Published: Feb 02, 2013 06:00 PM
Modified: Feb 02, 2013 05:49 PM
In February 1971 the United Church of Christ gave the Rev. Ben Chavis the impossible ministerial assignment to go to Wilmington and reverse the violent dynamic set in motion by white supremacists against integration.
The 23-year-old Chavis had recently helped lead a march from Oxford to Raleigh to protest the murder of a black GI in Oxford. Tim Tyson wrote a wonderful book, Blood Done Sign My Name, about this.
A few weeks later white supremacists fired into a Congregationalist church (you can still see the bullet holes), where Chavis was training black and white students and poverty workers in how to respond to violence in a non-violent way. While these training periods were going on, a nearby white-owned grocery store was burned down.
In 1972 the elected prosecutor in Wilmington assigned recent law school graduate James Stroud to prosecute Chavis and his friends for burning down the store. Stroud had no physical evidence, and each of the activists had strong alibis for the night of the fire. So Stroud based his prosecution on the perjured testimony of a couple of troubled young men who agreed to lie in return for favors from Stroud. He also selected a judge and a jury based on their racial beliefs. The convictions he won cost the 10 activists several years in prison each, and a life-time of troubles.
As a civil rights lawyer, I was not surprised by the egregious racism within the criminal justice system. But I was quite surprised by how far we have regressed in our efforts to inspire more white clergy and lay people to get involved in the difficult struggle to dismantle racism. Justice and love
Up through 1865, many northern Christians lived their belief in justice and love by building the anti-slavery movement. The film Lincoln depicts a short period in this movement in 1864-65, as the United States was smashing the rebellion of the slave-owners.
After the guns fell silent, thousands of courageous, prophetic Christians in the South were joined by equal numbers from the North, to join hands with the millions of African Americans to start reconstructing a society based on Gods human family. This reconstruction lasted for about 30 years, when the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned a Jim Crow caste system that lasted for 60 to 70 more years.
Not until the NAACP won its historic 1954 victory that abolished Jim Crow, and unleashed the mass movement that led to the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964-65, did we again turn our attention to dismantling institutional racism.
For a minute during the 1960s, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of white Christians and Jews were awakened by Dr. Martin Luther Kings street ministry. King challenged his black sisters and brothers to become activists in the struggle to dismantle this system. He used the same prophetic voice to challenge his white siblings to join him in facing the angry dogs of racism.
After King was crucified in Memphis in April 1968, his effective moral challenge to white church people was silenced. Jim Forman, another giant of the southern civil rights movement, prepared a set of demands for the white church, marched down the middle aisle at Riverside Church in New York City on a Sunday morning and said: Practice what you Preach. The UCC accepted his challenge, hired Rev. Chavis, and sent him to Wilmington to seek justice with love. For a short period some white churches saw the light.Personal risks
Now, 40 years later, most white churches have been unable to break the habit of accommodating racism. We know its hard to rebuild our communities based on Gods human family. But we must begin. And we are off to a good new year after two white people in positions of power, New Hanover District Attorney Ben David and Gov. Bev Perdue, both took personal risks by doing what they knew was right last year.
David found a box of notes in his office marked Wilmington 10 and decided This file belongs not just to the DAs office but to history, and I shared that file with a historian. The box is now secure in the Southern Historical Collection in Chapel Hill in Tysons custody. The files revealed the 1972 thinking of the inexperienced assistant district attorney with his race-based strategy to frame Chavis and his compatriots spelled out in detail.
The files were instrumental in convincing Perdue to grant each of the 10 civil rights activists a Pardon of Innocence. She said Strouds convictions of them were tainted by naked racism and represent an ugly stain on North Carolinas criminal justice system that cannot be allowed to stand any longer.
Now, during the season when we celebrate Kings prophetic ministry, would be a good time for predominantly white churches to examine what they can do now to take up his challenge. Perhaps your church could invite one of the prophets in our midst to give advice about how to implement popular education anti-racism curricula in the streets, fields, churches and classrooms. Consider Rev. William Barber, Rev. Curtis Gatewood, Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, Rev. Cardiss Collins, Rev. Ben Chavis and scores of other Christian leaders active in the growing anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-war movement in our state.
They are extremely busy, so give them notice and a stipend for bringing their wisdom and experiences to your congregation. Set up a social time afterwards to get to know them, and discuss how people who believe in the God of justice and love can join the growing Movement. We dont need to wait for another Martin Luther King, Jr. We can do this. Let us begin.