Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Rainy Day, Sunny People

It’s a sappy title for a blog, but it just seems to fit.

Our trip’s leaders asked us to notice and ponder the contrast between Selma and Montgomery, only 54 miles apart.  Beyond size (Selma is about 20,000 and Montgomery, 200,000), Selma visibly struggles while Montgomery fairly shines.  It’s the State capitol, but other factors play into the picture.  Although today has been gloomy in terms of weather, the people we have met, colleagues of Dr. King and leaders in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, have been testaments of grace (divine and human) and courage.

Last night we met Mrs. Harris and her daughter Dr. Valda Montgomery.  Mrs. Harris’ husband, a pharmacist, owned and operated Dean’s Drugstore, the command center of the Bus Boycott in 1955.  The Graetz’s – Rev. Robert and Jean –  were the white clergy family for an African American Lutheran congregation.  Their house was firebombed during those violent days, but they stood alongside Dr. King and the others.  We heard, naturally, a good deal about Rosa Parks today and we went to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the one congregation Dr. King pastored before going full-time as leader of the movement.

I was most taken with their descriptions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, although they also talked about housing the Freedom Riders in 1961.  The Boycott took place in 1955 and is considered one of the absolutely central events in the formation of the modern Civil Rights movement.  The story is well-known.  Rosa Parks would not give up her seat to a white man and got arrested for her action.  She was removed from the bus and taken to jail.  The boycott ensued.

Almost 50,000 black people lived in Montgomery at the time and, through the network of churches and pastors in the city, they agreed no longer to ride the busses.  Imagine the risk of losing one’s job of committing to such a daring move.  The people organized themselves.  Those with cars volunteered to chauffeur people to and from work.  Many people simply waked to and from work.  The people gathered and collected funds to help with gasoline costs.  They even raised enough money to buy some station wagons to serve as taxis.  With the command center at Dean’s Drugstore, the boycott leaders created a network of transportation support and for over a year the people stayed off those busses.  It worked in dramatic fashion.

An amazing feat pulled off by some amazing people and not without some seriously fearful moments.  We heard of hateful phone calls in the middle of the night, of threats and firebombings.  The people we talked to shared how, in spite of feeling understandable fear in the worst times, they also felt the strengthening, providing presence of God.  And each other.

One nostaligic side note for me: I’m a preacher’s kid who grew up in parsonages.  When we stepped into the home that had been the Kings’ parsonage for Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, I felt as if I had stepped into some place I had once lived.  A small frame home tastefully furnished with 50s era pieces, most of which had literally been in the house when the Kings had inhabited it.  I laughed to myself at the Melmac table settings on the kitchen table.

It was a most enjoyable trip down memory lane.  But what sticks with me the most at the end of this day is the courage and grace of the boycotters.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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