Last Friday, June 12Th, a group of mainly young adults began a peaceful, “sit-in” protest in the plaza outside the state capital in Nashville, TN. Their purpose was to bring further attention to police brutality, the need to defund the police, and the necessity of removing of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first Grand Wizard of the KKK) from inside the capital rotunda. The group renamed the plaza the “Ida B. Wells Plaza.” It was a very peaceful protest.
Despite their nonviolent, peaceful approach, Gov. Lee sent hundreds of State Troopers to intimidate them and to methodically push them off the capital grounds. The protesters were forced to move across the street and continued their “sit-in.” Which they have been doing for more than three days. The leader of the protest is a friend of mine, so I followed this protest closely.
On Sunday afternoon, June 14th, the call went out for ministers to join the protestors at 5pm on Monday, June 15th for a “nonviolent, direct action as lawmakers hold session.” In other words, we were going to try and go inside the capital, the right of every Tennessean, while our representatives were in session. I answered the call because I strongly believe in the First Amendment and in the purpose behind this protest. As a pastor, I felt I had no choice but to go and stand with my friends.
When I arrived at the designated meeting place, we lined up two-by-two. There were about a hundred of us; but only about 12 ministers. Then, they (the organizers) gave us a marker and instructed us to write the phone number of a legal team that was prepared to get us out of jail and represent us, pro-bono, if we were arrested. By writing the phone number on your arm you were saying you were willing to risk arrest. No more fun and games. This was serious. A commitment had to be made. I wrote the number on my arm and thought to myself, “Here we go.”
Before I tell you the reason for my decision, let me tell you it was a peaceful, beautiful, and even spiritual, demonstration. The energy was unbelievable. I was probably the oldest person in the crowd. We were denied entrance into the capital. There were more State Troopers then protestors. Even the National Guard made an appearance. But no one was arrested. (One young lady, one of the organizers, was given a citation for “disorderly conduct,” but I am confident it will be dismissed. No one did anything that could have been interpreted as “disorderly.”) Of all the protest I have been involved in, this was by far the most exciting and the most intense.
The simple explanation for my involvement, not just in this protest but in many protests over the years, can be summed up in the words of the Apostle Paul, who admonished the Philippians to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Let me explain.
I grew up in the south in a loving, supportive, home. But it was a home steeped in southern traditions, which meant church at least three times a week. The church I attended, and the schools I attended (until graduate school), were extremely white and extremely conservative (we proudly described ourselves as “fundamentalists,” believed Billy Graham to be a liberal, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to have been a trouble-maker, a liberal, a socialist, or even worse, a communist.) AND, as much as I hate to admit it, I grew up in an era and a culture where the “N” word was used quite regularly, and the confederate flag was worn as a symbol of southern pride. “The South is gonna rise again!”
On more than one occasion growing up, I heard preachers and pastors use the “N” word behind the pulpit. Growing up, I would get in serious trouble if I were to cuss, but only a slight reprimand if I were to say “n—–.” As young boys, in between Sunday School and church, we would go outside and play, “n—-r on the sidewalk.” Not one adult ever told us what we were doing was wrong.
One haunting memory I have as a child is walking through a store parking lot, picking up a one-dollar bill of the ground, and my grandmother scolding me, saying, “Put that down! That could have belonged to a n—-r.” Another memory I have is at bible college (my denominational school, registering for classes. My friend in front of me had spent all summer as a missionary in Africa. The lady who was registering us for classes was also recruiting us for a blood-drive. When she asked my friend if he would like to donate blood, he said, “I can’t. While ministering in Africa I got malaria.” After my friend walked away, this lady said to herself, but loud enough for me to hear, “That’s what you get for working with n—–rs.” I was stunned and appalled. I had attended church with this lady my entire life. I also remained silent, which was a sin. I could tell you more stories, but it would not serve any purpose.
It was in high school that I began to realize my own prejudices and racists ideas. My wife and I started dating in high school. She had a close cousin who was African American. He became a friend. We both loved basketball. Years later he was murdered for dating a white girl. I preached his funeral. In college, and graduate school, my eyes really began to open up. Then, in the mid-1990s, early in my first pastorate, I got involved in a racial reconciliation group in my city called “Empty Hands Fellowship.” What I learned from this group was life changing and ministry altering. I started reading black theologians and studying black history. I listened to stories of discrimination told by my new friends. My heart broke. I took it all in. I experienced white-guilt and white fragility. I confessed my own complicity in a racist system. I admitted my own white privilege. I repented of my silence. I researched my own denominational history, looking for pastors who stood with, and marched along side of, Dr. King. I didn’t find any. I knew there weren’t any. In fact, most of the churches and pastors in my denomination stood against Dr, King. Many of our churches started private schools in the 1970s because of the desegregation of public schools. Our churches did not want their white children to go to school with black children…in the name of Jesus. I came to the horrible realization that my denomination stood on the wrong side of history, and we are still paying the price for that sin today.
By the late 1990s, I vowed to spend my life fighting against racism and white supremacy. And I promise you, I know racism and white supremacy when I see it! Over the years I have asked myself what would I have done if I were a pastor/minister during the Civil Rights Movement? Would I have marched with Dr. King? I prayed that I would, but I never really knew. Until Monday, June 14, 2020, when I wrote that phone number on my arm just in case I got arrested.
A few years ago my wife and I discussed the possibility that one day I might get arrested for the stands I have taken. I have even told the elders of my church, and my entire church family, that I could see a time when I would go to jail because of what I believe. Please understand, I am not a martyr. I am not intentionally looking for trouble. I do not desire to be arrested. I do not want to place myself in dangerous situations. I’ve had my life threatened long before yesterday, and while this is MY testimony, this is not about ME. I don’t have enough life left in me to experience even a small portion of the suffering and anguish other people have experienced because of injustice. There is absolutely no way I can even begin to understand what it is like to be black in the USA. I’m just trying to follow Jesus. I’m just trying to be on the right side of history. I want my adult children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know I wasn’t afraid to fight for justice. I’m just trying to work out my salvation with fear and trembling.
(NOTE: After I wrote this blog, later Monday evening / Tuesday morning, 21 people were arrested for refusing to leave public property. This is a clear violation of the First Amendment. The First Amendment is also the amendment that gives me the freedom to practice my religion. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, “The First Amendment is my Second Amendment issue.”)