[NOTE: See also this UPDATE to this post, here.}
I feel torn about renaming the Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. On the one hand, Pettus was all those odious things: traitor, KKK leader, etc., etc.
On the other hand, John Lewis & many others shed their blood under that sign, and seared its letters onto the conscience of the world. They made it a sacred place of pilgrimage on the long road to justice.
History is like that: sometimes ironic, paradoxical— thank God.
So I say leave it be, as a sign that sometimes much unexpected good can come out of much unrequited evil.
Whenever I imagine how Pettus would react to the Bridge’s renown among those who rolled back the slavery & oppression he upheld, it brings a smile that’s rare in these haunted days.
I know the decision will be made by others, mostly younger. But I still carry my memories of standing with Lewis and others when the “Bloody Sunday” March was announced, then crossing the Pettus bridge behind Lewis, more than once. (I was lucky; the clubs & gas were in abeyance for these treks; but the armed federal troops guarding us were very real.)
It’s something to study & debate peaceably. There are many other places & memorials that could be named for John Lewis. Yet things change. I’ll accept the verdict. There are bigger fish to fry.
The internet is a mystifying thing: emails can go round and round, and some end up in my inbox that have been many other places on their electronic journey.
One such came yesterday, and it is germane to the current issues roiling SAYMA (Southern Appalachian yearly Meeting & Association). It is no less than the Enemies List of Sharon Smith, the self-styled uber-anti-racist activist and Indian elder/matriarch, whose demand for $20,000 of SAYMA’s funds (& $10,000 per year thereafter indefinitely) will come before the group’s representative meeting this evening.
Of course, it is not titled as an “Enemies List. ” The email was originally sent to the Friends Center for Racial Justice, a relatively new project based in Ithaca new York. But Smith does say explicitly that “the above list are those known to be upholding white supremacy, causing the most harm to Friends of color, particularly URJ members, through their leadership roles in SAYMA . . .”
The names are below. I’ll point out here that for a Quaker body, it’s a pretty weighty lot. It includes
>> A former YM Clerk, the current YM Clerk, and the incoming YM Clerk;
>> The former Clerk of its Finance Committee, and the Committee’s incoming Clerk; the Clerk of its Ministry & Nurture Committee; a distinguished Quaker historian; an experienced CPA; and
>> A founding member of SAYMA, and at least one who has been arrested in civil rights protests.
It’s also worth noting that they are scattered from Asheville to Memphis, and are hardly a homogeneous, well-oiled machine. What they do have in common is the temerity to have questioned, or even opposed, Smith’s demands for money and control.
And so, these are the “white supremacists” who she identifies as obstructing her path to a SAYMA sinecure, and she wants them out. Note that her “list” of “Root Causes” actually specifies only one: “White supremacy/racism among Friends.” That is the only basis she has been known to recognize for pushback against her plans and demands. She has also stated in other emails that she intends to block the nominations of those on the list who are incoming officers.
If she were to achieve her organizational and financial goals, the apprehensions about a schism, or at least a major purge, in SAYMA would be all but realized.
One might think that, as Smith is neither a member of SAYMA nor of any other Friends meeting, such a cleansing might be difficult. But in fact Smith has already driven away numerous former SAYMA stalwarts, so she is not to be underestimated.
So– the City of Charleston South Carolina wasted no time. After the City Council voted unanimously on June 23, 2020 to take down its landmark monument to John C. Calhoun, a crew swung into action, starting at near midnight.
It was no small task to pluck the figure from its 100-foot pedestal. It took the workers until late the next day to bring Calhoun floating back down to earth, and ship him off to a future of obscurity.
[In midlife, Diane Faison and her family faced multiple traumas while living in Richmond, Virginia., including the murder of her mother-in-law and family conflict over her estate.] Diane writes,
After all this, it was no surprise that my husband said he wanted to leave Richmond. I don’t want the children living in this atmosphere, he said. I said OK. Now out of the Navy, he said he wanted to find a teaching job somewhere quiet in the country. Before long he found a position in Farmville Virginia, about fifty miles away. I was teaching in Richmond, so soon he was driving from Richmond to Farmville and back every day, 50 miles each way.
I finished up my contract in Richmond and found a position in Brookville, about 5 miles from Farmville. . . . Soon we bought 70 acres that was mostly wooded. On it we built our dream house, finished in 1987. We were also both very involved with the schools there in and around Farmville, which was in Prince Edward County.
I guess I need to say something about Prince Edward County. By the time we got there many years had passed since the days of lunch counter sit-ins and Dr. King’s big march. But major civil rights history was not far away.
In 1959, when a federal court ordered Prince Edward County to desegregate its schools, the county reacted by closing them all. White students were issued vouchers to pay tuition at a new private “segregation academy.” Black students were left to fend for themselves. Their schools stayed closed til 1964.
They reopened just about the time I started teaching after college. So in one way it was all over. But the memories were still fresh. And one of them was particularly meaningful to me: Late in 1959, the American Friends Service Committee started work in Prince Edward County, with an office in Farmville for what in 1960 became its Emergency Placement Program.
Through it families in non-segregated areas volunteered to take in black students from Prince Edward to attend school there. That program lasted four years, til the schools reopened. It enabled many black students to complete their disrupted high school work.
Friends = Quakers. The connection stayed with me. I learned about their tradition of quiet worship, without a church hierarchy. I liked that idea too. I often spent time on our land in silent meditation. My husband, now out of the military, sometimes talked reflectively about all the killing in war. About the time our house was finished, a gentleman who lived nearby decided to start a Quaker worship group, under the auspices of a regional association called Baltimore Yearly Meeting. We began to gather at his barn for meeting, alternating with our house.
Those were good years. The children grew, moved on through school, into college and out into adult life. Both my husband and I were honored for our work in the schools. And each February, when Black History Month came along, we joined in eagerly.
It was in 1988, when I started thinking about the coming February, that I got a bit restless. I liked to do things with my students that were different. But in Black History Month, very often the observance came down to students reading something and writing a report. Suddenly that sounded too dry. I wanted something unique.
So I went to the library. This was still the old days, when libraries had shelves full of books and barely any computers. I had to touch the books, lift them and open them. And when I came to the Black history shelf, my hand brushed a book and it fell to the floor.
I picked it up. The title was, The Life of Harriet Tubman. Of course, I knew about her. Or so I thought. But I turned the pages anyway.
As I read about her this time, something came over me. I felt as though, this is me. I felt I was being encouraged to be Harriet’s vessel to tell her story, to embody it. (Quakers call this a leading; for me, that’s what it was.) I felt I had to show the students who this woman was. Such a small person, but with such a huge courage.
The idea began to grow in my mind. I had older relatives, who didn’t have much schooling, who still talked in something like the old slave dialect; I had heard it all my life. So I felt that’s how Harriet talked. And it came naturally to me as her voice. I didn’t have to study that part.
I never wrote a script. After all these years, I’ve never had one. I read it, I felt it, and I spoke it. I was following the tradition of my people: I didn’t have to read it. Storytellers of my people don’t have scripts. But I keep learning about Harriet. Every year I find out something new about her, and I might add it to the performance, and I might not.
After that first performance in 1989, I began to get requests to perform at other schools. And those were very fulfilling too.
Yet in time, big changes came. One morning in 1997, my husband tugged me awake. When I saw him I screamed: his chest and groin were covered with blood. It was an advanced case of cancer, which he had not told anyone about.
From there I had more than a year of caregiving as he went through surgery and chemo and experimental therapies, and got weaker and weaker. When he died in 1999, I was more than devastated; we had been married thirty-one years. . . .
[In 2015, Diane married Crawford McKinzie, and moved with him to Gibsonville, North Carolina. . . .]
When I moved to Gibsonville, I felt an overwhelming need to find another Friends meeting to be part of, and I started searching for one. I finally found Spring Friends Meeting in Snow Camp, NC, where I do feel like I belong. Spring had an unexplainable spiritual atmosphere that felt like a warm hug. Maybe that was partly due to the fact that the Meeting has been in that spot since the late 1700s; so many Quakers have lived there, and many are buried nearby.
Mack had been career army, twenty-two years, and was a Vietnam veteran too. He had been in field units there, often under fire in combat areas, sleeping on the ground with rats and taking baths mainly in the rain, — and both the rain and the ground were running with toxic Agent Orange. Even now, sometimes he has flashback nightmares, muttering “They’re coming, they’re coming” in his sleep, and striking out, even at me.
After four good years together, Mack fell ill, and as this is written, he is contending with a number of very serious conditions. I’m again being a caregiver, essentially fulltime, juggling doctors’ appointments, tests and procedures, savoring his good days, and weathering the others.
This routine, I confess, wears me out. And I remember that Harriet too was a longtime caregiver. She built a house in Auburn, New York, where she cared for the poor, including Civil War veterans who were afflicted with what we would name PTSD, but then was called “soldier’s heart.”
Later she took care of her second husband and her aged parents there. She did this work for almost as many years as she was active in the Underground, and then the Civil War. Learning this strengthens my identification with her; besides my second husband, I too took care of my aging parents. She did this caregiving until her own health failed; she lived until 1913.
In my situation, I often get tired, and frustrated. Times of relief and release are sparse. I know that in Harriet’s years of caregiving, she found support in her religious faith and her church community. And at Spring, with Friends, when I lead the meeting, or sit and listen in the meeting, it gives me the same renewal like I feel also came to Harriet. And I have to add that the most renewing moments are when I’m performing as Harriet. . . . Even after thirty years, and several hundred appearances, speaking Harriet Tubman’s words and evoking her spirit refreshes and renews my heart and soul.
More of Diane’s story, of growing up in the time of segregation, and being a military wife during and after the Vietnam War, is in the pages of Passing The Torch.
And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.
On this weekend when we’re beginning the work of marking the passing of John Lewis, civil rights icon and longtime Congressman, it may interest some readers to review this account of my last visit to Selma, Alabama This is only one of the cities where John Lewis nearly was killed. It was also where I played my bit part in the 1965 movement drama there.
Below is a news photo from late February, 1965. It turned up a few years back (hat tip to the sharp-eyed Lewis Lewis): it was taken on the steps of Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, when John Lewis (center-left, with a tie) announced the plan to march from Selma to Montgomery.
The goal of the march was winning voting rights for southern Blacks; but the plan was sparked by the police killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson. I’m at the far right, behind Andrew Young (who is also in a tie).
We don’t have a picture of John Jeffress, at least I haven’t found one. Same for personal background: where he was from, when he was born. We only have a report about his end, which came on this date, August 25, 100 years ago.
This report was published in several papers on August 26, 1920:
Where did Aretha Franklin’s unforgettable vocal power come from?
I glimpsed a big part of the answer one summer night in 1968.
It was Friday, June 21, in Washington DC: Leaders of the Poor Peoples Campaign, trying to fulfill Dr. King’s last dream, had built a shantytown, called Resurrection City, on the national mall. But the camp, and the campaign, were mired in various difficulties. Yet on that Friday evening, some participants got a welcome, memorable spell of relief. I was there with a tape recorder, and this is the heart of what I saw and heard:
From Uncertain Resurrection, the Poor Peoples Washington Campaign:
Friday night a Campaign mass meeting was held at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church, where the church was full and the crowd unusually boisterous. The featured preacher of the evening was Rev. C. L. Franklin of Detroit. Rev. Franklin is the father of Miss Aretha Franklin, a very successful soul singer, and he was an old friend of Dr. King.
Some Folks aren’t satisfied with killing people of color; they want to kill the memory of these murders too.
Take Emmett Till, Kidnapped & murdered in Mississippi in 1955, after someone said the 14 year-old may have whistled at a white woman. His tortured and body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River days later; it took a jury one hour to acquit the men charged with the killing. Outrage generated by the case gave a boost to civil rights struggles.
In 2007, county leaders established the Emmett Till Interpretive Center to memorialize Till and remember the case and what it represented. The center erected a sign in a rural area near the bank of the river where Till’s body was recovered. But that sign was soon stolen and never recovered.
A second sign was put up. before long, it was full of bullet holes.
This sign was eventually moved inside the Center, itself becoming an object for reflection. And not long ago, a new sign was put up.
The new sign is now collecting bullet holes. This image is only a few days old.
Such posthumous assaults are not limited to Mississippi. In February, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson of Marion, Alabama, who was unarmed, was shot by a state trooper in an attack on a night march during the historic voting rights campaign based in nearby Selma,.
Jackson was buried in a small cemetery near Alabama Highway 14 on the outskirts of Marion. His large headstone is impressively carved with a figure of Jesus keeping vigil.
It too has been hit by numerous bullets. One knocked a chunk off the top, and seven or eight more are visible on close examination, in this 2015 photo.
Emmett Till’s killers walked completely free. The Alabama trooper who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Fowler, shot and killed a second unarmed young black man in 1966. But forty-five years later, Fowler was convicted of manslaughter, and served several months in jail, before being released due to ill health.
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center, located in Sumner, Mississippi, has plans to expand its facility and programs, and upgrade security.
Memories aren’t bulletproof. But they don’t die easily.
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom.
This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day.
This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. l am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands.