With all our talk about “southern history”, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about aspects of Southern history we often overlook. In a visit my partner and I made to the Franklinton Center at Bricks, where Civil Rights leaders including Septima Clark worked to organize civil rights work then and now, I was reminded by the long history of Civil Rights work here in the south-land. Perhaps taking time to remember Septima’s life can be a good reminder of the great work that is a part of our southern heritage, perhaps a better light to look to in these times than Confederate soldiers and their statues. I hope my sharing a good a devotional I shared about her life in my days of pastoring in Fayetteville, NC, invite you to consider your own faith and values more deeply.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
One of my hopes in this blog is to take time here and there to point out the lives of southerners who have modeled the progressive values I am embrace as a progressive redneck preacher. These southern embraced the best of their values, their culture, and their faith, while also rejecting the slave-holder logic still holds many of us back in the south. Some, like the figure I want to introduce today, were progressives before progressive was cool.
I am currently using Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s and Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals as a daily devotional. Its May 3rd reading, Common Prayer introduced us to not only a southern who was progressive, but (like me) a Carolinian as well.
“Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987) … was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to a father who as an ex-slave and a mother who had been raised in the Caribbean. While her parents ahd very little formal education, they emphasize the need for Septima to go to school. Though Septima was eligible to teach after completing the eighth grade, her parents and teachers encouraged her to finish high school. After graduating she took a post as a teacher on Johns Island, off the coast of Charleston. There she began to notice the extreme disparity between the education of African-Americans and that of their white counterparts. This experience stayed with her and fueled her quest for educational reform. An avid social activist during the civil rights era, Septima travelled throughout the South to educate African-Americans about their voting rights. She worked closely with Myles Horton of the Highland Folk School. Together they trained many civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks, in nonviolent resistance and local leadership. Although Septima was thrown in jail, threatened, fired from job, and falsely accused of wrongdoing, she never turned from her task of working against and unjust educational system.
“Septima Poinsette Clark has become known as the Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
The devotional continues quoting Clark: “I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.” When I read this devotional, I thought “what an important southerner for us to remember at the Progressive Redneck Preacher”.
Clark’s story reminds me of my grandmother who prized education, instilling in me the importance of a strong mind and an openness both to learn and teach. These educated women devoted to educated others are a strong thread woven into the tapestry of our southern culture.
Her story also reminds us that the Civil Rights movement began as a southern movement. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Septima Clark were all southerners speaking out against discrimination, prejudice, and abuses that emerged in our southern culture based on values they had learned at southern schools and southern churches. Many others who faced such prejudice simply moved out of the south. About a decade ago when I was in training to be ordained as a pastor, I assisted on the pastoral staff at a church in Inglewood, CA, a historically black neighborhood of Los Angeles. I met the some of the most interesting and loving men and women who as young people had chosen to flee the southeast due to its Jim Crow laws. In many ways their neighborhoods felt to me like pockets of southern culture transplanted into California. Their restaurants had some of the best southern fried chicken and grits I have ever eaten. I still remember one church elder, Felix Johnson, who would bring collards to church on a regular basis just like a member of a church I preached at in South Carolina used to do there. Their stories spoke of the courage they found inspiring them to move across country from a land they had called home to a new city, where there was greater opportunity.
Yet southerners like King, Parks, and Clark were making the choice to stand up against the unjust Jim Crow laws precisely because they were southerners who called the south home, and they refused to be pushed out by injustice. They had a particular courage. We fail to tell their story correctly and fail to remember our own history and culture of the south properly when we don’t bear in mind that the south was their home, and they were fighting for the right to stay here while getting equal treatment. They chose not to be pushed out of the south, but to change the south from within.
Finally I think it is important to remember this Civil Rights movement began as a movement of faith. It was largely southern Christian leaders, together with some Jews, who spoke up against the prevailing racist laws and agendas of the south. Martin Luther King was a Christian preacher raised in the south, educated in the south, who preached in Baptist pulpits all over the southeast. Rosa Parks lead a youth program with a Baptist church. In many ways she was an equivalent to a youth pastor in her church. Clark, too, was a woman of faith. Many Catholic and Episcopal leaders joined eventually in Civil Rights work. Also Jewish leaders joined in this fight, including figures like Abraham Heschel.
They show us the power of a progressive faith to stand against domination systems, against prejudice, and to transform our culture.
These civil rights leaders are an example of some of what is the best and most beautiful of our history and our culture. They challenge us to examine which values of our culture we are embracing. The south is a strange place with both a history of oppression — Jim Crow, opposition to women’s rights, mistreatment of illegal immigrants, and more recently homophobic laws — and also a place where some of the most powerful forces for social justice like King, Parks, and Clark are born. Which values are you living out?
Our values and our faith should lead us to be educators like Clark. We should seek to lift up those caught up in cycles of ignorance and poverty who live without hope.
Our values and our faith should lead us to become advocates like Clark. Though a part of southern culture is the example of Civil Rights leaders, another very living aspect is the legacy of slave-holder mentalities and slaver-holder Christianity. Here in Fayetteville, NC, as the Driving While Black study has shown, racist attitudes have not left us. In NC we still struggle in our legislature about whether things like a Racial Justice Act are a good idea. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the day. And the same bigotry aimed at people in the black community in our recent past is also today aimed at Hispanic immigrants and gay, lesbian, bisexual, & transgender citizens. Our faith and values should lead us to work to transform this.
To live out what is best & truest in both our faith and our values, we need to find ways we can join in the fight of speaking out against injustice, bigotry, and ignorance in all its forms.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here!
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,