Today, 150 years ago exactly, gunshots were heard over Fort Sumter, and the worst war America has ever been involved in began. We lost 2% of our entire population in that war. Indeed, by one count we lost more men in that war than in all subsequent wars we have fought in—combined. It was that horrific, and it only lasted four years, not like the interminable war we are embroiled in in Afghanistan now.
As a son of the old South, my folks took me to battlefields when we went on vacation— I remember seeing lots of battlefields in Virginia, walking the first battle of Bull Run, walking the hills at Gettsyburg, you get the picture. I used to wear a Confederate hat, had a pretend Confederate rifle, and played soldiers with my Jewish friends down the street— both girls. We had a great time. I read Bruce Catton’s big Civil War book and traced the incredible battle map pictures using that old see through paper and a pencil. I bought a History of the Confederacy with some of the first money I made as a paper boy. I was proud to be a Southerner growing up. Only thing I ever remember pilfering from a store as a kid was a Confederate Flag lapel pin, which I then hid under my bed, too ashamed to wear it.
Thirty years later I was still reading about the Civil War, enjoy Shelby Foote’s wonderful three volume narrative, watching Ken Burn’s incredible documentary, and still pondering the meaning of it all. I actually remember old Confederate Memorial Day, and seeing on TV the last remaining Confederate soldier marching in the parade.
In my first pastorate in 1981, I went to visit a parishioner who had a picture up on the wall of a Civil War veteran. I asked Mr. Suggs if that was his grandfather—- he said no, it was his daddy. Who had gone to war at about age 13 near the end of the war when they were taking anybody, and came home and 25 years later married his second wife who had three children— all three of them in my church. He took me to see the old slave graveyard out behind the church which Francis Asbury’s circuit rider had founded in the early 19th century.
I remember all the Confederate flags flying and how so many of my folks and friends loved to watch Gone with the Wind over and over and over again, and cried. A lot was lost in that war—- and that was a good thing in many cases, but not in all cases. Someone once asked me why it is that so much of the great American literature was written by Southerners after the Civil War (think Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams and so many more). The reason is simple— we are the only folks in America other than the Indians who have lost a major war on our own turf, and that large aching sense of loss has been fertile soil for the literarily sensitive and gifted in the old South.
But something else happened to me in the 60s besides all of the above. It was called not the Civil War, but the Civil Rights movement, and most of my relatives didn’t like it one bit. The very first day I went to High Point Central High School was the very first day of the integration of all the schools in High Point. Years later, in 1974 when I went off to seminary just north of Boston, I was stunned to discover that integration had not been imposed on Boston yet— just on the old South. I saw all the volatility and hatred and bigotry come out of the pores of many white southerners in those days. And actually the black folks in High Point were not really thrilled with the integration either—- they were forced to close their wonderful William Penn high school, lost their marching band they were so proud of, and much more. The school in High Point that had nurtured the greatest of all time saxophone players into being a musician— John Coltrane, had been closed against the will of that community. The matter was complex and the issues were not all that clear or one sided.
One of the things however that changed me forever was making a few African American friends in high school. Willie Middlebrooks, a fellow Methodist, and in due course a fellow UMC Methodist minister in Western N.C. was my friend. And I learned more from him in many ways than I did from any of those history teachers I had. I got a tiny glimpse of what it was like to grow up black in a strongly white culture and have to adjust to integration. I barely remember the first time I saw Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. All I really remember is that I cried.
I realized then and there that while there were a few noble things and good things about the old South, racism was not one of them. It still isn’t. I am thankful that my parents did not raise me to be racist, they raised me to be Christian, but it took a long time for me to realize that there was something terribly terribly wrong with claiming one was a Christian and harboring prejudice or bigotry in one’s heart.
I decided in high school that If it came down to it, I was going to stand with Martin Luther King and not with Bob Jones, to stand with Sam Ervin and not with George Wallace. I was going to believe in the Cotton Patch Gospel of Clarence Jordan and not the Gospel of Lester Maddox or the KKK.
I remember the reaction of some of my church members in High Point when I as the MYF chairman of our youth group invited Willie Middlebrooks on a retreat. On that retreat a lot of things happened, and I remember singing with Willie and others the Beatles song— ‘All we need is love’ and ‘I Get by with a Little Help from my Friends’ and oh yes, ‘Jesus loves the little children all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white…..’ You know the rest. Well there was no going back from that. And I realized something else as well. It was not unpatriotic to be against the Vietnam War. Indeed, it was in fact quite Christian, the more I thought about it.
Now you have to understand my Daddy was a veteran of WWII, and a brave man. One of the last things he did before he went to be with the Lord was write down his memories of WWII. I still haven’t had the courage to read it all yet. Thinking about my Dad and all the sacrifices he made for me and how much he loved me just makes me cry. He died two and half years ago, and I miss him still….a lot.
But in my eyes, one of the things I loved most about my Dad, is that after he tried hard to talk me out of it and argued with me about it, when he saw it was a matter of conviction, he went with me downtown to pick up those conscientious objector papers. I was not going to fight for a cause I never believed in. I was going to stand up for the Prince of Peace not the gods of war, not even the Civil War. Fortunately for me, it never came to that. My draft number was 192, and the High Point draft board never got that far in the year I could have been selected. And so I went off to Carolina, spared that decision.
In many ways, I am still a proud son of the old South. In some ways, I am ashamed of a good deal of our heritage and deeply thankful for my Christian faith that taught me that we are all equally created in the image of God, and Jesus died for us all. God is color blind, and so should we be. Some of my best memories of ministry have been when I have had the honor of preaching in an African American church, or in Africa itself. I love the food, the flavors, the accents, the gentility of the old South, but I have no desire to go back 150 years and glorify not merely a lost cause, but a wrong cause. Southerners can say what they want about it being mostly about States rights, but in fact the elephant in the room was slavery, an ugly scar upon the land of the old South, the wounds of which still have not completely healed by any means.
So on this day I choose to remember not the shots fired at Fort Sumter, but the shot heard round the world fired on Aug. 28th 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when I was not yet 12. Here are the parting shots of that big blast, and here is a Southerner speaking who indeed spoke of ‘change we should believe in’. It is not Jefferson Davis or even Robert E. Lee that makes me proud to be a son of the South, it’s another Southerner who said:
I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Amen to all of that. We have still not fully lived into that promise and proclamation, and in the 21rst century it is high time we did so.
One last footnote. I recently learned one of the most influential books that Martin Luther King said shaped his thinking about non-violent resistance to evil and non-violent means of changing society. It was the writings of E. Stanley Jones about Gandhi and others that deeply affected him when King was in seminary, the same E. Stanley Jones for whom Asbury’s School of World Mission is rightly named. So it seems that this old Southerner landed in the right place when he came to Asbury. In a place where we affirm there is no true spiritual holiness without social holiness, no true spiritual Gospel without the social Gospel, and Gal. 3.28 is given more than lip service in this place. I am proud to be a pacifist Christian in this southern school—- and to carry on that legacy. God bless us every one.