Saturday, March 1, 2014


F.W.WOOLWORTH, Greensboro, NC
Civil Rights Reflections, Greensboro, NC

And a Rather Long Post

I’ve recently been volunteering my Monday afternoons at a local elementary school along with other fellow church members. We’ve been assisting young students with their homework and serving a warm dinner before they go home. As with so many volunteer activities, there are always many opportunities to receive in addition to give. This week I was helping a young boy with his homework and he breezed right through his math assignment without needing much help. But he was struggling with a Black History assignment to write Haiku poems based on his study of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in this country. He had specifically taken notes on Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Emmitt Till. And I had the advantage of a smart phone with access to Google search. As we struggled with the Haiku restrictions of both brevity and structure, we both learned a lot about the struggle and the history of three key figures in the movement. Here was an old white guy who lived during this period, working closely with a young Asian student who wasn’t even born then, trying to breathe life into an African-American revolution for equality.

A Haiku poem must only consist of three lines and seventeen syllables with five, seven and five syllables on lines one, two and three, respectively. That’s not a lot of room to adequately describe the contributions of three people that rallied a nation to dramatic cultural change.

We first studied the very troubling death of young fourteen year old Emmitt Till. He was visiting relatives in Mississippi from Chicago in August 1955 when some other boys reportedly dared him to whistle at the young wife of a white store owner. Four days later her husband and half-brother abducted young Emmitt. They gouged out his eye, beat him, shot him in the head, wrapped a cotton-gin fan around his neck with barbed wire and tossed his body into the Tallahatchie River where it was recovered three days later. Emmitt’s mother was the one who insisted on an open-casket funeral back in Chicago and the sleeping giant of righteousness was rudely awakened when the images of Emmitt’s remains began circulating.

Just three months later on December 1, 1955 a resolute Rosa Parks sat down in the “whites only” section of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested for violating a city code that only allowed blacks to sit in the back of the bus. A 26 year old Baptist minister whose birth name was Michael King after his Baptist minister father, assumed a leadership role in a nonviolent, civil disobedient, civil rights movement to begin eradicating these racially discriminatory practices. Michael King’s father changed both of their names to Martin Luther in honor of the great German reformer after he visited Berlin in 1939 for a church conference. Other nonviolent demonstrations now began to occur around the country including the 1960 Woolworth sit-in at a “whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro, NC—a location that today has been converted into a civil rights museum to honor the four college students who sat down that February 1 for the first of many days.

Martin Luther’s life and faith was based on Jesus’ succinct response to the religious leaders of his time when asked which was the greatest of all the hundreds of commands they were trying to follow. He stated that we should love God and others, i.e., we should be relational like the Trinity. After all, we were made in God’s image. And it’s much more difficult to simplify things than to complicate them. Jesus didn’t come to conquer the oppressive Romans as a warrior king but as a savior teaching love and right relationships for all mankind. Martin’s leadership placed him in peril for his very life once the movement gained momentum from the streets of Montgomery. His home was bombed in 1956, but he still pleaded for non-violence. Another of his significant influences was Mohandas Gandhi who he quoted when he accepted the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize; “He struggled only with the weapons of truth, soul force, non-injury and courage”.

Martin’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered rather impromptu when Mahalia Jackson shouted that he should “Tell them about the dream!” during the 1963 March on Washington. My favorite line was that “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. Martin told the marchers in Selma Alabama in 1965 that equal rights were imminent because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. On April 3, 1965 Martin addressed a rally in Memphis, Tennessee after his flight was delayed by a bomb threat. In the ending of his last speech he said “I’ve been to the mountaintop…I would like to live a long life…But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…And I’ve seen the Promised Land”. Afterwards, his last words before an assassin’s bullet ended his life were spoken to musician Ben Branch who was scheduled to perform that night: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty”.

Discussing these events with a young elementary school child was difficult. Helping him compose a short Haiku that did credit to the lives of these three icons of the civil rights movement was emotional and challenging. But answering a child’s question of “Why did people do all these bad things?” was even more difficult--except to say that what they did was very wrong and it’s good to know there are people out in the world with God at their side that will stand up to them. We’ve been endowed with the free will to do good or evil in this broken world. When folks do not choose wisely, I’ve witnessed God working with others to bring good out of a bad situation. Martin summarized this well; “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.

I was obviously not in the classroom when the young student was given this assignment, but after he finished composing his three Haiku’s it became obvious why the teacher had assigned those specific people. And it led to my own Haiku:

Three lives converging.
Connected by one man’s dream.
Jesus, take our hand.

No comments:

Post a Comment