I am the 4th and youngest child born to white southern racists in Kentucky. They were not the mean kind of racists who displayed Confederate flags and salted their daily speech with insulting references to race, but they were descendants of rural southern slave owners who, though they were certainly church going folks, inherited a belief from their environment that the races had different places to hold in society. They were George Wallace supporting Democrats, you know, racists with swagger.
When my mother died fifteen years ago, the pastor of their home church had only known her as a sick old woman and I simply could not bear to sit through the classic “sick old woman” funeral for my mother, and so I agreed to preach the eulogy myself.
When mother died, I drove to the Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky which was and is, my “safe place.” Unlike those families that tell funny stories and share loving memories at a funeral, I can honestly say that I have no memories of my mother ever laughing and this photo from their post war marriage is more of a smile than I ever saw myself. Born into the most harsh of economic depressions and surviving a war that included fear of invasion on both our east and west coasts, life for my rather Puritan parents, was a challenge to be met, not much of a journey to be enjoyed.
But I remembered my visits to her family home in Appalachia. When she was born, the water came from a well in the back yard which was suspiciously close to the outhouse that was their only bathroom. The house was heated with wood burning stoves and lit by oil lanterns. I realized that my very own mother had lived through the birthing of the modern world. Though electricity may have been harnessed, cars invented, and airplanes in common use, none of that had shown up in Appalachia in 1919.
My mother saw the introduction of indoor plumbing, electric lights, gas powered transportation, telephones, radios, the invention of the television, and I gave her her first cell phone which she never used, and my brother gave her her first computer on which she played solitaire. My parents were educated in one room schoolhouses and if they ever read a book, I never saw it, not even books that I wrote before they died!
They attended my doctoral graduation at Vanderbilt but never asked what I had studied, the topic of my dissertation, or why I spent so much time in Catholic monasteries.
But walking through the forests on the grounds of the Gethsemane Monastery, thinking about my mother’s life, I remembered one summer before we got air conditioning; mom would drop me and my brother, Billy, at the community pool while she went to work as our church’s secretary. We could escape the summer heat at the pool until she got off at 4 o’clock but one day she arrived and saw that the pool had been integrated and that Billy and I had been swimming with black people.
She showed some unsavory colors that day, hysterically yelling at us as she drove us home and insisted that we get in the bath tub and scrub ourselves of any dangerous germs we might have picked up in the pool from those . . . people. It was still summer, and our house was still not air conditioned, so it only took a couple of days for Billy and me to be back in the pool. I don’t know if she talked to our minister about it or if she had to dig down deep into her own soul to figure it out but the barrier that had stood between southern blacks and southern whites was breaking down.
She had to send us to schools that were newly integrated. I was just 11 years old and though integration was awkward in my school, it was not violent as it sometimes was for my older siblings in high school. I know that it scared her. I know that she didn’t like it, but in her own bowels, in her gut, she had to make integration work in Glasgow, KY.
The sons of local farm hands joined our little league baseball teams and became our friends and somehow, my parents knew not to say what they were thinking.
When my then wife and I decided to adopt inter-racially, I had to break the news to them carefully. I told them, “We are about to tell you the best news of our lives and before we do, you have to understand that I will remember how you react for the rest of my life and what you say now will determine our future relationship.”
They both walked from the room to compose themselves before they said the wrong things and though their best efforts would have been pretty tepid to your ears, I knew that it came hard for them. They were always kind to their only brown grandchild though I never asked them to babysit and they never offered. I know that pictures of her were kept in a drawer and taken out and put on display only when we visited but, folks, sometimes, you fake it to make it.
There were memorable moments of break-through. I was home once in 1984 and I watched the Democratic primary debate with my parents in Glasgow, KY and near the end my father said, with a certain tell-tale surprise in his voice, “You know, I think that Jesse Jackson is the smartest one of the bunch,” and though I voted for Jesse Jackson in that primary, I didn’t ask my folks if they had been able to break through the color line and vote for the best candidate rather than the best white candidate. But I knew that they knew, that Jesse Jackson was more than a symbol in that race.
I am sharing all of this rather personal stuff today as a reaction to the posthumously published letter that Congressman John Lewis wrote for the New York Times. I’ve waited a couple of months after John Lewis’ death to talk about him because I didn’t want to let this message fall into the mire of the media frenzy that paid tribute to him for a couple of weeks before returning to pretending he had never existed. Knowing that his death was near, he wrote this short essay so that he could, in a way, preach his own eulogy.
He started by talking about ordinary people with extraordinary vision. Lewis was a little younger than my parents, but he shared a lot of history with their world. He suffered beatings, arrests, and imprisonment in the battle for integrated schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. But, folks, I hope you know that segregated schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces was never the creation of black Americans. I’m not saying that black people are free of racism . . . it’s just that their racism is so well founded that we try not to talk about it.
But the institutional racism that John Lewis spent his early life fighting was not a black invention, it was a white institution and it took more than the prophetic voices and sacrifices of black martyrs to change those institutions. When I delivered my mother’s eulogy, I talked about how she had helped to give birth to the modern world, not just in transitioning into the technology of electricity, television and telephones, but by embodying the movement from racial segregation into racial integration.
The Civil Rights Movement was ushered into America on the voices of prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Ralph Bunch, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis, but it was carried into existence in rural Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Georgia, on the shoulders of sometimes begrudging ordinary white people who made the difficult decision to do fierce internal battles with their racism, their pride, their privilege, and . . . and this is the big issue, their fear in order to embody a new and different world than the world they had inherited.
Folks, racism doesn’t end until white people decide to stop being racists! I know that my parents didn’t change as much as I wanted them too. I know that they went to their graves without having ever fully seen my daughter for the amazing young woman that she is but the fact that they were willing to fake it and to do it so convincingly that my daughter never knew that they were faking is what it means to be an ordinary person who does extraordinary things in times of global change.
John Lewis wrote in this final essay:
Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
I don’t know if John Lewis really trusted us but the cancer that ravaged his body didn’t leave him with any choice but to pass the baton onto us in the midst of these very troubling times. Ed Luce recently wrote in the Financial Times that America is drifting into a perfect storm. Both Republicans and Democrats currently believe that the other side is trying to rig, to steal, the 2020 election. There is so much distrust that on the fringes there is even talk of civil war to reject the outcome of the November election.
Ordinary White Racists with Swagger
I was very young in 1963 when George Wallace delivered his “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” speech but I can tell you that I believe that I can remember that even then, everyone knew he was wrong. A lot of white people might have liked the sound of it at the time, but in their hearts, they knew it was wrong, and it was just a matter of time before Wallace had to publicly apologize for his racist views.
Now, I am less certain. The polarization of America’s culture is now so deep, so fierce, so dark, that I am not sure that there is any light breaking into large factions of American racism, tribalism, and sectarianism. The dog whistle of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia has been blown so much in the past few years that there are a lot of people who are believing that prejudice is not something to be ashamed of but rather it is something to embrace.
I always want to be careful about too lightly making references to Nazi Germany but just as Lewis speaks of ordinary people with extraordinary vision, we really must remember that millions of ordinary people in Germany were convinced to go along with the genocide of Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals. Donald Trump is a disgrace and I sincerely hope that shortly after he is voted out of office that he is walked into a jail cell for a number of egregious crimes but whether he spends the rest of his miserable life making license plates in a prison or playing golf in Florida, my real concern, our real concern, are the millions of ordinary people all around us, our neighbors, sometimes our family members, who have fallen into prejudice through the portal of fear.
John Lewis concludes his final essay saying, “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war.”
John Lewis is expecting us, not to be social prophets, not be take a baton to the skull the way he did on the Edmund Pettis Bridge or even to be locked up in the Greene Co. jail. We don’t have to be famous. We don’t have to run for Congress. We don’t have to be martyrs, but we cannot be afraid to get into good trouble. We absolutely must be among the ordinary people who do not give into the seduction of prejudice, blaming our woes on those we define as being somehow different from us.
I don’t think that Ed Luce was being alarmist when he said that America is drifting into a perfect storm. We are on the threshold of a dangerous election that will be followed by a period of dramatic conflict. Change is going to come. It is overdue. We cannot tolerate another generation of police shooting unarmed black men in the back. We cannot tolerate another decade of income disparity that offers the world’s best education, healthcare, and standard of living to the top of the economic ladder and which locks the children of the poor into multiple generations of poverty, ignorance, and suffering.
There are a lot of ordinary people right now who are acting like they are extraordinarily stupid and possible even evil.
I want to tell you that they are neither. I want to tell you that even they can do the right thing, they can come along, they can be a part of the solution. I know because I have seen it happen. I know because my racist parents were two of those people who started to get it right after generations of getting it wrong. If they were alive right now, they would both be 100 years old. My father lived long enough to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and I hope that you can appreciate how far that he had to come to get to that point.
I can only urge you to not give up hope on the ordinary people who can carry the next decade of change on their shoulders, even if it feels to them like a punch in the gut, they can do it, they can feel their way into what John Lewis invited them into, a century when they can lay down the heavy burden of hate and usher in a century of peace.
Rev Roger L. Ray