Dr. Vincent Harding, great keeper of the Southern Freedom Movement flame, died May 19th, 2014. He was 82 years old.
A graduate student in history during the late 1950s, Harding took an integrated road trip through the deep South with fellow Mennonites. They were welcomed at the Dexter Ave Baptist Church parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama, where Coretta King informed them that her husband Martin was home recovering from a stab wound he had received at a book signing in New York. After conversation about nonviolence and the struggle for human dignity in the Jim Crow South, Dr. King said to Harding, “You’re a Mennonite. You know something about nonviolence. We need you down here.”
Harding and his wife, Rosemarie, moved to Atlanta in 1960, ending up neighbors to the Kings through the turbulent years most often referred to as the “Civil Rights Movement.” But, as Dr. Harding often said, “I never heard anyone sing, ‘I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on civil rights.’” Harding knew well the great tradition of struggle which he chronicled in his monumental work, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom In America. The resistance that began when the first slave ships set sail from Africa was a river that ebbed and flowed through history. When it surged forward in the 1960s, Harding was there, paying attention. Rarely out front at the rallies, he was neither a lieutenant of King nor a “Freedom Rider” with SNCC. Harding was, instead, a friend and teacher to all in the struggle.
At 6:23pm yesterday, the state of Oklahoma initiated its effort to kill Clayton D. Lockett. Twenty minutes later, after being declared unconscious by a physician, Lockett cried out, “Oh man,” writhing in pain. Addled by this unexpected display of pain, one of the executioners said, “Something’s wrong.” Soon after, the window to the observation room was covered and media were escorted out of the room.
A state official later reported that Mr. Lockett died of a heart attack at 7:06pm.
The fact that this unexpected scene was preceded by months of arguments by lawyers about the constitutionality of resuming executions in Oklahoma guarantees that a debate about the death penalty will ensue. Those who have argued that this ultimate form of punishment is “cruel and unusual” will make last nights scene their case in point. The Governor of Oklahoma has already declared that a thorough investigation of what went wrong will take place before any other executions go forward. Privately, in conversations at home and on their computers, many will say, “Did he suffer? Sure. But why shouldn’t he after what he did.” Most national polls show that support for vs. opposition to the death penalty is about 50/50. Both sides will have plenty of people to argue.
But I think it would be the greatest of tragedies if we did not notice that what happened in Oklahoma last night reveals perhaps our deepest national self-deception-that, no matter what goes wrong, we will fix it because we are in control.
Back in the early 70s, Jesus was big on Broadway. Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were both controversial and engaging tellings of the Jesus story that grabbed America’s attention. Suddenly everyone was talking about Jesus. But Tom Key noticed something: the popular stories left out the resurrection.
Picking up on the Southern paraphrase of Matthew’s gospel by Clarence Jordan, Key wrote The Cotton Patch Gospel, a musical in which Jesus gets in trouble in Georgia for trying to integrate the church and is ultimately lynched by a KKK mob outside of Atlanta.
But Jesus doesn’t stay dead. The resurrection is the last act-an interruption of human hatred that leaves the beloved community singing “Jubilation.” It’s a great story.
I’ve been thinking of Key and Jordan this Easter, partly because Jesus is in again this year. Heaven is For Real sold $22.5 million in tickets at the box office on Easter weekend. The Duck Dynasty clan has had one book or another on the NYT best-seller list for over a year.
But again, something is missing.
None of the Jesus stories that are getting air time bring to life the essential point that Clarence Jordan made so well:
The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with him, but that he is risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers and sisters with him.
The problem isn’t that there’s nothing good in Heaven is for Real. It just isn’t the good news of the resurrection of Jesus.
As Jews and Christians across North Carolina celebrated Passover and Holy Week, clergy from our Forward Together Moral Movement in North Carolina sent the following letter to our General Assembly leadership. Last summer, over 100,000 people came to the General Assembly to protest extremism and call for a new moral center to our common life. As we prepare for another legislative session this year, we pray for those in authority, that they might have ears to hear.
A few times a week these days I get a call or email from friends around the country who all ask me the same question: so, what’s happening down there in North Carolina?
I’ve taken to telling them that the Civil Rights Movement is getting born again.
Most of them have read a news story or seen coverage of protests against the extremist takeover of NC government in the past year. (If you have an hour, Bill Moyer’s “State of Conflict” is probably the most informative intro.)
But big business is funding quiet extremism everywhere. What my friends want to know is what happened to inspire over a hundred thousand people to rally at the NC Legislature last summer. How in one summer did half as many people (945) get arrested in one state as were arrested nationwide in 1960′s sit-in movement. And how, many have wondered over the past few weeks, did more than 80,000 people march on a state capitol to demand change?
Credit: Creative Commons/Forge Mountain Photography
In school rooms across America, kids like mine are coloring pictures of Martin Luther King and watching slide shows about Ms. Rosa Parks. It’s Black History Month again-”the shortest month of the year,” a friend of mine wryly observes. But it’s amazing how broadly we celebrate those who sat-in, marched, and cried out for justice in America 50 years ago. No one in America today can argue that King doesn’t matter. He’s standing on the National Mall, memorialized in stone.
But remembering our history matters little if it doesn’t reshape how we see the present. While communities across America are telling neat and clean stories about the 1960s, most of the mainstream media is ignoring the biggest broad-based organizing effort in the South since that time.
In the spring of 1961, Kennedy’s White House was focused on Cold War politics. The civil rights struggle in the South felt like a distraction to the President and his staff, the FBI opposed the movement as Communist, and most people in middle America were just getting ready for Mother’s Day weekend.
But the day after Mother’s Day, 1961, a burning bus was on the front cover a newspapers across the country.
In Aniston and Birmingham, AL, the Klan violently opposed integrated riders on public transit. The Justice Department intervened to cool things down. They flew the battered riders to New Orleans and tried to get them off national television. But some students from Nashville insisted that the ride must go on. They took up the cause, and hundreds of them ended up doing time in Mississippi’s Parchman prison. More importantly, “Freedom Rider” became a household name. And the Civil Rights Movement became a force in American politics.
Maybe the most astounding thing about the Freedom Ride of 1961 is this: college students changed the political conversation in America.
A year ago today, my friends Chris and Phileena Heuertz started Gravity: A Center for Contemplative Activism. In twenty years of working among the poorest of the poor, they learned what we’ve learned here: it’s easy to loose your center. But Christian tradition offers us a wealth of resources to help us find our center in prayer. And we have it on good account that this Center holds. To celebrate the first anniversary of Gravity Center, I wanted to share this reflection on how contemplative, liturgical prayer has saved me and our community.
If the Baptists who raised me in rural North Carolina taught me anything, they taught me to love Jesus and the Bible. Hard-working farmers and factory employees, my people had high hopes for me. They stressed education and sent me with care packages to go out and see the world. But however far I might go, they made sure I knew that Jesus and the Bible were at the center of everything. Jesus was our Lord and Savior, the ultimate answer to life’s biggest questions and my heart’s deepest longings. In Sunday school, I learned that you find Jesus through the Bible. The Good Book was our constant companion. We memorized it chapter and verse.
As I crossed the country on Friday, passing through three US airports, Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, was on every TV I saw. She took the stand to testify that it was in fact her son crying out on the 911 call that came in moments before his death. After reading the news, I also learned that George Zimmerman’s mother testified that it was her son and not Trayvon crying for help.
I’m not sure we’ll ever know who was crying out on the recording. But I’m certain that Ms. Fulton and millions of other mothers in this country are crying out for something that our current justice system cannot give: the assurance that their black and brown boys will not be suspect before we bother to learn their name or their story.
Unfortunately for all of us, the most important cry in the Trayvon Martin case is one that will not be heard in the courtroom. The only reason this case has gone to trial is because Mr. Zimmerman is not an officer of the law. It is on record that he called in his concern about a young African-American walking through his neighborhood and was instructed not to pursue him. If Trayvon were my son, the legal question of whether Mr. Zimmerman later acted in self-defense would feel like a moot point. What I would want to scream is that he had no right to chase Trayvon down, and he knew it. Whatever the details of their struggle, the confrontation should have never happened.
Since April, a growing number of North Carolinians have gathered at our state’s General Assembly to collectively petition an extreme legislature whose daily decisions are attacking the general welfare. We have called these gatherings “Moral Mondays,” and an awakening of hope led by people of faith has been at the heart of them. Several weeks ago, our Moral Monday was led by hundreds of pastors, drawing attention from The New York Times. But pastors are not the only people whose faith is inspiring them to action. On this Monday in June, dozens of doctors, nurses, school teachers and environmental activists led the crowd of over 4,000 people. Holly Jordan, a Durham public school teacher, was among those arrested. This is the statement she made on the Halifax Mall before her arrest.
As a public school teacher in North Carolina – not an “outsider” that Governer McCrory alleges is at the helm of the Moral Monday protests, but an educator grounded in and devoted to the community of Durham – I am ardent to stand up for the future of my students. When I came out of college straight into teaching seven years ago, I believed that teaching English was going to be about, well, teaching English. I thought that my task was to impart in my students a love of, or at least a less fervent dislike for, Shakespeare and To Kill a Mockingbird.