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Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years

 

My father established a nightly routine for me that continues to shape my life today. After supper from 1963 to 1969, we sat side-by-side on the couch and watched the evening news, either the Huntley-Brinkley Report or Walter Cronkite.

During those years, I was exposed to people and events that would remain life-long interests: the space program (I loved watching the Mercury and Gemini launches), the war in Vietnam (with its tragic tallies of killed, wounded, and missing), political races (the first I remember is the 1966 Callaway/Maddox Georgia gubernatorial contest), and the civil rights movement.

I was sitting next to my father when I learned of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968.  The Atlanta church we attended hosted mourners for his funeral, and later that year, dedicated a plaque in his memory.

My serious reading in civil rights history began in the late 1980s after viewing the powerful documentary Eyes on the Prize. At RTS Jackson I teach a course that includes a session on American Christianity and race. My students are required to watch one of the series’ episodes.

Many years ago I purchased what became the first volume in Taylor Branch’s magisterial civil rights history of the King years. I began, but never finished reading it. So, when I moved to Mississippi in 2014 and found myself within driving distance to so many of the movement’s historic sites, I determined to read all three volumes.

This summer I completed my goal, reading one book during each of the last three summers. At 2,300 pages (excluding indexes), it took time; I am a very slow reader. But Branch’s style and command of his materials meant that my interest never wavered.

Seminary students ministering in the Deep South should think deeply about our region’s race history. Therefore, I am grateful that Taylor Branch has given us an invaluable resource for navigating and understanding the critical years of 1954-1968.

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Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

The Rev. George Lee Museum

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George W. Lee was assassinated on May 7, 1955 in Belzoni, Mississippi. A minister and entrepreneur, he became the first African American in the 20th century to register to vote in Humphreys County. A vocal leader in the voter registration campaign, he is sometimes identified as the first martyr of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Ambushed while driving his automobile, Lee’s assailants were never brought to justice. Rosebud Lee chose an open casket funeral for her husband. Photographs of his face, disfigured by the shotgun blast, drew national attention. Four months later, grieving Mamie Till-Mobley would leave open the casket of  her 14-year-old son, Emmett, lynched further north in the Delta.

George Lee is buried nearby at the Green Grove Baptist Church cemetery.

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IMG_7037.jpgFor a number of years, I wanted to visit The Rev. George Lee and Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights Museums on Highway 49 in Belzoni. Each time I stopped the museums were closed. So, I am very grateful to Helen Sims for taking my phone call, opening the museums, and giving me two hours of her valuable time.  I admire her and all those who manage grassroots civil rights museums in the Delta. They keep alive in our generation the courage and sacrifice of men and women like George W. Lee and Fanny Lou Hamer.

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75 minutes northwest of Jackson, I encourage RTS students to visit the The Rev. George Lee and Fannie Lou Hamer Civl Rights Museums. Before going, I suggest reading Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till for background information.

“Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom”

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Last night I spent a memorable evening listening to photographer and author Alysia Burton Steele, who traveled 6,000 miles throughout the Mississippi Delta to interview 54 African-American women who grew up, married, and raised children during the Jim Crow era. Her Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom shares their stories.
One of the grandmothers is Mrs. Velma T. Moore of Benoit. Married for 49 years when widowed, 15 children, 145 grandchildren, 33 great-grands, 26 great-great grands, and 14 great-great-great grands. Her testimony: “I always said, “Lord, I want one husband. I want all of my childen to be by that one man.’ And God fixed it so . . . I’m still Mrs. Moore. I be Mrs. Moore until I’m dead and gone.”
We were reminded of the adage, “When an elderly person dies, a library burns to the ground.” We are indebted to those who, like Ms. Steele, keep treasured stories alive for coming generations.
If RTS students would like to read some of the stories, Delta Jewels is on the table in my office. Stop by and enjoy.
The event was sponsored by The COFO Civil Rights Education Center, Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center, and Delta Center for Culture and Learning.

“The Love That Forgives” – Remembering September 15, 1963

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Persecution of Christians is not a phenomenon that only touches the lives of believers in other parts of the world, but is a sad part of our own nation’s history. Fifty-two years ago today Denise McNair looked forward to a special Sunday. She would participate in her church’s Sunday morning service, which would conclude with the sermon, “The Love That Forgives.”

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She dressed carefully for the day. The case above includes her purse, Buster Brown shoes, a Ten Commandment bracelet, and the piece of brick removed from her skull, a fragment of the explosion that claimed her life and three of her 14 year-old friends, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson.

Earlier that morning, dynamite and a timer were laid under the steps of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church near the basement area where the girls were changing into their choir robes.

Denise dreamed of a career in the field of social justice. Instead, her life was taken from her by men violently committed to white supremacy and racial oppression.

Media coverage of these young girls’ deaths aroused indignation throughout the country, and moved the nation closer to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. As the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church showed earlier this summer, America’s sad legacy of racial violence toward African American Christians continues. I’m grateful for the many African American Christians that bear witness to The Love That Forgives.

The Denise McNair exhibit was one of the many moving displays Lynne and I saw earlier this year at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  A 3 1/2 hour drive from Jackson, I recommend taking the time to tour this testimony to the struggle for civil rights and racial equality.

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Remembering a Seminarian’s Courage

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Jonathan_DanielsFifty years ago today VMI graduate and Episcopal theological student Jon Daniels was murdered in Hayneville, Alabama.

A New Hampshire native, Daniels spent much of the spring and summer of 1965 working in Selma, Alabama’s voter registration campaign. While picketing racially discriminatory businesses in Ft. Deposit on August 14, he was one of a group of  protestors arrested and transported to the county jail in nearby Hayneville. In wretched living conditions, Daniels labored for the better part of a week to keep up the group’s spirits, leading his fellow prisoners in prayer and hymn singing.  An Episcopal group offered to post bail for Daniels. He declined; there wasn’t enough money to free all the prisoners. He would remain with his colleagues.

Unexpectedly and ominously,  the prisoners were released on August 20 without posting bail. Turned out on the street, they were alone and without transportation to safety.

Tired, dirty, and hungry, four members of the group walked one block to the Varner Cash Store to buy sodas. Seventeen year-old Tuskegee student Ruby Sales led, followed by Daniels, Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe, and Joyce Bailey. They were met at the door by a highway employee and unpaid special sheriff’s deputy armed with a 12-gauge shotgun. He cursed Sales and pointed his weapon at her. Daniels pushed her to the ground, shielding her from the subsequent blast. As Morrisroe and Bailey fled, a second round tore into the young priest’s back. Severely wounded, he would survive. Daniels died instantly.

Martin Luther King Jr. called his sacrifice “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.”

Sam Waterston narrates a documentary tribute to Jon Daniels’ life.  Near its conclusion is a chilling interview with Daniels’ killer, Tom Coleman. Asked if he would change anything if he went through the same experience again, he replied: “I wouldn’t have changed a bit. If the same thing happened in the morning that happened that day, I would shoot them both tomorrow.”  Acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white male jury after two hours of deliberation, he lived another 35 years in Hayneville until his death at age 86.

After dinner in Georgia last week with one of Daniels’ VMI classmates, Lynne and I drove to Hayneville. Friends of VMI placed a monument in front of the Lowndes County Courthouse.

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Sadly, the Cash Store was torn down last year. The asking price for the property proved too high for those who wished to preserve it.  When it became apparent the building would be demolished, individuals sought to obtain the steps upon which Daniels died. These too were destroyed and a civil rights landmark lost to history. The picture below shows the new construction on the site.

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The white X below is on an adjacent piece of property, about 12′ from where Daniels fell. A monument will be placed there to remember the seminarian who laid down his life for his friend.

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Jonathan Daniels’ story of Christian honor and courage must never be forgotten.

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For more information about Jon Daniels, see Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968 and Charles W. Eagles, Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.

 

 

A Catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement

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Sixty years ago this summer, two men removed a seventy-four pound fan (used for ginning cotton) from this building. After torturing and murdering fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, they wrapped barbed wire around his neck and the fan, and dumped them into Tallahatchie River. The young black teenager’s alleged whistling at a white woman at Bryant Grocery and Meat Market in nearby Money, Mississippi set in motion the events that led to his abduction and death.

The cotton gin, located in Glendora, Mississippi, now houses the The Emmett Till Museum. Lynne and I visited several years ago when the museum was closed. During our visit to the Delta yesterday, we were able to return and view its sobering exhibits.

In August 1955 Mamie Till put her happy son on a train bound from Chicago to visit family in the Mississippi Delta. He was returned to her in a pine coffin. After viewing her son’s grotesquely mutilated face, she directed he receive an open-casket funeral, a decision that had far-reaching consequences. Pictures of Emmett Till – the smiling young boy and the savagely beaten corpse – were transmitted around the world. The historical marker at the site of Bryant’s Grocery continues the story:

News of the murder and the trial that followed outraged black and sympathetic white Americans, and the case became a catalyst for the American civil rights movement. . . . on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, precipitating the Montgomery bus boycott. When asked why she did not go to the back of the bus after being threatened with arrest, she said she thought of Emmett Till, and she couldn’t go back.

Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were charged, tried, and acquitted of Emmett Till’s murder by an all-white jury. Shortly thereafter, they confessed to the crime in a Look magazine interview, for which they received $4,000. Double jeopardy protection shielded them from retrial.

For information about the Emmett Till murder, watch this episode of PBS’s American Experience.

Glendora, Mississippi is three hours northwest of Jackson. I encourage RTS students to make the trip and visit the Emmett Till Museum.

 

 

“I Am Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired”

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Indomitable physical courage, moral strength, and Christian conviction marked the life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Yesterday Lynne and I visited her gravesite at Ruleville in the Mississippi Delta.

Mrs. Hamer came to national prominence when she addressed the 1964 Democratic National Convention Credentials Committee. She described the imprisonment and brutal beating she endured during the 1963 summer voter registration drive. Watch a brief  historical introduction and then listen to her eight minute speech.

The youngest of twenty children, her family were sharecroppers. Her attempt to register to vote in 1962 led to the firing of her and her husband from the plantation where she had worked for eighteen years.

Her gravesite is located in the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden. A few hundred yards to the west is the Fannie Lou Hamer Museum. Visitors should leave at least an hour to tour the exhibits.

She said, “I’m never sure when I leave home whether I’ll make it back or not . . . but if I fall, I fall five feet and four inches forward and I’m not backing off it!”  Her plaintive epitaph reads: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Charles March’s God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights includes a brief biography of Fannie Lou Hamer. He observes that “the church had sustained her wearied spirit when all other institutions had served contrary purposes” (13).

Two and one half hours northwest of Jackson, I encourage RTS students to visit the Garden and Museum.

 

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