JOHN STEWART: Today’s session is part of a series of public forums on the history of the civil rights movement. There is one more program, as you all know, hopefully you all know, in this series on Wednesday, April 29th, we’re having a very, very large symposium here at the Kennedy Library in the afternoon, and have a wonderful lineup of speakers, including Dorothy Cotton, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Jack Greenberg, Prathia Hall, James Hood, Nick Katzenbach, Tony Lewis, Burke Marshall, Ted Sorensen, Eddie Williams. And it will all be moderated by Elaine Jones, who is President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
As we said in the flier, you need tickets for this program. I think we printed up 500 or 550 tickets. And we’ve given almost all of them out at this point. But we have a few left, so if you or any of your friends want to come, you can fill out a little card out in the lobby and turn that in. And hopefully we’ll be able to send you a ticket to that program. But it should be very, very exciting.
As indeed this whole series has been very interesting. We’re happy this afternoon to have assembled a wonderful group of people to tell us all about religion, the churches, and the crusade for racial justice. I am going to turn the program over to Reverend Ronnie Griffin, who is Associate Pastor of Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Brockton, and who arrived here safely and fortunately without a speeding ticket, because he left church I guess about a half an hour ago, and sped up here from Brockton to get here at two o’clock.
And for that we are very, very grateful. So Reverend Griffin will be the moderator today.
And as we said in the announcement, we’ve asked each of our panelists to speak for about 15 minutes, and then hopefully you’ll have lots and lots of questions and comments, and we’ll go back and forth until 3:15, 3:30 or so. And then we’ll have some coffee, tea and cookies and more conversation. And we’ll adjourn about quarter of four. So it’s my pleasure to introduce Reverend Ron Griffin.
REVEREND RON GRIFFIN: Well, I greet you with love, and I solicit your prayers, ‘cause I was sinning all the way down the highway. But my sermon this morning was “Don’t worry, be happy.” I’m going to open up with a brief statement of what I think covers some of the problems that we’re going to be facing in the year 2000. We’re stepping into another millennium.
And the question becomes obvious that we need to ask each other. What is the church doing in response to this new millennium in terms of ministry to our churches, to our communities, and to our nations? And we must look at that civil rights movement as a progenitor of that which has been started and seeks to continue, but in many ways we’ve let go. I wrote a brief opening statement, and then I will defer to our distinguished panel.
The history has thrust on our generation an incredibly important destiny. To wipe out racism and complete a process of civil rights, which our nation has long developed, in my opinion, too slowly, but which may be our most powerful weapon for world respect and emulation. How we the church deal with the crucial situation will demonstrate and determine our moral health as a nation and our prestige as leaders of the free world.
I think the future of America is bound up with the solutions of our present crises. The shape of the world today does not permit us, the church, the luxury of faltering in our efforts to eradicate racism by not pursuing public policy for racial justice, as was started by the civil rights movements of some 35 to 40 years ago. The United States cannot hope to attain the respect of emerging nations of color around the world unless it remedies its racial problems at home. If America is to remain a first class nation, it cannot have second class citizenship.
I feel that a solution of the present crisis will not take place if left solely to secular government agencies. It will not take place unless men and women, churches, work together as the ambassadors of reconciliation. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concerns of dedicated individuals and churches.
I submit to you that without the persistent effort of God’s churches, time itself will become an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of evil, irrational emotionalism, and social destruction. This is no time for apathy or complacency in God’s church, but a time for vigorous and positive action.
As you moderator this afternoon, it will be my responsibility to bring forth to you some seeds of thought. We might not all agree. We might defer to disagree. But let us walk away from here this day with a more clearer understanding of the situation at hand. Our speakers, distinguished people all-- James Breeden, Visiting Professor, Harvard University School of Education; Frank Hale, Professor Emeritus, Ohio State University; Jonathan Kaufman, reporter and feature writer for The Wall Street Journal; Sarah Small, Protestant Chaplain at the University of Massachusetts of Boston-- all people who not only teach, but have lived the experience. Hear their words.
My first question then will be posed to James Breeden. We’re talking about values. First of all, please enlighten us, Mr. Breeden, to a level playing field, when we talk about values, we also talk about cultural values. We also talk about societal values. We also talk about religious values. Now in light of that civil rights movement, how do you see these working and playing together?
JAMES BREEDEN: Thank you. My approach to the question as posed is going to be in part historical with some generalizations I’ll begin with that come largely out of my own experience with the civil rights movement, and then some particular anecdotal materials that might help enrich the discussion that follows thereon.
First I should mention the institutional and religious centrality of the historically black churches in the civil rights movement, particularly in the South. They were sources of leadership and participants, both directly, in the civil rights movement as an explication of their faith and their connection with the church. Sometimes indirectly people who had left the church, but had been formed in the church, but were brought into the civil rights movement and understood their participation largely from their church experience. And of course the churches were sources of support and refuge in times of action and conflict, and linked to wider networks, particularly to Northern churches, both historically black churches, and in the case of mainstream churches, so-called, sources of connection to other kinds of support.
But also I think it’s important to note the churches were probably the strongest support, the strongest centers of opposition to the civil rights movement that we don’t talk about too much. The so-called “white moderates” who Martin Luther King wrote to principally in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” And when we speak of racism, we’re really talking in the United States about white supremacy. And both the polite and elitist white supremacists and the violent white supremacists very often invoked God, Jesus Christ, the creation as the source of their authority for their actions. So the church is not simply on one side of this set of issues.
In terms of the theological and religious values, as we’re using the term of the civil rights movement, I’d like to point out three streams of religious, theological thought, not including what I’ll end up with which is a secular religion that was connected with these. First stream is the Hebrew Bible, based on the identification with slaves with Israel, Moses, Egypt, Pharaoh, sometimes in a “let’s wait till there’s a reason to expect that sometime in the future we’ll be free…”
But when you think about “Go down Moses, tell old Pharaoh, set my people free,” that wasn’t a futuristic notion. That was something that said there’s something that can be done in the present. Now we’d call it liberation theology. It wasn’t called that in the civil rights movement. But God’s priority with the oppressed was that aspect of it.
A second stream, a Gospel-based identification with Jesus, innocent, patient suffering. And then a third theme which really, at least in part, harkens back to Gandhi. The notion of soul force, redemptive suffering, nonviolence as a way of life, the debate in the civil rights movement, is this a way of life or a tactic, a wise tactic for social change? But in any case, nonetheless, this was a minority, if you will, theology, but central to the civil rights movement, particularly associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But there were others. James Loss and Diane Nash. James Beville, another whole set of people, who did in fact study Gandhi and thought very thoroughly about the relationship of nonviolence as a way of life to social change.
Then importantly, there’s a secular stream. And recalling the secular stream’s, or civil religion’s, if you will, founding documents especially the Declaration of Independence, or to modify it as it was understood in the civil rights movement, and other movements, feminist movement, spoke of all children of God being created equal, and governments being instituted to secure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
What I’d like to underline is that both the religious stream and the political stream point in the same direction. The religious stream points to what one may call the community of love, the beloved community as one of Dr. King’s books had it. And the community of love is one community. The political stream, the Declaration of Independence pointing, if you will, to the community of justice, the political community is one community, because justice is one. So to love and to do justice involves the integrity of our common humanity. And that’s central and fundamental to respect for and appreciation of our difference.
Thus, and I would quibble a bit with the title of this particular session of this forum, the civil rights movement was a struggle, a movement against an injustice organized around the fiction of race. That’s the way I would put it, that in fact you can’t be for racial justice. There’s no such thing as racial justice. There’s only racial injustice. You can be against racial injustice. And importantly, and strictly speaking, it seems to me that one can probably usefully begin a dialogue on race if one ends on a dialogue on humanity. But if you don’t get that far, the dialogue hasn’t been completed.
Now one or two anecdotes, and then I’ll complete. Just to illustrate the way the particularly nonviolent movement worked and the connections between it and the churches. You remember the periods of the, if you will, the “ins,” 1960 and ’61, sit-ins, wade-ins, walk-ins, stand-ins, usually involving people very well behaved, impeccably behaved, simply doing what other people did, sitting down at a lunch counter, going swimming, playing tennis, having a picnic in the park.
These people for the most part had not been in Gandhian study groups. They were simply acting out what made sense in terms of equality across the whole community. They were frequently arrested, often spontaneously praying during attacks and arrests. In the sit-ins, they violated the custom of vertical integration, where you could walk through a store. Alright, everybody could stand together, but you couldn’t sit together.
The Bible and the decorum with which they acted were probably not the result of having consulted with PR representatives or focus groups. They were simply doing things in a way that made sense. But the center of these were doing things that made sense, and took equality as a basis.
The Freedom Rides in 1961, another example. As you probably know, the Freedom Rides were based on the custom that when buses were moving from North to South at Baltimore, everyone would debark having sat higglety-pigglety from that point to Baltimore. And then when they got on, white people got on from the front to the back, until they’d filled in. Black people then filled in the rest, and stood, if they could, the rest of the way.
So again, the Freedom Rides were a simple proposition. Instead of doing that, at Baltimore, you stayed higglety-pigglety. What happened there is a fascinating thing because the buses, the first buses which were announced were bombed, firebombed, the passengers were beaten. We were in the realm of national policy, because this was interstate travel. And so that brought the Justice Department, Bobby Kennedy onto the phone with Diane Nash, and the Nashville Movement. And Diane said, “No, we’re going on. We can’t let violence stop us.”
Bobby Kennedy, I think, didn’t understand what he was talking to, because this was deeply, deeply entrenched in the nonviolent, redemptive suffering mode. And so for Diane Nash violence and death just meant a justification of the form of action. So Kennedy finally found it easier to talk with the Governor of Mississippi and the Mayor of Jackson to lower the level of violence in Jackson, rather than to try to keep the Nashville Movement people off the buses.
Finally, I want to mention the example of the Selma March, because as you may recall, 1964, based on the March on Washington, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the movement of the churches… This was another instance of the churches mobilizing people from constituencies that hadn’t before spoken out on civil rights, utilizing a national network, so that strangely enough senators from Montana and Idaho were getting groups lobbying them for change. So the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was based on that.
But oddly enough, the 1964 Act didn’t speak to one of the central-- I would argue the central-- issue of that portion of the civil rights movement, the franchise. And so it was again, the March beginning in Selma, which was challenged by violence at the Pettus Bridge, it happened that that occurred on a Sunday afternoon when millions of people were watching television. And within an extremely short time, President Johnson was addressing the nation with a speech that ended, “And we shall overcome.” And legislation on the vote was introduced into the Congress and passed in an enormously brief time.
There are other examples, but I want to conclude by saying that I think it is still worth discussing in a profound way, the value of nonviolence, both as a tactic and as a way of life in bringing about social change. I think it’s also worth remembering the kinds of priorities that were emerging at the time, particularly of Martin Luther King’s death, his murder, King versus the Vietnam War, and then virtually the civil rights movement almost as a whole entering an anti-war stance, connected with, I would argue, that nonviolent position.
And King, and the Poor People’s march and encampment in Washington, preceded by his claiming-- I think still a valid claim-- that if we are to get the conditions of the poor central on our nation’s agenda-- and I’m close to quoting King as close as I can remember-- the government has to be brought to its knees through nonviolent demonstrations. That it seems to me is still on the agenda.
And then I conclude by reminding us all that this central aspect of the nonviolent movement has echoed in recent time in Tiananmen Square, in Northern Ireland, at the Berlin Wall, South Africa, Sarajevo. So it’s part of an international situation, an international set of concerns. And I think we also ought to, in taking this set of concerns, ought to notice that perhaps nations have become obsolete, that nations are organized around violence as well. And so perhaps there is something that we ought to be saying on the world level if we’re to actually pick up the tradition that the civil rights movement brought for those years in the United States. Thank you.
GRIFFIN: Professor Breeden poses a very interesting question to us in terms of bringing things to its knees. I think it very interesting that governments and churches need to be brought to their knees, possibly for different reasons. I think that our churches are still the most segregated churches you can go to on Sundays.
I’m a member of an organization, a national organization, with an anagram, CSCO, Christians Supporting Community Organizing. And we seek to address those systemic needs. But I find it very peculiar, if not strange, that the differences in our denominations, in our churches, are still things that we need to address. So brought to our knees is something we all need to think about. So we thank you very much for your insight.
And I encourage you to write some questions down as we go, for we will have that period of time as you’ve been informed, that there will be questions and answers. And we solicit your questions, because in this format, this dialogue that we discover ourselves in now, is that which we need to transpose from here into our churches, into our communities, even into our homes, in regards to how we feel about issues.
Our next speaker will be Frank Hale. And I want to pose that question to you, Dr. Hale. He is the Professor Emeritus of Ohio State University. And my question is how do you see these churches interplaying? I mean, their same separativeness is obvious. And if we’re that separate on Sunday, how are we going to hold hands Monday through Saturday?
So I would invite you to the podium to just lead us in your understanding of what can the churches do together, collectively, what can the churches do? I want to put this on two different levels, because we can talk about individual churches. I want to put this on the level of yes, individual, but denominations. Is that alright with you, Dr. Hale? Well, bring him forward with a rousing applause. Dr. Frank Hale.
DR. FRANK HALE: I’m not a bishop or the son of a bishop, so I don’t know about that theological cohesiveness which is something that we need to be thinking very seriously about. As far as I’m concerned, the concept of the civil rights movement did not begin in the 1960s. We have always had that struggle with churches and with the community at large, attempting to address the needs of the oppressed. Whether it was the Quakers during the 19th century, or whether or not it was the black and white allies, singular and limited though they be, we did have for a long time people who addressed those issues out of which came the 13th, 14th and the 15th amendment. And we can go on up to Brown versus Topeka.
I would like to share with you that I think that it’s true, when we think in terms of oppression, we tend to define it greatly in terms of African American culture. And one of the things we have to do is to understand that it should not be the church versus culture. It should be the church through culture, so that we do not limit the church’s responsibility to something that is ecclesiastical. It has to do with our concerns about how we fit into the needs of the people that are to be served, whether it is in art or science or history or what-have-you.
I speak from a higher education perspective. And I have to remind my colleagues all the time, what is a university without a sense of universality? What is a university without having a liberal education to the point that one can reach out and be in contact and sensitive to all groups? In terms of understanding or wanting to understand their culture, in terms of wanting to appreciate that culture, and finally, optimally to be able to celebrate that culture.
And so we have a history that gives the church… It depends on what side of the coin you’re looking at. There are those who would say that the church has made a tremendous and monumental contribution to 2000 years of history. And there are others who would say that the church has been responsible for capitulating to that history. So where the church is in large part depends upon so much the leadership in a denomination.
Maybe sometimes rather than the denominational hierarchy itself, there are examples where people stepped out. Whether you’re talking about a William Carson Blake, or a Theodore Hesburgh, or a Martin Luther King, there are people historically who have stepped out and led the way for the churches.
Now we have a tremendous negative history to overcome. We know full well that this country would not be in the situation it is had not the church, had not legal institutions been in complicity with this whole issue that we’re talking about, beginning with the Papal Bull in the 16th century, with the approval of slavery. And every succeeding generation of churches being at least silent participators. I think of the book by James Oakes that talks about the ruling class and he talks about the extent to which slaveholding and the evangelical movement were hand in glove. They were married in effect to each other.
Now, we have examples where churches have really gone beyond themselves, stuck their necks out. I’m not talking about this century. I’m talking about the 19th century. And when I talk about churches, I’m not only talking about the corporate church. I’m talking about individuals within the church who made an impact.
Whether you’re talking about a Theodore Weld from this part of the country who came out to Ohio, and who had an impact on Lane Seminary, and pulled out when they were not empathetic in talking about the need for abolition, went over into Western Reserve, and pulled together a group that was responsible for founding Oberlin College back in the 1830s, because of his distinctive leadership.
People like Charles Sumner of this state, who was not only a politician and a senator, but a very strong person in terms of his own religion persuasion, who gave in the 1830s a speech on the tyranny and barbarism of slavery before the United States Senate, and was beaten into incapacity, into unconsciousness, by the Senator Preston Brook from South Carolina who challenged him. It took him three or four years to recover, and Senator Charles Sumner came back and gave that same speech once he recovered. That’s why you have so many historically Black schools around the country called Charles Sumner schools. He put his religion on the line.
Salmon Portland Chase. Oh history doesn’t tell you these stories. They are consciously, and sometimes unconsciously neglected in historiography. Theodore Weld, Wendall Phillips, Elijah Lovejoy, Salmon Portland Chase. Everyone knows about Chase Manhattan National Bank. The Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln. But many people do not know that he later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
But before he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he served actively in the Liberty Party, in the Free Soil Party, in the Republican Party, in Ohio, became the Governor in the 1850s, took money out of his own pocket, and supported those people that were a part of the Underground Railroad, defying the fugitive slave laws of the 1850s. And when he was appointed to become Secretary of the Treasury, the black religious groups and black people of Ohio, particularly Columbus and Cincinnati got together, had a send-off, gave him a huge silver tray, designated not to the Governor of Ohio, but affectionately to the Attorney General of the Negro slave. Had an impact.
So there always have been black and white allies in the struggle. And I took eight carloads of students to the March on Washington in 1963. And that march was a tremendous march in that it was instructive, because we saw 60,000 non-blacks participating in that, whether we are talking about the AFL-CIO, or the National Council of Churches, you name it. We were there.
The 19th century hopefully had taught us something. People who dared to put their necks on the line, their lives on the line, like Elijah Lovejoy who had his liberated press thrown into the Mississippi river out of Alton, Illinois, and was assassinated. Calvin Fairbanks who had SS branded on his back, slave stealer, placed in the Kentucky State Penitentiary for 15 years, because of his religious thinking relative to this whole concept.
Where are we today? I grew up in Topeka, Kansas. In a little black school called Buchanan School, all the desks were carved with the initials of those young people from white schools that sent us down the hand-me-down desk. The only library we had were the 20 or so books in the principal’s library. And our parents got together and decided in 1942, under the offices of the St. John’s AME Church, meeting every fourth Sunday, deciding that we wanted our children to have something better. My mother and father, for Oliver Brown and that group. And from 1942, over an anguishing period of 12 years, it finally brought about ultimately the Brown versus Topeka and the Prince County decisions, because church people got together and decided they wanted to make a difference.
We can’t leave out the black college in this whole business of historiography, because black colleges by and large have been on the frontline of helping to train our educators and our ministers to have social responsibility. In the book edited by Charles Willie, Black Colleges, Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook, former President of Dillard University, has an article in there entitled “The Ethical Social Foundations of Responsibility.” And he indicates in there historically it has been the business of the school to teach the values of the church to prepare the young people who are graduating, to take on the responsibility of helping those who are weak.
And so for a long time, at least the people in my generation, 65 to 70% of all black professionals up through the ‘60s had gotten their education at historically black colleges. And I’ll just throw a little plug in for them, because after all, those professionals who got their graduate and professional degrees have to admit that those black institutions were foundation builders. So therefore they validated themselves. Got your Ph.D. from Harvard, or your Master’s Degree from Ohio State or whatever, most of those young people, because state laws prohibited our folks from going to the state institutions of that day.
Well, let me just sort of close by saying the role of the church had a very important impact in my life, if I can get a little autobiographical here. I’m thinking about Ralph Ellison in 1952, who talked about the invisible man. He talked about the marginality and the ambiguous existence of African Americans. Now that was the year of the Eisenhower landslide. 1953, I went to Ohio State University to work on my Ph.D. No black faculty. Sixty-five people in the line, and two years later in June of 1955 when I received my Ph.D., the only black in the line. The few of us who were admitted were not accepted. But things have changed, not only on that campus, but many other campuses.
When I was six years of age, my mother contracted tuberculosis. And they placed her in a sanitarium in Kansas City, Missouri. And my mother and father, my parents sent me to Youngstown, Ohio, to live with an aunt and an uncle for two years. In the second and third grade, I felt isolated, only black in the class, over on the end of the playground. Nobody played with me. I don’t think it’s because kids were racist. I was the new kid on the block. They didn’t know who I was.
Most of them came from Southern European backgrounds. My teacher’s name was Slobasky. I received all Es at the end of the second and third grade. That did not mean Excellent. That was the grade between D and F. I could not add. I could not subtract. I could not spell.
My mother recovered after two years, and they sent me to Kansas City, Missouri, and put me in a parochial school, Beacon Lights School, where they talked about the importance of being somebody because I had thought I was nobody. Lavena Lockhart would pat me on the shoulder and say, “Frank, you can do it.”
My mother would come on Friday, and they’d give her a stack of books like that with extra little slips of paper for extra study. You sat there in that one room, 80 kids in the room. She would teach the first grade for 25 or 30 minutes, then teach the second grade. If you stayed there all day long, you got eight grades of education. The curtains were tattered and torn. We were right next to the coal bin.
But do you know, at the end of my fourth grade, one year, my parents moved to Topeka, where I went to Buchanan School. She gave Morgan Maxwell my grade card, and he looked in the directory and couldn’t find it. He says, “He’s going to have to repeat the fourth grade, Mrs. Hale.” My mother said, “Please, just give him a chance.”
I stayed in the fifth grade, Five A, for two weeks, and they said, “He knows too much.” I went to the Five B, and stayed there for three weeks. Skipped four times before my 15th birthday, graduating from high school, destined to be a dropout, except that there was a teacher who knew that teaching is the touch of immortality.
And so I leave this with you. The challenge is real. We’ve got to extend ourselves, in terms of housing, in terms of poverty, in terms of unemployment, in terms of homelessness, in terms of all of these. You know, we sit here, we’re comfortable, we’re all dressed up, and we have these kind of meetings all the time. What are we going to do about it?
I leave you with the words of Gibran who said, “There are those who give little of the much which they have, and they give it for recognition, and their hidden desires make their gifts unwholesome. There are those who have little, and they give it all. These are the believers in light. And the bounties, their coffers are never empty. There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward. There are those who give in pain, and that pain is their baptism.
There are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy nor are they mindful of virtue. They give as the myrtle gives in yonder valley who breathes her fragrance into space. Through the hands of such of these, God speaks, and from behind their eyes, he smiles upon the earth.”
It is good to give when asked. It is better to give unasked through understanding. That’s our challenge. Thank you.
GRIFFIN: Well, we’re halfway through and we’ve been challenged already. It is definitely, definitely a good thing to hear that education, schools, churches, denominations can indeed work together. Not just being hearers, but then challenging each other to do. So I thank you, Dr. Hale. I thank you.
Our next speaker is Jonathan Kaufman. He’s a reporter and feature writer for The Wall Street Journal. As I was thinking about what question I can ask him, I thought about how those political entities, how you see those political entities involving themselves with churches on a more determined, direct, a more poignant way that calls not to only seek what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for us. So I bring you to the podium, and I ask you to elaborate on that, and then bring us to where you would have us understand a business perspective, or an individual’s perspective. Alright, bring together a hand of applause for Jonathan Kaufman.
JONATHAN KAUFFMAN: It’s always hard to follow preachers, either official or unofficial ones. I wanted to respond to that question in part by talking a little bit about the involvement of Jews in the civil rights movement from a religious perspective, because it’s something that I’ve written a lot about and talked to a lot of folks about. And I think it’s an important way to look at the impact the civil rights movement had not only on the black community, but also on many in the white community as well.
The involvement of Jews in the civil rights movement is actually quite extraordinary. Back in the early 1960s, during the heyday of the movement, two-thirds of the money that Dr. King raised came from Jewish contributors. The same was true in fact for all the black civil rights organizations, where it was CORE, or SNCC, or SCLC, the vast bulk of their contributions came from Jewish donors.
And of course Jewish involvement in black causes long predated the civil rights movement, going back to the earliest founding of the NAACP, the Urban League, the activities of the Rosenwald Foundation, which built the Rosenwald schools and were very active down South and in Chicago. And more directly, in 1964, when Freedom Summer erupted in Mississippi, three-quarters of the white students who went South from the North were in fact Jewish students, including Schwerner and Goodman who were murdered along with James Chaney in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, an event which I think in many ways was a very powerful metaphor for the involvement of blacks and Jews in the civil rights movement at that time.
Jews were involved in the civil rights movement for a variety of reasons. They both had a common history of oppression, for Jews a very recent history with the Holocaust in Europe. Jews had a longstanding interest in liberal causes, in social causes. There was a great deal of self interest in the involvement of Jews in the movement who knew that they shared a common enemy in bigoted whites. KKK in the South always stood for Coons, Kikes and Catholics, who white Southerners didn’t like. There was a tremendous feeling among Jews that this struggle, the black civil rights struggle was also their struggle and something that would benefit them, which in fact it did.
But I also think it would be wrong to ignore the religious aspect or the spiritual aspect in the way this touched Jews. And I wanted to share with you something that Michael Walzer, who’s a Jewish professor at Princeton, wrote a number of years ago. He wrote it as he was a young graduate student at Brandeis University, and he went down South in 1960 to write about the civil rights movement. And he stumbled into a small Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama.
And he wrote: “There on the pulpit, the preacher, whose name I’ve long forgotten, acted out the going out from Egypt, and expounded its contemporary analogies. He cringed under the lash, challenged the Pharaoh, hesitated fearfully at the sea, accepted the Covenant and the Law at the foot of the mountain. It was,” Walzer said, “the most powerful Passover sermon he had ever heard.” And I think in many ways that experience was something that many Jews who were involved in the civil rights movement felt that in a sense the things they had been taught in their synagogues or had been taught by their parents were very powerfully coming to life before their eyes in a way that they never could have imagined.
Because what’s striking about so many of the Jews who went South is that they were not very religious at all. They very often were very liberal Jews. Some of them didn’t even go to synagogue anymore. And yet the movement touched them at a very spiritual level. And you often hear Jews saying-- and it’s with a certain amount of irony, but it’s true-- that Martin Luther King was the best rabbi they had ever heard, that he spoke to their needs in a way that others didn’t.
And this was even true for rabbis. In 1965, during the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March, after the beatings on the Pettus Bridge, Dr. King put out a call to clergy to come to Selma. And there was actually a rabbinical conference going on at that point. And these young rabbis got together, chartered a plane and flew to Selma to march with Dr. King on the second March to Montgomery. And there’s a famous picture, in fact, of Abraham Joshua Heschel who at the time, and still today, would be considered one of the leading Jewish theologians, locking arms with Dr. King as they marched over the bridge and marched on to Montgomery.
And many years later, there was a reunion of those rabbis. And one of them said they were all suffering from subpoena envy because they were all comparing how many times they had been arrested down South, because this had been such a powerful thing for them.
And I think it’s clear that the religious imagery that both communities shared was very powerful. Denmark Vesey, when he organized his slave revolt in the early 1800s, the subversive literature that he would read to slaves was the Exodus story from the Old Testament. And I think it was very often through the Bible that many blacks first got to know Jews. In fact, James Baldwin has a wonderful essay where he writes about the first time he met Jews in school in Harlem. And he said he was kind of stunned to see them because he thought they had all been trapped in Egypt, and he didn’t quite understand how they’d made their way into these schools in New York.
Clearly, during the course of the movement and the years afterward, blacks and Jews got to know each other much better outside of the Biblical context. Some of those encounters were very positive and some of them were clearly very negative. And I think we all know too well and too sadly what’s happened to black/Jewish relations over the past 20 years as a lot of the idealism that I think burned through those early days of the movement has burned away, and a lot of the divisions between blacks and Jews have become a lot more clear.
From my own perspective, as I speak to both black and Jewish groups, I’m struck these days how not only in some ways politically, and in other ways, blacks and Jews are divided, but even physically. If you go to neighborhoods in Boston, certainly in Roxbury and Mattapan, there are many Jewish synagogues that have now been converted into black churches, or have been turned into social service centers for the black community, as Jews have moved out to the suburbs.
And I find physically, when I try to speak about this topic to blacks and Jews, you often have to travel a long distance to go to a black church in a place like Roxbury or Mattapan, or Chicago or Harlem. And then you go out to the suburbs to speak to a Jewish synagogue, where I think the issues facing black Americans seem far more distant than they did in the 1960s.
I would have some hope as there is a growing black middle class, and as black churches take deeper roots in the suburbs, there might be some chances for cooperation. But I have to say I’m not an optimist. Although an optimist by nature, it does seem that the gap between the two groups remains very wide.
But I guess I would also point out that we still read the same book. We still read those same Exodus stories. And in fact, in the Jewish community, we just finished celebrating Passover just this past week. And it was during the civil rights movement that Rabbi Heschel gave, in a sense, one of the most powerful understandings of that Exodus story in the context of what was happening in the early 1960s.
Rabbi Heschel wrote, “The plight of the Negro must become our most important concern.” He’s talking to Jews now. “Seen in the light of our religious tradition, the Negro problem is God’s gift to America, the test of our integrity, a magnificent spiritual opportunity. It’s not enough for us to exhort the government. What we must do is set an example. Not merely to acknowledge the Negro, but to welcome him, not grudgingly, but joyously, to take delight in enabling him to enjoy what is due him. We are all Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of Pharaoh, but it is horrible to be a Pharaoh.”
In my house, we finished celebrating Passover last night. And I think that’s a story that I want to be able to pass on to my children too, that these struggles, these stories we tell our kids, these stories that we drag them to Sunday School to try to imbue them with, are not something that took place 2000 years ago in a far off land called Egypt that has no relevance to them. But that they’re very real stories, with a very real sense of what they can do in their lives today.
And I guess I’m reminded of something that Alice Walker said to me when I was writing a book about black/Jewish relations. Alice Walker actually met a lot of Jews during the civil rights movement. She married a Jewish civil rights lawyer. They later divorced and also fell out politically over a lot of the issues that blacks and Jews disagreed about. But she said, “You know, one of the things I used to argue with my husband about was yes, it’s important to go to church or to go to synagogue on Sunday or Saturday. But surely, to be holy requires that we live up to our ideals all seven days of the week.”
And I think that’s something that we all need to remember. And I would hope that and the common stories and the common history that blacks and Jews share can be the start of a bridge that we could once again build between the two communities so that we could walk across it, and try to recapture some of that idealism and power and love that I think so infuse both blacks and Jews back during the civil rights movement. Thank you.
GRIFFIN: Well Jonathan Kaufman has challenged us also to become bridge builders. And in that we must take the understanding that if injustice is done to one, the possibility remains open that it can be done to all.
I’d like to introduce to you now Sarah Small. Many of you know her. She’s the Protestant Chaplain right here at the University of Massachusetts. And I’d like to pose the question to Sarah, what do you think we can do to improve the efforts of our religious communities and institutions in terms of the public policies on racism? So would you bring Sarah Small to the podium with a round of applause?
SARAH SMALL: Thank you. It’s good to sit here and reminisce. It’s not pleasant. But it’s something I have to think about now and then. I don’t think about it often. And that’s the civil rights movement and all the struggle that we went through to gain what some people would say was a lot. But I don’t, because where I was going from was never… I haven’t forgot that.
Actually, when I started marching in the civil rights movement, I was thinking about all these children, all this marching, and I said, “I wonder, do they pray?” And the Spirit said, “If you’re so concerned about them praying, why don’t you march with them and pray?” So that’s why I went out there first, to march and pray and to make sure that God was remembered in those marches.
But something about prayer that ushers you right to the front. Once you begin to deal with God, you find favor with people. And all of a sudden, I was out of town one day, and I came back in. And all the people were standing in church. And I walked in and sat down, and they said, “Stand up.” And when I stood up, they was voting me in as President. And I became the first black President of the SCLC, the Martin County unit.
And we did a lot of marching. We started marching, and we marched 31 days and nights with no publicity, no TV, no radio, just us and the angry white folk. They was so mad with us. We couldn’t-- I couldn’t understand it. Why are they so angry? And we walked, and then we stood, one night, we just stood downtown. And they all stood with us. I said, “Let’s sit down.” So we sit down, and they sit down. I said, “What’s the difference in sitting out here on the street together, and going into the restaurant together?” Why are they so angry? I could not understand it.
And I still didn’t understand it, even after we marched, and we said, “We just want good books for our children.” We didn’t say integration. I never marched for integration. But when the legislatures voted up, it was integration. So I went along with it. And I sent my children to the white school and they suffered greatly, you know, ‘cause I really didn’t think that that would happen. All I wanted was the books. And I really liked the teachers because they understood it. They knew what they were teaching them.
You see, you bring ’em and you put ’em in front of teachers who don’t know one thing about us. And the first thing we do that they don’t understand is this is a special needs child. You got to set him over here, ‘cause something is wrong with him. He’s simply being himself. Because school is teaching us how to be you. You know, there’s nothing in the school that teach about being black. There’s no history. Our history was stripped when we came here.
And I’m saying that the churches, as well as the schools-- you’re going to have to bring that in if you’re going to continue to teach our children. ‘Cause this is taxation without representation. You know, we paying taxes for those schools. Folks say we don’t pay taxes, but we do. What little bit we have means a lot. When I hear people say, “Yeah, we are educated.” I say, “Well, honey, when you learn about yourself, I will agree with you.”
Because I’m not going to pay all that money… I saw all the children go into South Boston. I come to Massachusetts to really lead a struggle with all the policemen and everything. And the people in South Boston did not want the children over there. And I didn’t see nothing over there I wanted my children to learn that I would risk their lives for. I mean, it just was no thought. Everybody just doing it because it was done. No thought behind it.
And that’s what I’m seeing today. That we are sitting up here talking about civil rights, and there is no history. It’s like a cancer that you’re putting Band-Aids on, and it keeps festering out. We walk in a store. Everybody’s afraid of us. They don’t know us. They think we’re stealing. Yet we don’t have anything. We don’t have anything. We got less than any other race, or any other people, ‘cause I don’t believe in races either ‘cause it’s one race. And that’s the human race.
And what makes us one race is because we got two eyes, two ears, one nose, a mouth, we walk upright. And the difference is color and hair. You understand? We think alike. You come in the world. I came through my mother. You came through yours. I don’t know about the Big Bang and stuff falling ...(inaudible). I’m going by what I see. I’ve been here 71 years, and I have not seen anything just come together. Everything got a mind behind it.
And that mind that I talk to is God. I was laying down sleeping… Maybe about ten years ago, I started getting up about five o’clock in the morning praying. And then I got a lot of people to pray with me. And then about three in the morning, God began talking to me. I said, “Why, just tell me why, why are people so afraid of us? What’s wrong? Why would we go to Vietnam to kill Vietnamese when drug people are bringing drugs into our community, and we’re bad people if we get a gun? And when we get a gun, we kill each other. What is this?”
But then I found out that there’s a ...(inaudible) that’s teaching you to hate yourself. Children hate themselves. You know, you’re afraid. What are you learning in school? Everybody run out to the suburbs. What’s wrong with us? I move into Roxbury. They said this is a ghetto. I said, “What made it a ghetto? What was it before we came here? Did we make it a ghetto?” I am asking questions.
I am a Christian. I believe the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all of us therein. And no man got no business having dominion over another man. The Lord put this earth here for all men, all men. Understand I’m not saying women. You understand, because you see, I believe the Bible. And I believe he created that one man and took that woman out of the rib. And we’re here to help. But I don’t want to do the man’s job. I want him to do it. God gave you a job. Do it. Do it. You understand?
Why did I have to stand out there with the children? Why was I dragged all up and down the street while the men stood on the sidewalk looking, see what was going to happen to us? Then they said, “Somebody got to run for Congress.” Floyd McKissen, bless his heart, he was going around trying to find everyone. “Ms. Sarah, I think you’re going to have to be the one, ‘cause nobody ain’t going.” I said, “Well, you see, I can’t stick my neck out, because ...(inaudible), and my neck could go on out there.” And as soon as I went out and ran for Congress, and nothing happened to me, everybody’s running. This was in North Carolina.
So now you lay in the bed, and you get old, and you say, “Well, why am I living?” And the Lord says, “You know why you’re out at UMass?” He says, “You’ve got to go out there and fight to get some history in the schools.” …(inaudible) have to learn. You cannot continue to sit here and act like we’re doing the right thing for each other. See, perfect love casts out all fear. And if we’re going to walk together, I got a lot to offer. Don’t believe I don’t know anything. I do know. I might not speak just like you, because I’m not trying to be like you. I’m going to be me, and you be you. And we going to learn together, because I have a lot to offer.
I’ve tried a lot of things, especially about God. I don’t know… One young girl come to me Friday. And she says, “Well, I tell you. I don’t believe in a god, but I’m spiritual.” So I say, “What you believe in?” “I mean… See my brother believes in God, and he just likes to do things a certain way, and I just don’t go along with that.” I said, “Well, it makes no difference whether you believe there’s a god or not. There is one, believe me. You better start paying attention.” “Well, the only thing I like about you is your eyes because I think you really mean what you’re saying.” I say, “I do. I’ve tried it. I did just like you. I was trying everything else, ‘cause I didn’t want to go to church. Momma say, ‘you got to go.’ I say, when I get grown, I will not go to church. I’m going anywheres but church. But believe me, I’m in church every Sunday because she was right.”
And the same thing happened to us, but I’m not willing to sit here anymore and go to the government… See I’ve gone, I said, “I want my freedom, I want my freedom.” And then I read the Bible that said you should know the truth. The truth set you free. I know the truth. I don’t ask nobody for my freedom, ‘cause I’m going to be… And you know, you might not like me. I don’t care. My job is to love you. I love you, but I’ll tell you the truth. I’m not going to love you, saying what you want me to say. I’m going to say what I know is right. If it helps you, I will tell you. If I don’t know, I’ll let you know that too. Because I don’t know everything.
But I’m glad to be here today because I needed to get this out. I want us to start thinking. I want all… You know, you don’t know that until you learn about me, you cannot tell nobody that you’re educated. This is true. And they say, “Well, we got to find something to draw the kids in.” I say, “You’re going to have to break that cement block that does not allow anyone to become anything unless you are white and a male, and you hold them top jobs.” We can do it too. You know that song, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” I can do it too.
You know, it’s just you live and you learn. It’s no big deal, just going in the archives, that thing they’ve got about the black slaves in the archives. They just got to go in there and bring them out. I’ve been trying to talk to Chancellor Penney at UMass. I think she’s afraid to talk to me. But I’m not trying to hurt her. She sent the man. He said, “Well, Sister Sarah, Chancellor Penney wants me to speak to you first.” He said, “What do you want to say to her?”
I said, “I’m going to tell her after I went to jail, and after, all up and down the streets, running from Alabama, to Georgia, North Carolina, everywhere marching, then all of a sudden, white women became the minorities. And all those positions that we might have got to keep our road going was gone. And we didn’t get those jobs. But she got it. And I don’t care about that, because as long as she do something that white men didn’t do.
Let’s see if we can’t get some black history in here. Let’s make sure that children learn, because it’s very important for white children to learn our history. They don’t know. You don’t have our history. It’s systematically done. You see, when people got a place… When I was little, they said, “You got to be in your place.” And I wondered about that. What’s my place? Everybody had a place. You had to be in your place. That’s talk. It wasn’t talk to us. We was bullied into having that place. We beat you. We put you in jail. We lynch you. We throw your children out. You know, sell your children.
Then we turn around and blame… You know, our ancestors was studs. And what they did, they went around and got babies for the white master. He didn’t have to be committed to that woman. Neither did he have to take care of that child. Everybody does what the ancestors did. Now we’re saying, “What’s wrong with those black men? They won’t take care of their children.” Because you stripped the history. They have nothing to look back to. And everywhere you go, you see one light one, one dark one, and you don’t know who belong to who.
I came and they told me, “Your grandfather was white.” And I was very upset about it. I would never talk about that. I really wouldn’t, ‘cause then began some ...(inaudible). They say, “Oh well, his father owned him so he gave him some land.” But it was never discussed in our house. I learned this after Momma and Poppa and everybody was dead.
And all of a sudden I found out. I was very shocked about it, ‘cause you see, I don’t look like it. But the rest, some of them do. You know, you got light ones and dark ones. But I took after Momma. But the whole point is we’re just one race of people.
And God has put us all here to take care of the world. And it’s not being properly done, because it’s one-sided. There’s a lot of things that the Lord is going to tell us to do. He did tell us a lot of things to do. A lot of white people don’t know it, because it’s not in the history book. We were never given credit for it, for the things we’ve done. We know it.
But everybody should know it, what we’ve done. And I think that we’re losing, unless we do come together, think about it, and get some history going, so we can know, don’t go by what they did. They were angry after the war, and so they must find a way-- the Ku Klux Klan and different people-- find a way to continue to take the chain off of the ankle and off of the hands, and put it on the mind. And you begin thinking bad about yourself.
But the Bible said be transformed by the renewing of your mind. That’s right. You got to start thinking right. You don’t go back and think what you used to think. You begin to think, who am I? And what is it all about? And I’m here to do something for the Lord, ‘cause he done a great thing for me. He went on that cross and died, and didn’t come down until it was finished. And it looks like I’m going to be here too until it’s finished. But you all remember, in Jesus’ name. Thank you.
GRIFFIN: My, my. When the table’s been set, we’ve had a meal. And we thank you, Sarah, for dessert. That’s the good stuff. That’s the truth. Old school. Not this new thing that’s coming along. I love to hear that. Now we’re going to open this up to questions. But I want to challenge us to keep our remarks as brief as possible, so everyone has a chance to speak. And maybe that way we can get around to you again if you have a second or a third question.
But we are encouraging you to keep your questions in terms of a one-part question. You know I’ve read sometime that those that speak in volumes get put up on shelves and dust gathers on them, right? So let’s be brief. Why don’t I allow by a show of hands those who have questions for our distinguished panel? Okay, right in front. Yes?
STEWART: There is a microphone.
GRIFFIN: Oh, yes. I’m sorry. As a matter of fact, if those who have questions desire to, you can form in the back of the room, and as you filter through then your question can be heard on that microphone. Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question builds upon a comment that Dr. Breeden made. In terms of the church being used both to support our liberation, and the church being used to support white supremacy. And my question to the full panel would be, could you place for us the role of denominations, the role of higher education? All of these institutions at one point in the 1960s were working towards greater inclusiveness. National Council of Churches, for example, had a large staff. What is the nature of the staff now? The Union of American Hebrew Congregations had staff deployed. What is the nature of-- what are the number-- what’s the concern?
I am concerned that we haven’t really placed religious institutions within the political arena. Politics has changed. How do you see it now?
GRIFFIN: Dr. Breeden, would you field that question first. And then after Dr. Breeden, anyone who wants to chime in after, feel free.
BREEDEN: Yeah, I’ll start. I should say I don’t know precisely the response-- an answer to that question. I think in general those offices and those staff positions have disappeared. They’re off the budget now. That that’s the general trend, and I think that it’s… I was, for instance, director of an office of that sort in the Massachusetts Council of Churches. I don’t think that exists anymore. And in fact it was created, in a sense, quite a bit after the civil rights movement was a central issue. It never transformed itself to address the issues that I think are more current.
So that’s my general sense. Is that the decline, and also a lack of translation, as you were saying, into contemporary, political terms? This is not the civil rights era when the issues are not completed, but they have a different form right now.
GRIFFIN: Anyone else from the panel?
KAUFMAN: I just want to say, in terms of the Jewish organizations, I mean all the Jewish organizations had people who were very involved in civil rights, and were sort of the contact people. A lot of that structure has also evaporated, although all the organizations still maintain sort of a commitment to civil rights. But it tends to vary depending on the intensity the individuals bring to it.
Here in Boston, for example, Lenny Zakim who is the head of the Anti- Defamation League here. ADL is actually a very conservative organization nationally. But Lenny is very liberal, and is very committed to sort of working on civil rights issues, has built sort of a lot of cooperation across racial and religious lines. So the ball’s kind of left for the individuals to carry. And the reality is, I think for a lot of Jewish organizations, starting in the late 1960s, questions of Israel, intermarriage in the Jewish community, a whole other set of issues began to become more and more important. And sort of began to push away the concern with civil rights that dominated a lot of sort of Jewish concerns, and Jewish thinking in the late ‘50s and early 1960s.
HALE: I think unfortunately the church and educational institutions have been reactionary. On many college and university campuses, for example, there was a surge of African American presence following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. You will see the time between ’68 and 1972, where the presence of students on historically white campuses, major white historical institutions, quadrupled. We moved from 262,000 in 1965, up to 1,026,000 by 1972.
How did that take place? It took place because students got tired of being lost in the immensity of whiteness. They felt that they were in an alien land, so few. They were concerned that they did not have people who looked like them, who understood them. And so they protested.
For example in 1968 and 1970, we had a series of disruptions at Ohio State. The National Guard was brought in. Up until that time, we had only a handful of African Americans. Within two years, we had over 120. We respond to the heat corporately. I taught a class last year entitled the Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, and it was about 50/50 in terms of black and white participation. And one young white girl asked me, “What’s going to happen to the civil rights movement? Who succeeded Martin Luther King?”
And my response was that I think it’s time for the majority community to have a white Martin Luther King. Someone who takes the initiative, and not always leaving it upon the oppressed to take a move that can be interpreted as self-interest.”
GRIFFIN: Amen. I would like to chime in here and say also we took our cues. I don’t know whether we took it from the government in terms of affirmative action being dropped. Or from business, in terms of downsizing. But it seems to me that we’ve come to a point where the relationship of human beings takes second, or third, or fourth position to economy and money. I think we need to get away from that, and I think we need to rediscover what values made us this great nation which we are. Amen.
Anymore from the panel?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is, what has been the role of the media in terms of the whole civil rights movement? Even in terms of, like I say, promoting Dr. King as the head when you mentioned so many other great individuals who did not seek the limelight, in terms of the civil rights movement? And just in terms of the historical religious context?
GRIFFIN: Is there a particular person you’d like to address this to, or is this just a general question to the panel?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: The panel, general question.
GRIFFIN: Anyone like to field that?
SMALL: Well, I don’t think that Dr. King was seeking the limelight. That was not a good limelight, the beatings and the jails. He happened to be the person of the hour. He was a young person, a minister, and he could--...(inaudible) person. He couldn’t have done anything unless all the people were behind him. We were of one accord.
But afterwards, you see, because all of a sudden we were neutralized. You know, like all of a sudden drugs came into the community. Then people got guns, and they start shooting each other, you know? And so the children that I used to look at, and they would sit down, the law says you cannot treat them like that no more. You’ve got to let them do what they want to do, and so nobody’s in charge.
And I think that people should be in charge of their own children, because now they’re killing themselves. Everybody’s doing it. First we were doing it, and they said it was because we were deprived. But now other folks are killing themselves. I think it’s because they’re human. You know, and you were just born in sin, and shaped in liberty. And there’s no good guys and bad guys, we all make mistakes.
GRIFFIN: Someone else from the panel? Yes.
BREEDEN: Two things I’d like to say. First of all, and I was very active in the civil rights movement in the Boston area. And the media were central to our organizing and to communicating what we were doing. And we paid an awful lot of attention to educating reporters, editors, editorial writers, and so on. It was just a central piece.
I mentioned in my presentation that just the fact that cameras were on the Pettus Bridge on that Sunday afternoon had a lot to do with there being a voting rights act. So that’s one side of it.
The other side of it is that the media are a business that have certain interests and they’re not centrally the interests of civil rights. Again, there are things that have to be understood about what’s going on, and how you make something useful to you that isn’t intended for that purpose.
HALE: I think another aspect-- I remember reading an article by Dr. Augustus Myer of the University of Southern Illinois some years ago. And he referred to King as the militant moderate. And what he said essentially was that the media not only took to King because of his leadership potential, and because of his great communicative ability. But also because they knew that Malcolm X was just outside the door. [laughter]
KAUFMAN: As the one media representative up here… I mean, I think that reporters in general, I mean all of us… The civil rights movement was an extraordinary powerful, and in some ways, and I mean this in the best sense, simple story. It was a very dramatic story. I think television had a tremendous impact on it. And the issues were very clear.
I think what happened after 1965 is that the story became more complicated. The movement came North, it began to deal with sort of issues of economic power. And I think that the press has kind of reflected, in a sense, the way the country has struggled with sort of a post-1965 civil rights movement.
I mean, I was involved a little bit with the Eyes on the Prize documentaries, because my wife was involved with them. And it was interesting seeing Henry Hampton… I mean, the first Eyes on the Prize was this incredible triumphal journey. And I think anybody who watched that felt so proud to be an American by the time it was over.
Eyes II took the movement from sort of ’65 to the present, was more complicated. There was no simple answers, even though maybe there should have been. I think we’re still working out those answers. So I think in a sense the press response to these issues has reflected, in a sense, America’s confusion with them as well.
But I think you’re right. I think what all good organizers have learned, and I’ve worked at the Boston Globe and now The Wall Street Journal. I think what all good organizers have understood is that the press is there to be used. And if you can get the press, if not on your side, at least to tell your story, it can be very powerful. And I think that while there’s a lot of suspicion about the media, I hope people don’t give up on us. Because I think there’s a lot of good people who want to tell good stories, but they need the access, they need the education. They need the time spent with them to sort of bring them along so they can sort of enter these worlds, and try to tell the stories to the reader.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Speaking of media, an interesting thing happened at a roundtable meeting I was attending in the recent past. And the question was asked in terms of civil rights movements, the media today moving toward sensationalism, but the mainstream media remaining conservative and dutiful in their ability to report. But the question was asked, and I want to pose this to you, how do I think-- how do we think that the media of today would have reported the civil rights movement in the time of Martin Luther King? In terms of check-out counter sensationalism, and such.
KAUFMAN: Well, I think that would have been, I mean, clearly the same thing with President Kennedy. I mean, the question is would Dr. King’s failings have overshadowed his accomplishments.
You know, I would like to think that there was a moral power to the movement. I mean in some ways you can argue one of the reasons why the media is so sensationalistic today is because there are no great struggles that are visible. In other words, your attention expands or contracts to the issues that you’re facing. And I would like to think-- I mean, I was in Berlin during the fall of the Berlin Wall. People were not writing about Vaslav Pavol(?)’s sex life at that point, because there was this great moral struggle going on.
And I tend to think that when the stakes seem smaller, or when people are more confused, that’s maybe what they focus on. I’d like to think that at a time of an incredible moral campaign, people realize-- they keep their eyes on the prize. They understand what the real issues are.
GRIFFIN: Amen. Next question please.
NADIA MENDEZ: Thank you. My name is Nadia Mendez, and I assist a small set. I am probably going to have a little bit of time framing my question so I sound real smart like the rest of the panel. But this has been fascinating for me to hear, and to what everyone has to say.
Very recently, Dr. Hale, I have been trying to play catch-up with my education, because I came here and had to deal with language and everything else. But very recently I have taken an interest in the course I’m taking on what preceded the civil rights actual-- delivery, let’s call it. Probably that’s not the right thing to say. And I’ve been reading Richard Kruger, and what you have presented and shared with us just simply brought to life to me what I have been studying. And I mean it’s really quite a history.
Civil rights, bilingual education, the rights of language minority children, could someone please speak to that? Because as I see it, there is an area where this country is regressing instead of advancing. And I’d like really to know if this ever enters into the conversations of the African American community, and where we stand on that.
HALE: You call my name, but I don’t claim any expertise in this area. All I can say is obviously there’s not an educational issue. It’s a political issue. And I think it will be addressed in a realistic way as the numbers of Hispanics and Latinos grow. We can see sensitivities developing in areas where there are concentrations now. In California, in Texas, and what have you, so you know that they receive support for the most recent affirmative action agenda item in Houston.
And I think that was brought about because of a marriage between African Americans and Latinos. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s important that once again we learn to appreciate, understand, and celebrate each other’s culture. Now how that’s going to be handled in the future will vary from state to state, depending upon leadership. Depending upon leadership, but the leadership always is responsive to numbers. And I think the thing that made the civil rights movement alive, and well, and so explosive, so provocative during the ‘60s was the fact that people of color-- African Americans were out there on the front line. Protesting, challenging, and having the spiritual force and ethos of which Lady Small spoke.
People had to listen. And I think that once this takes place, I think you’ll see some of the clouds beginning to clear.
SMALL: But you got the vision. Because see, where there is no vision, the people perish. If you have the vision, you are the leader. If you have the vision, you know you need your language in the schools, then you have the vision. Get other parents. Other parents feel just like you do. And you all get together and pray about it, and God will show you what to do because he loves all of us. You’re all your respective persons, He’ll tell me and He’ll tell you.
NADIA MENDEZ: Just one follow-up. I am thrilled that the Seventh Day Adventist Church has historically been considered to never get involved in politics, in fact has a spokes person like you who’d come forward, and actually identify yourself by your religion. Because I am one too, and it was my daughter who saw the flyer, and said, “Wow, I never knew that the Seventh Day Adventist Church would in any way get involved in politics.” And to know that in fact there’s been such an organization, laymen, lay people for civil rights, it’s very encouraging.
GRIFFIN: Well, Nadia, stay there for a minute. This is your lucky day. No, this is your blessed day. I belong to another organization, it’s called the BEC. It’s newly forming, it’s called the Boston Educational Collaborative. Maybe you’ve heard of it? But we are looking for a seamless continuum of education from high school onto professional degree, bilingually. There will be a seminar or fair, you might have heard it on the radio, the 25th of April at Park Side Institution that will address just those concerns that you have.
MENDEZ: I’ll be there, that’s my birthday!
GRIFFIN: That’s our birthday! Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes, good afternoon. I just have one simple question, but first I just wanted to reflect on how significant today is. I want to thank the panelists and the organizers for this. It’s something pungent about being here on a Sunday in the Kennedy Library with great scholars and wisdom, and people of great will and wisdom talking about the civil rights movement. And I’m reminded of the scripture that says, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there in the midst I will be also.” And I just thank the Lord for being here, so I just wanted to simply say that. And for this great congregation.
My simple question is this, I’m really attracted to this program. I work for the state. But I also am just enamored with the whole civil rights movement, and particularly the church’s role. And the moral ground that the church put the civil rights movement in, the high moral ground it pushed us up above. It pushed us up above these silly arguments of affirmative action, just silly arguments. I mean that’s not even a debatable point, and yet you’re having debates all over the place. The silly dialogue on race, quite frankly, that you guys in the civil rights movement and the church just pushed us above that. And we need to recapture that.
Now my question to you is simply, under our noses and an ocean away, you have in South Africa this Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You have Bishop Tutu, and you have Nelson Mandela, and they’re taking this whole moral issue to a higher plateau, and a whole country is committed to eroding this thing, apartheid and the whole attitude. And I want to know from all of you, what lesson can we learn from that? And can that be replicated somehow here in the United States?
SMALL: Well, I would say this, that Nelson Mandela and those people over in South Africa know who they are, where they come from. We’ve got to first find out who we are, what is our history here, and how do we move. You see because it has been systematically pushed to us that you are not good enough. You is not as good as… So, everything we do, we do it hoping that the white people approve. If the white people don’t approve, we don’t approve.
If you want somebody to say that it was good, then if he comes along and says, “That was great,” and then everybody says, “Yeah, that was great.” But this is the way we’ve been trained in this country. And I’m standing around looking at it. I really, I have. I said well, what in the world? I just didn’t know until recently, it has come to my attention that that was not just accidental. It was by design. And that is the way you rule people like us, where you think you’re free and you’re not free at all. Where you can say, “Go in the backdoor.” And everybody goes. But not saying why. And then when you ask why, they don’t have an answer. They don’t know either, because we were born into this situation, but I don’t think we ought to continue in it.
__: Just two things. I’ve been fascinated. Recently exposed to both a film and then a book, each done by different people, but white people trying to recover the history of their slave owning… Yes, as one sort of truth and reconciliation, I just blundered into it, and I wasn’t really thinking about what I would learn from this. But it was really absolutely fascinating. And it was the first time that that discussion about what is the meaning of that experience had living, breathing meaning about it. Because these two people had both spent a great deal of time trying to understand and to project that. So that’s one comment.
Second comment is Sarah, I agree with you about the need to understand our history. I’m not sure whether I disagree with you or not about whether white people understand their history. I’m less confident of that. That whether, in fact, one could even think about what that would mean, how there could be the absence of one chunk of history, and the understanding of another chunk that’s so deeply, deeply connected with it. So that when I think about the educational tasks, I don’t think about it as an absence on one side, but an absence on both sides. It takes both as already reductionist, but it takes more than filling in a blank.
Black history is not a blank for white people. It’s filled in, so there has to be some other work done before either part of that can be accomplished.
GRIFFIN: Panel, anyone else?
HALE: I think that the greatest argument for religion are the persons who profess to be religious. The greatest argument against religion are the people who profess to be religious. So somewhere along the lines, we have to be very careful about dissecting religion, and making it this totally an ecclesiastical, theological experience. It has to be a part of the warp of everyday life.
And so as a part of that, I think even before we maybe get down into the tenets of what is spiritual, and what is moral… And of course, King talked all about this in the complete dimensions, the complete life, the length of life, how we feel about ourselves. The breath of life, how we feel about other people, and the vertical experience of reaching out for God. The important thing is, how can we as a religious community become instructive?
Now there’s a lot of information that has to go out, and I’m not so naïve as to assume that if people are informed, they’re going to necessarily be transformed. But the fact of the matter is, some folks don’t even know about what we call preferential treatment, affirmative action. I’m not sure we all know.
You know, we’ve heard it said, but we need to be able to give specificities in terms of what white affirmative action has meant. In terms of the lands that have been given to farmers, and grazers, and how 371 Indian treaties were broken. And land was given-- poor land, Indian land was given, and then people were able to sell that at monumental prices. And over the generations, people have moved from silver spoon to gold spoon. Because they could capitalize on the exploitation of the investments that had been made available to them and their ancestors, and not available to other people.
I mean, what are we talking about even today? The average white person can be stopped by a policeman, and don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re being stopped because of their race. They say, “What did I violate?” The average white person does not have to teach their kids how to be prepared to deal with systemic racists. They don’t have to be concerned about how they’re going to be treated when they move into a neighborhood. They don’t have to be concerned about whether or not somebody’s going to be following them when they go into a store. These are invisible indications of privilege, which people may never think about from a day to day basis, but they are there. And they represent an affirmative force that we have neither defined or explained so that folks will understand.
That there is no way that 30 years-- ’68 to ’98 of so-called affirmative action-- is somehow going to overwhelm and neutralize 300 and some years of slavery, segregation, legalized discrimination, and what have you. We’ve got to tell the story. You see, you have two kinds of status. You have achieved status, which we hold young people to. When they come to Ohio State University, you’ve got to have a certain grade point average, you’ve got scores-- GRE, you know, if you’re talking about the graduate school, or what have you.
But then there is ascribed status. You know, I did some consulting at West Point some years ago. And I found out that even though they have high academic standards, there are kids who applied there who have very average scores, but their momma and daddy’s-- Their father was a colonel. Or in some instances you know the politician. There has always been vest pocket admissions. People who give money, and their kids get in. It’s only when we start talking about race as an affirmative action factor that people get excited. Well, I’ll stop there.
SMALL: But it’s important not to put anything down, because we have not been in it. So we don’t know what white people know, and we’re not going to say that you don’t know. But I’m thinking that like me, most of you were born in the situation as it is. And it seems normal until a time like this, until you go to jail, and you march, and you think everything-- Well, we got freedom now, and we’re going to come up. And you can’t even elect somebody.
You get all the votes you want, but then you got that college! I mean, popular votes don’t get you in! I don’t understand it. I want it down where I can understand it. Where if I’m going to go out there and really work hard to get somebody elected, don’t come up with some trick that you got! And all of a sudden, no matter all my walking, all my doing everything, they can’t get elected. And you know, sometimes you got more people, and the votes are lost. It’s just a whole lot of things that happen to us. And I just think all of them are… If I’m ignorant of it, and you’re ignorant of it, I think we ought to just get together and find out what this whole thing is about. And I know we can’t do it alone. But I think if I find out I don’t know, then I want to know.
As long as I didn’t know, I could sit over at UMass forever. And be thrilled every time I go to a graduation, until the Lord hit me in the head with that. And I said, “Oh!” And he did! It was God that did it. He enlightened me.
And I didn’t know how when in 1996, and the scripture that I had was Song of Solomon, first chapter, the sixth verse, “Look not upon me because I’m black. The sun has played with my skin. My mother’s children was angry with me and they made me take care of their vineyard, while mine went unkempt.” And I’m ready to take care of my own vineyard and I think everybody else should!
TANYA DUNCAN: My name is Tanya Duncan, and I’m involved in civil rights. And my husband actually teaches in the Boston schools. And one of the things that we kind of struggle with is-- While looking at the civil rights movement, I was fueled by the Judeo-Christian values, and you gave some of your own stories, Dr. Hale. You said that the values of the church helped you in school. And Mr. Kaufman, you talked about how Jews got involved because of the story of the Passover.
As a society, it concerns me that we’re becoming increasingly less tolerant of these values, and much more secular. And I want to know how you see the church can get involved with the changes in the country that’s taking place? As I said, there’s less tolerance of religion, prayers being taken out of the schools. There was an issue where a judge was asked to take the Ten Commandments down. And so this is kind of a change that’s taking place. And how can we progress in this type of environment?
KAUFMAN: I mean, my own sense is I think-- and I write for a newspaper that of course symbolizes the kind of triumph of capitalism and markets, and all that these days-- but I sense that in my own community, in my own life, the people that I talk to, I think there’s an emptiness at the core of that. And I think there is a feeling that a lot of people have that there’s something more they want to believe in.
And I mean, you know, the 1950s are interesting. If you had assembled a panel in 1952, no one would have predicted what was going to happen. And that the country would be completely convulsed and transformed by the civil rights movement. And the ‘50s seemed like a very placid decade, everyone was living in the suburbs and it was quiet. No one knew this was about to happen. And so my hope would be that if sometimes even at the darkest times, when you think that there’s no hope, that in fact there is a kind of yearning for something.
And I would think the role of churches or synagogues who care about these things is to keep the message out there. In the sense that if the message is true and important, it will begin to draw people. And I just sense that as good as economic times are, and all that, there is still a sense that people feel that things are not quite right with their lives, not quite right with the country. And I think that maybe they’ll begin to sort of turn, and begin to ask some of these more profound questions that were asked in the 1950s, and the early 1960s, and begin to ask them again.
BREEDEN: Yeah, I think this would start a long discussion with me because I’m a little concerned with some of the religious values that I see expressed in public life now. That were not expressed as much in the mid- ‘60s. So a lot of it I think comes down on the side that I would not be happy to see gang war power in lives.
HALE: You know, I hate to think that the church might be somewhat responsible for the secularization in our lives. There are people who have given up on the church because they feel that the church has not expressed itself in a forthright way. And it has instead defaulted on some of its own principles.
Vincent Harding has a very poignant essay, and he talks about how historically black people have been subjected to so much of their oppression from the hands of so-called Christians. And he wonders-- You know, he talks about even on the slave ships, the Bible was up there on the shelf. And he makes the point, he wonders why as many blacks have accepted religion as they have. Dick Gregory is even more cynical!
He said after the Supreme Court decision had… We know the church was very active in the ‘60s. But prior to that time, he said if the churches had been active as they should have been, in terms of addressing social problems, we’d been saying thank God, instead of thank the Supreme Court. So we need to look at what our responsibility is in addressing issues. It’s one thing to get into church at 11:00 on a Sunday morning, or Saturday, or Friday, or what have you, and sing praises, or say Amen, or hallelujah. But God’s temple is a sanctuary without walls.
Where do we go after that Monday through Friday? What do we do? How do we get involved with dealing with the homeless? We have a little situation we started in Columbus about a month ago. I went to a bakery and I said, “What do you do with your bread on weekends when you close up?” And I found out. He said, “Come to us on Friday night. We will give you all the bread you want.” Every Friday night now they fill up four 30 gallon plastic bags of real bread! I mean, this is a bakery that’s second to none. Their loaves start at $2.50.
We get French bread. We get tomato bread. We get zucchini bread. We get banana nut bread, and what have you. And they have helped us, helped Teen Challenge, helped the homeless, the open shelter, and what have you. And when we went down the first two weeks, they were startled! How did the churches suddenly become involved in this? And it kind of ashamed us. Now that’s a small thing, but there are major things of a social consequence that we need to address, and we have to.
SMALL: I think one thing that we have to do is if you’re going to send your children to college, you better get out there and make a job for them when they come back. Because if you’re talking about equality, why don’t you get out and get a… And it’s not saying that one group of people got to have all the jobs. Everybody needs to go out and build something so their children will have something to come back to. It’s a lot to talk about, because we’re so used to…
You know, people have given us so much to think that we can’t get it unless somebody give it to us. But you can, because you’ve got two hands and two feet, and the Lord know how to respect a person. All of us can go to work. You know, just find something for our children to do. In the computer age, everybody’s been tried… This is something new, we all can get into that and learn it. And then have something for our children to do. That’s the way we start thinking. Because the Bible said, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
And if you’re going to keep the same mind, there’ll be no change. You’ve got to change, and stop thinking about what the government can do, what the churches can do, because I am the church! You understand that. I’m not a religion. I’m not religious. I just have a way of life. I believe in Jesus Christ, and pray to him everyday. I don’t have to go to that building. I do it at home. I do it here. I’ve been praying since I’ve been here. I mean, I talk to the Lord all the time.
And I think God wants us to do that. He wants to really show everybody that he is not a God like we make him look like. He wants… We’re making him look bad. God looks bad. Both of us, the whites and the blacks making God look real bad. We say good, and ...(inaudible). “Oh, there is no God.” But there is, and he wants us to to come out and do these things. And not try to fit ourselves into what is. Because what is does not work for us. You’ve got to expand it and become a part of the world.
__: Also, interestingly enough, most of our institutions of higher learning were manned by ministers of the gospel. We’ve come to a time where we’ve been asked to accept things. And I will be short, but I just want you to ponder on this.
I remember in my lifetime when you couldn’t even say pregnant on television!
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you all for coming here today. You’ve spoken about the church being on both sides of the civil rights issue, and in fact historically being aligned with the ruling classes. Not just in slavery, but back to the crusades and the inquisition, and as a justification for imperialism all over the world. And my question is, why is this? Is it just a historical happenstance that Christianity has been manipulated and misinterpreted by the ruling classes to justify this? Or is there something about the nature of Christianity that predisposes it to this manipulation?
HALE: I had a little note in my talk that I didn’t mention. But I think it goes back to the time where Christianity, at least, at the time when the bishops enjoyed the luxury of Constantine in the 4th century. That the connection between church and state that’s continued in a way by tax exemption for the churches is the peculiar one. That’s not a total answer, but I think that churches have a peculiar capacity to find comfort in the ruling powers, and being close to them. And discomfort in being critical, and out of favor with the ruling powers. Which is to say that they have a discomfort with their vocation.
SMALL: Want me to tell you how I see it? In the 14th chapter of St. John he said, “I will send you another comforter. He will teach you all things.” And we go, and one man teach another man what he knows, which is this right down here. And you just don’t know, because the Holy Spirit is there to teach you and to guide you into all truths if you would do that. But we don’t, because now you know when… “Why we can’t let you preach for us if you didn’t go to seminary!” And if you go to seminary-- whether you can preach or not-- if you’ve been to seminary, you’ve got the credentials, come on!
But I mean, it’s time to learn. You know what, the Bible is the basic instruction for living on this earth. And we better find out what’s in it, instead of somebody telling us.
HALE: James Oakes, once again, has a chapter in his book The Ruling Class called “The Convenient Sin.” And what he talks about is that slavery was ruled by the whole economic situation. Britain was so much a part of it that at the time of the Civil War, they volunteered to intervene. Because they wanted to keep that capital coming into their country, which they also shared with our country. On an annual basis, prior to the Civil War, they were netting 5 to 10 million dollars a year, which in today’s terms would be 50 to 75 billion dollars. So it was big bucks.
And so some of the folks sitting up in the church, those who were making the money, the slave owners as I mentioned and so forth, they were all apart. The Good Book tells us that love of money, not money, but the love of money is the root of all evil!
GRIFFIN: Other comments from the panel? Next question.
STEWART: I hate to say it, but I’m going to close this session. One of the speakers a while ago made reference to the organizers of this program, and I’d like to acknowledge the presence of two members of our advisory committee, Mary Reed and Glendora Putnam, who’ve done a wonderful job!
STEWART: A wonderful job in helping to put this series together. And Donna Cotterell-- I don’t know where-- Donna’s over here, who was on our staff, and who has been the coordinator of all of these forums. And I want to thank our distinguished panel, as this has been an absolutely wonderful afternoon. Fortunately we’ve captured it all on television, and we have an audio tape of the program. So what was said here this afternoon hopefully will be shared by a lot of other people. And I want to thank Ron Griffin for being absolutely the greatest moderator I’ve seen here in a long time!
So, again, I hope everyone will join us for some coffee, tea, and cookies and more conversation. Thank you all for coming!