The Stories We Tell Ourselves

A month in America’s oldest city, St. Augustine, Florida, makes clear that history is a strange thing. History is the past, but it’s also the telling of it, the renderings of it. The English language does not distinguish between the two – the past as it was – and the past as remembered and interpreted. Only the interpreted past is available to us.

Historians distinguish between the two with the word ‘history’ (the past) and ‘historiography’, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the study of historical writings or the writing of history”.

Example of ACCORD Freedom Trail plaques

Example of ACCORD Freedom Trail plaques

Most interesting during our one-month stay in St. Augustine were the different historiographies of the Civil Rights Movement.

Tourists in St. Augustine walk past homes and churches with plaques like this one that tell the story of the brave civil rights history of the ’50s and ’60s on what’s called The Freedom Trail.

The casual tourist is unlikely to notice that the Freedom Trail story is not the only one in town. There are two different sets of plaques. The groups that wrote and erected them represent different, often competing, historiographies.

The more prominent set of plaques the define The Freedom Trail were created by ACCORD.  They highlight the role of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The other is the project of a group of local citizens led by the Eubanks family, whose father, the Rev. Goldie M. Eubanks, Sr, was Vice President of the St. Augustine Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose work predated and continued after the arrival of Dr. King and the SCLC in St. Augustine.

The NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in America. In the 1950s and ’60s, many civil rights leaders came to regard it as too passive, too conservative. The word ‘Colored’ in its name labelled it as out of touch with Back pride.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arose as a bolder, more activist organization, although the the SCLC and the NAACP represented by Dr. King and Roy Wilkins, respectively, worked closely together. To the left of SCLC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), arrived on the national scene.

While in St. Augustine, we lived next door to a home on The Freedom Trail identified by ACCORD as important to the Movement in St. Augustine. Some of the men who gathered there every mid-morning until dark seem to identify with Dr. King and the SCLC. Others seem resentful that Dr. King and the SCLC got the praise for the work of Rev. Eubanks, Rev. Thomas, and Dr. Robert Hayling, a courageous local dentist, who paved the way for national media attention to the plight in St. Augustine. The historiography of the latter group is posted on the alternative plaques that focus more on the indigenous leaders who put their lives on the line every day as citizens of St. Augustine.

History and historiography are like that. The four Gospels of the New Testament look at the same time period and events with different memories and different angles on the Jesus story.  The nature of history is that it always leaves itself to interpretation. And the nature of historiography is that it raises the question of the story-teller’s angle.

In light of Dr. King’s later speeches about the intrinsic connection between capitalism, the War in Vietnam, and militarism, it seems a great paradox that it was the Northrop Grumman Corporation, one of the largest Department of Defense contractors, that funded the ACCORD project centered on Dr. King. History and historiography are always strange. Always they involve some concoction of our better selves, self-interest, pride, and sometimes, a heavy dose of irony.

Remembering Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell (1924-2013) is unforgettable. Beyond unusual, he was idiosyncratic. In death, he calls us to the deeper selves we so easily lose.

Will Campbell was that rare person of integrity who seemed to fulfill the hard calling described once by his friend William Stringfellow – “to be the same person everywhere all the time” – and his different places still blow the mind.

He was idiosyncratic. Who else would or could march at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, once the law was changed, turn his ministry to sipping whiskey with the Good Ol’ Boys on the front porches of the Ku Klux Klan?

Campbell was a son of the Deep South, a white Southern Baptist preacher raised in Mississippi, who betrayed his white privilege as a matter of Gospel discipleship. He became one of the closest friends of the youth Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the charge for Civil Rights in America. He was trusted that much.

His life was threatened repeatedly. He gained national prominence as a field worker for the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest ecumenical council that suffered heavy criticism from anti-civil rights forces across the country, but especially in the Deep South. The National Council of Churches and Will Campbell were to their critics what the KKK was to those who worked to eliminate segregation in America.

When the nine black school children walked through hostile crowds to integrate the public school system in Little Rock, Arkansas, Will Campbell was one of four people at their side.

He became Director of the Committee of Southern Churchman, a position he used to promote racial reconciliation, his vocation until the day he died.

With the passage of the Civil Right Act, the man who spent his ministry to help win freedom for blacks did something no one could have imagined. He chose to re-direct his ministry to the new lepers of society, the defeated hooded enemies of integration, the Ku Klux Klan.

No one but Will Campbell would have done this, and few others could have done this. But he did. He became known as the chaplain to the KKK. Campbell wrote in Brother to a Dragonfly, one of 26 publications that bear his name:

“I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

Will Campbell was not a hater. He was a reconciler who loved people. All kinds and conditions of people, even his ‘enemies’. He was the same person everywhere all the time.

He confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self.

The notice of Will’s death (June 3, 2013) at the age of 88 in Nashville, Tennessee reminded me of just how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is to love my neighbor as myself, especially when the neighbor is the enemy of my own claims to righteousness. Would that all of us were as idiosyncratic as Will.