“We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing “In Christ there is no East or West” we stand in the most segregated hour of America.”
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The problem with telling our children how God has worked in the world in our lifetime is that, sometimes, in so doing, we come to recognize that he moved without our help. In extreme cases he may have moved against our will. Or, at the least, rather than leading the charge for right we were late boarders on the train that God was engineering toward a more Eden-ish and Heaven-like existence for his people on earth.
For many churches the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King is a time in history we would like to forget. For example, in Nashville, the capital of our state many churches founded private schools in the 1960’s as a response to desegregation, thus delaying King’s dream of “little black children and little white children” playing hand in hand.
Yesterday I was gathered with a large group of children, parents and grandparent aged baby boomers for an observance of Dr. King’s holiday. I was thrilled by the openness of the boomers who shared with the children the stories of their teen and college years. Let me paraphrase a few below.
“I was in high school the summer that schools were being desegregated in my hometown of Nashville. There were rumors that some blacks had been visiting white churches and many adults were concerned. Our eldership knew that it would “look bad” to turn people away, so they decided to kill two birds with one stone.
“They did not like all of us teenagers sitting in the balcony together, so they roped off the section where we liked to sit and put signs there that said reserved. Throughout that summer the reserved signs stayed up, but no blacks visited our church. I remember feeling that this action was so wrong as did the other teens.”
Another similar story from a man who was in his early 20’s living in northern Mississippi:
When our church discussed the possibility of black folks visiting a couple of the men committed to stand at the door and not let that happen. I told them if they forced any blacks to leave I would leave with them. None of our words were ever tested because no blacks ever tried to visit.
Three African-American sisters shared their experiences of growing up in Celina, TN, two counties north of Cookeville.
When we were growing up in Celina, schools were segregated. The only high school for blacks in this area was in Cookeville, the Darwin School. We were thankful that there was a man who would drive around “Freehill” and pickup all the children, when we got to Livingston a couple more would join us, and then in Algood a few more. Roads were not as good as they are today, so it was an hour and a half drive one way to get to school.
Some stories were encouraging, and we learned that desegregation in our hometown of Cookeville was uneventful.
Growing up I lived just past the area known as “Bushtown”, and not knowing any different I often told people that was where I lived. My best friends were two brothers, who happened to be black. Years before the schools were desegregated I remember inviting one of them to spend the night. My mom though it was a great idea. It happened to be a Saturday night, so on Sunday morning my friend went to church with us. I thought nothing of it at the time, nor did anyone in my church. The could see that I loved my friend, so they loved him, too.
Though Cookeville’s theater did have reserved seating for blacks in the balcony and for years a separate high school, the consensus of those in the room yesterday was that there was never a great feeling of hate in our community. When the Darwin School burned (funny how school fires were so much more common in the 60’s and 70’s) there was a brief period of black students meeting in local churches, but quickly that gave way to integration. Several present yesterday were in high school then. The principal from Darwin High School transitioned into a teaching position at Cookeville High School and the students were accepted without much fanfare.
As scary as it is to look into our past, conversations like these are highly beneficial for those who were not alive when these events transpired, both children and younger adults. We must learn from our history, or we will be doomed to repeat it.
Yet, the fact of the matter is we do experience repeated cycles in the process of cultural progress. That is why these lessons from the past will help us as parents, and even our children, to navigate the path ahead. The church is called to faithfully discern cultural shifts and biblical interpretations. Scripture does not change, but all interpretation must be transmitted through the culture in which it was written, and there must be a recognition of and consideration given as to how the current cultural lens might be skewing our perception.
We need to know the past to help us move into God’s future. That is why younger generations need older ones. We need forgiveness for past mistakes, and we need to observe that progress has been made despite our own shortcomings. That is why older generations need to spend time with younger ones. May God bless us all as we learn to walk together in this age as the people of God.