This time its personal- My Black History Month story

Posted by Travis Threats on

In many movies, a policeman or detective is pursuing a criminal organization and finds out that someone in or the head of this group has killed one of their family members in a crime that had gone unsolved.  At that point in EVERY MOVIE of this type is the line “This time its personal” It has gone from an act of getting the “bad guys” to getting the ones that have harmed a family member or friend.  This is the story about my family’s documented role in the fight for civil rights in the 1960's, starting with integrating the schools in Sunflower County, Mississippi. It is personal.

Now, I am not out to “get” anyone, but the famous line is appropriate for my story about Black history for February, which in the United States is Black History Month.  Too often this month focuses on events all things are “ancient history” or in the equally untrue “Nothing has changed”  We hear about slavery which is discussed as if it were centuries ago when in fact the Civil War did not end until 1865, with context that the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965.  Using this year 2024, slavery in the United States ended just 159 years ago.  My mother was born in 1939, just 74 years after the end of slavery. As you know, there are universities and companies in this country older than 159 years old.  My university, Saint Louis University, was founded in 1818, a full 47 years before the end of slavery and the campus was partially built by slaves and the Catholic Jesuit priests owned slaves.

Let us now go to the Bible and its discussions of slavery. Slaveholders in the United States often used the Bible to justify slavery, just as the Pharisees used the “Law of Moses” to justify the crucifixion of Jesus.  My point is that when people want to believe something, they search to find all the “evidence” they can justify their actions.  What could be more “proof” than “Well God says it is good”?  The Bible reports what people do, not what they always should do. Often God takes us where we are and tries to improve us, knowing even this first step is not the ultimate behavior we should achieve.

Let’s start with the first song of praise in the Bible.  It is in Exodus 15, where the Israelites sing about no longer being slaves. This is the NIV version.

15 Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:

“I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea.

“The Lord is my strength and my defense[a]; he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
 my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior;
 the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
 he has hurled into the sea. The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea.[b]
The deep waters have covered them;
 they sank to the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power. Your right hand, Lord,
    shattered the enemy.

“In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
 it consumed them like stubble.
By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up. The surging waters stood up like a wall;
 the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy boasted,
 ‘I will pursue, I will overtake them. I will divide the spoils;
    I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them.’
10 But you blew with your breath,
 and the sea covered them. They sank like lead
    in the mighty waters.

11 Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you—  majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
 working wonders?

12 “You stretch out your right hand, and the earth swallows your enemies.
13 In your unfailing love you will lead
 the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
 to your holy dwelling.
14 The nations will hear and tremble;
  anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified, the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling, the people
[c] of Canaan will melt away;
    terror and dread will fall on them. By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone—until your people pass by, Lord, until the people you bought[d] pass by.
17 You will bring them in and plant them
 on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, Lord, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.

18 “The Lord reigns for ever and ever.”

19 When Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and horsemen[e] went into the sea, the Lord brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground. 

20 Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. 

21 Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.”

It is no wonder that slave owners did not allow their slaves to read the Bible, as the slaves are the favored ones!!  When they did, they invented the “Slave Bible” or the “Negro Bible” which was selectively edited to justify slavery to them.  The original “Slave Bible” was published by Law and Gilbert publishing company in 1807 and was done for the “Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves”.  The idea was to make them Christians, but ones that believed that God intended them to be obedient and happy slaves.  It omitted most of the Old Testament and about half of the New Testament.  Thus, it was not the Bible at all!!!!! 

I was born in 1960 in Kansas City, Missouri.  At the time of my birth, there were still separate drinking fountains and restroom facilities in that town.  It was not until I was 5 or 6 that major civil rights legislation passed guaranteeing Black people basic rights, including voting.  No, I do not remember that time especially since prior to 1965 I lived in an all-Black neighborhood.  But my point is that this is not ancient history, it is within my lifetime.

In addition, in academia and the media people get caught up in phrases such as “critical race theory” “systemic racism” or discuss reparations.  All of these are fine for debate but what is missing too often is the simple narrative, one person or a group of person’s stories.  These stories are the most powerful when you are talking directly to the person involved or a person you know talking about their own family’s experience.

Thus, this is my family’s story.  Specifically, the experiences of my grandparents and 7 of my aunts and uncles.  There are two books written about their efforts in integrating the schools in Sunflower County Mississippi.  The first book is the 1995 Silver Rights written by Constance Curry. The second is a children’s book inspired by the first one and it is The School is Not White by Doreen Rappaport, published in 2005.  Both are available from Amazon.  My grandmother went on to win many accolades and when she died her death was reported by the New York Times.  I tell people she has outdone me because unlike her I have never given a guest lecture at Harvard.  That is because she was an excellent public speaker and brilliant woman.  My grandfather was equally brave and smart but was a very quiet man and thus not one to give public speeches.  My grandparents never went to a real school, only church run school with the purpose of teaching them to read the Bible.  They did not go past the third grade as mandatory education was not yet required in Mississippi.

Now I have my own narrative of the racism I have encountered, including in the past in my own present department.  This has not always been at the hands of overt racist, such as the three Ku Klux Klan members that were residents in my undergraduate dorm one year.  But of those who consider themselves “liberal” who have said things dressed up as “understanding” but are as full of stereotypes as any forthright racist.

But this story is about my grandparents and my aunts and uncles.  Now, all my aunts and uncles survived this ordeal.  All went on to get college degrees and are successful.  But the past still can haunt them, although they do not constantly live with it, they do not abhor hatred.  In the recording is one of my aunts, Beverly, discusses the cruelty of the principal.  She is retired now but worked as an elementary school teacher in Fayetteville, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, which has a racially mixed study body, and she was one of most requested teachers by Black and White parents, especially when their children had special needs.  In fact, she won a city-wide teaching award with her students having the highest reading scores in the district.

My mother is the oldest of the 13 children and had moved away and even had me at the time of these events.  However, my grandmother mentions her in this tape because she was the baby she looked at and said that she would be the last to be sharecroppers all their lives.  My own mother started picking cotton at age 9 for $1.50 a day. 

So, far I have concentrated on the history of my family.  But they are not defined by what was done to them.  They are defined by how they handled it, how they maintained their faith in God. They, not the perpetuators of hatred, are the ones who should be studied.  We should not focus only on the evil in the world, although it exists all around us.  Concentrating on it, however, can lead us to despair.  The Bible has many sections, books, and verses where the authors ask where God is in all mistreatments of His followers, why allow those so full of fear, hatred, greed, and violence to rule this earth.  The most direct questioning, in my view, is in the book of Habakkuk, one of the so-called Minor Prophets of the Old Testament.

I am purposedly using “The Message” Bible for its use of pointed blunt modern language about Habakkuk’s complaints about the world around him.


1-4 The problem as God gave Habakkuk to see it:

God, how long do I have to cry out for help
    before you listen?
How many times do I have to yell, “Help! Murder! Police!”
    before you come to the rescue?
Why do you force me to look at evil,
    stare trouble in the face day after day?
Anarchy and violence break out,
    quarrels and fights all over the place.
Law and order fall to pieces.
    Justice is a joke.
The wicked have the righteous hamstrung
    and stand justice on its head.

God responds and Habakkuk does not find it a satisfying answer-

God, you’re from eternity, aren’t you?
    Holy God, we aren’t going to die, are we?
God, you chose Babylonians for your judgment work?
    Rock-Solid God, you gave them the job of discipline?
But you can’t be serious!
    You can’t condone evil!
So why don’t you do something about this?
    Why are you silent now?
This outrage! Evil men swallow up the righteous
    and you stand around and watch!

14-16 You’re treating men and women
    as so many fish in the ocean,
Swimming without direction,
    swimming but not getting anywhere.
Then this evil Babylonian arrives and goes fishing.
    He pulls in a good catch.
He catches his limit and fills his bucket—
    a good day of fishing! He’s happy!
He praises his rod and reel,
    piles his fishing gear on an altar and worships it!
It’s made his day,
    and he’s going to eat well tonight!

Are you going to let this go on and on?
    Will you let this Babylonian fisherman
Fish like a weekend angler,
    killing people as if they’re nothing but fish?

Thus, the world can seem unfair. The bad people seem to always be winning.  It is faith that keeps us from despair.  There is ultimate justice via God, but we live in a finite time with finite vision.

In this 30-minute audiotape, my family discusses the cruelty of those in power, of adults verbally abusing children.  But the focus, again, should not be on “them” but the faith that has protected my family and lead them to personal and professional success later.  That cannot defeat hate with hate.  What of these “haters”? In 1 John 2:9 ESV it states “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. In 1 John 4:20 ESV, it states, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen”

It is a Black History story, but more importantly it is a story of faith. Faith is truly tested in adversity. Why do we still read the Bible, a book going back thousands of years?  Why read about floods, war, greed, hatred, including the death of Jesus by cruelty on the cross?  Why so much repetition?  Because we humans must endure something, hear about something over and over before we get the point.  God loves us and wants us to love one another, not each other’s actions, but each other as inherently a child of God.

As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV) “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  Satan thrives on our division, sowing hatred. American Black history is not the only history of cruelty and sin.  But if we can learn from the history of the Bible, we can learn from the history of Black people in this country to strive for our better selves, for a better tomorrow, more in God’s view and hope for ourselves.  That includes standing up for injustice, not just against yourselves but others.  But it starts with having faith in God, to trust the “long game” that God has in store.  To not be defeated spiritually by the world around us.

There are two links here.  The first is the audiotape of my grandmother and a few of my aunts.  Listen to it first.

Then listen to the Negro spiritual song “I don’t feel noways tired.”  I purposedly picked version performed by young people to represent the future.

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