Have We Overcome? One Man's Memories of the Civil Rights Era
The black-and-white TV set showed cops setting police dogs and turning fire hoses on children in Birmingham. I watched it from Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, where I was spending the -summer of 1963 as a National Chaplain for the Boy Scouts of America.
It's a great place, Philmont. Our neighbor Bill Campbell helped me get a trainee job there when I was 15, and now I was -spending my second summer as a camp chaplain Jeeping my way over trails through narrow passes to conduct services in the high mountain camps and enjoying the nightly movies back at headquarters.
Meanwhile, others were risking their lives to free people from oppression. They weren't Special Forces, because these -freedom fighters were unarmed and went to marches dressed as if they were going to church. I -didn't have any luck trying to -persuade a -visiting director from the Protestant Committee on Scouting that -making civil rights a national "good deed" would be a fine thing for the BSA to take on.
"You aren't a company man, are you?" he asked.
But I was, I thought. Here I was, -comfortable in my uniform and neckerchief, standing to attention every morning as the flag went up and every evening as it came down. They always carried the Star-Spangled Banner at the front of the marches, -letting its silent presence ask the old -question about whether it yet waved over a land of the free.
On the circuitious route back to North Carolina at the end of that summer, my train trip had a long layover in Washington, D.C. There was a memorial service for Medgar Evers. He'd been gunned down in his -driveway about an hour after I'd watched President Kennedy, on that same TV, ask the nation to examine its conscience.
I went to the service, heard Myrlie Evers speak, joined the NAACP and caught the train home. Something was blowing in the wind that summer besides the song that said so. Two other seminary students and I made the trip back up to Washington later that month for The March.
Fifty years ago this month - the day after three N.C. A&T Students sat down at a Woolworth's counter in Greensboro to wait for service that never came - I registered at Wake Forest as a transfer from State.
Those sit-ins challenged my born-and-bred white Southern racism, and it started to crack and crumble. Mark Twain said that when he was a boy he didn't know there was anything wrong with slavery.
When I was a boy, I didn't know there was anything wrong with white-only signs or sitting downstairs at the Sunrise while kids my age from West Southern Pines had to come in the side door and go upstairs to the back balcony.
The Silent Lies
I try to remember those lies - especially the silent, vicious, patriotic lie that there -wasn't anything wrong for honorable people to complain about. No doubt history will be able to see our present day's dishonesties and cruelties, the ones still invisible to us.
In that February of 1960, some kids down the road at another college had turned on a bright light, and we could see Wake Forest for the Jim Crow school it was, and -ourselves for the unrobed Klan we had become.
Others there, members of the Baptist Student Union, came up with a plan they called the "African Student" project. The idea was to recruit a missionary convert from Africa to apply for admission. There would be no way a Baptist college could turn down a convert from the mission field, they figured. They raised money for -transportation and tuition, and brought Edward Reynolds over from Africa. They were sure Reynolda Hall would welcome a Reynolds.
Of course they were wrong. Trustees turned him down, so he first enrolled at Shaw University in Raleigh. After that happened, more than 700 Wake students named Reynolds an "honorary student" of Wake Forest, terming him a "student in exile" from the campus.
Ridicule has force, and rather than remain a laughingstock of higher -education, by the following fall the college would admit Reynolds to full standing. That's how Wake Forest got her first black Demon Deacon.
'Too Many Clothes'
By the time that happened, I was starting to work with a thing called the Student Interracial Ministry, a program to put black ministerial students as assistant pastors in white churches and vice versa. At the Union Theological Seminary of New York, while completing a terminal degree in theology and drama, I spent a year as assistant pastor of a black United Church of Christ in the borough of Queens.
My black roommate at Union was, and is, a saint. You don't meet a lot of saints, but you meet some. This one is Charles M. Sherrod Jr., leader of the Albany (Ga.) Movement. He was doing the same degree -program. We met in a seminar and got to be friends.
One time, Sherrod and I were taking turns driving a station wagon down to Georgia to deliver a mimeograph machine to SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee students at Shaw started) and Sherrod was pulling hangers out of his -closet.
"I have too many clothes," he was saying. I looked. He had two suit jackets, three pairs of pants, a couple of shirts. He was taking half his clothes out.
"Sherrod, you don't have many clothes at all," I said. "What are you talking about?"
"You don't understand, Chappell," he said. "I love clothes. So. If I have any more than just what I need, they get in my way. I'm taking these down to South Georgia for the people."
Later, after he and Shirley were married and their first child was born, somebody set fire to their rented house. Their dog woke mother and baby, and they escaped. The community found a brick home for the Sherrods deep inside a mostly black development.
One day Shirley called me in Durham where I was working as director of the United Campus Christian Ministry at North Carolina College (now NCCU) - a campus chaplaincy program supported by six white and six black denominations.
"Chappell, you've got to talk to Sherrod," his wife said, sounding exasperated. "He's moving all the furniture around. I come home, and the couch is in a different place every night."
Sounded strange to me, so I called him. It was another too-many-clothes situation.
"Shirley just doesn't -understand," he said. "I keep trying to tell her this isn't our house. We just live here. I don't want us to get too used to it."
Into the Deep South
Well, the college tired of my support for the women's movement on campus and demanded my ouster. I left, thinking I'd just go back to graduate school or find some other way to avoid the Movement and its dangers. The following spring, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, and I called Sherrod.
"You still want me to come to South Georgia?"
"Pick up your left heel in your right hand," he said.
I did, standing one-legged.
"Now, with your left hand grab up between your legs and repeat after me."
Now that was awkward.
"Say 'If I don't come to Albany ...' (paused for me to repeat) '... may what is in my left hand be under what is in my right."
I went down to Albany and the deep South and the Movement. My fire-engine-red MGB-GT with chrome wire wheels and knock-off hubs had to go, replaced by a Ford Econoline van. We used the van to take kids out of town to a nonsegregated swimming place. Albany's board sold the town pool to a private club rather than desegregate it. Kids were drowning in the Flint River.
There was some grant money. We used it to buy equipment and start a one-hour printing company. The idea was to have a way to print material for Head Start and other programs, but make it a business that would be self-supporting.
We had the same notion about land. Sherrod got a big section made available for what he called New Communities, U.S.A. Back then, black people who registered to vote or marched could find themselves evicted and fired from their job.
New Communities didn't succeed directly, because a new law required (per Nixon) approval by the governor of any state where federal funding was to be spent. Gov. Lester Maddox refused to sign our grant, and the land was lost.
Later, up the road in Americus, after Clarence Jordon (pronounced "JUR-dun") died, people asked his Koinonia Farms if they'd be selling the land, and would they sell to blacks. Out of that, Habitat for Humanity was born.
All that was long ago, it seems to me now. Last June there was a Southwest Georgia reunion, and my son and I made the trip back to Albany. That trip brought to mind King's last sermon, the one where he spoke of seeing the Promised Land.
I know now exactly what heaven is like. The man who ran Southwest Georgia Printing came up and hugged me. Lots of people hugged lots of people. We rode a chartered bus to tour town after town in the six South West Georgia Project counties where we'd worked, and every place we went people came to thank us and show us what they are still doing.
There are agricultural partnerships marketing pecans worldwide. When we got to Dawson, county seat of what used to be called "Terrible Terrell" County because of its racial violence, the police gave us an escort. County commissioners and the town mayor welcomed us. Most, who had always been white, were now black.
"We are not going to do the way they did us," we were told. "We are going to do right."
There's an old high school, the one Shirley Sherrod attended, that's now a training kitchen for food production. Sherrod introduced an old woman who'd saved his life. Just as a policeman was about to brain him, she'd thrown her body over his and cried out, "Don't you hurt this boy!"
That was before King came down to Albany, where Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had the bright idea of arresting everybody on every march and making deals with neighboring counties for places to keep them locked up so the Movement couldn't stop arrests by filling the jail.
Now there is a museum there, where we saw recreations of those dark cells where children were kept. There are pictures of the fallen. There is a federal courthouse in Albany bearing the name of our civil rights lawyer, C.B. King. A city park is named for Sherrod. Unimaginable.
Singing the Old Songs
On the last night, we gathered to hear some of Albany's original Freedom Singers lead us in the old songs, songs I first heard Rutha Mae Harris singing from the base of the Washington Monument that August of 1963 while we waited our turn to join the march to Lincoln's Memorial to hear of King's dream.
Back in the 1960s, the Freedom Singers traveled 40 states helping to raise money for Sherrod and the Albany Movement. Last week, Rutha went back to Washington.
"Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round," she sang again.
But this time Rutha wasn't outdoors waiting to march, but on a stage at the White House before the president and vice president of the United States and a host of the nation's leaders. This time the president was the son of a white mother and a black father.
Last summer, Rutha was home in Albany singing with us. We'd all joined in the old songs, songs that long ago had given us strength and united us and called down the voices of heaven's choirs to earth's struggle for justice. Rutha and Sherrod saved one song for last, and at the end we once more joined together hand-over-hand, holding hands and sang it again.
I still believe it. I still believe, deep in my heart, that we shall.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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