Sankofa Reflection 2019: Finding Myself In Birmingham
Finding Myself In Birmingham
In the 1960’s, the city of Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Racism wasn’t a hidden agenda. It was the law.
On the first day of our Sankofa Journey to Harmony, we found ourselves parked on 16th Street in the middle of Birmingham. Towering above us were the three brick arches of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had preached at 16th Street Baptist Church, and even led a march that landed him in the Birmingham jail. Birmingham is home to the infamous images of police officers unleashing the full force of fire hoses on young men and women. And then unleashing their attack dogs on them as well. Later that year, in an act of brutal hate, a bomb was set outside the church. It claimed the life of four precious young girls who were present at the time inside the church.
We stepped into the Civil Rights Museum of Birmingham. As we explored each exhibit, I was eager to find my place in history.
Would I have had the bravery to march with Dr. King? Could I have been counted among those who sat bravely at Woolworth’s to protest the immorality of segregation? Perhaps I would have purchased a ticket to ride with the Freedom Riders from D.C. to the Gulf Coast. Surely, I would find my place in the halls of that famed history.
Would I have had the bravery to march with Dr. King?
After all, I am a Baptist pastor. And a minority. I hate injustice. I hate racism. My heart, too, sings that “We Shall Overcome”.
Turning the next corner, my eyes found their way to the next page of history. It read:
“Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest.”
“We agree with certain local Negro leadership, which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area.”
Yes, this is the only way to go!
“We believe this kind of facing issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation.”
Hallelujah! Local people working together is how we need to do it!
“Hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions.”
No sanction at all!
All of the words in the letter rang true and reasonable in my heart. At last, I found myself in Birmingham.
I had to know who wrote this letter that rang so true in my heart. It was signed by eight clergymen from Birmingham. No wonder. That’s my people!
But to my dismay, it was that letter. The public statement directed at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The letter that prompted Dr. King to pen his now-famous retort, A Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
Conviction filled my heart.
“I still never understood the risk that these brave brothers and sisters so boldly took.”
As a Chinese man, I was taught from a very young age never to complain. Be humble. Tread lightly and don’t make too much noise. Obey the authorities and it will be well with you.
In my admiration for the leaders and participants of the Civil Rights Movement, I still never understood the risk that these brave brothers and sisters so boldly took.
I read the rhetoric of Birmingham’s clergymen and found it sensible. Reasonable. Realistic.
“We all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems…but we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”
In that Civil Rights Museum, the bit of history that resounded with my heart turned out to be the one written by Dr. King’s opponents. The counsel that seemed so wise and sensible to me had set Dr. King’s pen ablaze:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word, ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
I found myself in Birmingham, standing on the wrong side of love–and history.
Jesus said, “Seeing, they do not see.” I never thought that he was talking about me. I learned again in that moment that all my thinking is flawed at best. As a teacher, there is yet much for me to learn. As a shepherd, there are pastures where I yet need to be led by the Great Shepherd of the sheep.
Mike Tong is the Pastor for Neighborhood Outreach, at the Bethlehem Baptist Church Downtown Campus. He went on the Sankofa Journey the first week of May 2019 with Transform Minnesota and 38 other Twin Cities faith leaders.