Selma #2: Thursday Afternoon, “There Is Power In The Blood”

Camera lenses, like childhood memories, make spaces appear much larger than they are. Like the Dallas book repository, like the Lorraine Motel, Selma emerges, from the cold rain, small – only a few blocks in each direction. Our three modern buses took an opportunistic driving tour, making turns every two blocks or so, winding carefully through the narrow streets as veterans of the ’65 action provided commentary. The ones who’d been there spoke, as they would for the entire conference, like war veterans, expansively of the larger experience, modestly of their own part.

Our first impromptu stop was by the marker for Rev. James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister whose fateful wrong turn out of a restaurant cost him his life. (The movie, “Selma,” called Rev. Reeb a priest, the smaller of many unexplainable inaccuracies) Rev. Reeb died days later of head wounds from the blows of White attackers. Such was the state of justice in Alabama that none of the local men were convicted by the all male, all White jury. But, in the small town of Selma, it was common knowledge who wielded the metal pipe – his auto dealership was pointed out on our August planning trip. It was business as usual in the the Jim Crow South. (I’ll get to Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death later).

I stepped carefully off the steep narrow steps of the bus into the rain to feel a space hallowed by blood. I didn’t know him, but I did. I met him in planning meetings, in hallways, and ballrooms throughout the conference, in those who would describe themselves in the movement as interchangeable parts – one soul with many faces. It could have been any one of them.  They answered Dr. King’s plea to the nation, they put themselves in harms way.

As we were to hear later that night, “There is power in the blood.”

My eyes were drawn to where people had gathered under a small funereal tent.  The soft unpracticed voice of a young women had drawn everyone into a close huddle, silently leaning in, straining to hear. The word “grandfather” rippled the palpable sadness. I could only sporadically understand what she was saying, but words weren’t necessary. Standing solemnly together in the cold felt like the very roots of human experience. I was drawn to Selma, as probably everyone was to some degree, to experience it in my guts. It was happening.

We moved on slowly, thoughtfully, back to the buses – reticent to let go of what we’d just experienced. In front of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church we stopped for the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. It was explained that this was the SCLC church, while SNCC was typically down the street at the 1st Baptist. Word spread that we were being allowed into the sanctuary and it was confirmed by the minister of the church striding past, articulating loudly to himself the full names of those who had paid our admission: “James Joseph Reeb, Viola Gregg Liuzzo” (the UU murdered days later by the Klan as she was driving back to Montgomery). As a member of the planning committee, I wish I could say that we had arranged this, but it was a tremendous stroke of luck.

To walk into Brown Chapel is to walk into history. Martin Luther King, Jr. defined moral courage from this very pulpit on the day after Bloody Sunday.  Under pressure from every possible direction to back down (including the President of the United States), under the constant and very real threat of assassination, King defiantly said that “a man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice.” He and the marchers the next day went on to defy for the first time, an order of the very Federal Court that had been the movement’s staunchest ally from the beginning. Brown Chapel has been filled with indescribable tension and fear,  blessed by brilliance under fire, and sanctified by ineffable courage and hope. It is humbling to stand in that space.

The sanctuary, itself, is unusual in that the pews slope downward to the pulpit, more like a theatre. The minister is not on an elevated platform above the attendees.  Being there in the afternoon, it’s emptiness was a little like being on a jet, powered down on a runway. The organ, directly behind the pulpit, drew me and led me to imagine what hands had earned that honor. I was taking photos of the keys when I felt a tug on my sleeve. I turned to see a beckoning finger – we were going to get to sing in this incredible place.  Kim and Reggie Harris led us: “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” “we shall not, we shall not be moved.” Everyone in the church stopped, came forward, and immediately joined in.

To sing in Brown Chapel with Reggie Harris was, for me, at once the most normal thing in the world, and an unforgettable apogee in a conversation that began more than two decades ago. Born three days apart, we share many many common life experiences. But I have never presumed that I could any more understand the experience of being a Black male in America than I could understand being pregnant. So we have always talked about Race. In fact the first line of “In The Name of Love,” (“when I get tired”) comes from a phone call I made to Reggie years before I wrote the song. It had become apparent to me that I could cut my hair, say the right things, play the game, and blend seamlessly back into mainstream America. I told him that I couldn’t imagine how tiring it must be to be responded to every second of your life on your most superficial characteristic.  Without hesitation, he responded, “you have no idea.”

We have sung together, cried together, laughed together (everyone should know Reggie’s laugh). I have helped him walk the halls of the hospital where he’d just received a new liver, I’ve told him things I’m not proud of, I’ve felt his wrath when I didn’t pass him the ball when he was open. For as much as I  comprehend the word, we are friends. He is my chosen brother. To sing with him in Brown Chapel was a transcendent moment, a tribute to openness, understanding, respect, and love.  It is no accident that those words were uttered manifoldly throughout the conference as to what took place – and as to what must take place.

“When I get tired, it’s like I was dropped into the sea,
you could swim your whole life and be nowhere you want to be.
Everyone gets tired, and the water is so wide,
Then somebody comes and shows you, shows you the other side.”

 

 

 

 

Marching in the Arc of Justice,Thursday Morning: The Skin I’m In

In the dim gray light of a rainy Thursday, reluctant Birmingham looks like every city. From my 12th floor window, I’m thinking about my mother in Richmond, Virginia, 96, spending most of her days now in the chair where her mother died thirty years earlier – one step away from the spot where my father collapsed getting aspirin for the searing headache, the cerebral hemorrhage that killed him. These are the lives that gave me mine, the minds that, like those of all people, held incredible contradictions, who, like the progenitors of Birmingham, put their hands over their hearts when “Dixie” was played.

These wonderfully warm, humorous, kind, generous people, like the culture they grew up in, gave me all of the traits that anyone who knows me would recognize. But, the borders of their reality began to fray as the South, America, and I came into adolescence at the same time. The peeling away of this mythology, this misplaced nostalgia, the finding and facing the truth, was a slow and painful rending of the heart. The romance of the lost cause of the South was a pernicious lie.

Being the youngest of three boys by several years, coming of age in a suddenly vacated house with Richie Haven’s “Mixed Bag” lying on the bed beside John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, I was left to fashion my own realities. From early on, a youngest child can instantly identify and harbor a silent bond with the least powerful person in the room. Anyone caught, as children are, in that world could see in the distorted facial postures, so invested in the word “nigger,” what happens to violently brunted intelligence, perverted by generational ignorance. It was readily apparent, even to me, that as Martin Luther King, Jr. was grudgingly afforded the front page, as Mohammed Ali forced them to spit his new name, those who defined themselves by hate were watching their illusory power and privilege slip slowly away.

Someday a change was going to come.

Then, without realizing it was a choice, I made mine. I would have never been able to vocalize it then, but I chose my heros over my family. It was a luxury afforded me by that complicated, pivotal time in history. My heros – White or Black – didn’t look like me, didn’t talk like me, didn’t live around me (that I knew). They lived in books, on albums, in the TV set, beyond my understanding on every level but the one that mattered – the ideas they served. How could I have been at odds with my own culture had I not been allowed, like all of America, to see something else?

Sitting here now, on the eve of this commemoration, it is almost impossible to explain the vestiges of the old South that are a part of me. It is a remarkable statement that a culture steeped in 350 years of rationalizations was so self-absorbed, so blind as to not see the inherent threat of the idealism it taught its children. The only explanation is Race. Modern genetics shows that Race is not a biolgical reality, it is an idea, a very powerful idea, bent and tortured to allow millions of good people to deny the forest for the trees.

The cars and trucks passing silently below my 12th floor window fade into a sailing ship, a team of oxen. As in Breughel’s “Icarus”, life goes on. My ancestors, probably the indigent, ignorant castoffs of the British Empire, surviving unimaginable privations, dying some years at a rate of four out of five, fleeing oppression, beg me to look in the mirror.

“I washed my hands, down by the river.
I washed my hands of you.
But, you keep staring back from the mirror
to remind me again
of the skin I’m in.”

It’s complicated. But, today, I wake up, Ms. Angelou,
and say,
“Good Morning.”