This morning, I stand in this pulpit in my capacity as spiritual editor. I share with you a thoughtful reflection by David Remnick, the editor at the New Yorker.
It was January, 2009, and I don’t think I’d ever seen someone so full of hope: on the Sunday before Barack Obama’s first inauguration, John Lewis arrived at Shiloh Baptist, an African-American church in Washington founded just after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, to preach “the King message.”
Lewis told me that, for days, he had been walking around the capital in a “state of unreality.”
Lewis, who announced this Sunday that he will soon begin treatment for Stage IV pancreatic cancer, is seventy-nine, and he has represented Georgia’s fifth congressional district since 1987.
He grew up in a sharecropper family near Troy, Alabama. Jim Crow ruled his early years: the Whites Only rule that kept him from reading books at the Pike County public library, the countless miseries and injustices that structured life. When he was barely twenty, Lewis was among the first Freedom Riders. He soon became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he spoke alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The elders in the movement judged his original text to be too radical, too confrontational with the Kennedy Administration––“Which side is the federal government on?” Lewis had wanted to ask. The elders made him tone it down.
Days before Obama’s inaugural ceremonies, despite freezing temperatures, thousands of people, many of them African-American, wandered around the Capitol Building and the Mall just to get close to what they knew would be a historic event. At Shiloh Baptist, Lewis told the congregants that on inauguration day the crowds on the Mall would be joined by the “saints and angels”: by Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Nat Turner, W. E. B. Du Bois.
Later, as Lewis was walking around the Mall, talking with people, a young black man approached shyly and introduced himself, saying he was the police chief in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Lewis smiled. “Imagine that,” he said. “I was beaten near to death at the Rock Hill Greyhound bus terminal during the Freedom Rides, in 1961. Now the police chief is black.”
Lewis initially supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 race–––he regarded the Clintons as longtime allies and was reluctant to abandon them––but, he said, he had “an executive session with myself” and switched to Obama. “I had to be on the right side of history.” Obama, for his part, kept a framed cover of Life magazine in his Senate office; the cover was from March, 1965, and it captured the standoff on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, between Alabama state troopers and the crowd of civil-rights protesters, led by John Lewis. In his remarkable memoir of the movement, “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis recalled the approach of the troopers on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday: “The clunk of the troopers’ heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves hitting the hard asphalt of the highway, the voice of a woman shouting, ‘Get ’em! Get the niggers!’ And then they were upon us.”
Seconds later, a state trooper brought a truncheon down on Lewis, fracturing his skull. Lewis refused to go to the hospital. Instead, in a daze, his pale raincoat splattered with blood, he made his way to the pulpit of Brown Chapel, where many of the protesters, choking from tear gas, had assembled. Lewis told them, “I don’t know how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam. I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo. I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa, and he can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama.”
Television coverage of Selma, and the outrage that grew out of it, insured that Bloody Sunday became one of the most important acts of nonviolent resistance since 1930, when Mahatma Gandhi led the long march against the colonial salt tax. Bloody Sunday sparked Lyndon Johnson to push through the Voting Rights Act by the end of the summer––and John Lewis, age twenty-five, had been at the head of it all.
As Obama left his swearing in, Lewis approached him with a sheet of paper and asked the new President, the first black President, to sign it. And he did. He wrote, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”
We can only do what we can with the world that we actually inherit. But that can be quite a lot as the life of John Lewis attests. And it is important that we stand for what is humane and decent around us because we are not talking about ancient history. It is living history.
My wife reminded me of that reading me the obituary for Mamie Kirkland in the New York Times this week. Ms. Kirkland died at the age of 111, the oldest woman in Buffalo, New York.
She had 9 children. Six of them lived to be adults. Today, the obituary noted, she is the matriarch of 156 children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren. What a reunion that funeral must have been.[i]
“Mamie Kirkland was born in 1908 in Ellisville, Mississippi. the daughter of Edward Lang, a laborer and fledgling minister, and Rochelle (Moore) Lang, who minded the family’s rented home. Ms. Kirkland would remember the large peach tree in the yard, and the strange brew concocted by her grandmother that saved her from a typhomalarial fever when she was near death at age 5.
When she was about 7, her father awakened the family to announce that it was time to leave — some local white men were preparing to lynch him and his friend, John Hartfield. The two men slipped out of town that night; Rochelle and the five Lang children, including a nursing baby, escaped by train in the morning.
The family friend, Mr. Hartfield, eventually returned to Ellisville, and in the summer of 1919, he was accused of raping a white woman. Some townspeople set a date for his lynching, a public event that the governor of Mississippi claimed he was powerless to prevent. At an appointed time announced in The Jackson Daily News, crowds gathered near a large gum tree beside the train tracks. There Mr. Hartfield was strung up and hanged, after which his body was riddled with bullets and burned. Body parts became souvenirs.
“Could have been my father,” Ms. Kirkland said in an interview with The New York Times in 2015.
Though the Lang family had fled to East St. Louis, Ill., they still could not outrun the racist violence. In 1917, white men responded to the pressures of changing demographics and job competition by rioting in black neighborhoods, burning down homes and shooting residents. Dozens died, thousands were left homeless, and 9-year-old Mamie was seared by the memory of seeing a deaf man shot dead because he could not hear an order to halt.
The family moved again, this time to Alliance, Ohio, reflecting another aspect of the black experience: the Great Migration of the last century, when six million African-Americans left the rural South for the urban Northeast and Midwest — some seeking economic opportunity, others hoping to escape racial terrorism.
Sometimes it followed them north.
In Alliance, Ohio in the 1920s, members of the Ku Klux Klan — whose rallies were casually announced in the local press — came to the family’s home, hoods donned and torches afire, to burn a cross on their lawn. The Langs always wondered what would have happened if armed white neighbors hadn’t arrived to chase away the aggressors.
At 15, Mamie married an itinerant railroad worker named Albert Kirkland, and the couple moved to Buffalo. He found work as a grinder at the Pratt & Letchworth plant; she gave birth to nine children, six of whom reached adulthood, and immersed herself in the First Shiloh Baptist Church, of which she was a foundational member.
After her husband died in 1959, Ms. Kirkland worked as a domestic helper and babysitter before becoming a door-to-door saleswoman for Avon. She never learned to drive, and often attributed her longevity to her faith and those many years walking the Buffalo streets selling beauty products. She was still taking orders until a few weeks before her death on Dec. 28, according to her son.
Mr. Kirkland, her youngest child at 70, said that his mother’s experience with Avon helped her to shed her shyness and embrace her ability to connect with people. Over time, he said, she became a kind of door-to-door life coach.
“Folks didn’t want her to leave the house,” Mr. Kirkland said in a phone interview this week. “She would help them figure out ways to manage.”
But there was one place that Ms. Kirkland refused to visit: the state of her birth, where the terror of racism had scarred her childhood. She often said that she didn’t even want to see Mississippi on a map.
Her son had been nudging her to tell her life’s powerful story, and in 2015 he showed her a report by the Equal Justice Initiative called “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” It included an image of an old newspaper’s headline: “John Hartfield Will Be Lynched By Ellisville Mob at 5 O’clock This Afternoon.”
“We had never seen anything documented about John Hartfield,” Mr. Kirkland said. “For a long time we didn’t know if it was fact or fiction. But then she pointed to my laptop and said, ‘That’s him.’ And chills went up my back.”
A few months later, Ms. Kirkland returned to Ellisville with her son, who has been working on a documentary film about his mother’s journey. It was an emotional visit to a place that seemed to have erased the Hartfield lynching from memory. Ms. Kirkland took time to pray at the approximate spot where a mob had killed her father’s friend.
“She always maintained this level of grace and forgiveness,” Mr. Kirkland said. “I’m not sure I could do that.”
In 2016, the Equal Justice Initiative honored Ms. Kirkland at a fund-raising gala in Manhattan. She and her son worked for weeks on her short speech, in which she planned to tell the young people in the audience that stories like hers needed to be told again and again; that stories like hers were just as important now as they were a century ago; that she should know, because she had been there.
Her speech reflected a resilient optimism; a determination to triumph over tribulation. “I left Mississippi a scared little girl of 7 years old,” Ms. Kirkland said at the event. “Now I’m 107 — and I’m not frightened anymore.”
Organizers fretted about how their guest would ascend to the stage, and they offered her a wheelchair. She declined, saying that she intended to walk on her own.
And she did.
On this weekend, we remember the life of Mamie Kirkland, precisely because her life is not ancient history. She is the same age as my grandmother. She just lived 11 years longer. Sometimes those of us who never lived in the world of Jim Crow have a hard time appreciating just how much trauma was actually inflicted upon African-Americans. We underestimate how much they have had to overcome, and this had to be overcome during our lifetime.
And we remember the leadership of that first generation of the John Lewis’s of our country, the Mamie Kirkland’s of our country, who developed an amazing potential despite those limitations.
Ms. Kirkland was limited to being a domestic for the longest part of her life, but she began to develop her potential when she was allowed to. Today, we would say, it looks like she had strong EQ (emotional quotient) as an Avon sales lady. She could relate to her customers. She built loyalty and trust with the Avon clients she served.
And the point is this. Think of the promise of the future that will be unleashed when we allow the potential of all people to be developed because of what they have inside themselves.
Jesus taught us in one of his most basic teachings that we are all Children of God. There is no outcast leper or inside Pharisee. There is no Samaritan that should be discriminated against.
Jesus invites us all to the banquet table at the wedding feast in God’s House. We all count. We are all God’s children.
It is only us humans that have created discrimination. We have created these boundaries and we need to erase them. And as we erase them, we will come to experience the beautiful creativity that comes from liberation, the joy that comes when people can contribute meaningfully to our collective culture, our communal life together.
We no longer have the overt discrimination of Jim Crow. No, we have the privilege of being lured forward in hope that our life together will become much spiritually richer by our inclusive diversity. The election of President Obama is a symbol like that, a symbol of the leadership potential that we will witness in our children and in our grandchildren as we open the field to everyone through nurture, through education, through valuing their character for who they are.
We can’t see where this is going from here. But all of us realize that our collective future is inevitably moving towards inclusive diversity. I think all of us realize that we need to flex new muscles to broaden our social world so that we can become comfortable and adroit in developing friendships and basic neighborliness with a broad number of people that are quite different than we are.
We know our children and our grandchildren will take this for granted in a way that is still hard for us to really imagine. But we are moving steadily towards a very different world. We see this each and every week here in metropolitan New York because we are simply ahead of the curve on assimilation compared to other parts of our country, other parts of our world.
So we build this into the mission of inclusivity into the life of our church, our congregation. Because the future needs not just civil rights. We need personal respect and compassion. The future won’t just need economic opportunity, we will also need personal understanding and acceptance of our very different life stories and the very different vectors of our extended families life stories that have shaped us.
It is personal. And we know in our guts, we intuit this, that we need to expose our children to forming deeper relationships with people from different ethnicities, different cultures, because they are going to negotiate a much more complex social world than the one our grandparents had to negotiate.
We are pretty sure that the leaders in the next generation will be fluid about race and culture in a way that we are only barely competent, like we are only barely competent with the technology that they already master compared to us.
Our world is changing. So are we. And you have a pivotal role to play in your family, with your people, in our community, for our state. Reach out, get involved, join one of our dinner discussion groups that brings together people across racial and ethnic lines so we can practice a new skill set of developing diverse friendships.
Set the tone for where you want to head, for where you hope your people will actually head.
And may you, like John Lewis, live to see your hopes and dreams actually take root and flourish. May you live to see your people in a better spiritual and material space. Amen.
[i] The New York Times, (January 12, 2020), Section A, p. 25.