I Was There

I was There!

I was there in the 1940s and 1950s, in Birmingham Alabama, when I went to Martin School, a school on a hill above a baseball diamond whose first base line served as a boundary between where the black community lived and where the poor white community lived.  I walked to school which was about three blocks away in today’s measure.  On Saturdays, when there were no other games scheduled on the field, the youth from the black community would come down and play baseball.  More often than my parents knew, I would go to the field and play with them.  Taught by my mother, although I not sure she realized it, I could never quite understand the racial divide that existed there.  The experience taught me that the boys I was playing with were not much different from me, if at all, and were by any Christian measure children of God.  My grandmother finally caught me, and that was the end of that period of my life.    

I was there, in Birmingham Alabama, when my best friend and I would walk to church down town through, what now would be considered rather dangerous neighborhoods, in the evening, and back, in the dark.  My dad gave me a quarter for the evening, which ordinarily would cover the round trip on the bus, $0.14, and $0.11 for collection.  We realized that if we walked, we could spend $0.10 for a soda and save $0.04 for a later treat. But I was never afraid.

 I was there, in Birmingham Alabama, when I started delivering papers.  The route I had took me through both the black and white poor sections of town.  I usually collected from my customers on Saturday morning and often was met by men who had worked hard during the week, and in some cases celebrated the end of the week by drinking alcoholic beverages.  But they paid for the paper and I was never afraid.

 I was there, in Birmingham Alabama, where at church we were learning the evils of racial intolerance from our adults and from each other.  I remember discussions in our Methodist Youth Fellowship about situations and how we should react to them if we ever were involved in them.  There was never any question that racial intolerance was wrong, just how do we go about correcting it.  At the time, I didn’t know about Martin Luther King or any of the other Civil Rights leaders.
 
 I was there, in Birmingham Alabama, when we had blacks attending the evening service at our church.  Yes, they sat in the balcony, separated from the rest of the congregation.  But this was a start.
 
I was there, in Birmingham Alabama, when my friend and I covered every corner of the city on our bicycles. And we were never afraid.

I was there, at Camp Sumatanga, a Methodist Youth camp near Birmingham, when all of the youth boycotted the swimming pool when a small contingent of blacks that were also attending the meeting were refused entry into the pool.

I was there, in Birmingham, when a young black man was accused of raping a white girl.  As a result of a debate I had during lunch with fellow workers where I worked after graduating, I was delivered an ultimatum to shut up or be killed.  The worst of it was that this was delivered by my uncle.  Was I afraid? Yes but only until I realized that I was doing what was right, and what I believed to be God’s will.

I wasn’t there, in Birmingham, when a group of men attacked a black minister when he tried to register his children in Phillips High School, my alma mater.  I have just learned that that attack is used as a justification for declaring the school a national monument even though none of the staff or the students were even involved in the incident. And the incident certainly doesn’t represent the spirit of the school I attended just a few years before.

One of the early jobs I had in Birmingham was as a TV technician. The company I worked for had a lot of customers in the poor black neighbor hoods of north of the city. While either picking up or delivering TV sets to the homes of the people that lived there, I was treated with respect and never felt threatened. Families there respected the law and the police that were there to enforce the law. Were they discriminated against? Yes. Were they treated unfairly? Yes. Did they recognize that progress was being made? Yes. But most of all, most of all they respected each other.

But no one seemed to recognize the loving kindness of a lady that would give the "shirt off her back" to a black person in need. But only if they came to the back door to get it.

The previous testimony is not bragging.  For I was only a part of a larger movement.  A group of people that had conscience, and a sense of justice, and responsible for a minimum of violence during a transition that had been ingrained into the American Spirit since the United State Constitution has been written.

But now, are they given credit for what they started?  Are those who followed that lead recognized for their contributions?  Not if you read the NY Times, or listen to the proponents of the Black Liberation Theology (that followed by Rev Wright), or much of the news media. They, for political reasons, still want to tie extremists to valid expressions of dissent, like the Tea Party movement.  That people who attend marches and rallies and pick up their own garbage be accused of having racial underpinnings is like saying that our President and his cabinet do not want to redistribute the wealth and power.

A minister friend of mine in the Palm Sunday service said,
 “You’ve probably have heard me say more than once that I’ve never found any truth in that old saying we teach children. “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never harm me.” That is nonsense. Just the opposite is true. The wounds from sticks and stones usually heal.”

Tell that to the young black man mentioned above who was denuded for his alleged crime.
 
Where, a lot of what he says in the sermon is true, that words are often more hurtful than sticks and stones, and they are often used to incite violence and discredit legitimate opinion, the lesson in the saying is “Don’t allow words of others control your actions”. And therein lies the power of the “Right of Free Speech”.  As long as we hold to the truth, we may be imprisoned, tortured, and our rights can be denied, but as Dave Gardner says "You can hurt my body, but you can't hurt my self!" There will always be those who do not follow the commandment “Do not bear false witness”.

What many are saying when they criticize people by referring to what they call "Hate Speech"  in their opinion is "If you don't agree with me, shut up."  Our hard won "Freedom of Speech" recognized that speech of any kind does not physically harm anyone.  And is essential to protect our other freedoms.

We, as a culture, have apparently canonized as a part of free speech, the right to demonstrate for or against issues that we feel deserve attention. There are people who use that right to go beyond other rights, to steal and destroy the property of others. Regardless of how serious the problem except where survival is an issue, there is no justification for those people to commit those acts. A person who steals or destroys during a demonstration deserves no less punishment than had he done it independent of the demonstration. Even when the demonstrators "only" block traffic or require the police to be present for their protection is theft of person's time while they were caught in traffic jams and the communities resources to provide the protection. And certainly the leaders of such demonstrations do not deserve the courtesy of visiting the United States White House, a taxpayer honorarium to a duly elected President.