Learning from Our Past in Today’s Fight for Racial Justice
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many other black bodies have answered Langston Hughes’ prophetic question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” As justified anger and frustration have exploded across communities large and small, I have quietly questioned whether there is room for community building. I thought for a moment that our collective hurt and fatigue might be so great that there simply might not be space for hope and reconciliation. The idea of searching for fellowship felt naïve and insignificant.
Seven years ago, as I sat at the bedside of my then 95-year-old grandmother, she told me how, in 1968, her all-black church merged with two all-white congregations (themselves split generations earlier over the issue of slavery) in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Given the tumultuous backdrop, I was surprised by their decision to join, but I will be forever moved by the intentional community building that has kept their congregation together for more than 50 years. The hardest decision wasn’t the one to come together, it was the decision to stay together.
Last month, on our weekly call, my Grandmother Green reawakened my spirit. “We have to keep working and praying and not give up,” she extolled. “Even if things are not going our way, we have to have that faith, and do the work. It was important that they see my face in the choir in 1968. Well, it’s just as important today.” She helped me realize in times like these, we need to be reminded of what is possible and to be vigilant about the hard work required to achieve it.
I’ve spent years chronicling how those three congregations came together in 1968 and how they have persisted, purposefully integrated, for more than 50 years. Below are three lessons I’ve learned from that experience that can inform how we collectively move forward today:
1. Establish A Clear Goal: As they stumbled through the early days of the church merger, leadership of each congregation gathered to agree to the goal of coming together. A specific shared outcome gave them something to hold tight to when the path got difficult. As individual groups began working toward their own agenda, it armed the broader coalition with a mission to pull them back to. In this moment, people have begun working in different directions to speak out against and organize in support of racial justice. There is not one way to do the work — in fact, there must be a multitude of strategies, activities, and actors. To be successful, we must define the objective to hold others accountable to if their efforts achieve progress toward that shared goal, not question if their strategies happen to be similar or different to our own.
2. Trust Must Be Built. When the churches merged, each harbored fear, skepticism, and animosity. There wasn’t the hugging and hand-holding you’d expect in church. To overcome, they had to be intentional; this started with acknowledging the pain of their history and being deliberate about difficult conversations. No meeting would end if someone still had something to say. Leadership demanded people share their concerns and complaints, though sometimes harsh, and those concerns were addressed. The work that faces us now is deep and structural and must push beyond performance. It will require addressing a history of hurt and creating alliances, with both traditional and non-traditional allies, to meet the magnanimity of the moment. At times, it will require taking the first step, even when you took the first step last time, and recognizing that sometimes, alliances will fray. Work to build trust anyway.
3. Be Prepared To Go Alone. For those in the movement, this moment feels like a turning point, and there’s a desire to draw a line in the sand. “If you aren’t with us now, then you are against us.” But the reality is there will be folks who, even in this moment, will not be prepared to take action. Because we know that for something to be truly gained, something must be given up there will be those who aren’t prepared for what change will mean for them. In 1968, my grandfather disagreed with the proposed church merger. My grandmother, my father, and his brother, decided to merge, despite Grandpa’s objection. We must be prepared to do the work, knowing that it is rooted in righteousness, and that there will be some who are not ready for change, even amongst those whom we love and respect. Move forward anyway, but resist the temptation to draw terminal lines in the sand. Continue to build bridges for others to come on the journey. My grandfather joined the merged congregation years later. Before he died, he was one of its trustees.
Like the church merger, our democracy is one big social experiment that requires engagement and vigilance if it will ever reach its promise. Elections have consequences, and policy has impact. To see change, we must be active at the federal, state, and local levels to enable leadership that aligns with our values and implements policies that reflect the communities we represent.
But elections cannot eradicate racism, and policy cannot force neighbors to see each other with dignity, value and respect. This moment does not call for an “either or” approach; this must be a “yes and” strategy. And, if we want to eradicate the poison that killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice and every other individual lost due to racist acts, then in addition to external activation, we must look inward to understand what each of us is prepared to do, give, and change in this moment.
Last month, my grandmother turned 102, and as we discussed plans for her socially distanced drive-by birthday parade, we also talked about the current state of the world. As I expressed frustration regarding the lack of national leadership and exhaustion that this is where we find ourselves, in true Grandma Green fashion, she said, “I hear all that, but what are you gonna do? What are you prepared to do for those who look like you and those who don’t? For those who don’t pray like you? For those who don’t love like you? What are you gonna do to inspire fellowship and build the community that we all want to see?”
I guess I know what to give for her birthday this year. Join me in making change. Across the country. And in ourselves.