Category Archives: Signs of the Times

Selma, Alabama: Protecting King, Protecting Obama

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.

Selma, 1965, ready to march: Front, left to right: Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Andrew Young. Behind and right of Young, me.

“Why are we doing this?” I asked big James Orange, a movement veteran, as we took our places the first time.

James Orange, at right behind Dr. King.

 “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.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was the first to die in the Selma campaign, shot by a state trooper in February, 1965 while trying to stop the beating of his grandfather. The shooting hasn’t stopped: his headstone, by a state highway near his hometown of Marion, is pocked and pitted with bullet marks. This photo is from 2014, 49 years later.

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.

A white supremacy billboard near the Pettus Bridge, celebrating the career of Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest, who later was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The motto under Forrest’s image is “Keep The Skeer On ‘Em”

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.

A neo-Confederate supporter’s car, in Selma, 2014. At the right, below the confederate flag, reads the motto: “In the coming civil war, be a man among men.”

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?

The passage quoted by this U.S. Senator from Georgia, republican David Perdue, was typical doublespeak dog-whistle hate: “Let his days be few, and another take his place of leadership” the quote from Psalm 109 begins. And then it adds: “9 May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. 10 May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. 11 May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. 12 May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. 13 May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. . . . “(and on it goes).

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.

A busy office building in 1965, stands empty in downtown Selma, in late 2014; one of many.

 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.

President Barack Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. after his introduction during the event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., March 7, 2015. Lewis helped lead the original Selma march on March 7, 1965 which was attacked by police, deputies and state troopers, leaving him with a fractured skull.

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.

Hope won’t stay behind the barriers.


More about my time in the movement is in this book, available here.

A Stunning Article About Blacks in (& Troubled by) White Evangelical churches

There’s a must-read in today’s New York Times: “A Quiet Exodus: Why Blacks Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches”

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.

A service at Gateway. It has six “campuses,” which pack in 31,000 weekly.

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:

Robert Morris, Gateway’s founder& Senior Pastor.

  “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:

Mark Taylor, formerly a firefighter in Orlando, Florida. Now a self-proclaimed prophet.

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.

Read the rest of this remarkable article.

PS.  One of Mark Taylor’s recent prophecies; find it on YouTube.

Does Scot Miller Have the Answer to American Quaker Decline?

Not all U. S. Friends Meetings are withering away; I live close to two of them (liberal unprogrammed) which seem to be thriving.

But many meetings are shrinking. Several formerly large yearly meetings, particularly in the Midwest & South, are now but shadows of their earlier selves. One of the largest among them, North Carolina, went entirely out of business in 2017, after 320 years.

In many other meetings, pastoral and non-, generational gaps are opening, with now elderly Baby Boomers more or less in charge, while their children’s and grandchildren’s generations seem to be missing or sparse in attendance.

Similar trends are evident in numerous other larger denominations. Church growth “experts,” pastors, debt-burdened seminarians, and others whose paychecks are at stake, are showing signs of panic. Continue reading Does Scot Miller Have the Answer to American Quaker Decline?

The Road to Columbine – A True Story


It was 1959 and I was a junior in high school when I discovered that my stomach muscles were unusually strong. Here’s how I found this out:

Justin, whose locker was a couple down from mine, came into the locker room, grabbed me by the shirt, slammed me up against my locker, and punched me in the stomach.

I don’t think Justin was angry at me when he did that, at least not especially so. He just felt like punching somebody, and there I was.

I had been punched in the gut once or twice before, and a couple other times hit there accidentally. The effect was always the same: it doubled me over in agony, unable to breathe for a moment or two. We called it, “having the wind knocked out of you.”

It was very scary the first time, until I realized I wasn’t going to suffocate, and every time it was painful.

But what happened that day was completely new, and it wasn’t clear who was more shocked by it,  Justin or me. Continue reading The Road to Columbine – A True Story

The Deaths Of Racism, And Racism In Deaths

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.

Charlottesville’s Lee, the (somewhat) hidden monument.

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.”

Late that rainy afternoon, the panel finished, and the chance came. My activist photographer friend Laura from Toronto, also a panelist, felt a similar urge, and soon we were in “Emancipation (neé Lee) Park” clicking away.  Continue reading The Deaths Of Racism, And Racism In Deaths

Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes–Sing us a bit of your famous Blues!

From Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes

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.

Continue reading Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes–Sing us a bit of your famous Blues!

Quakers Getting on the DOWN Escalator

Recently I read the amazing account of the Great Black Migration from the South, The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.

It’s a fine, fine book, and its relevance here is that, paradoxically, until it was well underway, there was no such thing as “The Great Migration”; that is, no one named or organized it, no one “joined” it.

Rather, there were individuals & families fleeing for their own survival: seeking escape from the personal costs of official southern racism, grinding poverty and unrestrained violence. Only after such private decisions were acted on by hundreds of thousands, over  decades, did scholars & writers come along to christen, study and begin to chronicle it.

Yet while “spontaneous” and unorganized, the Great Migration was indeed real and momentous, with national impact that’s still being felt.

A change equally unorganized & unheralded, potentially as momentous at least for us is, I believe, underway in the U. S. liberal Quakerism I discovered in 1965 (after ditching pre-Vatican II Catholicism). Continue reading Quakers Getting on the DOWN Escalator

A Year of #45. My Year of Resistance.

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.

Quaker Theology: Highlights of New Double Issue

The new double issue of Quaker Theology is titled “Quakers & Resistance.” It considers highlights (and some lowlights) of Quaker resistance to oppression, both inside and outside the Society of Friends.

For example, it recalls  what happened to Lucretia Mott when she showed up in Richmond, Indiana in 1847, at the time when Indiana Yearly Meeting was gathering. She had traveled by stagecoach from Philadelphia, a bone-rattling journey which took many days. She had barely stepped down from the coach when she was confronted by a committee of elders, who told her to “Go home!”

What did Lucretia do then? You can find out more here.

Not that Philadelphia had been free of troubles. Continue reading Quaker Theology: Highlights of New Double Issue

From “Quakers & Resistance” — Tom Fox Paid the Price

From the Introduction to: Tom Fox Was My Friend. Yours, Too.

Chuck Fager


John Stephens, Quaker House intern, computer artist. he designed our Sergeant Abe , “The Honest Recruiter” character in the summer of 2005.

            John Stephens called me with the news: Tom Fox and three other members of the Christian peacemaker Teams’ group (CPT) in Baghdad had been kidnaped. It was just after Thanksgiving, late November, 2005.

Sgt. Abe turned up nationwide, and was banned in at least one school. Many young people were helped by his carefully accurate materials. A few years later, the army put out their version, “Sgt. Star. (Not nearly as cool.)

            That summer of 2005 John had been an intern at Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where I was Director. When he applied for an internship, I asked him for a letter of reference; the reference came by email from Tom Fox, in Baghdad. Continue reading From “Quakers & Resistance” — Tom Fox Paid the Price