“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.” –William Faulkner
It wasn’t until I learned Ron had left the hotel with the tour group that I breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing had been said. As far as I knew only Nigel, my immediate supervisor in the dining room and friend, knew about the confrontation in the dining room. He had laughed when I told him about it, saying he felt I was right to say what I did and didn’t think Ron would be upset if he heard about it. I felt slightly reassured, but was still prepared for the fallout in case he was wrong. No matter what happened, I would stand by what I had done and said.
After that summer I kept in touch with the Owens for a few years, then lost contact with them only to reconnect some years later. Almost twenty years had passed when Ron brought up the hotel and the tour groups, and I mentioned I had a story about that group from Mississippi he had never heard. He looked surprised and responded, “You mean what you said to the woman who said, ‘Blacks don’t have souls’?” I stared at him, incredulous. “You knew about that?” I asked. Laughing, he replied, “Oh, I heard about it; everybody heard about it! People in churches we ministered in talked about it for years. You were renowned in the Baptist churches in Mississippi!” I was shocked; he had known all those years! I was curious, too.
I asked him what people had said when they talked about that encounter. He explained that the woman had been a problem on the tour because of her negative attitude and constant complaining. It seems she had been in state leadership in the Mississippi WMU and felt her “status” entitled her to special treatment. The other members of the group had run out of patience with her. When I challenged her comments at the dinner table that evening in the hotel, the others had been thrilled and couldn’t wait to tell Ron about it. He told me he had been delighted and proud of me for speaking up. I was a little disappointed when I heard what stuck in their memory about that encounter. I felt I would rather have been “renowned” for what I had said, for taking a stand against injustice, than for who I had said it to. Looking back, I now think both are important, for different reasons.
As for the argument from the Moses/Miriam story I used to refute her—this wasn’t something I’d read or heard before. As I mentioned earlier, I had run into this God-ordained subordination and separation of the races teaching before, in my early teens. I’d not known anyone to talk with about it, so I had gone to the Bible to see if I could figure it out myself (which, you will come to see, was my norm). I came across this story in Numbers about Moses’ Cushite (African) wife while searching; my argument in the dining room shows how I made sense of it. When I had been confronting the pastor at the church in Jackson a few months earlier, this story had come to mind, so it was fresh. What I didn’t realize was that there was a serious problem with my reasoning.
Now I know what I was using is what is known as an argument from silence, and this kind of argument can be very weak. Some view it as a fallacy. This is the same kind of reasoning that comes from the child who defends his/her actions by saying, “But you didn’t tell me not to color on the wall!” Fact is, it was an argument from silence that the proslavery camp used repeatedly to offer “proof” that God sanctions slavery: since God never came straight out and said, “Slavery is a sin” or “Thou shalt not own slaves” in the Bible, that means he approves of it, so long as the master is kind and benevolent. I knew enough to mount a challenge to that argument (the Bible is not a book of exhaustive regulations about life, but a book of revelation of life, a narrative), but didn’t realize I was using their same logic in my interpretation of that story in Numbers. Since I had never been exposed to the study of logic, didn’t even know there was such a thing, my 18-year-old mind had no concept of the logical “thin ice” I was barreling across; I just saw injustice and charged! Apparently no one in the group knew either since they let me get by with it, or maybe they were all too stunned to call me on it. I tell you this so you won’t use that biblical story by itself to make this point. Hopefully, you’ll steer clear of arguments from silence in general, and call others on it when they try to pull it on you—like your children.
Over the years I’ve often thought about what “the WMU woman” had said. I couldn’t understand how she could exhibit that attitude toward Black people yet profess her concern for missions. In my mind, the two were opposites, yet somehow she held both positions with no apparent conflict. I was bewildered. As I remembered these incidents all these years later, I was still bewildered. So I decided to do some digging, to try to make sense of it.
By now you might be asking yourself why I’m talking about all this, telling these stories, delving into an ugly history we’d just as soon forget. This was the past; can’t we just put it behind us and move on? Why revisit it? Good questions, ones that need to be asked and answered.
We would like to believe the days of racism and injustice are behind us; we have only to read or hear or watch the news to know this simply isn’t true. The truth is, the racial unrest of past generations is surfacing again. I’ve questioned why: what were the reasons then; do they still impact our attitudes and actions today; what part, if any, has the Church played in undergirding and adding fuel to this conflict? My quest to find answers to those questions and to make sense of my past experiences makes up a significant part of my story.
Philosopher, poet, and novelist George Santayana wrote: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness…Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Have those of us who experienced the past failed to remember, or failed to pass on what we know? Several months ago I was talking with a young couple in their mid-20s about the violence and racial unrest of the 1960s. They listened wide-eyed, wanting to know more, saying they had little knowledge of this part of our history as a nation and the part the Church played in it. They were hungry to learn, to try to understand. A few weeks later I was talking with another young man in the same age range about the same topic. He commented that he was amazed to learn that race was still an issue in churches in the 1970s. I was astonished; then I realized, he didn’t know. Those of us who know have not told our stories, have not remembered, or maybe we have kept silent, not wanting to remember. And so we are condemned to repeat the past; unless, that is, we become brave enough to tell our stories, to, in the words of Faulkner, “raise [our voices] for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed.”
But maybe it’s not simply a matter of being brave enough. There are other reasons we find it hard to open up, to talk about the past in a way that brings healing and leads to progress. Before I move on in the story, I feel the need take a little time to look at some of these reasons, for some of them have been mine.