasian and first one and then two African Americans, could not have happened without the sacrifices of so many who have gone before them. A generation ago, this scene--so common now as to be virtually invisible--would have been unusual, odd, suspect even.
Today, it’s just three friends having coffee. Thanks be to God.(I introduced myself to these women and found out that they are indeed coworkers, teachers at http://newcitychristian.org/. Check out their website. What they are doing is uncommonly spectacular!)
July 16, 2013
It really, no kidding, could have been my son.
My 17 year old boy, broader than many and taller than most, must seem imposing, threatening even. I know this because a few weeks ago, when my son was in a place he had every right to be, doing something he’d been asked to do by a responsible adult, he raised the hackles of a concerned neighbor (I’ll call that person Watchdog). It was dark, and Watchdog caught sight of my boy and panicked. Rather than going home and calling 911 though, Watchdog approached and confronted my son, warning him to leave the property. Luckily, my husband happened to be with our son that night; he addressed Watchdog, reassuring that all was well.
The next day, Watchdog (who is actually a nice person who seems to have only the best intentions at heart) expressed to the homeowner—the one who had hired my boy in the first place—concern about the events of the previous night. After implying ownership of a firearm, Watchdog then said something like, “This could have turned out very differently, perhaps even tragically.”
It didn’t though. My son wasn’t shot. Watchdog didn’t have a weapon on him at the time, so there’s that. Plus my son is Caucasian, the same ethnicity as Watchdog. And we’ll never know what could have happened that night if circumstances had been different. I can’t help but wonder though.
Consider the findings reported in this video. It’s a clip from the television program What Would You Do with John Quinones. This show creates public scenarios involving moral or ethical issues; hidden video cameras record the reactions of observers. In this clip, two different actors hired by the show attempt to steal a bicycle in a public park. Both men—one Caucasian, one African American—are similarly attired, appearing much like my son would have looked the night Watchdog challenged him.
Here’s what you’ll see when you watch the video. The white male is occasionally questioned, but most people walk by and say nothing. The black male, though? He’s on the verge of being attacked. Witnesses become downright aggressive. People are snapping pictures, taking video, snatching his tools. Are you kidding me? It’s unbelievable. Or it would be, if it were not so frighteningly common.
Racism. It’s pervasive and it's deadly. See, no matter what you think about the recent verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, two things will not be changed: 17 year old student Trayvon Martin will still be dead, and Zimmerman will still be free. What can be changed though, is the mindset that led to this tragedy in the first place. Let’s put ourselves on trial. Let’s ask ourselves convicting questions.
And if we find ourselves guilty on any counts of racism, let’s sentence ourselves to life with a new attitude—an attitude of mercy, love, and grace. Now that’s justice.
. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8 NRSV
Like many crises, the whole thing came down to a good pair of shoes. You see, the Confederacy was running out of everything, shoes included. Remember, theirs was an agrarian society. Industry and manufacturing were situated primarily in the North, so shoes were pretty hard to come by down South.
It was on account of this shoe shortage that the Confederate soldiers ventured into Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. While there, Johnny Reb bumped into Billy Yank; the ensuing scuffle led to a fight that led to a battle that would go on for three days.
The fighting was relentless. By the evening of July 3, casualties exceeded 45,000. The next day, both sides rested; on July 5th, Confederate General Robert E. Lee retreated with weary, disheartened troops who still lacked shoes with intact soles.
Over the next few months, plans were made to establish an official military graveyard on the Gettysburg battlefield. On November 19, 1863, citizens gathered for a ceremony to dedicate that cemetery. The main speaker spoke for two hours (his name was Edward Everett; history has forgotten his words) and then President Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most memorable speeches in our nation’s history.
I can only imagine how exhausted Lincoln was. Sure, the war had turned and victory seemed within reach. But the country was still divided, while countless soldiers—many of them younger than his sons—gave their lives for the sake of the Union.
The Gettysburg Address was less than 300 words and took only a few minutes to deliver. Its message, though is timeless, and much deeper than it is long.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the last day of the battle. You can read the Gettysburg Address in a post I wrote a few years ago on Lincoln's birthday. Take the time. You'll be glad you did.
Published originally June 25, 2010
The METRO was packed. To the regulars, I’m sure it was normal: Washington, DC at 5 o'clock is not, after all, the most deserted place in the world. But I was a tourist from Smalltown, NC and subway trains are scary enough to me when riders all have room to spare. Slightly motion sick and seriously wide-eyed, I sat-tight beside a stranger as the train rushed to stop and more weary workers flooded the aisles. They reached to the ceiling, grabbing hold just as the train sped on to its next destination.
In front of me, a man had been snoozing on and off throughout the journey. I'd watched him, amazed by his commitment to rest despite the chaos that surrounded him. (A devoted sleeper myself, I was impressed.) But as we took off this time, he sat up, eyeing the older woman who stood holding the pole in front of him. He watched her until she met his gaze.
“Here,” he said, gesturing to his seat and starting to rise.
She shook her head smiling unspoken thanks, “Next stop,” she said, pointing to the door.
The man nodded, pulled his cap back down over his eyes, and went back to sleep. When the train stopped again, the woman exited and went on her way.
And that was that. No big deal. No one called the police. No one staged a riot.
An African American man offered his seat on the train to an elderly Caucasian woman. They had a polite exchange, and life went on as if nothing had happened—as if what I had just witnessed was not, in fact, a little miracle.
That exchange illustrated for me what the students in the Mississippi Freedom School knew back in 1964 when they penned their “Declaration of Independence from the State of Mississippi” in which they listed their grievances against Mississippi’s government. They enumerated injustices common in the Jim Crow South and then they closed with a remarkable statement. They said, “That no man is free until all men are free.” (MLK said it too. So did many others over the years.)
See, the man on the subway could offer his seat (or not) because he was free. And the woman, well because he was free to offer it, she was free to refuse. Sixty years ago, they would not have been on the same train at all. Fifty years ago, they might have been on the same train, but few would have questioned it if the woman had awakened the sleeping man and demanded his seat. Forty years ago, tensions ran so high between the two groups, that no one knew what to do. And we still don't know. We still have so, so far to go.
But last week, two people passed each other courteously, respectfully, and peaceably. And in their faces, I think I saw the face of Christ.