Hi, like many Americans this morning, I’m thinking about two men who recently died.
These are two big figures in influencing American history. Their contributions through the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s and ever after, impact America today.
To have lost both of these men in the past 24 hours is heavy.
So I’m thinking today about how I learned about these two men.
It’s interesting, I grew up a white kid in Indiana where we learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream,” and all of those things. But that was it.
Later in High School, we might have learned a little bit about Malcolm X. Then in college, I learned more and more, but it was focused on Martin and Malcolm. Who were often presented as opposites to one another. It wasn’t until graduate school, in seminary, where I was studying to become a pastor, that I learned more depth.
I went to the Iliff School of Theology, in Denver, CO. One of my professors was Dr. Vincent Harding. He was involved in the protests, marches, and was close friend, advisor, and wrote speeches with MLK, Jr. He taught a course called Religion and Social Transformation. I’ll never forget that man. I’ll never forget the experience of sitting there in his classroom. I’ll never forget what I learned from him.
Vincent Harding was sure to teach and emphasize names like; C.T. Vivian, John Lewis, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, Fannie Lou Hammer, James Bevel, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, and many others.
He called these the giants on whose shoulders we stand. These people are the foundation to whom we owe America. As I think about these people who changed the world around them, I remember sitting in that classroom. I was just a white boy from Indiana learning things and watching the PBS series, Eyes on the Prize, which is worth your time to watch. We would watch, read, and discuss books on the civil rights era. As we discussed all these issues Vincent Harding would sit and share his stories.
He’d just drop things like, “Well one night, my wife and I were exhausted, it’d been a long day and many troubling things were in the news. We decided to go out for a walk. A few blocks away we saw a friend of mine who waved us into the house for tea and chat. So my wife and I went in and talked with Martin and Coretta for two or three hours thinking up ideas of how to change things and we’d feel lifted up.”
He’d just casually share a story like that! I remember being awed that his friends ‘Martin and Coretta’ was talking about MLK, Jr.! I realized how close I was to one of the ‘big names’ of history. He never talked about himself much but the more I learned, Dr. Harding was a big figure and a giant as well.
So as I think on the names of people who have moved on to whatever comes next, they gave and gave and gave, until they could give no more, then had a friend help them up and together, gave a little more, and a little more to change America for the better. Now I think about all these people who have taken their turn in this and realize, it’s our turn. We must come together, rise up, and again, remake America for the better Who will lead, where will we go? Who will people call giants 40-50 years from now? Well, us.
They may not know our names, they may not know what exactly we did, or maybe they do. But they’ll know our influence. The long line of marchers, that I’m humbled to be a part of, I’m humbled to be a student of Vincent Harding. Who taught me these names, people, and places.
I also am thinking of my classmates with me, particularly a Black woman named Ruth from Alabama. She was a strong person who taught me a lot. Ruth was the granddaughter of an Alabama sharecropper. And if you didn’t know exactly what that meant, she’d be happy to explain. She would make sure you knew exactly what that meant.
So when I open the newspaper online today and read an obit for John Lewis that began “the son of a sharecropper” I grinned a bit. I remember Ruth’s forceful teaching to those around her what exactly it means to be a son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter of a sharecropper. This is a person one step from enslavement, someone raised by someone who knew the struggle, felt the whip, knew to fight, and the struggle for freedom. And someone cherished that freedom. They taught their children and grandchildren how to fight, how to strategize, and how cherish the thrill of achievements and the riches of a life of freedom.
Ruth was strong like that. And she taught me many things! She’d call out my racism. She helped me work through it. The tense moments would resolve into an understanding of each other I remember one time I went into the library and was ready to borrow some books. I couldn’t find them on the shelf so I went to the desk for assistance. Ruth was waiting there too looking for something. Ok, I’ll wait my turn. The staff was in back looking for something. So I started to chat with Ruth.
In my family, dad jokes have always been a thing. When we went to the library as kids, dad would joke, “Oh, going to steal some books.” We’d laugh and my dad would say that. It became a family joke. I didn’t think anything of it.
So I say to Ruth, “Hi! You here to steal some books too?”
And she stared me down right in the eyes. “Is it because I’m Black you assume I’m here to steal?”
“Oh my God, no. That’s a dumb joke my dad used to say I, never thought about how that would be felt by a Black person before. Thank you. I’m sorry. I’m removing that joke from my vocabulary.”
She gave a start as if she expected something else, then sort of said, “Ok.”
We left it at that until later.
Two, three, four weeks later sometime, we were chatting again and she asked me, “Do you remember in the library awhile back?”
“I fully expected you to get defensive and fight and argue. When you apologized, I didn’t know what to say anymore.”
“I felt it was the right thing to say.”
“It was. Good.”
Ruth and I were not really close friends. But we had a respect for each other to know each other well enough. We’d work through those moments of pain and history like that. I look back at Dr. Vincent Harding, and his class that taught me these kind of things. how to do that. To know the names of people like, C. T. Vivian and John Lewis. So when I saw in the newspaper they’d died, I’d know what America had lost. And I’d know how to act. And I’d know what I’d need to do.
I don’t always do it, I confess. But I know. I’m learning…and I’m working toward it.
These giants whose shoulders I stand on, these giants who raised us up and carried us forward.
They’re who I’m thinking of this morning.