Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Marching in the Pews

Wednesday marks 50 years since Martin Luther King gave his memorable speech during the march on Washington.  I was 15 years old.  That’s a bit young to really feel like an active participant but old enough to know it was important.  I saw the television images of barking attack dogs bearing down on terrified  little black girls. In high school I had a male black friend who was reprimanded for talking to me on a downtown Dallas street.  I knew there were people my age risking their lives to bring equality to the American society. But I wasn't one of them.  Later, I became friends with a woman who had a restaurant manager hold a gun to her head and tell her to leave his restaurant; all for the simple act of sitting down at a table with a white friend.   I know the cost of the civil rights movement.  I know what it was like in 1963.  And in some ways I feel  that I know more about the risks taken in the civil rights movement  than a young black person today. But my own contribution was nil.

But I did have one wonderful experience to bask in the victories of the civil rights movement.  And it was glorious.

When I was working for the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance after Hurricane Katrina I lived for a few months in Pearlington, Mississippi.  The PDA had developed a close relationship with the First Missionary Baptist Church there.  The church vowed to provide a free hot lunch for any volunteer working in their  town. Often this meant well over 100 people, on occasion it was 300.  As long as I live I will never forget their loving generosity.

Rev and Mrs. Willie Rawls

During lunch, Rev Rawls would sit in the corner of the crowded fellowship hall holding court.  Once in a while he would introduce an important visitor and I always wanted to meet those folks.  One day he introduced Rev. Frederick Fields from the Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in Pearlington.  Rev. Fields invited everyone to a special worship service that Sunday at 2 pm.  My plan was to visit every church in town during my time in Pearlington and a two o’clock service was too good to pass up. I looked forward to being able to cross that church off my list.

I didn’t realize it was to commemorate Black History month and would last three hours.

Any white person, no matter how deeply they sympathize with the cause, has a difficult time becoming part of black history.  We are, after all, well…white.

In the mid-90s, I went to a special service at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology to commemorate the first black graduate.  I have to confess I went more to hear the famous Glide Memorial Gospel Choir. At the end of the service the congregation stood, held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.” I felt a little out of place.  Not as much for my extreme whiteness as for my lack of any participation in the civil rights movement.  I never marched.  I never risked anything.  I hadn’t earned the right to call myself part of the process of overcoming anything.

But it was a little different in Pearlington.  I had worked hard to bring these homes back to life.  I had watched as the divide between races melted if only a little bit.  I had heard that prior to Katrina the town still had a Ku Klux Klan chapter. But Katrina didn’t give a damn what color you were.  She slapped down every house in her path without pausing to ask questions. 

One day, someone asked me if we favored one race over another in our recovery effort. I was a little taken back because I had never given it any thought.  What little paperwork we had didn't have a box for "race" and it just wasn't ever discussed. As the worksite manager, I kept a list in my pocket of the houses we were currently working on. I had to consult the list and take stock.  I found that out of the sixteen houses on my list, seven families were white, seven were black, one was clearly a mixed marriage and one couple I had absolutely no idea what race they were despite meeting them several times.

So when I showed up to celebrate Black History Month in Mississippi I felt more a part of the congregation. They started with an apology that their regular music staff wasn't there except for a  couple of bass guitars.  Eventually they built up to a sax and drum set along with a third and fourth guitar.  We tapped, clapped, snapped, hooted and swayed.  We “Amen”ed and “Hallelujah”ed.  We praised the Lord and gave thanks for just about everything there is on the planet.  I was limp afterwards.

The first song in the service was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.   It’s a stirring piece and moves me every time I hear it.  I love to sit at the front at the front of the church whenever I can and let the sound just wash over me.  I closed my eyes to hear better. Without a pianist we sang a cappella but that didn't really matter.  They didn't have anyone leading the congregation but that didn't matter.  These people know the song in their bones.

Life every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring.
Ring with the harmonies of liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies;
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun’
Let us march on, till victory is won.

The worship program had pictures of major figures in black history.  Along with the ones I knew like Dr King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, there was one man I had never heard of, Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church.  He was a slave who saved $2,000 and bought his freedom in 1787, after the Revolutionary War.  As a free man he entered the local Methodist church one day to worship and was turned away.  Thus was founded the AME church.

At the end of the day’s service, Rev Fields held up the latest issue (February, 2008) of Ebony magazine that had a cover picture of Barack Obama with the banner title:  “In Our Lifetime.”  It was a chill-bump moment.

We ended the day with “We Shall Overcome.”  I felt more at home this time, not so much by anything I had done as much as because of the friends I had made.  I felt at home in the town. I had declared  more than once that Pearlington, Mississippi is my soul’s hometown.  I had met James Peters, the small and humble man who saved 27 lives the day Katrina blew into town.  He rowed around in 30 feet of salty water, dead fish, live snakes and raw sewage and plucked people out of the this mess and rowed them to safety.  He is the town hero not because of the color of his skin but because of the content of his character.

Thank you, Dr. King.

1 comment:

James Spurgeon said...

Thank you, Jane! The first biography I ever read, I read as a third grader and it was a bio of Dr. King. Today was special to me if for no other reason than that. Sadly, I asked three different black guys at work this morning if they knew what today was and none of them knew. One of those guys is a student at Texas College in Tyler which is a traditional black college from way back. So you were right when you said you probably knew more about Dr. King than a lot of younger African Americans do. But I knew, and I read the speech again. The quotations from Isaiah were chilling. May the Prince of Peace and His Kingdom ever march on! Again, thank you.