Black History Month

Growing up in Western Montana, seeing a black person was a novelty.  Concepts like discrimination, Civil Rights, racism, were all distant concepts that just were not discussed nor understood in my little area of the world.

Thankfully, the Air Force landed me for almost 17 years in the navel of slavery and Civil Rights, Montgomery Alabama.  I’d like to share some of the things I learned while there.

Much of my church work was focused in the poorer sections of the city. In visiting with many in their homes, from small cottages to housing projects, I saw special strengths and needs in the blacks I came to know.  I remember one sister we baptized telling me that in her previous church they would teach her to love her neighbor. For her, it meant loving other blacks, and still disliking whites, but she had learned to also love whites in the LDS Church.

Sadly, that attitude was not always reciprocated. As we baptized many blacks into the church, there was a backlash by various white members. Some refused to home/visit teach in black neighborhoods. Some complained about black sisters teaching in Primary. It took years for such racist attitudes to diminish in Montgomery, and even longer in the outlying branches.

In 1987 we started a group in Tuskegee Alabama, and it became a branch a year later. As the Group leader, I had the blessing to call the first Relief Society President, Eva Oryang. She is a wonderful lady, who escaped her homeland of Uganda during a very dangerous war and settled in Tuskegee. After only a few days, she wasn’t sure why she came to the United States, and prayed all night long for the answer. That morning, the missionaries showed up, and she was soon baptized. It wasn’t long afterward that the Group was started, so that these wonderful new members would not have to drive 40 miles each way to church in Montgomery. She would later serve a mission in Mississippi.

Her son would later be baptized and would serve for 8 years as the branch president.  Through his efforts as a researcher at Tuskegee University, several students from Shanghai China were introduced to the gospel and baptized. They became some of the very first members in Shanghai when they returned.

Outside of Church, I attended Troy University in Montgomery. Going to class meant stepping across the street corner where Rosa Parks got on board a city bus, which started the memorable bus boycott. A good friend of mine, Bill Kline, who just passed away this month at 94, drove blacks around town to work, etc., during the bus boycott.  He recalled having a cross burnt on his front yard for helping.

Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president on the front steps of the state capitol. This is also where George Wallace promised “segregation forever.” In stark contrast to such racism, we find across the parking lot sits the chapel where Martin Luther King jr preached.

Just 40 miles west is the famous bridge at Selma, where police officers and dogs set about hurting peaceful marchers.  90 miles north of Montgomery is the little Baptist Church that was blown up, killing 3 small girls, including Condoleeza Rice’s best friend.

One of the most important people I considered a friend and hero is Johnnie Carr. She was one of Rosa Parks’ best friends and was a key player in the bus boycott. She was the third president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (Martin Luther King was the first president). While most of the early Civil Rights leaders moved to other places, she stayed in her home next to the park where she used to take white children to play as their caretaker (blacks were not allowed in the park, otherwise). In her last days, she worked to help young people get away from gangs and drugs, and work towards college and making a difference.

Sadly, as I look at today’s “Civil Rights” movement, it seems to have forgotten the freedoms Martin Luther King jr hoped for all people, and become a movement to see who can get the most from the government.  Still, as we focus on those black leaders of previous years, perhaps we can learn from them and the great examples they have given us.  Examples of courage under fire, peaceful protest under violent threats, faith that God would bless their efforts, patience that someday we could all be free, and all would have equal opportunity to make the best out of their lives.

Let’s stop for a moment and remember these great people, and hope we can follow such example ourselves.

 

4 thoughts on “Black History Month

  1. Very nice tribute, as far as it goes. Your jab at modern civil right is unfortunate. Forgive my questioning your familiarity with it, but that’s what happens when you substitute a straw man for evidence. But if you think they (no racial stereotyping intended, I’m sure) are just looking for a handout, you’re calling it like you see it, and that says plenty.

  2. I do not think that most are looking for a handout. I think politics has entered into the fray, and changed Civil Rights dialogue away from addressing people’s innate freedoms and exchanged it for giving them stuff in order for politicians to be reelected or remain in power.

    Example: George Wallace, governor of Alabama, ran the Confederate Battle Flag up the state capitol’s flag pole, swearing “segregation today, segregation yesterday, segregation forever!” Just a few years later, when he realized he was losing the war and would lose his power, he suddenly embraced it. What ended up happening, is he dangled a shiny object out in front of everyone – housing, etc. What people didn’t realize is the schooling issues were not resolved. Instead of segregated public schools, all the wealthy whites transferred their kids to private schools, segregating them from the poor white kids and the blacks. People loved George Wallace for what seemed to be his new found love of Civil Rights. In reality, it was all a facade that just ran segregation in the shadows. Oh, and the public schools in Alabama were ranked near the bottom for decades (not sure where it is now). I had a good friend run for the Montgomery school board. The experiences she had while on the school board were horrendous. She fought to have charter schools, and actually succeeded, but not without a lot of fighting from a very corrupt system. It was and possibly still is a system that promotes kids, even though they are illiterate, etc. I ended up schooling my kids in the evenings after work and their school, just so they would actually know the stuff. We literally had illiterate teachers that could not teach. The school board blamed it on not enough funds, but then we found out that 3 members of the board spent $5000 a year on magazines! And several went to conferences and took their secretaries and others, who had nothing to do with education – all on the tax payers’ dime.

    This was the legacy that George Wallace left.

    Many of today’s leaders, instead of fighting for personal freedoms and opportunities, are demanding rights that Martin Luther King never would have dreamed of. If he were alive today, he would be fighting to save kids, and especially black kids, from gangs, drugs, and gangsta rap, etc., just as my friend Johnnie Carr was doing until her death just a few years ago. He would be trying to help them see a real future as part of the American dream, and not deconstructing the decades and centuries of struggles for freedom. And we see this not only with the black community, but also among poor and middle class Hispanics and whites today, as well. Instead of seeking real freedom, we are allowing ourselves to be herded as chattel.

    I do not use the “N” word. I think it is worse than the “F” word. Yet, in my work in prison and the inner city, I hear young men calling each other by that term! For MLKjr and others, this is going in reverse. They cannot progress forward by using racist slave terms to address each other. Bill Cosby and others have addressed such things recently. Blacks have gained many freedoms through much suffering and endurance. Now to see those freedoms being tossed aside is a very sad thing.

    Some may have known Renee Olson. She was a very dear friend of mine for many years. She began as an anti-Mormon, but then joined the Church in Atlanta and was a strong defender of it, while also a promoter in redefining the ban on the priesthood. One of my greatest honors was in 2003, when she “adopted” me as an honorary black person. At the 2004 FAIR conference, she introduced me to Darius Black and Margaret Young as her adopted black brother.

    In discussing such issues with her, she agreed that the search for true freedom has often become lost along the way, mostly due to political panderings. We often sell the most precious things for a mess of pottage.

    I miss Renee now, due to her untimely death just a couple years ago. However, her testimony of the gospel will forever be enshrined on the Internet here:
    Renee Olson’s Testimony

  3. Geoff,

    And so it is with many others who were once a part of the Civil Rights movement (and others who have jumped onto this political bandwagon since). They become rich. They have (what they believe) a captive audience that will do whatever they say.

    Sadly, it continues class, culture and race contentions. I look forward to the day when all people will have equal freedoms and opportunities to be who they dream to become, and can be valuable members of society. We need to return to MLKjr’s dream of all people of all races working together to make this a better world, with freedom for all.

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