THOUGHTS ON BLACK HISTORY MONTH AND THE NAACP
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, February 3, 2019
It’s February – Black History Month. So some white person is bound to ask the disingenuous question, “Well, when’s white history month?” Hopefully less now than some years back, but it is going to happen. You probably know someone who thinks like that – if you can call it thinking. Of course the answer to that question is the same as to the similar question of when men’s history month is… or straight history month is… or when any other dominant group’s history is celebrated… The history of dominant groups is celebrated all year long every year. It has always been true.
How appallingly illustrative it is that the governor of our Commonwealth was caught up by his younger self’s exhibition of racism and white privilege just as this month was beginning. A yearbook picture – not a high school yearbook like came into the Kavanaugh hearings, mind you, but a medical school yearbook – a picture, a page as our governor was poised to take his place as a respected healer and community leader. Political groups of all sorts have either reluctantly or in near celebration asked for our Governor to resign. Some have pointed out that the environmental racism that he has at least not publicly opposed in relation to the pipeline makes more sense now as part of a longer life pattern. And it is probably too soon to determine whether there is a significant connection or not. At one point he admitted the picture of two people, one in the white garb and pointed hat of a Klansman and the other in blackface, was a picture of him but that he did not remember which character he portrayed. Then he corrected himself, saying that that was not a picture of him but that he had, indeed, appeared in blackface in a talent contest about that same time. So we know that in 1984 our governor hadn’t learned what was already well known by Americans, that a white person’s appearing in blackface is racist and hurtful. There was no longer the excuse of ignorance as a viable defense.
The politics of it will play out, with political opponents using it as a weapon and former allies so scandalized that they have already taken their public positions calling for his resignation. And always, some will say, “Can you hold someone responsible today for what they did 35 years ago? It is a question I wrote this prayer to address:
God knows we’ve all done stupid stuff,
committed youthful indiscretions,
even shown just how fool we were into old age.
God knows we can never take it back.
We did what we did.
We hurt who we hurt.
We can never fix the past. Only the present.
Ralph Northam, governor of our Commonwealth,
should have known in the 21st Century,
what he clearly hadn’t learned yet
Can we hold each other accountable today
for what we did 35 years ago?
I don’t know. What do you think, God?
Do we get a free pass because
we were once stupider or meaner
or more bigoted than we are today?
Help us check to make sure that is true –
that we aren’t as stupid, mean, and bigoted
as we once were. We did grow, didn’t we?
We did learn, didn’t we? We lost the
innocence of ignorance, yes, and we made up for it
in moral maturity, right? Let that be true.
So help us get out in front of the emerging
stories, reflect on our development,
admit where we really missed the mark,
and tell the story of what we are doing
differently now that we failed to do then.
Teach us that there is redemption,
there is atonement. But that it is not cheap.
It doesn’t happen by accident.
Guide our intentionality.
Guide our hearts.
Guide our reparative action.
The political processes of action, reaction, counteraction, and more will unfold over the coming days. Maybe our governor will resign despite his current refusal. Maybe he will use his new learning for good. Maybe he will bluster his way through without doing anything meaningful. It is too soon to tell. And so, having said our prayer of intentionality and hope for making right decisions about how to bring about reparation where earlier actions cannot be fixed, and so, we leave the governor’s mess for another day. As the King James Version of the Bible cryptically says, “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” Or, in something closer to today’s idiom, we’re not going to solve all our problems and deal with all our issues at the same time. We’ll deal with tomorrow tomorrow and take care of today today.
So let’s return to Black History Month, which the image or idea of our governor in blackface distracted us from.
Until I was in my ministerial internship at Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Springfield, Illinois, the NAACP felt very distant to me, part of the past, left behind as a historical story we could be grateful for but not part of the present. I grew up in a very white, very rural Midwestern area that had no local branch of the NAACP. Not there or in any of the surrounding counties. There was an NAACP branch in the university town where I did my undergraduate work and lived for about 15 years. But it was not in the news, and I didn’t even know it was there. And even in my earlier ministerial internship in Carbondale, Illinois, there was both a local branch and a branch at the university in that remote city about the size of Waynesboro. But at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship where I spent two years on my path to ministry, there was no talk of the NAACP. If anyone was a member, it was not important enough to them to bring into their conversation. The congregation never publicized NAACP events.
But early in my time in Springfield, when I was teaching a racial equity class and preaching on race issues, the NAACP took on life for me in the form of Posy Robertson. Posy came up to me after my sermon one Sunday to give a few compliments and to tell me that she was a member of the NAACP and had been since her twenties. Posy was one of the older members of the congregation. A retired white businesswoman who, by local standards was rich. I mean, she wasn’t a billionaire, but she had more money than she could spend in a few lifetimes. And she was a staunch Republican. She experienced absolutely no conflict between her identities as a rich Republican and as a Unitarian Universalist, honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person and working for justice and racial equity while upholding her values of fiscal responsibility of government, fiscal conservatism, and of individual responsibility. The way she practiced her Republicanism was no impediment to working for a better world, where every person’s character was, in the end, what was important. And she took offense at the view of too many Unitarian Universalists that you pretty much have to be a Democrat to live this faith. She may have had some of the viewpoint her age and wealth might have suggested to the liberal observer, but she took racial equity work seriously. And the NAACP was an important piece of that work.
In Springfield, Illinois, I also learned for the first time that that city’s historical failings were right at the heart of the creation of the NAACP. Do you remember from your history class what was going on in race relations in the early 1900s? I can’t speak for you, but there was never a single word in my American history classes in junior high, high school and college about the so-called “race riots” of the early 20th Century. Did you learn about these massacres in school?
Between August 14 and 16 of 1908 in Springfield, Illinois, an angry mob descended on the section of the city where the African American population lived and had their businesses. Their aim was to take vengeance of the whole community for the alleged rape of two young white women and the attempted murder of the father of one of them. Two black men were accused. True to form, we know with hindsight, how unlikely the accusation was. But an angry white mob of about 5,000 white men descended on Black Springfield, destroying homes and businesses, killing sixteen Black men. The militia was called in to restore order and killing five of the white men in the mob in the effort to gain control of the situation. Ten years ago on the centenary of the so-called Springfield Race Riot, the city, aided by historians, did some deeper evaluation of the story than they had yet. The death toll was almost certainly much higher than the old telling of the story. The massacre left at least 2,000 members of the Black community refugees. And the devastation of homes and businesses broke the Black community there in ways that continue to have impact into the 21st Century.
It was one event among several in subsequent years. In the summer of 1917, in the East St. Louis massacres white people killed as many as 250 black people and did more than $8 million of today’s Dollars in property damage. An estimated 6,000 black people were made refugees. And East St. Louis continues to feel the results of that massacre today. In 1919, in various US cities, similar mob killings and property destruction took place. In Chicago. In Washington, DC. Civil rights activist and author James Weldon Johnson coined the term “Red Summer” to name this year of killing and destruction when more than 165 Black people were killed by white mobs. Between May 31 and June 1, 1921 the Tulsa Race Riot, that is the massacre of African Americans and destruction of Black-owned property, took place. White people killed more than 36 Black Tulsans, seriously injured more than 800, and did doing more than $32 million dollars of property damage in todays dollars. This so-called race riot effectively destroyed the Black middle class in Tulsa, which until then had one of the strongest, most vibrant Black merchant communities in the country. All of this over the thirteen years that began with Springfield in 1908 didn’t end with the end of the mass killings by large mobs of white men of mostly defenseless Black communities. Its effects are still felt today, even in communities that moved on to new traumas.
But Springfield was the catalyst for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on February 12, 1909 –– 110 years ago this month. It wasn’t the first effort of Black people to organize to change the conditions of life in this country. But it was a significant and lasting effort. The organization was founded with strong Black leadership, including Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Dubois, and both as a strength and as a function of its time, began as and has always been an effort of Black and white together. The original officers of the new organization were white people, as was necessary in that time.
In the 110 years of the NAACP, it has taken a leading role in many advances in the progress toward racial equity and has been a cooperating and coordinating force in many others. It is not and has never been the only Civil Rights organization. It has never provided the sole outlet for Black aspirations for positive change. There have naturally been differences of opinion with other activist groups aiming for increased equity at many stages along the way. And where the differences were significant and longstanding, or where other focuses were needed, new groups formed to represent those positions.
The NAACP’s organizing and action were an important part of many areas of racial progress in this country. During the 20th Century, the NAACP was a leader to end segregation in the military, the federal government, and public schools. It has been one among the important organizations working for voting rights. Its greatest historic mission has been to bring opportunity advancement through making strong educational opportunity, reflecting the way Dubois had seen it. And while, at the end of the last century, some saw the NAACP as losing steam and diminishing in importance, and despite the increase in other racial equity movements, such as Black Lives Matters, the organization returned to its roots, focusing on jobs, education, health care and the criminal justice system, as well as removing Confederate flags and statues from public property.
The history is full of more details than can ever be covered in a sermon. I have told you more that there is much you should know rather than telling you what you should know. And so like Rabbi Hillel, I will say, that here is the core of it: a focus on jobs, education, healthcare and the justice system. All the rest is detail that I encourage you to use this Black History Month to learn more about. Go and learn it!
In 1904, four years before the Springfield Race Riot and five years before the formation of the NAACP, W.E.B. Dubois wrote an essay or prose poem titled “Credo.” Though he was an agnostic or atheist, he spoke the language of faith to communicate his meaning. I give the closing words to him:
I believe in Liberty for all [people]; the space to stretch their arms and their souls; the right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine and ride on the railroads, uncursed by color; thinking, dreaming, working as they will in the kingdom of God and love.
I believe in the training of children, black even as white; the leading out of little souls into the green pastures and beside the still waters, not for pelf or peace, but for Life lit by some large vision of beauty and goodness and truth; lest we forget, and the sons of the fathers, like Esau, for mere meat barter their birthright in a mighty nation.
Amen. And Blessed Be.
Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley