LAW AND ORDER – JUSTICE AND GRACE
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
I was born September 23, 1952 in the Cora Donnell Hospital at Prescott, Arkansas, the first child born to black laborers who lived between the towns of Delight and Antoine in Pike County. My black parents were laborers, literate, law-abiding, faithful, and loving souls. My father, like each of his brothers, served honorably in the U.S. military.
My mother lost her father as a child, and her mother supported their family by washing clothes for white families. Somehow, Grandma Bell managed to do enough laundry, by hand, to feed her family and send her youngest daughter to attend high school at the Rosston Training School in Nevada County. Mother finished high school there.
I grew up in Pike County watching a yellow school bus pass by our house on Highway 26 between Delight and Antoine. The bus was occupied by white children who attended Delight High School, located less than three miles from our house.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a unanimous ruling that declared racial segregation in public education a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the law. That ruling has personal meaning to me.
My sister was born in December 1954. Our brother was born in January 1957. Although our parents were industrious, literate, law-abiding, faithful, and loving souls, their children and the children of their black relatives and neighbors in Pike County were not allowed to attend Delight High School until September 1965, a full decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Instead, black children in my community attended the two-room Rosenwald Elementary School beside Harrison Chapel Baptist Church less than a mile from our house (from grades 1 thru 8). At Rosenwald, we were issued school books that had been used by white children. Sometime the restroom worked. When it didn’t, we used an outdoor toilet located behind the school and a short walk from the cemetery where black residents of our community were buried.
Even so, each day we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Each day, we were obliged to follow the Golden Rule. And each day, we recited the school motto: Let us do our best now, for we pass this way but once.
During my ninth grade year, I rode a yellow school bus to Okolona, in Clark County, where I attended Simmons High School, the school for black students in Okolona. I did not receive textbooks for my classes in algebra and biology.
Black children in my community began attending Delight High School in September 1965, the year I entered the tenth grade. That was the first time I saw an algebra book, the first time I attended a school with a library, and the first time I attended a school where the restrooms consistently worked.
My personal, moral, political, and social history afford me a unique insight into the term “law and order.” For as long as I have been alive, and for generations before I was born, “law” has operated to establish and maintain an “order” that is unfair, deliberate, systemic, punitive, and, therefore, corrupt, detestable, evil, indefensible, unpardonable, and wicked.
I saw “good” white people accept the benefits of that “order” for themselves, their white neighbors, and their white children, and then blame black people for being poor, less educated, and angry about it.
I saw “good” white people denounce Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a “rabble rouser,” “outside agitator,” and as “un-American” because he had the courage to declare the “law and order” regime of my childhood sinful.
I saw “good” white people applaud after people who challenged the “order” imposed by that system of “law” were jailed, beaten, bombed, fired from jobs, denied jobs, refused loans, and even murdered.
I saw “good” white people embrace the “law and order” rhetoric of Justice Jim Johnson, Governors Ross Barnett, George Wallace, Lester Maddox, and Orval Faubus, and presidential candidates Barry Goldwater (1964), Richard Nixon and George Wallace (1968), Ronald Reagan (1980), George H.W. Bush (1988), Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996), George W. Bush (2000), and Donald Trump (2016).
I owe my education to black laborer parents and other relatives who encouraged me to read, think, and question despite what “good” white people failed to do and didn’t want done. I owe my education to black teachers who did their best to instruct us despite being denied needed resources.
Despite all the injustices I have mentioned – and others that are unmentionable – I believe in divine love, faith, justice, grace, and hope. I owe my faith in divine love, faith, justice, hope, and grace on black faithful parents and other elders who were honest and righteously outraged about the wickedness of our situation, and honest about the complicity and duplicity of “good” white people concerning it. Yet, they insisted that I believe in love, live by faith, strive for justice for all persons, and meet every situation fueled by a grace-inspired resurrection hope, despite the daily and constant drama and trauma that define being black in this society.
Let us do our best now, for we pass this way but once.
The Hon. Rev. Dr. Wendell Griffen
Circuit Judge, Pastor, Professor, Consultant
New Millennium Church, Little Rock
Resides in Little Rock