Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Meeting Joanne

Probably the key feature of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage is to put human faces on “issues.”  Joanne Bland is one such face.  She led our tour of Selma with drill sergeant-esque precision (she actually had a career in the military).  She was gruff and blunt and intimidating…and then she would smile a kind of wry smile and give us a kind of sideways look.  One of the women in our group had lots of questions on the walking tour.  Joanne started saying, “Where’s that nosy woman?” and then take her off for a brief sidebar explanation.

It would be easy to wonder at first why Joanne still seems angry.  After all, she fully acknowledges how much better things are for black people, even though she knows there’s much more to do.  But then, it doesn’t take long to understand why.  The Voting Rights Museum showed, among numerous other things, the African Americans who served in the U.S. Congress after the Civil War and before states began concocting legislation to prevent black people from sharing in the political process.  (Dennis Simon told me that roughly twenty such persons had served in Congress between 1876 and 1900.)  Real progress and then horrendous setbacks that lasted two generations.  Numerous other such moments happened during the day.

We also learned that Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965) didn’t stop once the marchers were beaten back across the bridge.  Joanne told us that the beatings lasted all night long.  People huddled and hid in the two churches (Brown Chapel and First Baptist) where the organizing had been done.  If I remember correctly, Joanne said that she was 11 years old at the time and she was one of the marchers on the bridge.  In 1963, two years and more before the Voting Rights Act was passed, people in Selma made regular trips to the courthouse to register to vote, only to be turned away and often arrested (there were city ordinances about the number of black people that could congregate publicly at one time).

I had been forewarned about Joanne.  She brooks no fools and she’s clearly in charge of the tour.   Sometimes she rubs people the wrong way (she knows it and doesn’t much care).  But she also said more than once, “I’m not where I was, but I’m also not where I need to be.”

In free moments yesterday I found my mind returning to the same set of questions.  I’m white, but a “northerner.”  I grew up with parents who taught us not to be prejudiced – all people are created in God’s image.  By the time I went to college, I had very little experience in racially mixed settings (except those 6 years in Texas as a boy).  I didn’t want to be prejudiced, and wasn’t, in a sense, but still had some of the goofy stereotypes.  All that to say, as I listened to Joanne, something inside me wanted to insist, “This problem was not my problem.  Bad white people did this, but not all white people did it.”  I felt myself wanting to distance myself from the problem.  Which is part of the problem.  And a typical one for white people.

Montgomery is quite different from Selma. More to come.

March 9, 2010 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jubilee Bridge Crossing

The T-shirt said, “Rosa sat so that Martin could walk.  Martin walked so that Barack could run.  Barack ran so that our children can fly.”  I’m almost never a fan of T-shirt slogans, but this one really hits home.

We stood in a crowd outside Brown’s Chapel AME Church waiting for the commemorative walk to begin.  This is where it had all started 45 years ago on March 7, 1965.  The first march didn’t make it very far.  The third march, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., did.  Today, when all the congresspersons and other famous people (Terence Howard) had made their way to their places, the walk began.  We left Brown’s Chapel, headed south a block, turned west to downtown and south on Broad Street.  The bridge over the Alabama River loomed in the distance.

It took awhile to get there, but we walked across the bridge, remembering how the marchers had eventually made that walk all the way to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights.  Life Magazine and the evening news caught the shocking images of people being beaten, even killed.  Bloody Sunday. 45 years ago, March 7, 1965.  Today, maybe some 10,000 or so walked across the bridge.  People from all over the place.  College groups like ours.

The day’s activities were part ongoing struggle for justice, part reunion, part state fair carnival.  After the walk across the bridge, people enjoyed foods and music at booths set up for the occasion: polish sausage, funnel cakes, chicken on a stick, lots and lots of CDs available for purchase.  One man offered a new documentary CD of Selma and the Civil Rights Movement.  But what caught my attention were the little clusters of senior citizens or near that age, white and black, talking like old friends.  Some of them had marched together in the original event.  They were reminiscing and catching up all at the same time.

Months after the march to Montgomery, the Voting Rights Acts did pass.  A Federal law guaranteed that black people, properly registered, would not only have the theoretical right to vote, but they actually could vote and did.  Forty five years later, we are into the fifteenth month of the presidency of the first African American president.  Considering where our country was in 1965, this is a staggering change.

Earlier in the day as I stood in front of the chapel, a man walked by me in bib overalls and a yellow vest.  I noticed the name hand written on the vest: John Rankin (my paternal grandfather’s name, by the way).  For the third time in my life, I had encountered an African American who shared my surname.  I couldn’t resist.  I spoke to John and asked him if he knew where his name came from.  He had done some checking, he said, and he thinks that his family had come from South Carolina originally (well, not originally).  Since Rankin is a Scottish name, I surmise (as I have done before) that some Rankins back in the day were slave owners.  This John Rankin had been on the original march to Montgomery.  He took off his hat, rubbed the top of his head and said, “And I’ve still got the knot on my head to prove it.”

March 8, 2010 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Civil Rights Pilgrimage

Just time for a quick one.  I hope you friends and colleagues who attended the Wesleyan Theological Society meeting had a most edifying experience (Kevin, I hope your paper went well!).

I’m in Montgomery, AL, at the beginning of a Spring Break Civil Rights Pilgrimage.  SMU has been taking this trip each year for several years, so I’m playing catch-up.  The bus left Friday afternoon, but I could not leave until Saturday evening.  Flew into Montgomery last night.

As I prayed with the group Friday afternoon, I spoke about how this trip will challenge us in particular ways.  I had shared with the class earlier that, because I was a boy of 13 when Dr. King was murdered, I grew up watching the Civil Rights movement on television.  I lived in rural, racially homogenous Kansas.  Actually, not true.  Part of that time I lived in Texas and it was not racially homogenous.  Pete Chapa (Mexican) was one of my boyhood baseball teammates and friends.  Paul and Manuel (Mexican) were friends to me during a very lonely 5th grade year in a new town. Later, in junior high, it was Oscar Guerra the star running back and Leonard White (African American) the star on our basketball team.  Still, the Civil Rights movement was something psychologically remote for me.

It was not until years later, as a man with children of my own, that I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Dr. King wrote it in response to clergy in Alabama who wanted him not to engage in direct – even if peaceful – action.  His reply, written on anything that could be used (toilet paper, margins of newspapers), is nothing short of agonizingly eloquent.  He asked his clergy colleagues to consider how it felt to be the man who had to tell his young daughter that she could not go to the local amusement park because it was not open to black children; how if felt to watch the dark clouds of racial prejudice hang over his kids and to witness how it was shaping their young mental worlds.  That letter put a human face on the Civil Rights movement for me.

Over the years, of course, partly because of interest and partly because of my work, I’ve studied, at least in superficial ways, parts of the story.  This trip will be rough in some ways.  The church was on both sides of things (as it often is) back in the 50s and 60s.  Some of the story is just plain ugly.  But some of it is glorious.

I have a feeling I’ll learn a lot on this trip.  I’m going to try to blog each evening during the week, if you’re interested.

March 7, 2010 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church | , , , , | Leave a comment