Some of you have heard me talk about my friend Emerson before. I met Emerson about 25 years ago now at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. He was 66 years old then and nearing retirement. Now he’s 91, still living independently with his wife, Judith, who is perhaps 12 or 15 years younger.
Emerson is a black man who was born in a rural community in Arkansas in 1925. His father was a preacher of the “fire and brimstone” type who was 60 years old when Emerson was born. He was born in 1865.
The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in 1863, but of course you know that the simple issuance of that document did not end slavery. It simply guaranteed freedom to those slaves who could make their way out of a slave state to a place of freedom. Emerson’s father was born into slavery.
Some years ago, Emerson and Judith invited me to their home for dinner and to meet his great-niece who was visiting from Arkansas. She told us of the research she’d been doing on the family’s genealogy. She had had good success in researching the family’s history going back to 1865 or so.
But then, she said, very simply, that she could go no further back because “there were no records because we were considered property then.” It was a stunning and profound moment for me, to hear someone state so simply and with such utter resignation, that truth, that sad truth.
I wonder how you feel as you hear this. I wonder how any of us would feel if our research into our family’s background brought us to such a direct confrontation with the dehumanization of our own ancestors.
Clearly, there were many in 1865 who thought that black lives did not matter or did not matter much or mattered only as much as chattel—movable property—matters. The Black Lives Matter movement says that those patterns, while not as blatant and obvious as they were at the time of the Civil War, remain.
And there are those who insist that when you say “Black Lives Matter,” you are saying that other lives don’t matter so much, that you should say “All Lives Matter.” Well, of course, all lives matter.
But, those of us who are not Black do not have in our family histories the dehumanizing of ancestors, family members, by enslavement. Immigrants of many nationalities suffered from discrimination and prejudice, from being thought of as inferior and marginalized, but only the African Americans among us were enslaved, were named as less than human, were considered property rather than people.
Did the passing of a law in 1863 end the mindset that claimed that Black folk were of less value than white folk? I think we know that the world doesn’t work that way.
“Lynching” is “defined as the unlawful killing of a person by a mob, generally by hanging and usually associated with vigilante justice and racial violence” (Extraordinary Endings…(p. 146)). It’s not clear when the practice started, but it was in use at least around the time of the American Revolution.
There are no reliable figures concerning lynchings prior to 1882, but “The NAACP lists the total number of lynchings of blacks since 1882… at around five thousand” (Ibid.). “From 1930 to 1937 Southern states accounted for ninety-five percent of all American lynchings. And less than thirty percent of the black men lynched were ever proved guilty of rape or attempted rape” (the crime or alleged crime of almost all male lynching victims).
“The last public lynching in the United States occurred in Walton County, Georgia, in 1946, when four blacks– two men and two women– were hanged.” There are those in this room who were alive when that happened. It’s not that long ago.
But, in order not to fall into stereotyping, consider this: the South was not the only area of the country where lynching occurred. “There are only four states in which no lynchings have ever been recorded: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont” (EE, p. 147). And to further complicate the subject, “more whites were lynched than blacks in nine states: Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wyoming.”
But, of course, many of these states had small Black populations. It’s clear, though, that lynching as a revenge for crimes or supposed crimes against white women was widely practiced as a racist act against Black men in the years between 1882 and 1946.
By and large, whites did not need to fear that they would be killed by vigilantes, and black men, did, indeed, have to live with that fear. Slavery in the United States is the most blatant form of racism that can be imagined. Lynching, as practiced in the United States, is also a form of racism.
We are all familiar with the struggle for civil rights in mid-twentieth century America. We are familiar with the story of Selma, the protest of Rosa Parks, the rise to leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the formation of the NAACP, the role of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1968, the assassination of Rev. King, the assassination of other Black leaders and the formation of groups such as the Black Panthers.
The struggle for civil rights was a struggle against racism in its manifold guises, some blatant, some subtle, all insidious, and all hurtful to individual black persons, their families, their communities and our sense of a country united by a sense of fairness with liberty and justice for all.
I grew up in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s. I thought that we in Dorchester were relatively free of racism. I remember only one African American boy in my classroom in grammar school, Jimmy Johnson, a quiet boy, darker than the rest of us, but in no other way remarkable. There were kids of Italian background in the class, and Irish, English, Jewish, Polish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Portuguese, German, and Dutch.
Those are the ones I remember. I don’t remember any being treated differently than any other. But, I do remember when the dentist who lived next door to my uncle sold his house to a black family. And I do remember my uncle’s conversation with my father when he said that “of course,” he was going to move because the neighborhood was inevitably going to “go down.”
And my uncle and his family did move as did many others in the neighborhood and as my mother and father and our family did a year or two later. It was a kind of madness, this determination to flee, to uproot yourself because of a demon that you created yourself out of some inchoate fear.
Only later did I learn about the practice of redlining, as banks refused loans to people in certain neighborhoods, areas discriminated against on the basis of race. Only years after that did I learn of the term “institutional racism,” and what that implied. It seemed that this fear or distrust or hatred of black folks by whites would never die. It would always rise again in some new guise.
Here in Bowling Green in December, some of us attended the Kwanzaa celebration at the State Street Baptist Church. Amidst the ritual and song and celebration was a solemn procession this year, a procession of Black youths wearing hooded sweatshirts and carrying homemade signs on which were written some familiar names: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddy Gray, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland … many names.
Too many names.
Each of the names corresponds to a face and the life of a human being. The Black Lives Matter movement says that all lives matter and that black lives are not held in the same regard as white lives when the circumstances are similar. It is highly unlikely that a 12-year-old white boy, even if he was reported as sitting on a swing pointing a gun at people, would have been shot and killed with as little deliberation as was taken when Officer Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir Rice.
At the beginning of the 9-1-1 call and again in the middle, the caller said that the gun “was probably fake.” Why was the information not relayed to the officers responding to the scene? I don’t think anyone can say.
But, I think it is clear that if a 12-year-old white boy was killed under the same circumstances, the outrage in the white community would have prompted swift action against the officer and probably the police department. And the white community, based on its own history, would have had greater faith that justice would be done, would not feel the need to take to the streets to express outrage.
In his book released last month, America’s Original Sin, Jim Wallis gives what he calls “clear data” on racialized stops, arrests, sentences, incarceration, and recidivism.” Here is some of the data that he cites, “According to a 2013 Justice Department report, as reported by The Washington Post, “Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than whites; they are more than twice as likely to be subject to police searches as white drivers; and they are nearly twice as likely to not be given any reason for the traffic stop, period.” (p. 138). There are no data to suggest that blacks are driving faster than whites. “These numbers suggest that racial profiling has a lot to do with it.”
“According to a recent study of FBI statistics, African Americans are about three times more likely to be arrested than are whites…. Arrest rates are particularly dramatic when it comes to drug offenses. The Center for American Progress reports that ‘African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. From 1980 to 2007, about one in three of the 25.4 million adults arrested for drugs was African American.’
“The US Sentencing Commission reported in 2010 that in the federal system, black offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than those for white offenders for the same crimes” and “are 21 percent more likely to receive a mandatory minimum sentence than white defendants facing an eligible charge.
“According to the Sentencing Project, ‘More than 60% of the people in prison today are people of color. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and Hispanic men are 2.5 times more likely. For black men in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day.”
One in three African American men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetime. “This compares to 1 in 6 Latino men and 1 in 17 white men.” Rates for recidivism are also higher for blacks than for whites (pp. 138-140).
The way I look at it, these kinds of statistics point to a culture where racism is institutionalized. The redlining that I referred to earlier did a lot to create a culture of poverty for African Americans that was very hard to break out of. You need to have a sense of hope in order to believe that your efforts to be successful in life will be rewarded. If the deck is stacked against you from the start, where are you going to get that sense of hope?
Let me share with you a story told by Jim Wallis which, I think, well illustrates the human dimension of a situation where one race is systematically devalued.
“I had been invited to go to Spokane for two days, first to speak at a Christian college… and the next day to help moderate an event hosted by a local church with young people from the streets of Spokane– where there had been growing crime. The increasing violence in the city had made the whole community fearful, and some of the churches in the area were trying to respond by focusing on how to help the young people involved. Several youth workers from the church had made connections on the street and persuaded many of the street youth to show up for the day at the church.
“Because of the crime crisis, many leaders from the Spokane community also showed up: educational leaders, business leaders, the police chief, the chief official charged with drug policies and enforcement, several other local pastors, and many concerned citizens.
“The final session of the day was dramatic. In the front of the sanctuary, a whole row of young people from the streets sat facing the crowd and were invited to tell their stories. And they did. One young man, who was a clear leader, spoke of how his mother was a drug addict and her welfare check was gone each month after a few days, so he had to support all his siblings. McDonald’s didn’t pay enough for that, he told us, so he began dealing drugs himself and now was supporting dozens of people, including his whole extended family. Another said that he always wanted to attend college, but he had no money, so he joined a gang and kept studying on his own. A young woman spoke of being sexually abused at home by her stepfather, so she ran away and went to a gang for protection, but then had to become a gang girl.”
Jim Wallis says that he “watched the audience as community fears turned into community tears.” It was a multiracial group, both the audience and the street youth and gang members: “black, Hispanic, Asian, and white.”
There was an emotional question-and-answer period.” A pastor asked what they could do to help. One young man said simply, “I don’t know, man, why don’t you just do what you do best, and throw that in here!” Wallis, who identifies as a Christian, said that he recognized this as an “altar call.” And people responded.
The president of the Christian university, Whitworth, that helped host the event, said, “I heard many of you say you always wanted to go to college. Well, if you can meet me next week, I will give you a personal tour of the university and, if you just pass your GED… and we will help you with that, you can come to Whitworth for free.’
“A business owner was next. ‘Clearly some of you have some extraordinary entrepreneurial skills; I may just disagree with your personnel policies! But I have got some jobs for talented people like you.’
“The pastor of a big downtown mainline church was next. He said, ‘I have just arrived in town to a big church with no people inside. I heard many of you say you had no safe place to go after school and even do your homework. Well, starting tomorrow, our church will be open to you.’”
Jim Wallis says that his “favorite response came from a middle-aged woman who said, ‘I am not a university president, don’t own a business or pastor a church. But I work at the McDonald’s right downtown and get a fifteen-minute break in the morning and one again in the afternoon. Some of you said you don’t ever have anybody to talk to. Well, come by McDonald’s and I will talk to you and even buy you a Big Mac.’”
What do you have and what can you offer? Those are the questions I encourage us to ask ourselves today. And where is the forum where those questions can be asked?
I know that there are people in this church who have something to offer and don’t know where the place is to offer what they have. In that spirit, I contacted several members of the African American community in town over the past month to say “There are folks in our church who would like to get involved in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement; do you know someone who is involved that I can talk with?”
I contacted a group on campus called “Young Activists,” but I didn’t get a response. I sent a Facebook message to a friend who attends the State Street Baptist Church. No, he didn’t know of anyone other than the campus group. I contacted Alice Gatewood Waddell of the Bowling Green Human Rights Commission.
She put me in contact with a young woman at WKU. We had a nice e-mail exchange during which she said, no, she was not involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, but would we be interested in other actions to support “local efforts for racial justice”? I told her, yes, we would be interested in supporting such local efforts.
Jim Wallis cautions well-meaning groups of mostly white folks, whether they be involved in church work or otherwise, against taking the lead on these issues. There is such a thing, after all, as white paternalism that undercuts the efforts of black self-determination. For that reason, I have sought out leaders in the community to support, not to attempt to lead.
For the same reason, I am not advocating that we display a “Black Lives Matter” banner, though many UU churches have done that. That’s a discussion to have if and when a movement mobilizes to support. For now, I think, the best thing for us to do is to put our heads together and determine what we can do, what we can offer. I certainly can get back to Aurelia Spaulding, the young woman on campus whom I’ve been in contact with.
Certainly, if there is a group that meets to address these efforts, I will offer to attend and to rally the troops, if in fact, your passion for justice calls you in this direction. And I want to make clear that today, when we stand at the end of the service and sing together “We Shall Overcome,” we are not just claiming our good feelings, but are actively searching for ways to overcome injustice caused by racism.
When we say “I do believe that we shall overcome,” do we believe it? Or do we hope for it? Or are we determined to make it happen? Each in his own heart will answer the question, but certainly, we can offer what we can. “I don’t know, man, why don’t you just do what you do best, and throw that in here!” What do we do best? What can we throw in here? The floor is open to you for your response.
- Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody by Charles Panati. MJF Books. NY, NY. 1989.
- America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis. Brazos Press. Grand Rapids, MI. 2016.
- Facebook message exchange with Chris Page. November 2, 2015.
- E-mail message to Kristina Gamble, Young Activists of BG. November 11, 2015.
- E-mail exchange with Alice Gatewood Waddell. January 28 & 29, 2016.
- E-mail exchange with Aurelia Spaulding. January 29, 2016.
- Wikipedia.org” Shooting of Tamir Rice.
- Wikipedia.org: Black Lives Matter.
- Encyclopediaofarkansas.net: Slavery.
Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on February 21, 2016.