Awhile back I read Phil Yancey‘s first chapter in Soul Survivor. I was floored. The world he described was so alien to me. I grew up in Detroit, and he grew up in Atlanta. Racism in Detroit is more unspoken — an undertow of white fear and flight keeps the civic tension just below a simmer. Racism in Atlanta in the middle of the last century was unashamedly overt and outspoken. Yancey was raised hearing that the “dark races” were the result of God’s curse. In his native Georgia the gas stations all had three bathrooms for white men, white women, and colored. The museums set aside one day a week for “coloreds” to attend. Yancey remembers buying a Lester Maddox “Junior” size souvenir pickax handle similar to the ones that policemen used on demonstrators. He witnessed the KKK parades.
I, of course, had read those descriptions before. My parents had even mentioned to me how startled they were by the segregation when they drove through Georgia on their honeymoon in the 50s. White Northerners really have no idea. We’re kind of dumb like that. And we can move easily between our white world in Detroit and South Carolina–even if we do have a ‘ski’ at the end of our names–and the only culture shock we feel is the sweetness of the tea we’re served or the quaintness of the drawl we hear.
But that was a long time ago, I always reasoned. That kind of racism is for old people or stupid people, right? That’s for people who are absolutely not like me, right? . . . RIGHT??
That’s why Yancey’s account still sends chills down my spine. He grew up a “New Testament, Blood-bought, Born-again, Premillenial, Dispensational, fundamental” Protestant just like me. He attended some unnamed Bible college in South Carolina that forbid interracial dating and marriage. Scratching my head, I searched my employer’s records for Yancey’s name–without success. Was he talking about BJU?
Connecting the dots wasn’t that hard. Whether or not Yancey attended BJU wasn’t the point. This was the South and the so-called religion that created BJU. I couldn’t distance myself from it any further. This was the ideology that bore the system in which I lived, worked, ministered, and was raising my family.
Read Yancey for yourself.
When I visited Mendenhall in 1974, a sign welcomed me to town: “White people unite, defeat Jew/Communist race mixers.” I asked John Perkins [Yancey’s African-American friend] to show me an example of racism in action. “When I write your story, people are going to tell me everything has changed,” I said. “The civil rights bill was ten years ago. Is there still overt discrimination?”
Perkins thought for a minute and suddenly his face brightened: “I know — let’s integrate the Revolving Table restaurant!” We drove to an elegant restaurant famous for its mechanized Lazy Susan, which slowly revolves in the center of a huge table, bearing platters of blackeyed peas, squash, cabbage, sweet potatoes, chicken and dumplings, and other Southern favorites. When we sat down, the white diners all glared at us and then, as if at a prearranged signal, got up and moved away to smaller tables. Except for Perkins and me, no one in the restaurant spoke for the next hour. I ate uneasily, glancing over my shoulder, expecting a nightstick. When I paid the bill and commented on the delicious food, the hostess took my money without responding or even looking me in the eye. I had the tiniest glimpse of the hostility Perkins had lived with all his life.
Two months later, when I published my article on John Perkins, the Mississippi branch of the Christian organization I worked for passed a resolution demanding that I be fired for stirring up bad memories. “Things have changed now,” they said. “Why dig up the past?”
Why indeed? Almost three decades have passed since my Missisisippi visit, and the great civil rights victories are nearing the half¬century milestone. We live in a new century now, a new millennium even, and much has indeed changed. Nowadays, black patrons in Mississippi can eat wherever they want, drink from any water fountain, sleep in any motel. The victories that Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evans, Bob Moses, John Perkins, and many others fought for were won — legally, at least — although they waited a full century after the Emancipation Proclamation. Progressive Southerners from Georgia, Arkansas, and Texas have served as president. Black visitors can attend white churches at will, though they seldom want to. All these dreams seemed unattainable to Martin Luther King, Jr., just four decades ago. As a token of the momentous changes, the nation now pauses each year to honor King himself, object of so much controversy during his lifetime, on a national holiday. He is the only African-American, the only minister, and indeed the only individual American so honored.
The victories did not come easily, and most did not come at all during his lifetime. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, an uneasy rival of Dr. King, kidded him in 1963 that his methods had not achieved a single victory for integration in Albany or Birmingham. “In fact, Martin, if you have desegregated anything by your efforts, kindly enlighten me.”
“Well,” King replied, “I guess about the only thing I’ve desegregated so far is a few human hearts.” He knew that the ultimate victory must be won there. Laws could prevent white people from lynching blacks, but no law could require races to forgive or love one another. The human heart, not the courtroom, was his supreme battleground. As one of those changed hearts, I would have to agree.
King had developed a sophisticated strategy of war fought with grace, not guns. He countered violence with nonviolence and hatred with love. King’s associate Andrew Young remembers those turbulent days as a time when they sought to save “black men’s bodies and white men’s souls.” Their real goal, King said, was not to defeat the white man but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority…. The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” And that is what Martin Luther King, Jr., finally set into motion, even in born racists like me.
Despite the moral and social fallout from racism, somehow the nation did stay together, and people of all colors eventually joined the democratic process in America, even in the South. For some years now, Atlanta has elected African-American mayors, including civil rights leader Andrew Young. Even Selma, Alabama, has a black mayor, who in the year 2000 defeated the mayor who had held office since the notorious march. And old “Segregation forever!” George Wallace appeared in his wheelchair before the black leadership of Alabama to apologize for his past behavior, an apology he repeated on statewide television. When Wallace went on to apologize to the Baptist church in Montgomery where King had launched the movement, the leaders who came to offer him forgiveness included Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, and the brother of the murdered Medgar Evers.
In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention, 150 years after forming over the issue of slavery, formally repented of their long-term support of racism. (A pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church responded, “Finally we have a response to Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham City jail’ in 1963. Too bad it’s thirty-two years too late.”)
Even the large Baptist church I attended in my childhood learned to repent. When I attended a service several years ago, I was shocked to find only a few hundred worshipers scattered in the large sanctuary that, in my childhood, used to be packed with 1,500. The church seemed cursed. Finally the pastor, a classmate of mine from childhood, took the unusual step of scheduling a service of repentance. In advance of the service he wrote to Tony Evans and to the shunned Bible professor, asking their forgiveness. Then publicly, painfully, with African-American leaders present. he recounted the sin of racism as it had been practiced by the church in the past. He repented, and received their forgiveness. Although a burden seemed to lift from the congregation after that service, it was not sufficient to save the church. A few years later the white congregation moved out to the suburbs, and today a rousing African-American Congregation, the Wings of Faith, fills the building and rattles its windows once more.
Observers of the South sometimes speak of it as “Christ-haunted.’ Perhaps they should speak of it as “race-haunted” as well. All of us, white or black, who grew up in those days bear scars. Some black people, like John Perkins and Bob Moses, bear physical scars. We whites bear spiritual scars. Although I have not lived in the South for thirty years, I live with its memories, like the medieval murderers who were forced to wear the corpses of their victims strapped to their backs. The entire nation bears scars. Who would suggest that we have achieved anything like “the beloved community” King longed for?
I have visited King’s old church in Atlanta, Ebenezer Baptist, and sat in tears as I saw through new eyes the moral center of the black community that gave them strength to fight against bigots like me. I was on the outside in those days, cracking jokes, spreading rumors, helping sustain a system of evil. Inside the church, and for a time only inside the church, the black Community stood tall. My eyes, blinded by bigotry, could not see the Kingdom of God at work.
A few years before his death, King was asked about mistakes he had made. He replied, “Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our Cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned. As our movement unfolded, and direct appeals were made to white ministers, most folded their hands–and some even took stands against us. . . .
Only one thing haunts me more than the sins of my past: What sins am I blind to today? It took the greatness of Martin Luther King, Jr., to awaken the conscience of a nation in the last century. What keeps us in this new century from realizing the beloved community of justice, peace, and love for which King fought and died? On the wrong side of what issues does the church stubbornly plant its feet today? As King used to say, the presence of injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Occasionally, grace and power descend on great and flawed leaders to convict and lead us on. In the end, it was not King’s humanitarianism that got through to me, nor his Ghandian example of nonviolent resistance, nor his personal sacrifices, inspiring as those may be. It was his grounding in the Christian gospel that finally made me conscious of the beam in my eye and forced me to attend to the message he was proclaiming. Because he kept quoting Jesus, eventually I had to listen. The church may not always get it right–and it may take centuries or even millennia for its eyes to open–but when it does, God’s own love and forgiveness flow down like a stream of living water.