Driving up Interstate 95 on the evening of May 19, a few miles north of Fayetteville, North Carolina I spotted this billboard, which I had not seen before. It seemed worth documenting, so I made a U-turn at the next exit and was soon aiming the phone camera at it.
But before I got there I stopped a few miles farther south on 95, where the nearest example of this campaign stands.
The Guardian: “Christian democracy, a political ideology embodied by figures like Germany’s Angela Merkel, contributed to establishing stable democracies in Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. The US was often deeply supportive of this process, yet never cultivated an analogous political movement at home. Now that it is facing a serious institutional threat of its own, it can perhaps learn from what it has long preached abroad.
The role of Christian democratic parties and agents in the creation of the United Nations, the European Union and the international human rights regime was decisive.
Well, maybe. But finding “a better alternative” won’t be easy.
Still, there’s plenty of wisdom here. American evangelical Christianity COULD in theory move way from the current regime, which mocks almost every aspect of its core.
But I see four BIG hazards that will need to be overcome on the way to becoming a better option:
On Wednesday April 4, many eyes will be on Memphis, Tennessee, remembering what happened there 50 years ago,
I’ll be among those, But I’ll be doing it from Alabama, just down the street from the still blindingly all-white state capital in Montgomery. That’s where the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church still stands. There in 1955 Dr. King began the career which ended, at least in embodied form, with a bullet fired in Memphis.
At Dexter Street, Alabama State University will conduct a day-long program on the anniversary, and they invited me to join a panel.
When I look at this photo of President Obama in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015, I think I see something different from many.
Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he & his handlers were evoking the marches across it fifty years earlier.
One of those ended in a bloody police attack on unarmed voting rights marchers. Another, two weeks later, opened their momentous trek to Montgomery to demand full voting rights for people of color.
That second march, by the way, is still going on.
I was in Selma in 1965. And again, along with Obama in 2015.
But beyond and behind the pageantry, I saw something else: protection; protection that was overwhelming, in all directions, and yet invisible to the public.
Let me explain.
In 1965, I was a rookie civil rights worker in Selma, fresh from college and not a southerner. As such, I had few useful skills. But one thing I could do was walk.
And walking was what I was asked to do, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in town to lead voting rights protests. I was one of several junior staffers assigned to walk close to Dr. King through Selma’s downtown, to the county courthouse. There a white voter registration board had for decades routinely turned away all but a very few black residents.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked big James Orange, a movement veteran, as we took our places the first time.
“Simple, Chuck,” he answered, and pointed to a nearby building. “Suppose somebody’s up there on the roof with a high-powered rifle. We’re gonna block their aim.”
Orange saw my eyes widen, and grinned.
“But, uh, Jim,” l sputtered, “what — what if somebody’s up there & they squeeze the trigger and get me instead?”
His grin got wider. He slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chuck,” he said, “if you get shot, I promise: Dr. King will preach at your funeral.”
“Oh, thanks, Jim,” I said & tried to laugh, but it was a serious matter.
I had already learned that Dr. King got death threats almost every day. And while we were unarmed, our bodyguard duty was not just for show. Selma was a small city, but numerous three-story buildings clustered downtown: many upstairs windows glared blankly down on us, and their nearly flat roofs made good cover.
Lucky for me, no shots were fired during the marches I was on then. But I was also among the throng that crossed the Pettus bridge several weeks later, after two protesters had been killed and many more injured, headed for the capital in Montgomery, our journey guarded this time by rifle-bearing U.S. army troops.
The soldiers were busy: long stretches of our route on US Highway 80 were lined by thick woods and swamps. A line of woods also ran along the edge of the Alabama River near the bridge, right across from Selma’s downtown, offering excellent cover for would be snipers.
That march made it to Montgomery safely five days later; but on the way back, Ku Klux Klan assassins shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, who had come from Detroit to join it.
Several years later, while doing research for my book, Selma 1965, I came across a report that police believed that on at least one of the marches where James Orange I were beside Dr. King, a rifleman was spotted on a nearby rooftop. By then, of course, one of the daily threats against Dr. King had been fatally carried out, in Memphis.
All this was on my mind in 2015 when I heard that President Obama was coming to Selma, to mark the Selma movement’s half-century. I was going too, with some friends.
This time I wasn’t worried about my own safety: there would be tens of thousands to shield me, and besides the occasion was rightly viewed as a tourism bonanza by Alabama authorities.
But Obama was another matter. It was no secret that, as the first black president, he too got death threats every day, reportedly many more than his white predecessors. Further, Alabama and the Deep South still harbored extremist groups that regarded his public prominence as a standing offense.
I knew Obama would want to speak in the open air, likely with the Pettus bridge looming above him. And that worried me. Such visibility was risky: on one end of the bridge, downtown was a jumble of three-story buildings.
On the other end, the woods were still there on the high bank of the Alabama river. How would the Secret Service cover it all—and make it all appear “normal,” a peaceful celebration, not a military occupation?
Maybe it was just my own mild case of PTSD, but it worried me. But after much mulling, I thought I knew how it could be done.
When I saw this picture of Obama, alone on the bridge behind a compact lectern, I felt like I guessed right. Here’s how it went down:
On the city side, early that morning the Secret Service cordoned off several square blocks with metal barriers, set up airport-type metal detector entrances, where they looked in all bags & wanded each of the tens of thousands of those lined up; it took hours.
At the same time, they quietly, unobtrusively occupied and no doubt searched the buildings along and near the riverfront. Few structures had changed in fifty years, and for that matter, many were empty; Selma and the whole region around it was still dogged by poverty and decay.
Beyond the other end of the bridge, traffic was diverted to other routes. While I don’t know for sure, I’m convinced that special teams combed through the nearby line of woods to be sure they stayed clear.
One other precaution might also have been in play: for most of March 7, when the Obamas & George W. and Laura Bush were in town, the internet went down in Selma. This gummed up many journalists; I know, because a few had interviewed me, but then had to pack up and leave town to get their footage uploaded to their home networks. For that matter, I had planned to blog during the day myself; after a few futile tries, I gave up.
There were two theories on the street about this outage: one, the Secret Service (or maybe NSA) had jammed it, so no insurgents could coordinate attack plans, or remotely set off explosives; the other, more plausible but less exciting, was that all 50,000 of us tried to send our snapshots to Facebook & Instagram at the same time, and simply crashed all the local servers and such. (It didn’t occur to me that maybe Russian hackers were involved; but it certainly would today.)
Obama stood & spoke almost exactly where I had imagined: note that the bridge behind him makes an arc, one actually much higher than it seems in the camera’s perspective. Where Obama is standing, the bridge itself would block the aim of anyone who evaded pursuit and tried to take aim from those woods.
The result was a successful combination of security and stagecraft. The scene eased my anxiety then and after: it meant somebody knew what they were doing, and did it right.
The Secret Service has to secure similar events every week, sometimes every day. So maybe this was a piece of cake for them. Compared to their skill, our mornings walks near Dr. King now seem utterly, almost comically amateurish.
But even so, somehow we came through it. Dr. King wasn’t called on to preach at our funerals. Instead, we lasted long enough to hear others preaching at his.
It is carefully reported, and digs deep. It takes a broad view, but focuses on a huge megachurch, “Gateway,” in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
The Gateway congregations are “integrated”; people of color have been worshiping there for years; pastors at two of its “campuses” are black. As Charmaine Pruitt, one longtime attender, told the Times:
“This is what I need right now,” thought Ms. Pruitt, moved to tears when she first went to orientation programs at the church. Members who happened to sit near her at worship came to ask about her when she missed a service, and some came to her grandmother’s wake. One couple began to refer to her as a daughter.
The congregation is mostly white, but not entirely; the pastors at two of the six satellite campuses are black men. Church videos and promotional materials are intentionally filled with people of color.
But recently, some there, and in similar churches, have become increasingly uncomfortable.
Two events seem to have marked this discomfort: first was the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, followed by growing anger and protest of the killings of many more black people (mostly young males). These killings were traumatic to many; but the disturbing aspect to some Gateway attenders was the silence about them in the church.
The second landmark was the 2016 election. As the campaign proceeded, there was anything but silence from the Gateway pulpit.
The church’s founder and “Senior Pastor,” Robert Morris, preached about the election in August 2016. As the Times quoted him:
“We (in America) are going the wrong way,” he concluded. “We need to get involved, we need to pray and we need to vote.”
[Morris] never said to vote for Mr. Trump. But the implication in the sermon, and in the leaflets that [were] handed out at church, was lost on no one: that one must vote to uphold Christian values and that the Republican Party platform reflected those values. And Mr. Trump was the Republican candidate.
This sermon, and the previous silence, left Charmaine Pruitt, who had attended Gateway for some years, more & more uneasy:
Pruitt sent messages to several white couples she had befriended at the church, telling them she was going to take some time off. She had become uneasy at a church, she told them, that speaks of overcoming racism on one Sunday “and then turns around later and asks me to support” Trump, who she believed was “a racist candidate.”
One of the couples invited her to come to their house. Sitting in the living room over a plate of brownies, Ms. Pruitt explained to the wife how disturbed she had been by the clear inference from the pulpit that she should support a candidate whose behavior and rhetoric were so offensive that she could not bring herself even to say his name. The woman explained that a Trump victory had been prophesied and handed Ms. Pruitt a two-page printout, which began: “The Spirit of God says, ‘I have chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this.’”
[NOTE: the full text of this “prophecy,” issued in 2011, is here, with “updates.” Here is an excerpt:
The Spirit of God says, I have chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this. For as Benjamin Netanyahu is to Israel, so shall this man be to the United States of America! For I will use this man to bring honor, respect and restoration to America. America will be respected once again as the most powerful and prosperous nation on Earth, (other than Israel). The dollar will be the strongest it has ever been in the history of the United States, and will once again be the currency by which all others are judged.
The Spirit of God says, the enemy will quake and shake and fear this man I have anointed. They will even quake and shake when he announces he is running for president, it will be like the shot heard across the world. The enemy will say what shall we do now? This man knows all our tricks and schemes. We have been robbing America for decades, what shall we do to stop this? The Spirit says HA! No one shall stop this that l have started! For the enemy has stolen from America for decades and it stops now! For I will use this man to reap the harvest that the United States has sown for and plunder from the enemy what he has stolen and return it seven-fold back to the United States. The enemy will say Israel, Israel, what about Israel? For Israel will be protected by America once again. The spirit says yes! America will once again stand hand and hand with Israel, and the two shall be as one. For the ties between Israel and America will be stronger than ever, and Israel will flourish like never before.
The Spirit of God says, I will protect America and Israel, for this next president will be a man of his word, when he speaks the world will listen and know that there is something greater in him than all the others before him. This man’s word is his bond and the world and America will know this and the enemy will fear this, for this man will be fearless. The Spirit says, when the financial harvest begins so shall it parallel in the spiritual for America.
The Spirit of God says, in this next election they will spend billions to keep this president in; it will be like flushing their money down the toilet. Let them waste their money, for it comes from and it is being used by evil forces at work, but they will not succeed, for this next election will be a clean sweep for the man I have chosen. They [the enemy] will say things about this man, but it will not affect him, and they shall say it rolls off of him like the duck, for as the feathers of a duck protect it, so shall My feathers protect this next president. Even mainstream news media will be captivated by this man and the abilities that I have gifted him with, and they will even begin to agree with him says the Spirit of God.
[NOTE: the “next election” following this “prophecy” was that of 2012, which we will recall was won handily by Barack Obama. However, the premature chronology did not trouble the woman who gave it to Pruitt. As the Times reported]:
Barack Obama, the woman continued, should never have been president, since he was not born a United State citizen. The visit ended with the woman suggesting that Ms. Pruitt’s discomfort at the church was God telling her it was time to move on.
Ms. Pruitt never went back.
. . . Mr. Trump’s win, which one elder at Gateway described as a “supernatural answer to prayer,” generated a frisson of excitement at the church. Pastor Morris told the congregation that he was one of Mr. Trump’s faith advisers. The church was a sponsor of an inaugural ball in January 2017. . . .
Pastor Morris has since preached about race, However, his feelings about the current administration have not changed:
“We were electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most. That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect. But I do believe after spending time with him that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.”
There are larger racial injustices in the country, he said, and those injustices need to be fixed — though not in ways that would enable dependence, he clarified, but rather to “give people a hand up, not a handout.” He noted the low black unemployment rate under Mr. Trump. The answer to racism lies primarily in the church, not the government, he said, and now that white pastors are waking up to the pain that black people have felt, it is in many ways a hopeful time.
“I think that there’s an anger and a hurt right now, and a fear,” he said, “and I think that people are going to get past that.”
There is now a team at the church focused exclusively on making the church more diverse. On the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a 49-second video of excerpts from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was played at worship services — “a monumental moment in Gateway church history,” one pastor said, the first time that the day had been acknowledged. . . .
For Charmaine Pruitt, this was too little, too late:
[Ms. Pruitt] had kept giving tithe money to Gateway for some months after she stopped going, but after learning about the inaugural ball, started donating to another church. On most Sundays she had stayed at home, watching services online.
At Snow Camp we’re working at broadening the vision that created our acclaimed historical drama, Pathway to Freedom, to bring out more awareness of our practical connections to the actual Underground Railroad.
I admit, though, that sometimes I’m tempted to believe, as one prominent historian has argued, that the “Underground Railroad” (UGRR) is mainly a myth, spun into heroic proportions on legends, that serve mainly to puff up self-serving white people’s memories.
And surely there has been a lot of myth-making about it, feeding white rescue fantasies, which has deservedly been deflated by recent revisionist research.
But even after discounting the expansionist folklore, I haven’t been able to dismiss this saga — not since I visited this church, the Salem Chapel in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, only a few miles beyond the U.S. border at Niagara Falls.
The modest people of Salem Chapel are the descendants of many intrepid men and women who made this long and often terrifying journey and succeeded. More than twenty such settlements of freed peoples’ were planted along the southern end of Ontario, stretching 250-plus miles from Buffalo to the lakeside city of Windsor, just a short ferry (or clandestine canoe) ride from Detroit. Many thousands of enslaved people showed the grit and stamina to start and finish their incredible journeys. (Many thousands more, truth be told, tried and failed, and usually paid a terrible price.)
Among the early worshipers at Salem Chapel was Harriett Tubman,. She led several parties there, and stayed on for most of the 1850s, when she was being hunted below the border. She returned south when the Civil War began, to undertake more exploits for the Union war effort.
Moreover, alternatives to the white savior UGRR plotline have been around for a long time, if too-long neglected. One of the best was also the earliest, by William Still of Philadelphia.
He had been a key figure in that city’s Vigilance Committee, which aided a great many successful slave escapes, and in 1872 he published the first detailed, documented account of his work and that of the Philadelphia underground.
Still’s book is a landmark, and available free online, in full.) Further, Still’s view of the struggle was proudly Black-centered, as is evident right from his book’s title page:
Yet he was also forthright and even generous in acknowledging the active and sustained assistance his committee had from numerous activist whites, many of whom also took substantial risks. Among the white supporters, none outnumbered Quakers or former Quakers.
So William Still’s Underground Railroad was a Black initiative, built on and energized by the desire and action of the enslaved to break from bondage, but many were not entirely alone in the effort. And as Still’s 780 pages of dense text showed, there was plenty of joint initiative to recount.
The most complete recent history of the UGRR, Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich, reflects a similar pattern, only painted on a much broader canvas: where William Still focused on Philadelphia; Burdewich points out that what was then called the “Northwest” (now the Midwest), was criss-crossed by an equally, if not more important group of UGRR pathways, particularly in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, routes ultimately terminating in Canada.
It’s about 700 miles from Salem Chapel in Ontario to Snow Camp, North Carolina — as the Canada geese flocks fly; on the ground it’s many more. Hard miles, through forests, winding through mountains and crossing rivers, in all kinds of weather, hungry and hunted. Here in Snow Camp, what we know of the UGRR is mostly folklore, but still it fits with these big-picture accounts, though with plenty of local twists.
For one thing, it’s right in the thick of a “Quaker hotbed” that was almost a century old in the years leading up to the Civil War, and which survived the fighting, despite losing many members in treks west, to Indiana and other non-slave states.
This meant there were many potential UGRR sympathizers around Snow Camp– though they kept a low profile. After all, while the UGRR was controversial in the North, it was criminally illegal in the South: a number of white sympathizers were caught at it in the South and served long prison terms; more than one died in jail.
In this tense atmosphere, UGRR work was kept both secret and carefully compartmentalized: most participants only knew where the next stopping place was, and often were unaware of who operated it. The renowned UGRR tree near the Guilford College campus is a good example: nestled in a thick woods, which tree was it?
Thus, if seized by the patrollers or the sheriff, “conductors” could give truthful (or nearly truthful), yet minimally informative answers.
So there are very few concrete records. (Levi Coffin, originally from Greensboro, described some of his forays in his memoirs– online here in full — many years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.) Yet local historians at the Friends meetings near Snow Camp have long asserted that area Quakers were active in UGRR efforts.
Even so, Quakers were a suspect minority as far as local authorities were concerned, on a subject which frequently evoked actual violence. Thus habits of concealment, and what spies call “cut-outs” and “drops” were key tools for UGRR work in this area.
In addition to preparing the 25th season of Pathway to Freedom, the only ongoing play about the UGRR, we hope to soon be able to make use of our historic buildings and artifacts to illustrate the day-to-day reality of life in a seemingly quiet but inwardly turbulent slave society. Watch this space for more details as they develop, And we ask again that our supporters send donations soon, so we can meet the high expenses of season preparation.
Donations are welcome via a secure online link here:
For regular mail, make checks to:
Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre
P. O. Box 535
Snow Camp NC 27349
PS. A reminder: our local auditions will take place at the Drama site [301 drama Rd., Snow Camp] on Wednesday March 14, noon to 5 PM, and Thursday March 15, 3PM to 8 PM. Make appointments by email at: email@example.com
Charlottesville VA – I came here for a panel on Dr. King’s Ill-fated Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968, 50 years past and now aiming to be re-launched.
I did my part in the event (having written a book about the 1968 campaign); but I want to admit here that my mind frequently wandered, hankering to head downtown to visit some of Charlottesville’s new & newly-more historic sites while I was nearby.
Two in particular: the shrouded statue of Robert E. Lee, awaiting its fate, and a few blocks away the graffiti wall on the stretch of 4th Street now rechristened “Heather Heyer Way.”
It’s Langston Hughes’s birthday (Feb. 1, 1902- May 22, 1967). Known primarily as a poet, Hughes was a versatile writer: by his mid-twenties he had published challenging essays in national periodicals, and two books of poetry. I’m now reading his first novel, Not Without Laughter, published in 1930, when he was 28.
This passage evokes a domestic scene in a small Kansas city, modeled on Lawrence, where Hughes spent several boyhood years. Hughes was proud of his humble roots, and the creativity it wrung from hardship, like the largely homemade blues songs by the itinerant laborer Jimboy. Here he has returned after a long absence seeking work. In Hughes’s prose, we can hear the poetry woven through it.
During the past year, resistance took many forms, and cropped up in many places. It was also exhausting and resisters took many hits. And the struggle(s) are far from over.
I tried to do my share. And in an effort to keep up my own spirits, and maybe offer some tidbits of encouragement to others, I’ve assembled this personal scrapbook. In the age of phone cameras, such documentation has become much easier. If others are moved to share theirs, I look forward to sampling them.
And it all started, of course, before the new year. After November 8, 2016, like many others, I spent many days reenacting this famous painting of “The Scream,” aloud, silently, and in between. I don’t know if it helped or not. Denial is more than a river in Egypt. But then . . . Continue reading A Year of #45. My Year of Resistance.→
What “secret” am I talking about here? Lucretia Mott with a secret?
For her devotees, Lucretia Mott’s life is, or should be, an open book: born into a loving, encouraging family, married for 57 years to what one biographer called “the best husband ever”; she had a long public career of preaching and speaking, of which generous samplings have been preserved; and she wrote hundreds of letters which scholars have combed through. She endured sorrows: the loss of two of her six children, and then widowhood; and she overcame years of withering criticism of her ideas and “heresies.”
None of that is new, or unexamined. And in her personal carriage she was a model of traditional Quaker propriety: she disdained novels as frivolous and vain; it was husband James who sat in a quiet corner, burning the midnight oil, unable to put down Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Then, while Hicksites all around were shedding the grey and the bonnet, she was plain til the very end. Continue reading Lucretia Mott’s Birthday Secret: No Woman Is an Island?→