How can our children stand on the mountain if we don’t teach them how to climb? Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of former segregationist governor George Wallace, challenged the HUG Event audience Thursday evening with this thought. This timely event, coming not long after the MLK weekend celebration, focused again on the struggles of the Civil Rights era. But Mrs. Kennedy’s very personal story was about changing hearts through courage, faith, and forgiveness.
Mrs. Kennedy built on the famous MLK imagery of going to the mountain top and foreseeing a time when “little black boys and little black girls would hold hands with little white boys and little white girls” in friendship. She told the audience how the white daughter of George Wallace held hands with the black daughter of Dr. King as they celebrated on the capitol steps in Montgomery, Alabama, 50 years after Montgomery was the hotbed of legal discrimination. The daughters lived a fulfillment of the Dream.
Sadly, both complacency and mob violence are prominent in the history of race relations. MLK wrote powerfully about the harm done when otherwise good people and good churches chose complacency and avoidance rather than clearly standing against the evils-cultural and spiritual — of segregation. In ways that still sear the conscience, Jim Crow laws were a form of legalized mob mentality, promoting discrimination, hatred and violence by individuals and by governments. In the Jim Crow setting, lynch mobs (not only in the south, by the way) loosed an unspeakable evil that made accessories to murder of everyday “good people.”
History is both inspiring and messy! Most of us would like to focus only on the heroes and the great achievements in our past, not the villains or the injustices. The history of race and racism is one that offers both heroes and villains in abundance. How shall we strike a balance between being sure that the evils of the past are not glossed over and conveniently dismissed, yet not wallowing forever in guilt and blame? How can we honestly deal with the lingering power of prejudices and injustice without creating even more conflict and division?
Perhaps an even more distressing question is how do we deal with the fact that much of the prejudice, racial and otherwise, that haunts us today was passed on to us by parents or preachers or teachers that we love and admire? And it was most likely passed to them in a similar manner. Mrs. Kennedy’s story about her father, combined with stories from leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, offer a pathway to that goal. Forgiveness and the refusal to return hatred for hatred were life changing and culture changing.
I was not aware, and I suspect many in the audience were unaware, of the changes that George Wallace made after he was shot. Mrs. Kennedy shared her thoughts that this was a crucial turning point for her father. He was first of all forced to slow from a frantic pace endlessly focused on politics to time for reflection. He was also visited by unlikely people, Shirley Chisholm and Ethel Kennedy among them. No doubt many of his opponents offered no forgiveness to him, but others did and that forgiveness was powerful. As the HUG event ended, a final comment was offered from the floor by a Rome minister, Bishop Norris Allen. He told of being in a worship service at an African-American church when George Wallace entered in his wheelchair and publicly asked that congregation for forgiveness for his past support of segregation.
So what shall we teach our children and remind ourselves about those people who are not like us? How shall we all climb toward the mountain of our noblest ideals? Words come easily, actions not so much. Martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against what he called “cheap grace”. We need to see and hear people who have forgiven horrible things done to them to know that hatred and revenge need not be the only response. We need to expand our circle of comfort so that we do not isolate ourselves only with those who think and believe like us. These things we know, but it is far easier to simply stay as comfortable as possible and to embrace whatever tunnel vision that allows us to resist changing.
People of faith and people of good faith lead the way. Anger, blame, and guilt easily can dominate conversations about controversial topics like race. It may seem too risky to even have such conversations, but the refusal to talk is far more risky and destructive in the long run. The motto of One Community United is “let’s talk.” The goal is to bring people together who do not routinely cross paths and offer them the opportunity to become friends. It works! Join us. Of course, you can Google or go to Face Book for more information.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Batchelor is an ordained Baptist minister and active church member. He is retired after a nearly 40-year local ministry as a hospital chaplain. His particular interest lies in issues of faith and culture.