October 13: “American Nightmare, Part 1” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
The quintessentially dead white male European philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously ends his Tractatus with the claim, “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” The logic would appear on the face of it inarguable, and yet my task this morning is in some sense to defy it. For we must speak of the unspeakable, my friends, or else we are doomed in our silence. I take some courage from the assertion of the black woman poet Maya Angelou that “History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, Need not be lived again.”
We say that we know this mid-20th century racial history, we white progressives like me; indeed, if you are my age or older, it isn’t even altogether history – we lived through those times, or some of them. Though it seems obvious to me now that I did not live through this history, exactly, insulated as I was in my unconscious white privilege. And that is precisely the conundrum; for the experience of being black in this nation is something that I have long seen, as the ancient scripture suggests, through a glass, dimly; in a distorting mirror filtered by whiteness, and there is a certain level at which I do not know the truth of it, and thus can say nothing accurate about it. At which point I should take Wittgenstein’s advice, or Job’s, and lay my hand upon my mouth, and for once shut up.
Moreover, if Mark’s and my three-day tour of notable southern sites from the civil rights era this past summer taught me anything, it was that the first motion of authentic repentance is to hush. Only silence can take the self-assertive interpretations of a dominant culture out of the center of attention long enough for some other reality to begin to suggest itself. With the best will in the world; with the greatest readiness to assent to the flaws and injustice and inaccuracies of this nation’s history as I have been taught to understand it, the truth remains something I had to feel in my body – emanating from the bricks and the pavement and the tombstones and the grass, vibrating in the air and the trees and the grainy photographs. Trouble is, you can’t have that viscerally transformative experience, and not want to tell someone about it; it makes you want to drag other people with you, crying, “Look, look, look at this! Listen! Learn! Use your imagination, and enter into this alternative experience, the reverse of everything that has been true for you; the suffering that fits at the exact edges of your comfort zones.” And then, of course, it’s my job anyway – to try to share the kind of truth that might make us all free, in order to fulfill that duty, I must speak. And so.
Let me start by saying that three days is obviously not enough – not enough to begin to see all that there is, or all that one ought to see. Not enough, even, to see what we did see; I could have spent the whole three days in any of the powerfully curated museums we had time in, in Alabama, or Mississippi, or Tennessee. I could have spent three days on the suburban concrete driveway where Medgar Evers was gunned down. I could have spent three days propped against the wrought iron railing surrounding the simple stone remembering Viola Liuzzo on the windswept, grassy verge of highway 80, where our sister in faith was run off the road and shot by members of the Alabama klan. It’s not even her grave, it’s just the place where she died, for being a white woman in her car with a black student, participating in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. I could have been quiet there, in the grass and the breeze and the sunshine, for three days, thinking about what a white, Unitarian Universalist woman like me might have thought about. Thinking about the FBI calling her a negligent mother, and a Communist, and a prostitute, after she was dead. Thinking about the fence that is there to protect the stone with her name from being constantly defaced. Thinking about what it means to be an ally and a co-conspirator, and what it would feel like to drive down the highway like a bat out of hell because you suddenly get it that your real life is really on the line, right now. I could have watched the sun go down, and the shadows gather in the night time, like it was when the bullets found her, and the black student who was her navigator held his breath and lay still under her bleeding body so that when the killers came to look, they thought he was dead too. Maybe three days and nights might have been enough; I might have been ready to move on, then. Or perhaps not.
It’s only 54 miles, you know, from Selma to Montgomery. Less than an hour by car, these days, if you’re in a hurry. It took them four full days of walking, four nights of camping out on the way, before they marched into the state capitol on the morning of March 25, 1965. A number of the marchers returned by car to Selma each evening, and rejoined them before the group set off again in the morning. Other supporters were occupied with logistics during the day, but came to set up camp and spend the night each evening. A total of 4,000 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge on their third try, surrounded by 1,900 federalized Alabama National Guardsmen, 2,000 US Army troops, and dozens of undercover FBI agents. Only 300 were allowed to proceed down highway 80 once it narrowed to two lanes, but on the last morning, during the final leg into the city of Montgomery, the crowd swelled again, to an estimated 25,000. It’s a pretty isolated 54 miles, even today; not much in the way of gas stations, or convenience stores, just fields. Farm country. But it wasn’t easy finding camping space back in ‘65; even when the owners along the way were black farmers, which half of them were; they were pressured by their white neighbors and the prominent local citizens not to allow the marchers to use their property. Each of the campsites has a historical marker now, but you can miss them if you blink; we had to turn around and go back in order to find all four. The owners’ names were David Hall, Rosie Steele, Robert Gardner, and the Catholic school, hospital and church facility named City of St. Jude. We were there in July, in Alabama; it was really hot. The march took place at the end of March in 65; it was rainy then, chilly, muddy. How much misery are you willing to bear in your body as a witness to what you believe about truth and justice?
That was a question that grew more and more urgent for me over the course of our three day pilgrimage, but so did the awareness that it is a question that only privilege can ask. For black Americans, there has never been a choice to abdicate principle in return for safety or comfort; the suffering was always inescapable. The only decision was whether to suffer at the arbitrary whim of white domination, or to suffer in the deliberate struggle for equality and freedom. The anguish was going to happen, one way or another. It was – and this is the hardest thing to hear, the most difficult to believe, the thing that only the grass and the fence and the highway can start to make you understand – it was meant to be that way; baked into the system, from the beginning, by the people in charge. It was a feature, not a bug; the agony was intentional. The suffering of broken bodies, and broken hearts, and broken spirits – it was overwhelming, when I finally got that through my thick liberal privileged head. Not an accident, not a mistake, not a series of unfortunate events, but the product of a system doing exactly what it was structured to do – what it is still structured to do, whether you and I want it to, or not. And once that awful reality came into clear focus, not just in my head, but in my chest and my gut, only silence seemed possible. When the truth is unspeakable, one should cease babbling.
It wasn’t just those 300 ghostly campers in the borrowed fields along highway 80, and Viola’s mangled Oldsmobile and bullet-riddled body to remember. That was one of the pieces, but not, of course, the beginning. We started in Birmingham, Mark and I, at the 16th Street Baptist church, where 14 year old Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair who was 11, took a shortcut down the back church stairs on their way to choir practice one September Sunday in 1963, and were blown to pieces by fifteen sticks of dynamite planted by renegade members of the Ku Klux Klan. The blast destroyed the rear section of the church building, and all but one of its stained glass windows.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was eight years old, and both a classmate and friend of Denise McNair. On the day of the bombing, Rice was at her father’s church, located only a few blocks from 16th Street Baptist. In 2004, she said:
I remember the bombing of that Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. I did not see it happen, but I heard it happen and I felt it happen, just a few blocks away at my father’s church. It is a sound that I will never forget, that will forever reverberate in my ears. That bomb took the lives of four young girls, including my friend and playmate Denise McNair. The crime was calculated, not random. It was meant to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations, and ensure that old fears would be propelled forward into the next generation.
The building is still there, serving the community of downtown Birmingham; hundreds worship there on Sunday mornings. The back stairwell was rebuilt, the stained glass replaced. One of the windows, depicting Christ as a black man, was a gift from a Welsh artist and the people of Wales. We arrived in the late summer afternoon, and neither the church itself nor the history center across the street was open. We walked around the outside, touched the bricks. So long ago now, you can’t tell the replacements from the originals. Buildings shook, they say, and windows shattered for blocks around.
It was in no way random; 16th Street Baptist was targeted precisely because it was a gathering space for civil rights activism in what Martin Luther King called “the most segregated city in the south.” As in many other southern states, laws forbade “negroes” from gathering in large groups except at church, which is why churches became the natural focal points for voter registration efforts and protest rallies of all kinds. Kitty corner across a busy downtown intersection is a city park; marches to city hall and business locations often gathered there. Today a circle of sidewalk leads around a series of memorials. One is a statue of the four young women who died that September morning, with a bronze shoe, a pair of glasses, a hat, lying some distance apart, as they were found after the blast. There is another sculpture of children’s faces and bodies emerging from a wall, commemorating the more than 1,000 black students, some as young as eight, who left classes earlier that year, on May 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th, to march to the mayor’s office protesting school segregation. 600 were arrested on the first day, but they continued to gather and march on the following days, intending to fill the jails beyond capacity. Standing on the sidewalk, on one side you see the children’s faces – eager, intent, youthful. Free-standing behind you on the other side are the wall and bars of a jail cell. If you step to the outer edge of the park, you see the image of the children behind the bars.
Halfway around, on the other side of the circle, are two water cannons, trained on a bronze wall. When they are working – which they were not, that day – you can operate them, getting a sense of the force of the fire hoses used by police to disperse demonstrators. There are a few signs, for those of us who like our history narrative, but the deepest message is unspoken: don’t kid yourself, the cruelty was the point. The fear, the pain, the humiliation; the rage, the destruction, the loss, the hopelessness; they were all intended. The bricks know this, and the bronze images; they hold the awareness deeply, and it radiates out from them, like the summer heat. And with it, a question: How do you build a better future for the children you love, when every act of your resistance risks their next breath, here and now?
Denise and Carole and Addie Mae and Cynthia died because those who wanted new possibilities for their future were starting to succeed. The demonstrations that summer had won concessions from the city about integrating the schools and the stores and the public transportation. The impermeable fabric of Jim Crow and segregation was being picked apart, strand by strand, and some reactionaries felt that even the klan itself had ‘gone soft’ about trying to stop it. So a few of the ‘boys’ began gathering under the Cahaba River bridge, to drink beer and see what they could do to up the intimidation factor in ways they wouldn’t report to their klan organizers. Among these ‘Cahaba boys’ were the four men widely known to be responsible for dynamiting 16th Street Baptist; Y2K would be come and gone before any of them felt the hand of justice for that crime. The system operated just as intended; to protect the white perpetrators, and to leave the black community with broken hearts and broken promises, burying their children.
The way I learned this history, in my white schools and my white church, from my white parents and white teachers and white culture, it is customary now to proceed to talk about Autherine Lucy integrating the University of Alabama, and James Meredith enrolling at Ole Miss, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, concluding perhaps with the presidency of Barak Obama. But you know what? None of that ever happened for Cynthia Wesley, or Denise McNair. They can’t tell us what they thought about the Black Panthers or affirmative action or the school to prison pipeline or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Their voices were silenced long ago, together with Addie Mae’s, and Carole’s, and Johnny Robinson, 16, and Virgil Ware, 13, who were both shot later that same day in Birmingham by white vigilantes. You can see the bronze statues; you can touch the bricks that were blasted onto the street and into their young bodies, but they utter not a word; neither comfort, nor condemnation, nor encouragement. None of them knew what would come after their too short lives ended in unspeakable violence. But what they did know, even at 14 and 13 and 11, was that they were not the first. They knew that the heritage of intentional suffering went back a long, long way.
I started in Birmingham, and on the road from Montgomery to Selma, but the story starts well before any of that – across the oceans, across the centuries. Pray to whatever powers there may be that Maya Angelou is right:
“History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.”
I shall try her wisdom some more next week. Meanwhile, let us sing.