STANDING WITH CHARLESTON
“Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born.”
— Margaret Walker
For me, it was an idyllic childhood. I was aware of extreme prejudice — the hate newsletter circulating in the neighborhood where I lived on Chicago’s south side, and the white people moving out when “restricted covenants” were declared unconstitutional, and blacks moved in — but I was protected from the worst of it.
One day, a white businessman called and told my mother he was going to blow up our whole family, along with the church where my “integrationist” father was the pastor — but I was not told about the phone call.
When a mob of angry white people showed up at the home a black family had purchased a few blocks away, I was not informed.
Mahalia Jackson lived in my neighborhood. Her windows were shot out.
Recently an article appeared in Chicago’s wbez news about Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church, where my father was the pastor in the 1950s. The article mentions my father, and how he welcomed black people into the church at a time when this just wasn’t being done.
I think it shows how bad it was back then — and still is — when the kindness of one white man is considered newsworthy.
For me, though, it was a joyful time.
My 5th grade class was the best.
All of the white people moved off our block, but we got Ernie Banks. Who could complain?
In the 1950s, Chicago was the most segregated city in the North. Everything, it seemed, was against integration. Racism (as it was elsewhere in the country), was written in the code and protected by the laws. As Beryl Satter notes in his book, Family Properties, the prevailing attitude of whites was that the mixing of the races “would cause the decline of both the human race and property values.” Many people, especially real estate people, benefitted economically from segregation.
My father accepted a call to start a church in Costa Mesa, California when it was obvious that Crerar, which was almost all black by then, needed a black pastor.
So we took off for California, where I adjusted (quite poorly, at first) to all white Orange County.
Both of my parents, though, continued to speak out for civil rights, and maintained the friendships they started at Crerar.
My father spoke from the pulpit against housing laws that discriminated against blacks.
My mother took me to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke at the L..A. Coliseum.
After the Watts riots in 1965, our youth group spent a week in Watts helping a Baptist Church in Watts paint their church building. At night, we stayed in the homes of the kind and gracious church members, and at the end of the week, the church treated us to a potluck, and a concert by the Baptist church gospel choir. Imagine!
Some years later, when I was in seminary in Marin County, California, I joined St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, which is half black. During that time I was the grateful beneficiary of the wisdom of people, both black and white, who’d long been committed to the struggle for justice.
For a long time I thought things were better than they were back then. However, after Ferguson, I began to question this. I felt frustrated enough to connect with the Black Lives Matter movement started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, and marched in L.A. in protest against the killing of unarmed black men and women by the police.
I joined SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), an organization of white people who are acting as allies in the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Dara Silverman, the coordinator of SURJ, told us in a conference call after the massacre in Charleston that there’s a backlash right now due to the significant organizing efforts across the country and in Charleston. One organizer said that most white people in Charleston were in denial that the killings were racially motivated.
Clearly we have a long ways to go after 400 years of systemic racism, first slavery, and then 100 years of Jim Crow laws, but today, in spite of the grief, I see many reasons for hope. One reason for hope is the black church; the other is the Black Lives Matter movement.
I’m proud of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and my brothers and sisters in the faith for their attitude of forgiveness, which does not include condoning, excusing, or forgetting what’s just happened there.
Nicky Finney, one of my favorite writers, black or white, wrote an article recently about how conflicted she was after the massacre. She had plans to go to a wedding that week, although she really wanted to be in Charleston. Finally, she said, “Love won out.”
In her article, Finney quoted one of the witnesses who spoke at the wedding she attended that week:
“What has always kept us going as a people is our fierce commitment to love and loving and being loved in the face of evil. Black love has always been our weapon,” the witness said. Finney wrote at the end of the article, “This is what I fiercely believe.”
This is also what I fiercely believe.
We are with you, Charleston, in friendship and in love.