My brother and I grew up in a small town in the East Arkansas Delta in the ‘40s and ‘50s. We lived on Division Street. It was a great place to live if you were white. Our small frame rent house was in the last block of South Division before it passed under the railroad tracks and entered the African American community.
Bub and I and three white friends from that tiny one block area loved to play baseball. There was no organized ball back then and no good location to play. However, just beyond the tracks and across Division, was a field covered with weeds knee high to a grown man. Our dad got the owners of the field to mow it for us. I was eleven in that spring of ’53. It was a time when kids could “just be” and adults did not micro-manage every move.
After school that first day, the five of us grabbed our gloves, bats and a ball and headed down to our new field, pulling a red wagon filled with dirt from our backyard for an official pitcher’s mound. The freshly mown grass smelled wonderful. The field was huge—room to run and throw and hit as hard as you could without any worry about breaking a window. It was pretty much Heaven.
Soon, some black kids about our age drifted in and watched us from the sidelines. After a time, the older one came over to me and asked if they could join us. “Of course not,” I said. ”This is our field, and besides, you don’t have any gloves or bats.” You just did not do things like that back then in the Delta.
We returned the next afternoon and our pitcher’s mound was kicked to smithereens. The black kids were sitting quietly on the sideline. Immediately, we went back home, refilled the wagon, headed back, rebuilt the mound, and played ball the rest of the day.
The next afternoon, our mound was flattened again.
This destroy/rebuild malarkey went on for more than a week. We just started bringing a load of dirt on the way down. Not only was it a real pain; something did not feel right.
So, one afternoon after rebuilding the mound, I simply walked up to the kid who had asked about playing. I told him my name and he told me his. When I handed him my glove, he took it, smiled and said, “Thanks.”
We shared equipment and players doubled. Ten kids had a blast that evening until dark. We could hit to all fields. Before, it was an out if you hit to right field. The phrase “our field” forever took on new meaning.
After school the next day, the pitcher’s mound was not disturbed. Also, someone had chalked baselines from home to first and third. Burlap bags with sawdust had replaced our flimsy pieces of cardboard at each base. The Field had become a very special place for some lucky kids from both sides of the tracks.
Four years later in Little Rock, grown-ups politicked to fears, activated troops, closed schools, embarrassed the state forever, and took years to accomplish far less than a few kids did in a little over a week at The Field.
We soon did away with the built up pitcher’s mound. The thing that was the center of so much conflict in the beginning was not even needed when we started playing together.
On blazing hot summer days the whole crew would come to our house and play a creative version of "small ball” in the shade of the huge Walnut tree in our back yard. Over a three-year period, we wore the grass down to bare dirt. The ball bounced true like on a gym floor. Mom would furnish Kool-Aid.
It did not last forever. By junior high we each had other interests at different schools and drifted apart. The grass regrew in our backyard and I played organized baseball through four years of college, then twenty plus years of adult league softball. I never again played a single game with a black teammate. Never.
In 1969, dangerous racial tensions were crackling in our small Delta town. Mom and Dad still lived in the old house on Division. My brother and I were very concerned. We were in our twenties, married, had jobs and lived in other cities. We were back home for a brief visit that summer and sitting on the front porch when a huge African American male walked into our yard and approached us.
It was one of our friends from The Field. The three of us talked and laughed and shared great stories about beautiful times together years before. Eventually, the conversation changed to ugly times happening right then in the town we loved. As our friend started to leave, he said, “Don’t worry about your parents. They will be safe.”
The Field has become one of the driving narratives of my life. The small rent house is gone, but The Field still exists, literally in dirt and grass and powerfully in metaphor. I can still return to my hometown, walk to the center of The Field, and “just be.”
I remember the sweet smell of fresh cut grass from decades before, the surprise of sawdust bags and chalked baselines, the way black and white hands looked together “climbing the bat” for first pick when choosing sides, the reverence our new friends displayed the first time they held a Jackie Robinson bat. I will never forget the deep emotions stirred when our friend assured us of our parents’ safety.
My life has been filled with tremendous blessings. Without question, one was being part of a small group of black and white kids, just being kids, years ago in the East Arkansas Delta, playing ball past sundown… on the same side of Division.
It was pretty much Heaven.
Retired President/CEO of the YMCA of Little Rock and Briston, TN Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, AR
Resided in North Little Rock, AR
I made the decision to become a Clinical Psychologist in the 9th grade while enrolled in a course, entitled, “Personal Problems.” This would be equivalent to a contemporary high school psychology course. In the small town of Malvern, there were no psychologists and at that time we did not even have a mental health center. It was not until my freshman year that I met my first psychologists, my professors at Ouachita Baptist University. It is uncommon for a 14 year old to make a career decision that remains unwavering throughout the course of her education; however, such was my journey. I was in graduate school before meeting my first African American psychologist, Dr. Robert L. Williams, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas. At that time, Dr. Williams was a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. I was unwavering in my decision and knew that I would have to prepare myself academically to compete for graduate school, because I had decided to obtain a PhD in Clinical Psychology.
My family has always encouraged the pursuit of higher education. I am a third generation college graduate. My maternal grandfather and his two siblings graduated from Arkansas Baptist College. During that time, this was their only option for college. My mother completed an associate’s degree from Arkansas Baptist College and later completed her bachelor’s degree from Arkansas Mechanical and Normal College in Pine Bluff, now UAPB. Several other family members graduated from college. The importance of competing academically was part of my DNA.
I graduated magna cum laude from Ouachita Baptist University and ranked 5th in a class of 205. My professors were so supportive of my plans to pursue graduate studies in Clinical Psychology and wrote glowing letters of recommendation. With my academic record, letters of recommendation and other relevant support, there was never a doubt that I would be accepted into graduate school and would have to make a decision. At graduation I had not been accepted and had a collection of rejection letters. Little did I realize that this was a time when graduate schools were not affirming of diversity and closed doors of opportunity for students of color to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology.
I shall never forget how encouraging Dr. Weldon Vogt, my major advisor, was and how he actively researched other possibilities. He made a personal visit to my home in Malvern with names of other schools to consider. He was accompanied by his lovely wife who was our Baptist Young Women’s advisor. Dr. Vogt was relentless in this pursuit on my behalf and encouraged me to apply to the University of Arkansas. Of course, my plans were to get out of Arkansas, especially since my parents insisted that I remain in the state for undergraduate studies. Reluctantly I applied and was accepted.
After arriving on campus I learned about the work of the Association of Black Psychologists, an organization that broke away from the American Psychological Association due to discriminatory and oppressive practices toward psychologists and students of color. One of their initiatives was to challenge universities to diversify their enrollment and open the door for students of color to pursue graduate studies in psychology. The drafter of this Ten Point Program was Dr. Robert L. Williams originally of Little Rock. I am quite sure that Dr. Vogt never met Dr. Williams. However, I am deeply and eternally grateful for the combined efforts of a white psychology professor at Ouachita Baptist University and a black psychology professor at Washington University who collectively worked to open the door for me to pursue a fulfilling career in psychology. Both were working against institutional racism from different perspectives with a mutual goal in mind. How different my life would have been without the combined social justice advocacy of these two great psychologists. It is only through a multiracial, collaborative effort that racism and systemic oppression can be eradicated.
Pat Griffen, Ph.D.
New Millennium Church, Little Rock
Resides in Little Rock, AR
Francis, Forrest, and Race
I grew up in the Arkansas Delta, in St. Francis county, just outside of Forrest City. Of course, St. Francis County is thought to be named after the great 13th century saint- St. Francis of Assisi- who sought to embody the way of Christ in every aspect of life. He established an order within the Catholic church that demanded a vow of poverty, and he saw in every creature a reflection of God’s image. He was known to preach to the birds and spoke of “brother sun” and “sister moon.” Essentially, he emphasized the sacred nature of all things because all of life shares a common source.
Forrest City is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a celebrated Confederate general who became an almost mythical figure in the waning days of the war. He was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and, to one extent or another, was a sympathizer with their white supremacist agenda.
For centuries, our forebears saw no dissonance between the idea that God created all people in God’s image and the idea of white supremacy. Both of these threads of history composed the fabric of the South. White supremacy and Christianity drank coffee at the same diners and slept in the same bed. Most often, they were both at home in the same pew and the same soul. The South pretended as if the way of Francis and the way of Forrest were completely congruent with each other. There was a church on every street corner. People who couldn’t care less about Jesus knew a thing or two about the Bible. “Folk Christianity” was a way of life. On the other hand, the same people who read their Bibles, claimed Jesus as their Lord, and went to church Sunday after Sunday saw no conflict with the pervasive, strategic, and systemic enslavement of an entire race of people. Those who worshipped God on Sunday dehumanized the very ones who bore his image. The very ones who preached Christ crucified failed to see that they were on the wrong side of the cross. The very ones who worshipped a God who does not show favoritism shaped a society that that was built on sinful inequity. Those who heard sermons on the God who liberated the slaves from Egypt had no problem enslaving people on their own.
To be sure, this racism existed in the souls of people all over the South. However, it also crept into the systems which formed their society. Economic, judicial, educational, and political structures all buttressed this racialized society. People created the systems, but in turn, the systems created the people.
After a century of reflection, we find the dissonance between these two ways of life staggering, but for much of our history, people were quite comfortable with both of them. Even after the days of slavery ended, the criminalization of black folks and segregation continued in the Jim Crow South. Again, white Christianity was largely complicit in and supportive of these injustices, oftentimes serving as their greatest ally.
Today, when many people think of racism, they imagine the bad attitudes of bad people. Racism is something that dwells in the minds of vile sinners, something evil people consciously perpetuate. However, many people have yet to consider all the ways racism still exists in our systems. Centuries of societal injustice do not vanish simply because individual people change their attitudes. The systems must change as well. Again, people create their systems but systems also create their people.
Consider these inarguable and verifiable realities of our day:
- 1 in 3 black males will go to prison compared to 1 in 17 white males. Of the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated, 1 million are African Americans, though they are only roughly 12% of the population. African Americans are incarcerated at a higher rate per capita than blacks who lived in South African apartheid! By the way, there are more African American male prisoners in the US than all the inmates of India, Argentina, Lebanon, Canada, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel, and England combined.
- While blacks and whites use marijuana at very similar rates, blacks are 10 times more likely to be arrested for doing so. African Americans serve roughly as much time for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites serve for a violent offense (61.7 months).
- In 2014, the median income for white families in the US was $71,300 compared to $43,300 for blacks. This disparity doesn’t change as education increases. For college educated whites, the median income was $106,600 while it was $82,300 for college educated blacks. Of course, inequalities in income carry with them all sorts of ramifications, including health care discrepancies.
- More than 2 million people of color attend schools in which minority students compose 90% of the student body, indicating that our schools are still segregated. The vast majority of these schools are poor. 16% of blacks drop out of school compared to 8% of white students.
This list of factors is only the tip of the iceberg. What this data reveals are the ways in which disparities in educational opportunities, economic prosperity, and the justice system (from the first contact with police to the final clank of the prison door) create vicious cycles of oppression for people of color.
To be sure, many whites place the blame on the black community, forgetting the sinister history that preceded us and continues to shape our society. We do not all begin at the same starting line. One of the ways we prevent having to repent of our sins is to develop the sort of amnesia that can’t remember them. You can’t repent of what you refuse to remember. You can’t denounce that which you deny exists.
Some whites continue to pretend as if racism is a thing of the past. After all, we don’t usually see evil people explicitly treating racial minorities in disparaging ways. However, this fails to address the systemic racism that continues to plague us. When the deck is stacked against you, the attitude of the dealer doesn’t matter much. The systems of our day have been shaped by centuries of shameful oppression, violence, and neglect. Our racism is not so much personal, as it is systemic. When your systems are racially unjust, your racism need not be overt. All we need to do…is nothing at all. All we need to say…is nothing at all. We can be polite. We can be friendly. We can be kind. But if we refuse to live with some just intentionality, our systems will continue to do our racism for us.
And part of our privilege as white people is the freedom to speak up…or not…because remaining silent has no tangible impact upon our lives. Doing nothing is a choice we have because we sit in a culturally privileged position. The question for us is what we will do with that position. Will we listen to people of color- who know much more about racism than white folks because they live with its effects constantly- for potential solutions? Will we turn a blind eye towards the realities that confront us? Will we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color? Will we live into the full implications of the faith we proclaim?
The good news, amidst all the bad, is that while racism is both personal and systemic, so is the gospel of Jesus Christ. At one and the same time, it addresses the depths of our souls and the breadth of our systems. It is what liberates those who are weighed down by oppression and those who are constrained by their guilt. It is what sets all people on equal footing. It is what invites us to live into God’s grand future.
From my vantage point, Jesus is our only hope in disentangling the ways of Francis from the ways of Forrest. He is the very one- and the only one- who can save us.
Rev. Preston Clegg, D.Min.
Second Baptist Church, Little Rock
Resides in Little Rock
Lessons from My Laundry Class
My high school laundry class is one of the lenses through which I came to learn and understand the way things were and still are concerning race.
When I am leisurely living my daily life a few images dart across my mind that remind me of times past and the similarity of experiences then and relationship to what is happening in the present. I could share at least one story about race every day for the rest of my life and not run out. The reality of living in this country has helped me understand that its systems were designed and established to promote unjust, disparate treatment for some and the plan is working well.
I attended Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was built in 1929 as the Negro School of Industrial Arts chiefly funded by Julius Rosewald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Other funds came from various sources as all available Little Rock building funds were used to build Little Rock High School which is now Central High School. The main purpose of Dunbar High School was to teach labor force skills. It was not intended to be an academic school but one that supported and prepared Blacks (Negroes) for servitude. The curriculum reflected this intent.
My Laundry Class was held in the basement of Dunbar High school in 1949. The room had a concrete floor, several huge tub-like washing machines, dryers that were like industrial cylinders, many ironing boards and irons. Our teacher, Mrs. Jackson’s office was on the west side of the classroom and used to keep records of the intake and outgoing laundry items. The classroom was not the usual design for a classroom but more like a work training setting.
Big bundles of clothes from white families in the city of Little Rock were brought into the classroom on a regular basis. Our job, with instruction, was to learn to wash, dry, fold, iron and package the laundry for delivery back to the families that were supplying the items for our education and training.
My classmates and I received instruction daily about how to perform this operation. I have to admit that I was purposely a slow learner. Something about the class did not excite me enough to work for a good grade. I did not understand how to iron so that I did not leave burn marks on the clothing, especially the men’s shirts. Maybe it was because I did not agree with the reality of the injustice. Scorched and burned pieces caused much harm and earned me many Ds as my class grade.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I was not a much better student in the home economics cooking or sewing classes either. Many teachers were serious about teaching academics despite the intended purpose of the school, a limited budget, used books, equipment, furniture and other materials from Central. They also valued the students as people, and lived in their community. Most did an exceptional job of teaching under the circumstances.
Many students I knew personally left Little Rock after graduating from High School, made valuable contributions to the communities where they chose to live and were very successful. When the systems established by those who govern our national empire begin to work equally for all, there is an immediate movement to make changes. Our national and local educational systems are going through such a change now so that those deemed more worthy will get the greatest benefit. The eyes of the blind have yet to be opened.
From the laundry class I learned to be true to my inner center and not indulge in deception and dishonesty. I gained an awareness level that remains heightened, a gift of discernment and strength to develop a victorious spirit. These gifts have served me well.
And by the way, I still lack good laundry, cooking and sewing skills.
Retired public school educator, administrator, principal & consultant
New Millennium Church, Little Rock
Resides in Little Rock
A Brief Friendship
In February 1948 my father was in his last semester of law school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville when the University admitted Mr. Silas Hunt as a student in the Law School. As I understand the history, Mr. Hunt was the first African American to be admitted to a graduate or professional program in an all-white university in the South.
Through my growing up years, Dad would tell my brother and me about this significant experience in his life.
He told us how he and a couple of other law students made an intentional decision to befriend Mr. Hunt. He told us that University officials had a wooden cubicle built in the back corner of the classroom. It contained a desk for Mr. Hunt with walls high enough so that he could not see out and the other students could not see in. University officials got word that a major magazine was coming to the campus to write a story and take pictures. They had the cubicle dismantled.
After that development, Mr. Hunt began receiving instruction one-on-one from the law professors in the basement of the law school. White students asked to be included in these class sessions with Mr. Hunt.
Dad had been the president of the Baptist Student Union and was an active member of the Baptist church down the street from the campus. He invited Mr. Hunt to attend the BSU with him, where he was well received by fellow students.
Dad also invited Mr. Hunt to attend the Baptist church with him. One day, a leader at the church told Dad that if he continued to bring his friend with him to church, the deacons would kick him out. To which my Dad said he responded: “I can’t think of a better reason to be kicked out of the church.”
In spite of all of the challenges my Dad faced to get into and graduate from law school, he knew that Mr. Hunt faced not only more and harder obstacles; Mr. Hunt faced personal prejudice, racism and systemic injustice daily.
An Arkansan born in Ashdown, Mr. Hunt had served overseas for almost two years during World War II, suffered serious wounds in the Battle of the Bulge, and was left injured on the battlefield for two days.
He returned to college in Pine Bluff while recovering from his wounds, graduated, and entered the law school in Fayetteville.
Dad graduated in the spring of 1948 and traveled to Washington, Alaska and Oklahoma trying to start a career, before taking a job with the Corps of Engineers in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, and then working as an attorney for oil companies in Tulsa, Dallas, Denver and El Dorado.
By the middle of the summer of 1948, after his first semester, Mr. Hunt had to withdraw from school and died in April 1949 from his war-related disabilities.
My father’s brief friendship with Silas Hunt empowered him to find his own way through the prejudices and racism that he had grown up with in his family, Baptist churches, and communities.
This friendship convicted him to become an active advocate for the Civil Rights Movement.
This friendship inspired him to stand with his pastor and fellow church leaders when Dr. Don Harbuck led First Baptist Church to build relationships with African Americans—their churches and communities—in El Dorado, and to open the church’s doors and membership.
This friendship was in his mind when he wrote a letter to the editor of the Arkansas Gazette mourning the assassination of Dr. King. A few days after Dad’s letter was published, a white adult male called our home to label Dad a “communist” for supporting Dr. King.
I know this friendship was beating in Dad’s heart as he shared this story with our mother and with his two sons during our formative years.
And, it was Mr. Hunt’s young courage and determination in the face of undeserved obstacles and unconscionable injustices that made this brief friendship, and its legacy, possible.
Rev. Ray Higgins, Ph.D.
Coordinator, CBF Arkansas
Second Baptist Church, Little Rock
Resides in Little Rock
VIDEO & WRITTEN RESOURCES
“Silas Hunt: A Documentary,” Produced & directed by Chris Erwin. Written by Thomas Jordan. The University of Arkansas Department of Media Service, July 1, 2009.
Guerdon D. Nichols, “Breaking the Color Barrier at the University of Arkansas,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring, 1968), pp. 3-21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40018323
Richard A. Buckelew, “Silas Herbert Hunt (1922-1949),” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
In 1979, one afternoon, while reading an article in our local newspaper concerning the upcoming school election, I shared with my wife my opinion relative to the candidates that had announced their candidacy. My wife sarcastically said to me, “well if you think you can do a better job, why don’t you run?” My response was, “I believe I will.” I immediately jumped into my car and hurriedly made my way to the county courthouse 5 miles away to secure a petition and signatures of eligible voters that had to be completed before 4:30 p.m., as this was the last day for filing. Upon receiving the form, I made my way to the only grocery store in town, secured the necessary signatures from people in the store, and returned to the courthouse just before closingtime.
Being a novice in politics, I proceeded to do what I had seen in past elections, namely, have cards printed and pass them out to people that I met. One particular day, I decided to go to the businesses on main street and pass out cards to the business owners and any other persons that might be there. As I moved up the street, I came to the office of a school board member who was a business man, and there in his office was the chairman of the Democratic Party and the editor of the newspaper. Someone had alerted them that I was coming up the street and so there they were to greet this political novice. After discussing my candidacy, this group told me not to worry about passing out any more cards. They would take care of everything from here on in. All I needed to do was to campaign in my community and go to another city in the county that made up the school district and tell this gentleman that they sent me to talk with him about my candidacy.
At first, I thought that they were trying to trick me, actually. I was skeptical, but then I drove to that city and introduced myself. After talking for a few minutes about the needs of the school district, the gentleman asked me, “who are your folks?” I told him who my grandfather was, and when I did, he let out the loudest laugh and said, “we used to haul logs together, I’ll take care of your campaign in this area.” I was literally shocked and almost in disbelief. A 29 year old black man receiving an endorsement from a man I had never met before, but because he knew my grandfather, he gave me his support.
Well these gentlemen kept their word and on election night I was able to defeat the incumbent President of the board as well as the newcomer by a margin of 16 votes, and become the first person of African Descent to be elected to public office in that county.
At the conclusion of my first term of office, I was re-elected for a second term without any opposition, the first time that had happened in 20 years. People can work together to make a difference.
Dr. Chester Thompson
Senior Pastor, Zion Hill Baptist Church, Camden
Presiding Bishop, Agape Fellowship
Resides in Camden
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
More than the Absence of Bad
I give credit to my parents for teaching me at an early age that God loves all people. My childhood home was no place to share a racially insensitive comment or joke. From an early age, I would have confidently identified as a non-racist. Thanks to the modelling and influence of my parents, I am confident there was no “bad” in my heart connected to race.
However, I’ve come to appreciate that meaningful race relations requires more than simply the absence of bad. It requires the absence of bad plus empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy is hard. Until we’ve walked in another’s shoes, it’s difficult to understand that person’s journey. While I surely have miles to go on my personal journey regarding complicated issues of race, two stories from my past have shaped my appreciation for the importance of empathy in the context of race. Both are connected to an African-American friend of mine named Jonathan.
During my first year in law school, the OJ trial happened. Just to be clear – I was an OJ fan. I had and treasured one of his Buffalo Bills football cards. I remember him running through airports hurdling chairs as he advertised for Hertz. I remember his generally awful performances in the Naked Gun movies. I was shocked that one of my childhood heroes could have been arrested for murdering two innocent people. Surely not. But, as I watched that trial unfold on CNN, I became convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that OJ had committed murder. Had I been on the jury, I would have voted to convict.
However, I watched much of that very public trial as a second semester law student with my good friend and classmate, an African-American. In many ways, he and I had a similar view of the world. We generally saw family and friends and Contracts and Civil Procedure in the same way. But not the OJ trial. When defense attorneys suggested that Detective Mark Fuhrman had a racist past and might have planted critical evidence to convict an innocent man, I simply couldn’t believe it. Jonathan could. And both of our reactions to that trial made perfect sense.
Growing up in a white family that valued all people, it was hard for me to fathom a world where white police officers would do something so horrible. But Jonathan could easily fathom such a world. He knew all too well that such things could happen…and did happen…to members of his own family. In the end, Jonathan may have believed that OJ committed murder. But had he been on the jury, he would’ve had a reasonable doubt about whether or not Mark Fuhrman planted that evidence. I began watching that trial with the absence of bad in my heart. But thankfully, as I watched the OJ trial with my friend, he helped me have a far greater understanding of how and why the OJ case was such a lightning rod for race relations. While I disagreed with the jury’s verdict, I understood it to the best of my ability. If I had Jonathan’s skin color, life experiences, and perspectives, I’d have voted to acquit. I am thankful Jonathan helped me understand what happened in that trial.
As a professor at a private university in the South, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching bright students of many colors and nationalities. During my first several years of teaching, I would have smugly asserted that I viewed every student the same, regardless of race, gender, etc. After all, there was no bad in my heart. I appreciated all my students and made every effort to treat each one equally.
Then a wedding further enlightened my view of race. My friend Jonathan finally decided to tie the knot, and he was kind enough to invite me to his wedding. My wife and I went, thinking we would find a diverse crowd. We did not. As I scanned the church that was full of 400 or so attendees, I saw one other white couple. I realized that my wife and I were minorities. While every person I encountered was kind and gracious, throughout the duration of the wedding and reception I was continually mindful that I was different.
Obviously, this is no parallel to those who have been victims of racism. Nonetheless, this experience enabled me to have a greater understanding of race. When I returned to my classroom the Monday following the wedding, I couldn’t help but pay closer attention to the two African-American students sitting in my classroom. Unfortunately, it’s not terribly uncommon to have just one or two African-American students in a class of 25 students. And for years, I thought it was enough to treat every student the same. Until that wedding, I had no understanding of how different some of my students may feel – even if everyone around them is kind to them. I still have the absence of bad in my heart. But I also have empathy.
I am thankful that my parents taught me the value of all people. I am grateful that they helped prevent any bad from entering my heart regarding issues of race. I am also thankful for Jonathan. He helped me understand that the absence of bad simply isn’t enough. We must do more. We must empathize. I hope we will all find ways this year to practice empathy towards those from whom we are different.
Attorney/Dean/Professor, Ouachita Baptist University
Park Hill Baptist Church
Resides in Arkadelphia
Learning by Example
Children learn by example. Seeing a Christian actually take action based on her belief is a powerful life lesson.
In 1953 my mother was the choir director at the First Baptist Church in Iowa Park, Texas, a small farming town near Wichita Falls. She was also completing her music education degree at Midwestern University and like most young families we needed the extra income of her choir director job.
In one of her music classes at the college she became friends with a young African American woman who had an extraordinarily lovely voice. Mom had invited her to sing a solo at church and they had rehearsed several times in our living room.
The civil rights movement as we know it was yet to come, and this was an all-white church in a small Texas town. Racial segregation was the norm. No doubt it took great courage for that young black woman to accept the invitation to sing! Cultural attitudes toward blacks out there on the north Texas prairie were, in my observation, never as extreme as in the deep South, and the black woman's lovely solo was politely received that Sunday morning. She may have been the first black woman to attend a service there and was very likely the first to sing a solo!
However, the pastor and evidently some of the congregation were not pleased at this breach of protocol. The pastor scolded Mom and told her never to do it again. But Mom, something of a crusader by nature, was determined to make her point that racial bias was wrong and the church of all places should welcome everyone regardless of skin color. Now defiant, despite the pastor's warning, she invited the black woman back to sing another solo. Mom was fired.
As a small child I remembered the dinner table conversations and Mom’s stubborn refusal to compromise her belief, knowing the consequence.
She was a courageous Christian.
Perhaps it was that episode that prompted my defense of a fellow black Airman two decades later. It was during a formal equipment inspection and I'd just witnessed the squad leader, a bigoted bully, who was conducting the inspection, tamper with the black man's equipment and then accuse him of failing to follow instructions! The infraction would have resulted in disciplinary action. The example my mom had set in my childhood must have come awake in my subconscious and before I could stop to think about it (one of the unspoken rules of survival in boot camp is to keep a low profile) I called out the squad leader and he backed off. I relate this incident not to boast--it was a relatively insignificant thing I did-- but as an example of the powerful and lifelong impact on a child witnessing a Christian acting on her conviction.
Retired, Public Relations/State Government Agency Director
Second Baptist Church, Little Rock
Resides in Little Rock
RETURNING TO ELAINE
As I have read the other stories in this series, I feel reluctant to even write an article. I cannot begin to give the type of personal experiences that others have expressed. Other than working with a few black children as a school counselor, I simply don’t have these experiences in my earlier years. Yes, I have learned much from reading and conferences. Even though I have been going to Elaine for over 18 years and knew of the racial division, I am still learning in bits and pieces, especially after the opening of the Civil Rights Park.
Before getting to my story of working in Elaine, I want to note the injustice of leaving that area of Phillips County without a school, without educators in the community, without after-school and weekend activities. The children who are affected the most are the black children. People who make these decisions should ride a bus with the students in the morning and return home to the opportunities offered these students. The Lee Street Community Center has lots of plans, but not enough to make up for a school.
Here I am returning to my elementary school background. This is a lesson I used with third grade students that was helpful to the only black child in one of my classes. My friend and co-worker in Elaine, Ora Scaife, and I have talked about this visual aid. It concerns the description “black” and “white.” Ora is nowhere near “black” and I am nowhere near “white.” My students liked ice cream! “Chocolate” and “vanilla” are certainly closer than “black” and “white.” Maybe we need a field trip to the ice cream store to match our skin colors. (Most children in Elaine have never seen an ice cream store.)
As a counselor, I was also a parent educator. Here is recommended reading on teaching young children about race relations: Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (Chapter 3, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” and eye-opening information on other topics as well.)
Being in Elaine has given me amazing opportunities. I have no doubt that God had Brother Andrew Gibson and I in His plan book for a mission after the school closed. At our first contact when Ben Newell (founder along with Leonora, his wife, of Together for Hope Arkansas in 2002) introduced us, we were both enthusiastic about working together. I had acquaintances in town, but never a close friend in Elaine to work with. Then I met Pastor Andrew’s mother, who still lives on the last street on the north side of town, and his wife, Catherine Gibson, and the other members of Divine Deliverance Church. And then, our churches became friends. Divine Deliverance has come to Fayetteville several times and groups from Rolling Hills Baptist Church go to Elaine. We even have a place to stay, in case any of you want to join us.
Ora is the person I work with the most, but it isn’t just work that we share. We are a sort of mother-daughter team. We realized that to do our work, we simply had to put things in terms of “black” and “white.” For example, white children will not come to the community center in the black side of town. With no stores open, black children seldom come downtown (one of the reasons the Civil Rights Park is on Main Street.)
Brother Andrew had a portable school building donated for the Community Center. After much fund-raising, it was moved to Lee Street which is in the poorest section of town. Students watch for a car to park out front. They come even if we haven’t announced an activity. They are eager for something to do. Our mission is to provide positive activities while showing God’s love. And, the added blessing is that the children see black and white adults laughing and working together!
In a recent CBF magazine, there was an article about “no helicopter missions.” We appreciate groups that accomplish a specific purpose and move on, but mostly we need people who want to return and return again to build relationships with these children. It is individual relationships that build better race relations, not some program written on paper. Do you realize some of these children may not have an on-going relation with any “vanilla” person other than those at the Lee Street Community Center? We are looking for a churches and individuals, black and white, who live closer to Elaine to provide more opportunities for these students.
In closing, here is a story about the value of returning to Elaine. About 10 years ago, we had collected schools supplies, but no one else could go to Elaine. I pulled in the parking lot of the low-income apartments. The children came running. We had lessons on the curb, and I gave out supplies. The children knew me from school, because there was no community center. I didn’t know until later that I should have been surprised the children joined me. I learned parents call their children inside when a white person arrives, but I was a white person the parents trusted. It’s only a small detail in race relations, a detail that made a difference in that situation.
Elementary Educator, Counselor & Author
Named a 2016 Arkansan of the Year by Arkansas Life magazine
Rolling Hills Baptist Church, Fayetteville
Resides in Fayetteville
Race Relations and TURNING POINT PARK
On October 1, 2016, the Lee Street Community Center opened TURNING POINT PARK on Main Street in Elaine. The Bridge Grant provided the biggest portion of funding for the park. (We continue to need and raise funds to keep the park open.)
The park honors Scipio Africanus Jones who was born a slave and became a lawyer who saved the lives of 12 African Americans who were sentenced to death after the massacre of 1919 in which over 200 African Americans were killed. He took a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but did not get to argue the case there. He would have been the first black lawyer argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case resulted in a new interpretation of the 14th Amendment, giving all citizens, not just white, due process of the law.
Inside the park is the original interior door from a one-room school house built in the early 1900’s. A story written to go with it makes you stop to think of the many people who turned that door knob, most of them African American. The door is a historical treasure that could have easily disappeared with the unstable building.
Under the pavilion, there are nine musical instruments, with two more on the wish list.
Recently, the park included a lighted, nine-foot Christmas tree decorated with cotton and candy.
All the benches are moveable so that the park can be used for a variety of activities.
Our park does not tell the story of the 1919 riot. That story is introduced on the State Park Historical Board which is just across the railroad tracks from Turning Point Park. The park’s purpose is not to present the turmoil, but to recognize the progress made by Scipio Jones and the Supreme Court.
The park serves as a steppingstone into activities happening before October, 2019. There is nothing in the park that should stir up any anxiety in the town. However, it has happened, even though very few residents have come to see the park.
Here are some observations:
- There are only a very few residents who do not believe the history that has been discovered. Respectfully, they accept what has been passed down to them.
- Most residents don’t want it talked about because they don’t want their town known for that and the past is the past and it is better to leave it alone and move on.*
- There are residents who accept the history but have firm relationships with those who don’t want it talked about.
- Most of the guests for the grand opening were from out of town. Few white residents attended. Few black residents attended.
*Residents would learn that very little of the killing was done by Elaine residents or in Elaine itself. About 500 armed men came to the area and 500 more from Camp Pike. Even though some white landowners started the rumor, the extent of the killing was out of local control. Some white families protected black families.
- We respect those with differing thoughts and realize that if we didn’t research for ourselves, we would agree with what our grandparents taught.
- We understand that it is not a pleasant topic for the community, but we know it is going to become much more public in the next three years—even if we did nothing. We know of two or more documentaries being made and at least 30 – 40 people around the country who are studying this history. We have not initiated any of this.
- We respect long-term relationships. Sometimes it is better to not talk and wait for the right time. (You know that if you’ve had a spouse or a teenager.) Scipio Jones was very skilled at knowing when to save announcements and when to speak up. We are not trying to force people to talk, but to prepare them for the talk that will be happening about Elaine.
- We did have the Mayor of Elaine and some other white friends at the opening ceremony and understood why others did not attend. We had to think about why we didn’t have more African American residents. Some of the oldest black residents still find the topic too painful to discuss. Some may have not seen the mail or posters. Some did not want to appear to start “trouble.” Some didn’t understand what we were doing. Some didn’t find it important. And, some of the members of a group that sang left after the opening activity and didn’t stay for the history part of the ceremony.
The saddest thing we have heard is a rumor that the park is meant to stir up racial conflict. All we can do is pray and continue to be who we are.
We are concerned about how this history will be taught in this part of the state. The teacher can present it in a manner that encourages learning from the past and reconciliation or that builds up resentment and more racial conflict.
We feel some of this has an effect on our fundraising. We will continue to look for funds to open the park at set hours for residents and visitors. We will work with other nonprofits to plan city-wide activities. Most important is that we focus both downtown and at the community center on the children who need positive activities.
With a presence both downtown and in the black community, our goal is to bring hope, not discouragement, to Elaine.
Elementary Educator, Counselor & Author
Named a 2016 Arkansan of the Year by Arkansas Life magazine
Rolling Hills Baptist Church, Fayetteville
Resides in Fayetteville
I never had the luxury of just being a human being; no one in our area did. You were either white or black. This was the racial discourse of the Mississippi Delta in the decades of my childhood and adolescence—1970s-1990s. I was white—sort of. I embodied a problem—a terrible problem at the intersection of race and class. I was that hybrid monster white trash. By race, I had all the privilege of whiteness. By class, I was among the poor. This contradictory, paradoxical space is what I call liminal whiteness. I cannot overlook the fact that I was a boy. This fact afforded me tons of privilege that my sister resented and could never accept and rightfully so. Being a white, heterosexual male should have put me in the powerful position of the dominant leaders of Western civilization—all except that poverty thing. That thing positioned me on the farthest reaches of whiteness on the border with that which is white and that which is not white—other. Mississippi has a legacy of these boundaries. The only people with permission, however hush-hush the permission was, to transgress these boundaries were wealthy white men who had all sorts of illicit affairs with all sorts of women, girls and boys with biracial children to prove it—but nobody talked about this other liminal space (the red babies according to the Black community; high-yellow according to the White community). It was a place of scorn to be too light or too dark in the Black community of the Mississippi Delta. That was a different kind of “mixed” or hybrid than me. Besides my Cajun daddy, I was white to the bone—whatever that means. My hybridity blurred the simple white/black binary. Being white, I could pass as long as I dressed a certain way, “carried myself” a certain way, spoke a certain way, and understood the “manners” of real white people. All this, of course, is performance and I had the right costume to play the part, i.e. the right skin color. The problem was the fact that I sincerely did not know some of the social rules of real whites, and I sincerely hated many of the other rules of real whites. (Read real white as rich white or at least not poor white). I was ridiculed along with my sister and mother and father as a skank. This is the dirtiest word a real white can call a poor white. The term white trash hadn’t gained its popularity at this point; skank was the term du jour—or trailer trash, that one burned, too. These terms policed the class border between real whites and trash. These terms verbalized a host of social actions performed by real whites—the awful, patronizing/distaining gaze (chin raised ever so slightly, eyes directed down the middle shaft of the nose, slow head movement from the toes to the head then right into my eyes—my dignity always retreated when their eyes encountered mine). Mine would quickly shoot to the ground and make my whole head bow down. I hated myself for that reaction, but I have never been able to stand there and gaze back. All my hate just tucked up under my legs like a scared dog. I hated them even more for making me feel that way. I was a physically strong, good looking kid that was outgoing and smart, but I coward under this gaze every time. These were my social superiors and I instinctively “knew my place.” There was a place for everything and everybody and I knew I was poor. So poor, in fact, that my sister and I went to public school. Very few white people were this poor and it was the most definitive line between whiteness and trash that existed. All good white people/real white people went to private schools that were all white. This is how real white people overcame the degradation of integration. They just built their own schools and the beauty of it all was that they didn’t ever have to worry about trash getting confused anymore. Trash went to school where they belonged—with Black people. It was through these negotiations with whites that we understood that we were never quite white.
It was a whole different kind of racial and social negotiation within the Black community—the community in which I lived and breathed more than anywhere else. At school, it was always made clear that I was not Black. My de facto nickname was White Boy. “Hey, White Boy, come over here.” “What’s up, White Boy?” “You crazy, White Boy.” It was seldom used as a pejorative term, but it could be! “M—f—in’ White Boy!” “G—damn White Boy!” “Sorry ass, White boy!” Mostly a term of endearment, but always a term of othering, White Boy functioned to let me know (most of the time) that I was loved and accepted but certainly and unequivocally white. No matter how much time I spent with my friends, no matter what school I went to, no matter how much I performed blackness, I was always white—White Boy. The best example of this came on a fall day after school. I was with a lot of my school friends playing football in the neighborhood. Needless to say, I was the only white kid. After we finished playing, Greg told everybody to come to his house because his mamma was cooking cheeseburgers. As soon as he said it, he stopped quickly. Everybody stopped and looked at me, then looked at Greg, then Greg—wide-eyed—swallowed deeply and said, “You can come, too, Jason. I think it’s okay.” The uncertainty in his voice was matched only by the body language of all of us. We were in an awkward moment of transgressing racial boundaries. We got to Greg’s house within minutes and we all walked in. Mrs. Flippins was at the stove frying the burgers on a caste iron skillet. She smiled when we all walked in and then had to do a double take. She looked at me and looked at the skillet. She did this multiple times and each time she took more time to move her gaze between me and the skillet. Finally, she said, “I got a white boy up in my house.” It sounded more like a question than a statement. She repeated it. She asked, “You want a cheeseburger?” Her tone indicated that she knew I did and that she didn’t really want to make me one. It was uncomfortable for every one of us. We were all waiting to see what was going to happen. I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She fixed me one. Then repeated, “I got a white boy up in my house.” It became her mantra. Every time she said it the more comfortable she got with the idea. The tone of her voice moved from severe, to compromising, to accepting. By the time she quit her mantra I had eaten my second cheeseburger and she was smiling when she said it, “I got a white boy up in my house!” I should mention that the cheeseburgers were terrific! I was never asked back to Greg’s house, and come to think of it, I was never invited to any of my friend’s houses except for that accidental invite after a fun game of neighborhood football. It wasn’t that I wasn’t welcomed or anything like that; it was just that we were kids and we had never seen anything like that in our lives—white people in black people’s homes and black people in white people’s homes. How can little kids in 7-8th grade playing football in the back yard figure that stuff out? We did not create these racial boundaries; we were born within them, and I embodied an impossible position on the border. In school, my white skin afforded me very little privileges—it afforded me my first fist fight in 6th grade, ridicule for having a little dick (all white boys had little dicks—I didn’t really know what this meant in 6th grade, but I knew it was bad), ridicule for having dog’s hair, ridicule for embodying all that my classmates were taught to hate about white people. My best friends called me Jason; my worst enemies called me “white bread, chicken shit honky.” All of them knew I was white; but only in relation to them. However, if I was really white, I would have never known them—and I would have been less of a real person.
Negotiating racial space especially in an area of intense and historical racism without a good vocabulary to have racial discourse is simply too difficult for children. I am not trying to create a minority position for myself. I am too painfully aware of white privilege in American society to do that. I am also painfully aware of male gender privilege in American society. I am writing this because I think it is important. Marked whiteness or liminal whiteness like mine provides a good position to deconstruct race. In my lived experience with race—specifically liminal whiteness—the simple categories of white/black begin to break down. As these social constructs are dismantled, I think we can begin to have racial discourse that moves toward giving life rather than barricading it out of fear and tradition. I also hope this story of liminal whiteness helps us see how issues of identity and otherness are always complicated and never self-evident.
*This article was originally published on the CBF blog in October 2016.
Rev. Dr. Jason Coker
Coordinator, CBF Mississippi & ? CBF’s Together for Hope
Northside Baptist Church, Clinton, MS
Resides in Clinton, MS
Many times, mother didn’t hire a babysitter. She would often take my sister and me shopping.
On one of those trips as a small child to the old Goldsmith Department Store in downtown Memphis, I first discovered how connected we all are.
While Mom shopped, I went to get a drink of water.
In those days in the 1950s, public water fountains were separate, one labeled “whites”; others “colored.”
On the way to the fountains, curiosity got the best of me. I looked behind them. Maybe some contraption that produced specialized water was there.
Then, I ran to mother. “Mom, Mom,” I said, pointing. “The water for both of these is from the same pipe? What changes the water when it gets to the fountain?” That’s when I first learned that perceived racial division was what was projected on the outside. But there was a common source.
Fast forward to 1968 and the aftermath of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination.
Mother, who was amazing as a Southern woman of her generation who never had a problem with race, taught typing and shorthand in an all-black high school in inner-city Memphis.
After the King assassination, Mom was afraid. So afraid that although she was adverse to firearms, Dad bought Mom a tear gas gun to take to her school. Mom was scared, particularly after school officials installed emergency buttons on each teacher's desk in case immediate help was needed.
She remained fearful.
Then, one rainy day, she picked up a group of African-American girls walking to school.
At first, they were afraid. They were fearful Mom indeed had a gun and was picking them up to shoot them. Their parents were afraid of what a white person might do to them.
Mom discovered that the young girls were just as afraid of her and her race as she was of them and their race.
In the weeks that followed, Mom regularly picked up those girls, and others, and gave them a ride to school. They developed a wonderful relationship.
She discovered, as I did years before, that despite differences from the outside, we all are sustained from the same pipeline.
Sports Columnist, Conway Log Cabin Democrat
Second Baptist Church, Little Rock
Resides in North Little Rock
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas
Celebrates Black History Month
The initial national recognition of the history of black people in America was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as “Negro History Week.” Carter G. Woodson was the son of a slave, born in New Canton, Virginia on December 19, 1875. He enrolled in high school at age 20 and studied at Berea College, the University of Chicago, the Sorbonne, and completed a Ph.D. in 1912 from Harvard University. February was chosen as the month for this celebration because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12th and of Frederick Douglas on February 14th. The Black community had celebrated these dates together since the late 19th century.
Carter G. Woodson, an educator, historian and author, decided that people needed to know about Black people in America. He is called the “Father of Black History.” He thought it was important to know, honor, and celebrate the history of what Black people had done in the past and currently. Woodson contended that this teaching was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within the broader society:
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of world persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”
In keeping with the belief and traditions of Dr. Woodson, it is important to know, honor and celebrate the history of Black Americans and their contributions to this country. Sadly, very little is known about the history of Black Americans by the masses. For that reason, CBFAR pauses in 2017 to celebrate the history of a people who contributed significantly to the foundation of this nation.
Each year the Association for the Study of African American Life and History chooses a theme. The theme for 2017 is, “The Crisis in Black Education.”
How timely, how fitting for this to be the 2017 theme in light of the current state of public education across the country and especially in Little Rock, Arkansas, the home of the Crisis of 1957, the home of the Little Rock Nine. 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the Integration of Central High School by nine very brave and courageous young people ranging in age from 14-17.
Because of the relevance and timeliness of this theme, it is important to present the ASALH’s 2017 executive summary in its entirety.
The Crisis in Black Education
Executive Summary 2017
The theme for 2017 focuses on the crucial role of education in the history of African Americans.
ASALH’S founder Carter G. Woodson once wrote that “if you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race.” Woodson understood well the implications associated with the denial of access to knowledge, and he called attention to the crisis that resulted from persistently imposed racial barriers to equal education. The crisis in black education first began in the days of slavery when it was unlawful for slaves to learn to read and write. In pre-Civil War northern cities, free blacks were forced as children to walk long distances past white schools on their way to the one school relegated solely to them. Whether by laws, policies, or practices, racially separated schools remained the norm in America from the late nineteenth century well into our own time.
Throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century and continuing today, the crisis in black
education has grown significantly in urban neighborhoods where public schools lack resources,
endure overcrowding, exhibit a racial achievement gap, and confront policies that fail to deliver
substantive opportunities. The touted benefits of education remain elusive to many blacks of all
ages. Tragically, some poorly performing schools serve as pipelines to prison for youths.
Yet, African American history is rich in centuries-old efforts of resistance to this crisis: the
Slaves’ surreptitious endeavors to learn; the rise of black colleges and universities after the Civil
War; unrelenting battles in the courts; the black history movement; the freedom schools of the
1960s; and local community-based academic and mentorship programs that inspire a love of
learning and thirst for achievement. Addressing the crisis in black education should be
considered one of the most important goals in America’s past, present and future.
As a progressive body committed to being, “. . . the presence of Christ,” I challenge you to educate yourself about the history of African Americans in Arkansas and in America. With the 60th Anniversary of the Crisis of 1957 approaching, I have prepared a reading list to expand your knowledge about the history of racism in education in Arkansas. Let us, CBFAR, join the fight for equality in education for all children.
Beals, Melba Pattillo. Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High. New York: Washington Square Books, 1994.
Bates, Daisy. The Long Shadow of Little Rock. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
“Fifty Years Later.” Special issue, Arkansas Times. September 20, 2007.
Kirk, John Andrew. Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas 1940–1970. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
LaNier, Carlotta Walls, and Lisa Frazier Page. A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School. New York: One World/Ballantine, 2009.
Reed, Roy. Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Roberts, Terrence. Lessons from Little Rock. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2009.
Roberts, Terrence. Simple, Not Easy. Little Rock: Parkhurst Brothers, Inc., 2010.
Roy, Beth. Bitters in the Honey: Tales of Hope and Disappointment across Divides of Race and Time. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.
Dr. Patricia L. Griffen
Clinical Psychologist and CBF Arkansas Moderator
New Millennium Church, Little Rock
Resides in Little Rock
Making Mayberry A Better Place
I grew up in Bentonville, AR, at a time when there were fewer than 20 African-Americans living in the county, all of them in Bentonville. According to the 1860 census, there were 384 slaves in Benton Co. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, the decline of the black population coincided with the decline of tobacco as a cash crop. The "Bentonville Colored School", which offered classes through 8th grade, was closed in the 1940's, as most black citizens had left for better economic opportunity. Black students wanting to attend high school were forced to move away to cities with high schools that admitted African-Americans. This further diminished the town's dwindling black population. In 1954, the last teacher of the all black school was still teaching one young boy in her home, when the US Supreme Court handed down its decision on the Brown v. Board of Education case. Bentonville Public Schools soon quietly integrated with the admission of this 3rd grade boy.
As a Bentonville student who graduated from high school in 1970, I was only vaguely aware of a handful of students of color in our school system. Most of them were several years younger than I. I knew that a black man, a graduate of Bentonville High School, hung out at the DX station with a group of white counterparts. (Not until a few years ago did I learn this was the same 3rd grader who was the first black student in our previously all-white schools.) I also knew that Rabbit Dickerson operated a shoe shine shop just off the town square and Mr. Dickerson's wife, Cinco, was the teacher of the black 3rd grader admitted to our schools. But my interaction with all of the aforementioned was extremely limited. My contact with any type of diversity in Bentonville was fairly limited to classmates Danny, a Jehovah's Witness, and Imogene, a Cherokee Indian. That is to say, my contact with racial diversity was nearly non-existent. It is also true I was fully unaware of the particulars of race and segregation throughout the first century, or so, of my hometown's existence. In my young mind, things in "Mayberry" were, and had always been, upright and good.
After graduating from the University of Arkansas, where my contact with racial diversity was similar to my slight Bentonville experience, I took a job in Houston, working for a department store chain. Primarily through work related relationships, I got to know many African-Americans and Hispanics persons. These experiences were enjoyable ones and they served to open my young adult eyes to a realization that a "we-they" attitude on race came from a subhuman corner of the world.
After several years in Houston, I moved back to Bentonville and eventually made the acquaintance of Elizabeth and Chris Robertson, a black couple who retired in Bentonville, after many years of living and raising family in California. The Robertsons and I were active in the same community organization, so we routinely interacted with one another. The Robertsons were a welcoming, pleasant, conversant, charming couple who readily volunteered time, effort, and resources. As it turned out, Elizabeth was one of the last African-Americans who grew up in Bentonville but was forced to live elsewhere to earn a high school diploma. This was my first contact with someone who was denied education in our Bentonville "Public" Schools.
In time, Elizabeth was presented with an honorary diploma from Bentonville High at spring graduation ceremonies. My emotions are still all over the place as I think about that event, ranging from appreciation of the acknowledgment of Elizabeth's unjust struggle, to despair that anyone would ever be forced to endure it. Elizabeth was always full of grace for those around her and never expressed bitterness with the community that prevented her from attending our local high school because of the color of her skin. That Elizabeth and her husband were willing to make Bentonville their retirement home is a thought and example worth contemplation. There were, and still are, valuable lessons to learn from them. My life was made richer by knowing Elizabeth and Chris, and my understanding of the injustice some of God's people in America have faced and overcome was greatly enhanced.
Today, racial and ethnic minority groups make up 26% of the rapidly growing Bentonville School District. There are a little over 500 African-American students, with even more Asian and Hispanic students enrolled. While their experiences with access to secondary education are markedly better than was Elizabeth Robertson's, anyone who is fully aware of 21st Century life in America knows we still have much work to do to insure racial justice prevails in all segments of our society. All of us should make it a matter for prayer......including those of us in Mayberry.
Retired retail background
Former Moderator, CBF Arkansas
First Baptist Church, Bentonville
Resides in Bentonville
Even Before Martin Luther King, Jr.
Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m old enough to remember watching him on television news, old enough to remember hearing sound-bites of his speeches and being enthralled not so much by what he said as by how he said it. And I’m old enough to remember the night when the program I was watching was interrupted by a special news bulletin: “Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead. He was assassinated late today on the balcony of his Memphis hotel room. More to follow as information becomes available. Now back to your regularly scheduled program.” I was in seventh grade at the time, living in a community whose black population added up to the whopping total of 0—that's a big fat zero. Civil rights was no pressing issue in our town. Still, I remember feeling a sense of shock and a twinge of pain on that April night in ’68.
As I grew up and entered the world of preaching, I became fascinated with the preaching and speaking of Dr. King. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched and read his 1963 speech in Washington—you know, the “I have a dream” speech. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a speech or sermon that moved me more. It still moves me after all these years. From a content standpoint, has anyone ever said so much in so few words—articulating what could be and should be the true American dream? And as a preacher, has anyone said it better—the rhythm, the cadence, the images? That was soaring oratory at its finest! The fact that the speech is still seared into America’s consciousness after almost 47 years is testimony enough to its power.
So, as we remember and celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, I reflected a bit on what I’d done to advance the cause of civil rights. And here’s the sum of it: not much. I have some black friends. I’ve swapped pulpits a few times with a couple of black pastors. But I’ve never marched, never paid a price, never done anything in this area worthy of note. Not one thing.
But my grandfather Samuel Tucker McCallum did—and he did it in deep Dixie before the phrase civil rights was even in our national vocabulary. Around 1910 or 1911 a tornado swept through Union Church, Mississippi, where my grandfather was managing his father’s farm. The twister damaged some of the farm buildings. And when the storm was over my grandfather went to check on the black families who lived on the place. When he arrived at one of the houses, a mother was dissolved in tears. “My baby’s gone! My baby’s gone! The storm blew my baby away,” she cried. Granddaddy did his best to comfort her. He tried to give her hope by telling her that he had heard stories of children who had survived such things, and that he would go make careful search for the child.
And sure enough, he found the baby about fifty yards from the house. He was under a small tree, laying on his back in a puddle of water, crying to beat the band, trembling and scared, but apparently unhurt. My grandpa scooped that baby up in his strong arms, carried him back to his mama as quickly as he could, and turned her tears into a smile so big it would have taken a wide-angle lens to get it all in the picture. And that boy’s mama was so thrilled and so grateful to get her baby back alive that she changed the baby’s name right there on the spot. She said, “From now on this baby’s name is Sam.” Get it? That's my grandfather's name. And from that time forward and until his death, that boy was known by all as ‘Cyclone Sam.’
Cyclone Sam grew up to be a farmer in the area. He lived to a ripe old age and used to bring vegetables to some of my grandfather’s cousins who lived in Jackson. He never forgot what my grandfather did for him and his family. Once he even made a trip to Jackson when he heard my Aunt Martha would be there so he could greet her and personally thank her for what her father, Sam McCallum, had done for him so many years ago. And when Cyclone Sam died, my Aunt Martha and Aunt Nettie were able to attend his funeral. When the ushers heard their names, they were seated with Cyclone Sam's family and enjoyed a wonderful visit with them after the service.
The event that spawned all this took place a hundred years ago. Things weren’t good for black people in the South in those days. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his vision would do a lot to make things much better a few decades later. But it’s amazing how a simple act of compassion and love opened up doors of relationship that transcended the color of one’s skin and proved that while laws are helpful, love is even better. Oh, and you know what else? I’m pretty sure that if Dr. King had heard this story, even while in jail for his work, it would have made him smile.
This piece first appeared on Dr. McCallum's blog "Life at the Altar."
Dr. John McCallum
Pastor, First Baptist Church, Hot Springs
Resides in Hot Springs
As long as I can remember I have been puzzled by how easy we can lump people together based only on the color of their skin. I missed this childhood lesson and I believe it was due to the inclusive and Christian behavior of my mother.
It was a warm spring Saturday morning in 1967. I had just finished breakfast and was standing in my parents’ dining room. I was looking out the screen door wondering what I wanted to do. We lived in Jacksonville, AR, a small town with space to roam and explore. Just then two people walked up. I could see them but I knew having grown up with screen doors they would not be able to see me. It was a white woman and a black man. My mother operated a home daycare and I was pretty sure they were here to talk about putting their child in her care. The woman knocked. “Mom,” I said. “Someone’s at the door.” My mother who was in the kitchen looked up from kneading her dough and called out, “come in.” The woman stepped in the house but the man lingered outside by the front of my dad’s car. My mother was walking into the dining room, wiping her hands on her apron, just as the woman was keeping the screen door from slamming shut. As my mother was exchanging pleasantries she noticed the man hanging around outside. My mother calmly walked over, opened the door and with a smile said, “Sir,” you are welcome in my home.
This moment was immediately and permanently chiseled into my brain. In an instant I was aware of how my mother’s faith did not guide her behavior it guided her beliefs and it was her beliefs that guided her behavior.
Coordinator, Second Baptist Church Little Rock MLK Reads Program/Magician & Illusionist
Second Baptist Church, Little Rock
Resides in Sherwood, AR
“So do they just give you hell, because you’re white?” she asked before even landing in a chair at the campus Starbucks where we’d agreed to meet.
I was a couple of semesters into graduate school at Howard University, part of a journey that both brought me to and had taken me away from Arkansas. Raised in southern Africa by white American parents, college in Arkansas near where my grandparents lived, on to a Master’s in history and then, upon the recommendation of my MA-program, Howardite advisor, to HU—the best place, he’d said, to finish my particular project. Acquaintances would call it “a series of interesting choices,” as though choosing the best academic institution was a stroke of social experimentation.
In the course of all of this, I spoke often with my fellow white Americans. They’d sometimes ask empathetic questions and listen to long-winded answers. More often than not, however, people made comments like the one above, dropped in half-aggressively to another conversation. These began shortly before enrollment. It seems that every(melanin-lacking)one had a brother’s ex-girlfriend’s niece’s best friend’s grandmother who attended an HBCU and suffered some traumatic ridicule—even in the days before the likes of Rand Paul or Rachel Dolezal further populated this urban myth. It continued with questions like “Are they just mean to you all the time?” or “Do they sit around and complain about white people nonstop?” From “What foreign language do you have to take? Ebonics?” to “But you’re so short and small!” The last one particularly confused me, as though small stature has anything to do with academic standing and . . . oh, it’s about physical threats to white femininity from communities of color. I get it.
This is not a unique story, either in my own context or in wider Arkansas (or America). I grew up hearing constantly that I was American while people born and raised in the United States—people who know all about Schoolhouse Rock and Star Wars and whatever else you guys were doing here in the 1980s and 1990s—continue to have their American identity questioned. I returned in high school to American questions about riding elephants to school and why everything is so messed up over there because I saw it in a movie or that one news story and whether those white southern Africans are just the worst because somebody has to be more racist than us.
So many of these comments take place in the context of “just making conversation.” They are intended to be innocent conversation starters. They’re supposed to connect us across some commonality. And that is where discussing them gets thorny.
Because so many—even most—of these comments come from people who claim to have _________________ friends and who would think it impolite to utter these particular words to a person of color. Who volunteer on MLK Day. Who read Ta-Nehisi Coates and voted for Barack Obama. Maybe even twice. And innocent though these comments seem to those making them, they believe the fact that racism is not just night-riding in a white sheet (though it is also that), but the degree to which “we” see a line between ourselves and “they.”
While these barbs may range, they all take place within situations where white people (who often publicly profess to be skin-color blind) feel comfortable admitting that they do in fact possess a strong racial identity. They end, mostly, with me feeling that I should have responded more and/or more forcefully.
This is not a unique story in a wider American context, because a large and increasing number of Americans spend large amounts of time in communities from which they differ racially or ethnically. More than one-quarter of marriages transcend the construction of race. Adults adopt children who look dramatically different than them, and people befriend each other (like, real friendship, not the “I have a _____ friend, so I can say whatever I want about their kind” type) across the squiggly, constantly moving color line. Many people exist simultaneously on multiple sides of it and have for centuries. But, in those (often many every day) lingering conversations where we look around a room and assume a similar experience based upon skin color, we ask each other to give accounts of some of our most profound relationships in a sentence or two following the barbed question. We assume—those of us living within a dominant culture that usually allows complexity and nuance for itself--that race is a unifying impermeable which ensures that every interaction with “them” will follow the same formulaic pattern. We view PWIs as normative and HBCUs as problematic, even though the latter exist due to white racism. These private assumptions say more about our true feelings on race than the out-of-context MLK quotes we post every third January Monday.
Of course, everyone has different experiences with this, but I write only about the one I know. As fiercely protective as I feel of the spaces in which I’ve lived daily life—where patient teachers taught me to read, write, and think, where I received warm receptions and generosity, and where I met lifelong friends and mentors—I’ve always found it difficult to answer those questions in a way that is sufficiently defensive but not unrealistically glowing. It is only in the context of such conversations that we realize daily life might seem profound.
White privilege has often allowed those of us who live with it to move comfortably and with the illusion of self-control through our careers, relationships, and even foot-to-mouth interactions. It has given rise to the lie that we can claim to be colorblind while still asking what life with “them” is like. As we listen to each others’ stories, I pray that those of us within dominant culture use the color consciousness we so often claim not to possess to understand that words often have deep, hurtful meanings—to use them wisely, and listen with an ear for better understanding.
Myra Houser, Ph.D.
History Professor, Ouachita Baptist University
Resides in Arkadelphia
Loved in a different setting
Talking with an older, trusted friend while sipping a cup of coffee, Sue and I shared our desire – what we believed was our calling – to serve through international missions after graduation from seminary. Bill listened and nodded as we explained how we felt God leading us. We weren’t sure to which country or to which people group, we explained, but our calling, treasured since our days in college, was strong and sure.
After telling him our desire to serve outside our culture and language, Bill said, “If you want to serve in cross-cultural missions ‘over there,’ then you should have some positive cross-cultural experiences here. Have you ever ministered in a setting different from you own?”
Well, no, not really, is how we both responded but, we concluded, we would like to. This was all Bill needed to make a phone call to the leadership at Forest Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where Sue and I would eventually worship and serve that summer of 1983.
Forest was an African-American congregation located on the southeast side of Louisville. Bill had known the pastor and leaders there for many years, and so suggested that we locate ourselves there during the summer or off months between terms at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
We had no idea what to expect. Though Sue had grown up with quite a few African-American friends, the high school I graduated from had no African-American students, nor did the church I attended as a youth. I had never before visited an African-America congregation, so I was totally unfamiliar with the black church experience. And I was unsure how well – or even if – I would be welcomed as a budding minister. I was definitely apprehensive.
It’s possible the Forest Baptist fellowship felt the same way about us, but if they did, I never saw it. Sue and I were welcomed from the first day with open arms. Knowing I was a seminary student, the pastoral staff asked – better still, insisted – that I sit on the platform with the church’s regular ministers during worship services because “that’s where the pastors sit.” Quickly I was put on the calendar to deliver a Sunday morning sermon. I had never, and have never since, gotten so many “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” as I did the day I preached there! The experiences we had those three months were incredible.
So what actually did I experience that summer? Spirit-filled worship not concerned with what time we started or ended. Dynamic preaching from the church’s pastors that somehow penetrated down to your bones; I mean, you seemed to actually feel the words spoken! Meaningful prayer lifted to God from God’s people talking openly, frankly, conversationally and warmly with the One they knew as their Heavenly Father. And loving, caring, gracious people, who laughed with us, ate with us, received us into their homes, prayed with us and served God with us.
Mostly, I experienced the Spirit of God loving Sue and me through wonderful sisters and brothers who became as family to us.
It’s now been 34 years since Sue and I served at Forest Baptist Church. So much I have forgotten these three-plus decades, like most of the names of the people there and some of the events and services we helped with.
But what I haven’t forgotten, and doubtful ever will, is how I felt when I was with them, and the incredibly gracious and loving way they welcomed Sue and me into their fellowship. I still remember them treating us with no less respect and love than they did anyone else. And I still remember that Forest Baptist Church – an African-American congregation – saw Sue and Greg Smith – two young white people – as nothing less than a sister and a brother in Jesus Christ.
I guess what I learned most from my African-American brothers and sisters that summer was not so much how to minister in a setting different from my own, but what it means to be the recipients of Christian love and ministry by amazing people in a setting different from my own.
This has turned out to be one of the best lessons I have ever received.
Greg Smith, along with his wife Sue, serve as field personnel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship through LUCHA Ministries, a faith-based non-profit agency ministering among first-generation Latinos and their families in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Both native Arkansans, Greg and Sue are members of Fredericksburg Baptist Church.
Cloud of Witnesses: Knowing Our History
There is a particular passage of Scripture that I have connected with over the past decade or so. Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…”. I have had my ups and downs with running, but what draws me to this passage are the cloud of witnesses mentioned. Growing up in north central Arkansas I found myself in a predominantly homogeneous community with little diversity. The county was made up of mostly white/caucasian families and individuals. My cloud of witnesses resembled one another in the hues of their skin, a Christian tradition or worldview, and the amount of privilege passed down from generation to generation. It was not until graduation from university in southwestern Arkansas, or even graduate school in Texas that I realized how desperately I needed a more diverse cloud of witnesses to help me better engage with and navigate a diverse world.
Leading up to February 2017 I listened to a book entitled A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki. This over 400-page book dives deep into the history of what is now considered to be the United States of America through the experiences of Indians, African Americans, Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese, Irish, and Jewish people. Listening and relistening to this book opened my eyes to the complex history of our nation, a history I never learned about in my hometown grade school or high school. My cloud of witnesses grew as I listened to this more complete version of American History 101.
About a year ago while preparing for a sermon I was struck by an article I read online from Sojourners magazine. Author of the article, Rev. Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble, spoke of her recent experience in Texas gathered, with others, around a memorial tree for Sandra Bland. It was there that she experienced “a cloud of witnesses” whose “cacophony of voices called upon the Holiest of Holies to break the yoke of evil systems in which cronyism and political agendas thrived.” Miles-Tribble went on to say that, “The cloud of witnesses[, that include Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice], keep urging us to move forward, to keep fighting, and never give up.” Again, my cloud of witnesses expanded as I was confronted with the fatal realities of racial profiling in our communities.
Over the past fews years I have been challenged to assess who is included in my cloud of witnesses. Do my cloud of witnesses all look similar to me, ascribe to a similar faith tradition or none at all, or even share the same amount of privilege? At one point the answer to this evaluation would have been yes. But I was missing out on so much richness that comes from the experiences and perspective of others. Without a diverse cloud of witnesses I was rarely challenged to consider the plight or celebrations of those whose stories are seldom heard. Seeking to diversify my cloud of witnesses summons me to live into the work given to us by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to cultivate Beloved Community in which we thrive in a “society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings.”
Who resides in your cloud of witnesses? What are they calling upon you to do in your community?
Rev. Megan J. Pike
Executive Director, Lake Nixon Outdoor Center
Second Baptist Church, Little Rock
Resides in Little Rock
In the fall of 2005, I was twenty one years old and working as a part-time youth director at a small, rural Baptist church in Eastern North Carolina. About one-quarter of a mile away from the church was a dirt lot filled with dilapidated housing for migrant, Latina/o farm workers.
Eastern North Carolina has long been a destination for this type of labor as the state remains a prominent agricultural area. It’s also the location for the intersection of the major interstates I-95 and I-40. Many workers are truly migrant, moving up the east coast, beginning in Florida and following the growing seasons. Others make a home in the region on a more permanent basis due to the high demand and plentiful work throughout most of the year.
The pastor of the congregation with whom I worked spoke often about his desire to find a way to engage the farm laborers and their families. As neither he nor I knew the Spanish language beyond “Hello” and “How are you,” we never got very far in our plans.
One evening, however, while at church, a Latino man came and introduced himself as the pastor of a church in Greenville, North Carolina - a larger city about twenty miles away. He said that several of the farm workers who lived around the corner from our Baptist church were members of his church. He told us that his Spanish-speaking congregation was able to provide transportation for those families on Sunday, but it was difficult to arrange travel for them during the rest of the week. The level of poverty in which the workers lived, of course, meant that they had little access to their own vehicles.
The visiting pastor asked if we would consider opening our facility to his congregation members once a week for a Bible study and prayer meeting. He insisted that they would work around our schedule so as not to interfere with any of our regularly scheduled activities. Fortunately for them, our church rarely had activities outside of Sunday worship and Wednesday evenings.
The pastor and I were excited. It seemed like a divinely orchestrated opportunity for us to be in partnership with our sisters and brothers in Christ around the corner from our church. The language barrier proved to be insurmountable, but sharing our space was something we easily could do.
The pastor with whom I worked happily approached the governing board of the congregation and presented this opportunity. We both were shocked as most members of the board responded in an overtly harsh way. “It’ll interfere with our own events,” someone said. “Who’s going to make sure the space is arranged properly for us after they use it?” others asked.
As the pastor offered easy and sensible solutions, the frustration of the board continued to grow until one deacon raised his voice and said, “Look. My problem isn’t with the schedule or the space. It’s that they’re Mexicans. God meant for the whites to worship with the whites, the black with the blacks, and the Mexicans with the Mexicans. Case closed.”
My jaw dropped to the table. The pastor hung his head. I blurted out something about racism with the intensity of an idealistic 21 year old. Tensions flared until it was agreed - per our polity - that the matter would be decided with a congregational vote.
The meeting arrived a few weeks later, and the measure to allow these sisters and brothers in Christ to use our fellowship hall to read their Bibles and pray was overwhelmingly voted down by 85% of those gathered (75-15). The pastor would resign in the coming months, as the matter was so contentious that he realized he was no longer welcomed at the church. He stopped pastoring, as a matter of fact, for a long while, due to the way he and his family were treated and due to the frustration of the behavior of those seventy five congregation members. The migrant families around the corner from our little church, of course, received the message loud and clear. They weren’t welcome. “Case closed.”
I walked out of the congregational meeting that Sunday afternoon, sat in my car, wept and raged. The experience deeply challenged my optimism that communities and individuals were naturally and inevitably moving away from racist beliefs and practices. I thought that this type of racist behavior had been restrained to periods of American history before my birth. I also didn’t think the Church could be a conduit of such sentiment. I was wrong on both counts.
For a long time, I focused on the seventy five members who either vehemently opposed the opportunity to be hospitable or voted against it because they thought we should “move more slowly.” These days, though, I try to focus on the fifteen people who voted in favor of the measure. I try to remember their courage and conviction to stand up for and witness to the image of God in which our migrant neighbors were created - in which all humans are created. I especially remember the courage of Mrs. Joyce, an elderly woman and lifelong member of the church, who stood up and pleaded, “If we can’t show hospitality to other Christian folk, then what does that say about us? If we love only ourselves, what credit is that to us [Matthew 5:47]?”
Most certainly, experiences like these drive some millennials away from the Church. I felt like walking away from the Church that day, too. To experience that type of prejudice within that congregation was shocking to me, at the time. Now, unfortunately, I know it’s all too typical. Nevertheless, I managed to stay with the Church for these last twelve years, not by virtue of my own strength, but, rather, largely due to the witness of those fifteen individuals, including Mrs. Joyce.
May God bless her witness and her life, and may we continue to stand alongside of those who are alienated, other-ed, rejected, and despised.
Director, Together for Hope Louisiana
A ministry of CBF Louisiana
Resides in Lake Providence, LA
Living out the ‘fierce urgency’ of the prophets in U.S. culture
Article first appeared in Baptist News Global
Prophets rarely fare well in their own historical setting. Their clarity of vision disturbs the nonchalance with which most people engage their personal context. Prophets scrutinize those policies and practices that most of us blithely ignore, and they shine the light of justice into the dark corners. They challenge our assumptions; thus, we treat them as annoying “troublers of Israel.”
In his wisdom-laden book, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann writes, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” Always linking prophetic witness with hope, he adds: “Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion … and hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.”
I visited the New Millennium Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., on Sunday, and I saw prophetic witness in action. This gathered community welcomes everyone and relishes the diversity that comprises the congregation. They have boldly decided that they would reject prejudice in every form and that their community would be free of patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and fundamentalism. People can bring the whole of themselves into that community and find acceptance. As the final preacher in the Martha Stearns Marshall emphasis on women preaching, that was indeed my experience.
It is not surprising that it is a small congregation; many folks are just plain scared of that much grace and of finding common humanity with radical otherness. More often we scurry into our little tribes and presume that our own culture is the normative one. This congregation describes itself as “inclusive, progressive, welcoming followers of Jesus Christ.” This requires mature cultural competency and a healthy theology of the Body of Christ. It also demonstrates the necessary dynamism of ecclesiology, which pays attention to its historical moment and cultural setting.
The founding visionary of this church is Wendell Griffen, distinguished jurist and gospel preacher. Recently he published The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope, a call to followers of Jesus to ponder what discipleship looks like during and after the presidency of Donald J. Trump. The Rev. Dr. Griffen’s distressing conundrum is this: “How President Trump’s political support by people who self-identify as evangelical followers of Jesus can be reconciled with the love and justice imperatives of the religion of Jesus.” He calls us beyond “moral and ethical dwarfism” to prophetic hope, which Scripture richly funds.
Long a critic of the prison-industrialist-capitalist complex, Griffen warns of the ethos of expendability fueled by the American empire. Immigrants, sexual minorities, persons of color, the poor, women, faith traditions other than Christian, and persons suffering chronic illness are all at risk in the new political reality. The resurgence of white supremacy and white nationalism are evident; emboldened hatred of others is part of the social landscape. Prophetic witness calls this out and refuses to let it go unanswered.
Returning to the city where I lived from 1976 to 1979 surfaced many feelings. I had served an all-white church, lived in an all-white neighborhood, and knew too little about the rich black culture of the city. While there, I did learn a great deal about a key event in the American Civil Rights Movement, the integration of Central High School. With prophetic courage, nine black students tested a landmark 1954 U. S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On Sept. 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas called in the state National Guard to bar the black students’ entry into the school. Later in the month, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the “Little Rock Nine” into the school, and they started their first full day of classes on Sept. 25. This was storied Little Rock history, but the lingering effects of the conflict shaped much of civic life, and pernicious racism continued.
Being a part of an upper-middle class church, I was oblivious to the abyss of poverty many endured, and I failed to see the demographic lines. As my youth were beneficiaries of educational privilege, I was unmindful of the limited vocational options afforded the under-educated. Once again, I was not conscious of the racial implications. Thankfully, I see more clearly now.
Prophetic witness requires us to be awake to the real circumstances we inhabit. As followers of Jesus, there is a fierce urgency for us to work for the common good, or our faith looks rather flaccid. Our time summons us out of Christian quietism to public advocacy for justice, a hopeful form of resistance to the dominant culture.
Dr. Molly Marshall
President, Central Baptist Theological Seminary
People can (and do) change their viewpoints.
During my senior year at Malvern High School, I took a bookkeeping course. I fell in love with the course of study. I fell in love with my teacher and the high expectations she had for her students. And, I fell in love with the idea of pursuing a degree in accounting while in college.
Upon arriving at Ouachita Baptist University, I learned the University desired that freshman students dedicate themselves entirely to general education studies in their first year. Students would then start core studies in their major in their sophomore year.
Despite this scenario, I was a man on a mission. Personally, I was driven to continue the momentum from my high school bookkeeping course as soon as I arrived on campus.
As such, I lobbied my faculty advisor to allow me to study Principles of Accounting I and II during my freshman year. To my great advantage, my faculty advisor was Margaret Wright. Margaret was also my accounting professor and she allowed me to begin my accounting studies in my freshman year.
With no interruption after my high school year of bookkeeping studies, I was elated to continue to the next step with my accounting studies at OBU. Fortunately, I excelled. And at the end of my freshman year, Margaret invited me to work for her. I was ecstatic to accept her proposal.
Beginning in my sophomore year and continuing through my senior year, I graded tests and kept records for all the accounting classes Margaret taught and for which I had already completed my course of study. Essentially, I worked as a teaching assistant as I tutored junior and senior business administration majors who needed assistance in completing the accounting course requirements for their general business degrees.
As I continued with my own accounting studies, another student (Larry) and I became study partners. Together, we would complete our accounting homework in either his dorm room or mine. It was our belief that through this approach we would become even better students.
At the end of our study session one evening, Larry dawdled in my dorm room and asked if I planned to rush Sigma Alpha Sigma social club that year. I had rushed the previous year. However, I was “blackballed” and not given an invitation to join the social club. Larry was already a member of Sigma Alpha Sigma.
I told Larry I had been blackballed. And I said since that event happened, I did not plan to seek Sigma Alpha Sigma membership during the upcoming rush period.
Larry’s response came as a complete surprise to me. He stated he knew I had been blackballed. Then he took a moment before saying: “I am the person who blackballed you.”
It is an understatement to say I was stunned by this revelation. For an entire year, Larry and I had worked together in a diligent and dedicated manner to become the best accounting students we could be. We had formed a partnership, had become really good and encouraging friends, and were even more accomplished students.
As I spent a few seconds trying to process what I had just learned, I started rewinding the tape of the past year’s experiences with Larry. I searched for any signs or clues that would help me understand this new reality that had just emerged. I discovered nothing other than something I already knew. I am black and Larry is white.
As soon as I was able to disentangle myself from my unspoken thoughts and was able to finally stop playing the tape of our past year’s experiences, I inquired very simply: “why did you blackball me”?
He responded: “Because you are black.”
At that point, he began to describe the rationale for his decision.
Essentially, Larry stated that as he grew up he had been taught he was better than black people and that black people were inferior to white people. As an individual and as a student, he found his experiences with me to be completely incongruent with what he had been taught. I did not fit his preconceived philosophies.
He said he found this new reality difficult to process and accept. He also said that previously he could not rationalize the thought of me becoming a member of Sigma Alpha Sigma. Fundamentally, he could not see me as one of his brothers.
Even so, the idea to become study partners was his idea. So I asked, if I as a black man was inferior to him as a white man, why did he suggest the two of us become study partners?
His response? “Because you are a much better student than am I. And, I thought I’d be a better student if we studied together.”
Larry said he’d had a complete change of heart and in his belief system. He then asked me to rush to receive a bid from Sigma Alpha Sigma. Moreover, he said he wanted to be my big brother.
I rushed Sigma Alpha Sigma and received a bid for membership. Not long after I became a member, I became president of Sigma Alpha Sigma.
After graduation, Larry asked me to be in his wedding in Northwest Arkansas. I accepted his invitation and was given a remarkably warm welcome by his family, his wife’s family, and all the wedding celebrants in the same town where he had been taught that blacks were inferior to whites.
People can (and do) change their viewpoints.
Recently, I had a mini-reunion with my college roommate who is white and is also a member of Sigma Alpha Sigma social club. Following our reunion, I posted a photo of the two of us on Facebook. Another Sigma Alpha Sigma brother (who was a member at the time I was blackballed) commented on my Facebook post with the following statement:
“You two represent the best of our brotherhood.”
Pharmaceutical Marketing Executive
Second Baptist Church (former member) Little Rock, Arkansas
Resides in Phoenix, AZ
LENTHON CLARK – DOING GOD’S WORK
When I moved back to Arkansas to work in 1990, I was a young professional in my early thirties. Lenthon Clark worked across the hall from me in the Arkansas Union at the University of Arkansas, where he served as Director of Financial Aid from 1977 until his retirement in 1995. We had an instant friendship. We both served in the division of Student Affairs, along with Lenthon’s wife, Shirley.
I used to tease Len that when students did not get their financial aid exactly as expected, they would run across the hall crying to our department where we tried to dry their tears and calm their fears. I said he owed me for soothing the hurt feelings and offering reassurance to students who thought their time at the university was over because their money was not immediately available when they began a new semester. Fewer things were computerized then and everything moved at a slower pace, particularly approvals for federal aid.
Shortly after my arrival at the University, Len asked if I had found a church family. He invited me several times to Rolling Hills Baptist Church in Fayetteville, where he served as a deacon. I waited almost two decades before I finally visited and joined Rolling Hills. Although I knew that Rolling Hills was not an African-American church, I was surprised to find that Lenthon and Shirley were the only African-American church members.
Although Lenthon had a great sense of humor, he was quite serious about his work. He was good at what he did. And it was not just his work at the University that he cared about. He cared about people. He saw needs and stepped forward in faith to assist. He was serious about service to others. To this end, Len helped create a Habitat for Humanity student organization at the University. He helped bring Omega Psi Phi Fraternity to the University, so he and others could mentor young African-American brothers. Len even volunteered at the University after he retired. He was a host, helping visitors navigate our campus.
Outside of the University, Len helped start Cooperative Emergency Outreach (CEO), a food and resource bank coordinated by several churches to assist the less fortunate in the area. Len was a member of the local Kiwanis organization, where he likely took the prize for selling the most oranges and nuts for the group during the holidays! Both he and Shirley volunteered at Washington Regional Medical Center and were extremely active there. Len served as President of the WRMC Auxiliary and helped raise over $500,000 for a hospital expansion. I also learned recently that Lenthon was instrumental in bringing the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to the State of Arkansas.
Betty Loewer, also a deacon at Rolling Hills, described Lenthon as someone who was fully aware that he often did not have the same skin color as those he worked alongside, especially in Northwest Arkansas’ earlier days. I am sure it was not always easy, but he was comfortable in his own skin, so he let nothing stop him from doing his work. Lenthon had the ability to see not only the outside of someone; he saw the inside. And that is what I saw of him- his heart for service.
Sadly, we lost Lenthon Clark in August of 2014 at the age of 81. He is remembered as one who always led with a positive and determined attitude. He certainly made the most of his time on earth, leaving his mark and God’s, on those around him. He bridged many gaps through his service to others…an important reminder that the most important thing that ALL of us should be doing is God’s work.
Director, Off-Campus Student Services, UA
Rolling Hills Baptist Church
Resides in Fayetteville
Remembering the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Raymond was his ordinary self in an ordinary speech class at Kingsbury High School in Memphis on what started as an ordinary April day in 1968.
By early evening, nothing was ordinary.
During that class in this segregated Southern city in this all-white school populated by students of prototype middle-class, Baby Boomer, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant families, we were discussing Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech delivered the day before.
Raymond, intelligent, witty and brash who craved attention and proudly occupied one of the prime positions among the school’s smart-alecks, suddenly blurted out that he thought the speech was garbage and would probably go downtown and shoot Dr. King that afternoon. He used ugly, profane, shock language.
I confess. Like most in the class, I laughed, shook my head. Typical Raymond.
I confess. I was taken aback by the language but didn’t think the outburst was any big deal.
In the narrow-minded environment we lived in at the time and the culture we experienced daily in our all-white school and churches, Martin Luther King was a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser, one whose last appearance in Memphis had resulted in riots. He was a major irritation to our comfort zone.
He had returned to Memphis in support of sanitation workers who had been on strike. Not having your garbage picked up for months and having to personally transport it to a central location is a clear recipe for political anger. The typical sentiment in my world was “why should people whose duty it was to pick up our garbage go on strike and not pick up our garbage? They ought to be happy they have a job.”
King’s message of unity and non-violence was obscured by the prejudices of culture and environment and by the color of the person delivering the message.
Later that evening, I was home lying in bed and listening to music on the radio when the disc jockey broke in with a special announcement that Dr. King had been shot at the Lorraine Motel.
I suddenly raised up, muttering, "Oh my gosh, Raymond really did it! I can't believe he really did it!" That was my first thought. My second was, "He'll probably get expelled for sure for this."
Minutes later, Mom came into my room and asked if I had heard the news about Martin Luther King. "Yeh, and I think I know who did it," I said nervously.
The more I thought about it — and particularly when I learned that Dr. King had died and law enforcement officials were after a fleeing white person — the more I worried. I had thoughts of being interviewed by federal agents and maybe having to testify before Congressional investigators.
The repercussions changed my world, and the world of my friends and classmates:
- For several weeks, there was a dawn-to-dusk curfew throughout Memphis as the National Guard and local authorities instituted martial law to prevent rioting, which was already occurring in other cities. Barricades and checkpoints were constructed. Church activities, school activities, shopping trips, friends' activities and just-plain cruising had to be cancelled or adjusted.
- The anxiety and the fear of the unknown and unpredictable permeated the planning and execution of about every aspect of life.
- We went to school for several days in fear because there were rumors that black kids were going to go to the white schools and riot and burn.
- My sister was taking driver's education from a police officer. One day, he drove her downtown as far as he was allowed to go and she saw parts of some buildings being burned.
- Our senior banquet, the equivalent of a prom, at the Holiday Inn Rivermont, a high rise (near what is now the National Civil Rights Museum) with a restaurant on top that overlooked the Mississippi River, was cancelled.
- Dad bought Mom a tear gas gun to take to her school. Mom was scared, particularly after school officials installed emergency buttons on each teacher's desk in case immediate help was needed. Mother's fears and our fears were somewhat relieved when she learned from her students that they and their parents were just as scared and confused of what was happening as we were.
As weeks went by, tensions were reduced to a cautious but manageable level and many people tried to take pride in reconciliation and made genuine overtures to get along.
Two-month education I received from Dr. King's assassination still lingers in so many ways and different levels:
My friends and I had to confront directly and from real-time experiences our attitudes, prejudices and fears about race in America. We discovered good people beyond our neighborhood boundaries.
Still shaken from the assassination of John F. Kennedy five years earlier and with the escalating Vietnam War, which would take the lives of a few of our fellow students, we had to deal with a violent society and a violent world. JFK’s assassination was horrific and haunting; King’s assassination in my city was humbling and disconcerting. There were different emotions. Kennedy was President and nothing like that had happened in our lifetime. King was a leader of a movement, a strong voice among many in the day. There was also a disconnect between the prevailing White culture and King’s followers and their cause. But the assassination happened in my city and there was an emotional attachment of shattered pride to that.
What we considered bedrock beliefs by our mentors and contemporaries were questioned, sometimes shattered.
Upon reflection today, I am bothered, not just by Raymond’s remarks, but by the resulting laughter and that no one, beside the teacher, challenged him. What he said was tacitly accepted by many as normal and OK. What if a student had made a similar outburst about an African-American leader today? Would the reaction be the same?
The world has changed in significant ways since that day in 1968, which challenged the breadth of our thinking and brought prejudices to an apex, where they could be confronted, tranquilized and pushed beneath the surface.
But did we just create a façade of tolerance to conceal demons that, like a dormant volcano, could suddenly erupt again?
Did April 4, 1968 help bring about an understanding how to live together as children of God or just postpone the consequences of new realities?
Why did I laugh at what Raymond said? Why was I not angry? Why upon reflection, didn’t I cry?
Why do I, almost a half-century removed, remember that audacious proclamation from a smart-aleck?
Forty-nine years later, are we wiser? Are we kinder? Are we less ordinary?
I hope so.
Sports Columnist, Conway Log Cabin Democrat
Second Baptist Church, Little Rock
Resides in North Little Rock