A sermon given by John Green at the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, on January 20, 2008
Tracked Down by the Zeitgeist
Throughout history we are irresistibly caught up in the sweeping currents of our connected lives. The word zeitgeist means the 'spirit of the time'. So when we bring up things like the Dark Ages, the Roaring Twenties, or the Age of Enlightenment, we're really talking about something much more specific than numbers and dates. We're talking about an overall quality, characteristic or trend that distinguishes one era from another. And while we don't have a choice about the time and circumstances into which we are born, it's those choices we make—or fail to make regarding this inheritance on which everything depends. We are called upon to bear witness, and we are called upon to act. We are called upon to create the Zeitgeist.
My father was born in 1925. That year 40,000 marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in a parade celebrating the Ku Klux Klan. The world in Dad's youth was epitomized by a rise in the politics of hatred, of militarism, war and unspeakable genocide that would eventually take the whole world to put down. This was on the heels of a worldwide economic collapse. Like millions of others in his generation though, Dad believed you fight fire with fire. So he chose to join the military for the chance to respond in kind to our enemies. He was only sixteen at the time. Dad's tour of duty ended however when he was wounded and sent back to the States.
Though filled with a newfound warrior's pride at having proved himself, Dad discovered that upon returning to his hometown of Selma, Alabama, all he had really done was to swap one war zone for another. Boarding a city bus still wearing his uniform, he was nonetheless rudely ordered by the driver to the back of the bus. Now Dad had lived with this all his life. By 'this' I mean our entrenched system of racism. It was practiced with an unmatched, unrelenting brutality in the deep South. There racism could with impunity kill you outright—or in piecemeal fashion over the course of your life. Time and circumstance placed Dad at a crossroads on that bus– a bus he had no doubt ridden innumerable times, perhaps without ever 'having to be told' to move. But, you see, that person no longer existed.
The war had opened his eyes. He realized he'd been living in harm's way his entire life. While he had America's blessing in leaving to fight for the freedom and dignity of others, taking such a stand for himself on his native soil could get him killed just as easily. The cruel irony of this revelation must've hit him like a sledgehammer. He stood there trembling with the awareness that 'liberty and justice for all' was our country's biggest lie.
Dad had been tracked down by the zeitgeist. In Selma the inescapable straitjacket of restrictions he lived under everyday were the homegrown version of the tyranny overseas he'd just risked his life fighting against. All eyes fell upon Dad now as the driver again barked at him to move. In an impulsive act of reckless defiance Dad stood there, pulled out his Navy jackknife and looked the driver straight in the eye telling him to shut up and drive, which he did. Not long after he told the driver when to stop so he could get off.
Any sense of satisfaction on Dad's part was fleeting because he knew he had to act quickly now. He knew the enraged driver would shake down the remaining passengers in an attempt to discover where he lived. When that happened, inevitably, sometime soon his home was going to be invaded—by armed, night riding Klansmen, or other self-appointed vigilantes bent on revenge. He would be abducted into the darkness, down silent, nameless back roads, like so many others who were taken and never seen again. It was time for Dad to evacuate another war zone. Here in America he became a refugee along with millions of others around the globe who were also fleeing oppression and death. He was nineteen at the time.
I stand here today very grateful Dad survived, but I've often wondered if he ever expected anything like that happening to him. On that bus his strategic sense did not extend beyond self-preservation. Like most of us he wasn't really out to change anything, but he was in terrible trouble now because he wouldn't go along to get along anymore. Since he had no secondary plan, leaving was the best he could do after having crossed the line. It's true Dad had gotten away with his life, but nothing had been changed. We need to prepare ourselves so that when confronted, we have the courage to oppose injustice and not just accommodate it. It all comes down to perseverance and vision.
About three hundred years ago Sir Isaac Newton said that if perhaps he'd seen further, it was only because he stood on the shoulders of giants. He realized that much of the credit for his accomplishments was actually due to the groundbreaking efforts of others that preceded him. And we are no less beholden. In this world of ours we all are obliged to take part in adding on, renovating or scrapping the legacies handed down and entrusted to us.
Fifty miles east of Selma lies the city of Montgomery, Alabama. It was the first capital of the Confederacy. I've always found it especially fitting that the same zeitgeist that caught up with Dad on a bus in Selma now tracked down another individual on a bus in this city. Unlike Dad, though she had no intention of leaving town and every intention of somehow initiating a change that was long overdue.
She was Rosa Parks. In 1955 this bespectacled 42 year old was employed as a seamstress. But like Clark Kent she too had a secret identity. She also happened to be secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. As a matter of fact it was she who wrote a letter of appointment to the organization's executive committee there for a then unknown Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks possessed a dignified, unassuming demeanor and a sterling character. She was a devout churchgoer and fiercely committed to the struggle for equal rights and equal justice. Rosa Parks' ordeal however would pale in comparison to another story making headlines earlier that year in the deep South.
In August, Emmett Till, a 14 year old African American youth from Chicago was visiting relatives in Mississippi. Accompanied by his cousin, Till ventured out to the only store in the small town of Money. Unschooled in the demeaning codes of conduct expected of Southern Blacks living under segregation, Emmett evidently crossed some boundary of racial propriety. Like most boundaries it couldn't be seen, but that didn't matter. Now, I need to mention that we're not talking here about a case of robbery or assault. But the store owner's wife who was working alone, clearly felt affronted and sought ultimate retribution. As she reached for a pistol, the two boys ran from the store as fast as they could.
Word, of course, got back to the owner himself and with the aid of his half-brother matters would be taken into their own hands. Obviously tipped off as to the boys whereabouts, they showed up at the home of Emmett's great uncle, Mose Wright. In the glare of their flashlight these two men brazenly took the boy off at gunpoint. That night was the last time Emmett Till was seen alive.
The kidnaping and murder of Black people by white vigilantes down South was a longstanding and grisly fact of life that somehow had failed to arouse in the rest of the nation any real notice or sense of outrage. But this time the victim of ongoing racial terrorism happened to be a child. Covered by reporters from around the world, the impending trial would serve to expose American racism's human costs as nothing had before.
The two defendants were brought to trial and despite overwhelming evidence, including solid testimony against them from Mose Wright, who had been in hiding, an all-white jury acquitted them of all charges. Knowing that they couldn't be tried twice for the same offense, they subsequently struck a magazine deal wherein they provided a detailed account, fully admitting their guilt. The only thing they didn't admit to was any sense of remorse. Both killers would live out their lives, and eventually pass away in the 1980's.
For me their defiant and willful contempt towards simple humaneness exemplified the white South's inflated and delusional sense of itself as still constituting the Confederacy—a separate nation with its own flag and with its own political agenda. Despite the outcome of the Civil War, they did not see themselves as really accountable to Federal authority or to anyone else that dared question 'the Southern way of life'. As the song says... 'old times there are not forgotten, look away, look away, look away Dixieland.' Such was the zeitgeist that drove my father out of the deep South. Such was the zeitgeist in the rest of the country where a huge reservoir of ignorance, denial and apathy helped perpetuate this shameful state of affairs. This all had to be undone if America was ever to right itself. Hardly a day goes by when I don't think of Emmett Till, especially because in all probability the same thing would have happened to my Dad if he'd stayed in Selma.
For all oppressed people there is a limit to their capacity to passively endure brutality, degradation and humiliation. When that limit is reached, fear can no longer keep them down. Such was the case in Montgomery where a bus boycott had been proposed a year before it actually happened. Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State deserves the credit for this. She also headed the Women's Political Council in Montgomery. The WPC was a Black civic group with three chapters in the city. It was made up primarily of professionals from the academic field. These women are largely unknown to us. In those days working against segregation could earn you or your employer some serious heat. For this reason these women kept a fairly low profile. And yet soon after Rosa Parks' arrest, this group made a significant portion of the initial moves that set the bus boycott in motion.
When foot soldiers are out on patrol, the most vulnerable warrior is the one in the lead, the one 'walking point'. On the first of December, 1955 Rosa Parks was walking point. I don't believe she thought of it that way, but she didn't shy away either. She stood her ground–by remaining seated. She too had been tracked down by the zeitgeist—but she was ready. I ask myself if I'd be ready—and what about you?
Montgomery was a classic example of the ripple effect. Rosa Parks' dignified stance against generations of continuing oppression, set an example that for many became a call to action. As word of it spread, the barren soil of countless lives was made audacious and fertile. Long-dormant hopes at last took root, and in the gathering momentum a people's long suppressed courage wondrously asserted itself in of all places—the very heart of Dixie.
Soon after Parks' arrest the WPC and other activists pushed for a bus boycott which began within the week. Black citizens in Montgomery made up the largest percentage of riders on the city buses, so their absence would be strongly felt. On that first day the boycott proved nearly 100% effective. Black people organized car pools. Some local cab operators only charged bus fare rates. Despite the weather some folks hitchhiked or just walked.
Battle lines were now being drawn in a situation becoming more public. Inevitably for both sides all kinds of people would be getting involved. In such a volatile situation things could easily get out of hand as passions simmered to the boiling point. There were also practical considerations. Who would speak on behalf of the protestors, to the press and during negotiations with city and bus company officials? How were funds to be raised and allocated to sustain the protest over time? The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was created to address these and other logistics. The charismatic young minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church offered his services and was unanimously elected its president. He was only 26 at the time. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. If you ever visit the church on Dexter Avenue you are struck by the fact that it stands on the corner directly across the street from the Alabama Statehouse. So what you had then was two opposing citadels in plain sight of one another, and yet they really stood worlds apart.
Maybe it was just the vernacular of the age, or maybe a reflection of how deep their commitment. Perhaps it was nothing more than supreme egotism–disguised as piety. But before and during the Civil War, people as diverse as John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and 'Stonewall' Jackson all felt they were an instrument in the hands of God. Given his mandate as an ordained minister, there can be little doubt that Martin Luther King felt that same way about himself. But in Montgomery this translated into the more contemporary sense that he had been tracked down by the zeitgeist . As such he had to feel that in Montgomery a great opportunity lay before him. Like those mentioned of the Civil War era, King was living through crucial times in the life of our nation. He felt he had been called not only to witness events but to participate decisively in them. King also believed that what was going on in Montgomery was a microcosm of the larger world. He saw the events unfolding before him as being in sync with movements then going on against colonial oppression in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Through a regularly published newsletter by the Montgomery Improvement Association, through various fund raisers and rallies, skillful use of press coverage and meetings with city and bus company officials, King gradually came to prominence as a driving force behind the protests. He was an insightful, effective communicator pointing out the abysmal conditions that made shameful and cruel contradictions an integral part of American life. More importantly though, he spoke as an advocate of conscience, holding up before the eyes of the nation its grave and crippling moral dilemma. What better place than Montgomery to drive this point home? What better place than Montgomery to begin turning things around? King would urge the boycotters to exercise their right of protest and to conduct themselves in a dignified, disciplined manner—by practicing nonviolence.
As for himself, King would always be open to negotiate. He would do so with serious intent and in good faith. He did not believe his opponents to be inherently evil. He never lost patience because he understood that they had just been raised differently, but were driven by standards held as highly and sincerely felt as his own. King knew that contact forms the real basis for understanding. King also knew that freedom must be demanded, because oppressors never grant it by their own volition. King let it be known that the boycotters would hold out for as long as it took to see conditions improve. Boycotting city buses demonstrated that if united, Montgomery's poorest citizens had considerable economic leverage. In coming to terms with this fact, both city and bus company officials realized they no longer had the power to evade the central issue of segregation.
A little over a year later the city relented, and the boycott was ended. Dr. King took the occasion to proclaim that there would be no gloating. He said this outcome shouldn't be seen as a triumph for the thousands of Black people in Montgomery, or for the millions of Black people in America. He said this outcome must not be seen as something that small. It should be seen instead as a triumph for justice. It was all about vision.
Montgomery teaches us that a just or unjust world doesn't happen by itself. Standing on the shoulders of giants like Jo Ann Robinson, Rosa Parks and Dr. King we can acquire the type of vision that transcends all the qualifiers and all the smokescreens keeping us from truly seeing each other and being able to recognize our common issues–and our kinship.
In today's world, the politics of divisive fear-mongering would again have us turn our backs on those in need, blaming these victims, sanctioning war and torture abroad and demonizing those still deprived of equal rights, among them, immigrants who have always been very much the essence of America. Now, ask yourself, what have I done to better the lives of others? What have I done to bring the beloved community closer to fruition? What better time than now? What better place to begin than where we live? Remember that the zeitgeist is our own creation. And remember that it's all about vision, the vision to see that we all are beholden—to each other. I just want to add that next month my Dad will be 83, and I am very beholden to him. I leave you with these words of Dr. King.
"This I believe to be privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls 'enemy', for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers."