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Re-reading a civil rights history book I never read

The deadly tally of hate's cruel harvest in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s was breathtaking, appalling, convicting, unnecessary. Even today those who lived through that time and/or their descendants continue to grieve -- not unlike the way those of us who lost family members in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 are forever in grief's relentless grip. That's all true even as we also celebrate the slow progress made because of the Civil Rights Movement.

Parting-watersThose who died because of racial hatred (starting in 1619 and continuing until yesterday) belong to all of us because all of us are human and because, finally, the Human Genome Project demonstrated persuasively that every human being is, genetically, something like 99.9 percent like every other human being.

I am thinking about all of this today because I just finished reading an amazing book that I should have read -- along with its two other volumes -- when it came out in 1988, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-'63, by Taylor Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize for this work.

What makes this history all the more absorbing for me is that I lived through it, first as a child but later as a college student and, finally, as a journalist. It feels as if I've read this book, but only because I remember so much of what it describes. In fact, the reverberations from the King years continue right up to today because Americans have not fully solved the racial problems that began in the misshapen hearts of human beings even before the first slave arrived on this land in 1619.

Sometimes I hear people wonder why we're still talking about slavery and its repercussions. Well, think of this: The day I was born in 1945 there still were people alive in the U.S. who had been born into slavery. So this is not ancient history.

Branch's book -- as I say, the first volume of a trilogy -- draws on countless original documents, tape recordings, photos and other sources to tell a story that goes bone deep. In fact, I should have kept count of how many people wound up with broken bones, to say nothing of lost lives, at the hands of people who were convinced that Black people were subhuman and should not have full citizenship rights in this country.

The violence -- gunshots, lynchings, exploding bombs, fist fights, on and on -- seems to be everywhere in this accounting.

Mlk-jrFor instance, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s own house in Montgomery, Ala., was bombed as he was leading the bus boycott there in the mid-1950s. As Branch describes it, King was leading a church service at the time. (King is pictured here.)

"Finally," Branch writes, "one of the ushers waved King to the side of the platform to give him a message, but S.S. Seay stepped between them, shaking his head in the negative. This caused King to wave (the Rev. Ralph David) Abernathy over to him. 'What's wrong?' he whispered.

"Abernathy and Seay looked at each other, stalling. 'Your house has been bombed.' said Abernathy.

"'Are Coretta (King's wife) and the baby all right?'

"'We are checking on that now,' said a miserable Abernathy, who had wanted to have the answer before telling King.

"In shock, King remained calm, coasting almost automatically on the emotional overload of the past few days. Nodding to Abernathy and Seay, he walked back to the center of the church, told the crowd what had happened, told them he had to leave and that they should all go home quietly and peacefully, and then, leaving a few shrieks and a thousand gasps behind, walked swiftly out a side door of the church."

The miracle, in some ways, was that King survived as long as he did, making it to age 39 before being gunned down at a motel in Memphis, Tenn. These violent times are difficult to talk about and think about, and often we shrink the whole Civil Rights Movement to a single Black lady refusing to move to the back of a bus, then to a great King speech in D.C. and finally to a few laws that got passed. As author and critic Jemar Tisby noted in a webinar I attended this week sponsored by the Equal Justice USA Evangelical Network, "we sanitize the past."

Branch, who doesn't sanitize the past, captured the attitude that helped to create this kind of murderous atmosphere in this sentence about the effort to register Black voters in Mississippi: "A white voter explained his gut appraisal to reporters: 'We killed two-month-old Indian babies to take this country, and now they want us to give it away to the n-word." (In the book, Branch spelled out the word in its plural form.)

As Branch describes event after event that finally led to desegregation laws, voting rights laws and much else, now and then he draws the conclusions demanded from the facts he's just related. For instance, while a prisoner in the city jail in Birmingham, Ala., King responded with a long letter to a communication from so-called moderate white preachers who were urging King to slow down and, worse, simply wait for freedom to come to Blacks. If you've never read King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, please do. It's a classic.

Branch writes this about that letter: "In supreme irony, the prisoner in the hole mourned over the most respectable clergymen in Alabama as lost sheep who were unable to find the most obvious tenets of their faith."

Exactly.

What's clear in this history of how we got to where we are today in the U.S. is that this was not a battle between pure saints and demonized sinners. Every person involved had flaws. The difference was that some of the flawed people occupied the high moral ground and others could not see that reality.

Much has changed since the days when King was leading the way toward progress in race relations, and much of it has been for the better. But the work to end the systems and structures that continue to keep people of color, including Indigenous people, oppressed is far from over. I would love to be around 75 years from now to read a Branch-like book about how Americans finally recognized the systemic nature of racism and worked to erase its last vestiges. But some days I wonder if such a book will ever be written because those vestiges weren't erased. I'm not giving up, however. In my mind I can say, with King, that I've been to the mountain top and have seen the promised land.

* * *

FREDERICK BUECHNER, R.I.P.

I'm saddened to report the death of Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor who, instead of spending a life in the pulpit, spent it producing wonderfully insightful and engaging books. As the RNS story to which I've just linked you notes, "Over the course of his life, Buechner wrote nearly 40 books across a number of genres: fiction, autobiography, theology, essays and sermons." My guess is that in 52 sermons given in your average Mainline Protestant church in the U.S. over a year, Buechner would be quoted in at least a third of them. My one connection to Buechner is that each of us at different times won the same award -- the David Steele Distinguished Writer Award from the Presbyterian Writers Guild. I am smart enough never to imagine that I'm in the same class of writers that Buechner led, but I accepted that award anyway. He sent a gracious note to me about it. If you've never read Buechner, here are two books I'd start with: Peculiar Treasures and The Yellow Leaves.

* * *

THE BOOK CORNER

100-Q-Black

In harmony with the main blog post above here today, I want to introduce you to a quite small (62 pages) but really helpful new book called 100 Questions & Answers about the Black Church, from the Michigan State University School of Journalism. It's published by Front Edge Publishing, which also published my latest book. The Black church book's official publication date is Aug. 30, but it can be ordered now. This book is one of a series of books from the school, each of which asks and answers 100 questions about such subjects as Arab Americans, Hispanics & Latinos, Native Americans, American Jews and many other subjects. Here is a link to that whole project. What I especially appreciated about the Black church book is that it is both simple and authoritative. The project involved Michigan State students but they were overseen by experts in this field. This book does not, of course, substitute for the kind of detailed Black church history found in the Taylor Branch book I wrote about above or in other books and documentaries (including "The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song," based on the book of that title by Henry Louis Gates Jr.). But this 100 questions book can spark an interest in exploring this subject in more detail. And as important as the Black church has been not just to people of color but to the nation as a whole, that kind of exploration would be a good thing.

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